A Day in Florence – Florence Top Attractions

Florence is a beautiful city with amazing architecture. Known as the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is also referred to as the City of Lilies. You need more than a day to get to know Florence, but if you have just a day – then below are some of the key attractions that you should not miss. I always feel that a trip should be more than just ‘touch and go’. Although you just have the day – I’d like to share some key facts about the attractions highlighted below so that you get to feel a bit connected to what you will see.

Galleria dell'Accademia

Museum Entrance
Bearded Slave - Hall of Prisoners

There is usually a long queue to get into the museum. If you only have a day, make sure you buy the ticket well in advance, or better still get the Skip the Line tickets. You can also join a priority tour that provides Skip the Line tickets with the additional advantage of having a guide to bring you through the main displays in the museum. Do bear in mind that the museum is closed on Mondays.

The museum was opened in 1784 to support students of fine arts. The most famous work on display here is, of course, the Statue of David by Michelangelo. There are other works of art here, of course.

Hall of Collossus

The first hall that you will come when you enter the museum is the Hall of the Collossus. In the centre of the room is a model of the famous marble sculpture Giambologna’s ‘Rape of the Sabines’ from 1580s (carved from a single block of marble). Giambologna was famous for creating intertwined figural compositions -as you can see in the details from the various viewpoints of the sculpture.

Hall of Prisoners

Before you come to the Tribune where the statue of David is displayed, you will pass by the Hall of Prisoners, where you can see unfinished statues of Michelangelo. The Hall of Prisoners is named after the four large sculptures known as slaves or prisoners, part of a big scale project which Michelangelo was commissioned to work on beginning from 1505. The four prisoners were carved to be the pillars of the lower level of the tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere, intended for the Basilica of St. Peters in Rome. Work on the project was stopped due to financial constraints, and at some point when the work started again – but the prisoners were no longer part of the project.

David

David is sculptured from a block of marble and stands at an impressive 5.17m in height. The work was first commissioned to sculptor Agostino di Duccio (1462) and then later to Antonio Rossellino (1476), but both gave up because of technical challenges working the marble block. Leonardo da Vinci was also approached after that but declined the offer. The marble was left untouched until Michelangelo was commissioned to work on it in 1501. He was 26. David was completed about two years later. Michelangelo chose to depict David in intensed mental concentration, just before he launches the stone against the Philistine giant. Imagine such details from a block of marble. 

Amongst Michelangelo famous quotes 

In every block of marble, I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore

The Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore or Cathedral of St Mary the Flower is the third largest church in the world after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. Construction of the Cathedral began in 1296, and it was finally completed in 1436. During that period, several architects were commissioned on the building designs, which is why you can see the various styles on the facade.

The Cathedral is closed every first Tuesday of the month, and admission is free. Do note on the usual dress code when entering the Cathedral – no shorts and bare shoulders etc. 

III Duomo (The Dome)

The octagonal dome was erected between 1418 to 1434. It is the largest masonry dome in the world with over 4million bricks and over ten storey high. It was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, and it took 16 years to build, which was amazing construction speed for that time.

Brunelleschi, who was considered a modern engineer, had a massive task in front of him. He had to build the biggest dome recorded at that time on top of on an octagonal structure. Domes those days were built as semi-circles, but he had to build an eight-sided dome with no central support structure and a big one at that. The city was also worried that they didn’t have sufficient timber to build a scaffolding structure big enough to support the construction of the dome.

Cathedral Dome

The solution

Brunelleschi’s solution was to construct a two-layered egg-shaped shells/domes. For the internal shell, he installed pointed brick arches in the octagonal array reinforced by horizontal rings also made of bricks. The external brick shell structure was laid out in a herringbone layout so that the vault will be self-supporting. The inner and outer shells are connected by stone ribs. He also didn’t have any scaffolding set up- he designed a hoisting machine using a system of gears and pulleys to lift the heavy materials to the dome base upwards.

