Want to enjoy some sacred sounds? Open this LINK in a separate tab and then come right back, so that you can listen to a little Rossini as you read…
#1. DUOMO (Cathedral) and BATTISTERO (baptistery does not open until 12 PM)
Now here is a cathedral with a huge amount of floor space! I would like to sing in there someday. I’ve performed in several Florentine churches, but alas, not yet in the Duomo.
The massive dome was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and it can be seen for miles around. But I’m more entranced by the exterior façade of sparkling polychrome marble panels in shades of green and pink bordered by white. It’s hard to describe just how cool it is, but when you see it for the first time, you may be tempted to spend all day just watching the Duomo’s façade change colors in the sunlight.
There is also a bell tower (Campanile) with a breathtaking view. I love it up there. But to access the tower, you have to be able to climb a lot of stairs while squeezed between other tourists. If that makes you queasy, stay below and take pictures.
The Bapistery’s golden doors have been grabbing headlines since 1401 when Lorenzo Ghiberti submitted them as his entry in a competition. (He won.) Don’t you wish we still had competitions for “best bronze doors?” That might liven things up in downtown Fresno, for example. Anyway, Ghiberti’s doors were so popular that he added another set of doors featuring imagery from the Old Testament. A younger Florentine artist called Michelangelo dubbed these the “Gates of Paradise” … and the name stuck.
Inside the Baptistery, you’ll find my favorite mosaic ceiling in the whole world. It’s hard to take your eyes off of the mesmerizing image of Christ. But there are other surprising details to enjoy, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with their laps full of children (on the bottom panel beneath Christ’s right hand)!
#2. THE UFFIZI MUSEUM is a must-see for any art-lover! I had a club membership to the Uffizi when I lived in Florence, so that I could focus on a different room every day. But if you don’t have several weeks to enjoy the Uffizi, you’ll want to order your tickets ahead of time. You will be assigned a specific time to see the museum; it’s better to request an early arrival (9:30 or 10 AM) to avoid the crowds. I have used this website: Weekend a Firenze.
There is an additional handling fee for this service, but it is more than worth the money. So many people freak out when they see the line of tourists standing outside the Uffizi; in their panic, they miss what could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the Birth of Venus and the Sacra Famiglia in person. There will be a throng of restless people who have been waiting outside the museum since dawn, but you can squeeze past them and use your confirmation number to pick up your pre-ordered tickets at the glass counter.
The gift shops are on the first floor and the museum is on the second floor. (There is a mezzanine floor with sketches, but most people skip it.) Most tourists take the stairs, but you can ask for the elevator. There are 45 rooms in the Uffizi, so be sure to take lots of breaks, and don’t worry about skipping some rooms if you’re tired. It’s impossible to memorize the entire museum in one day, and you’ll have a happier experience if you spend 20 minutes resting on the benches in the Botticelli room, trying to decide which of his paintings is more perfect, Primavera or The Madonna of the Magnificat?
The Uffizi Cafe has a great view of the Palazzo Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria. The prices for coffee and cake are exhorbitant, but again, it’s worth the money. The museum is shaped like a U and tourists usually move in the same direction, so that the cafe is at the VERY END OF THE TRACK before you go back downstairs. Don’t wait until the end, especially if you are traveling with younger art lovers, because the kids will need sustenance! When you are getting drenched in Italian art, you need some fluffy cake to absorb all that genius. So after you have seen the first half of the museum (medieval stuff, Botticelli, Da Vinci, etc.), skip ahead to the cafe and take a break; then you’ll all be refreshed enough to enjoy the second half of the museum (Michelangelo, Rafael, Tintoretto, etc.)
#3. THE CHURCH OF SANTA CROCE
The Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) is the principal Franciscan church in Florence. You will find some amazing works of art there, both inside the church and in its adjoining cloisters.
You have to buy a ticket to get inside, but Santa Croce is still a true place of worship. It is also the burial place of some famous guys like Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Rossini. I attended St James Episcopal when I lived in Florence, but whenever I went to mass at Santa Croce, I would always sit “next to Rossini” in church, by choosing the pew next to his memorial.
If you’re not so interested in all the art and you simply need a good place to pray, just whisper “per preghiere” to one of the guards at the side door and he will show you a peaceful side chapel with candles. You cannot access the rest of the church from here. But in the middle of all of Florence’s noise, this is one place where you can just be still for a minute.
#4. PALAZZO PITTI
The Pitti Palace is a vast mainly Renaissance palace in Florence, situated on the south side of the Arno, a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio. It is a treasure house as various generations amassed paintings, silver, porcelain, jewelery and other luxurious stuff.
This is a good place for families because you can split up into 3 groups: 1) museum group 2) group that sits in the sunshine, eating ice cream in front of the palace 3) group that wanders through the gardens.
Kids usually enjoy the Boboli Gardens (attached to the Palace with a separate ticket fee), because they can run around on the little garden trails and in the big amphitheater. Adults like it because they can take photos that make all their friends jealous when they upload them to Facebook – there are some amazing backdrops here.
#5. THE ACCADEMIA
This is where you can find Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. (You will see copies of him in other places in Florence, but he looks even better inside.) But David is not alone in there. Going to the Accademia gives you a chance to meet some of Michelangelo’s unfinished statues, which are also very powerful. Once again, you will want to buy your tickets ahead of time to avoid the long line!
6. MUSEO SAN MARCO
If you’re into late medieval scandals (and who isn’t?), this where Girlamo Savonarola (the Dominican mystic & political reformer) ran his monastery. Each monk’s cell features a different fresco by Fra Angelico.
Other favorite churches & museums (if you have time) include:
7. Medici Chapels
8. Medici Riccardi Palace
9. Palazzo Vecchio
10. Church of Santa Maria Novella
11. Chapel Brancacci - try to catch the film about 15th century Florence
12. Bargello National Museum
13. Museum of History and Science
14. Dante Museum
…and many, many more!