You can reserve to climb up to the base of the drum just below Giorgio Vasari’s frescoes of the Last Judgement. There are 463 steps to climb up (and down) in a very tight corridor. There are also no lifts. But if you up to it, you will be rewarded with stunning views of the city. You can access all the monuments at Piazza del Duomo covering the dome, the bell tower, the baptistry and the crypt for a combined ticket of EUR18. Do check the website for access hours and any updates to ticket prices.

Baptistry of San Giovanni and Gates of Paradise

The baptistry is octagon in shape – and this is quite common for baptisteries for many centuries. The number eight in Christianity symbolises new beginnings on rebirth. Baptism is about beginning a new life and resurrection from spiritual death.

The baptistry was installed with three sets of bronze doors. The most well known is probably the East Door referred to by Michelangelo as the Gates of Paradise. The North and South Doors each has 28 panels – the former depicting the life of St John the Baptist, while the South Doors depicted scenes from the New Testament, amongst others. The East door has ten large panels instead depicting the Old Testament – Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel etc.

Piazza della Repubblica

I just passed through this square really. The Colonna dell’Abbondanza (Column of Abundance), built in 1431 stands in the middle of the square, where the Roman Forum used to stand. The statue of abundance at the top of the column is a copy of the original. 

The square was used as a market at one point. There was a bell fixed to the column announcing the start and the end of the market day. 

Orsanmichele Church

The building was first documented in the year 895 when it operated as an oratory. It was destroyed and rebuilt at some point, and used as a market and grain storage area after that. Many pilgrims, however, came in to do prayers in front of a painted image of Madonna that remained on one of the columns. Many ‘miracles’, especially during the period of the terrible plague were linked to this Madonna fresco. After some time, it was decided that the building could no longer serve its intended function, so it was converted into a church.

If you are not able to go up the Cathedral Dome or the Bell Tower, perhaps you can head to the church and go up to the top level to get a view of Florence and the Duomo. The upper floor of the church, which can be reached via a beautiful spiral staircase also houses the original sculptures donated by Florence’s most important commercial guilds.

When the building was converted into a church, it was decided that each of these major guilds should provide a statue of their respective patron saint for the fourteen niches on the church’s exterior wall. Copies of these statues can be seen on the outer church wall, while the original sculptures are kept inside the church. Some of these guilds (three to be exact) were quite competitive and had their sculptures made of bronze (which was ten times more expensive than marble). Not surprising one of the three, are bankers!

Orsanmichele Exterior
Madonna by Bernardo Daddi
St John the Evangelist - Silk merchant

Mercato Nuovo​

Mercato Nuovo is a semi-enclosed market selling souvenirs, clothing and leather goods. It is also called the Mercato del Porcellino – ‘piglet market. It looked a bit touristy – not sure whether the product prices are reasonable. The main attraction here is a small fountain with a bronze statue of a wild boar (hence the nickname piglet market, though a wild boar is far from a little piglet). They say that anyone who rubs the snout of the boar will return to Florence. But before you rub the snout, you need to place a coin the mouth of the boar and wait for it to fall into the water.

Piazza della Signoria​

This famous square is the political centre of Florence since the 14th century. Landmark buildings here include the old palace, Palazzo Vecchio, and Loggia dei Lanzi, an open gallery with impressive sculptures.

Loggia dei Lanzi

The building opened in 1380s and functioned as a place for assembly of people,  and official ceremonies of the Florentine Republic. It now serves as an open air gallery with beautiful bronze and marble statues – my favourite is Perseus after he beheaded Medusa by Benvenutto Cellini (1554). (Have always been fascinated by the mythical Medusa).

Palazzo Vecchio

The old palace, Palazzo Vecchio, overlooking the square was extensively renovated by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and his wife when the palace was converted into their residence in the 1540s. They commissioned artists like Michelangelo and Donatello to work on the rooms – so if you visit, you can get the full-blown Renaissance feel in the various quarters.

You can also opt to join the palace secret passage tour – which will be exciting for both adults/kids. It was quite common for the rich to build secret/escape passages for an emergency exit out of their palaces/residences. They also created ‘secret/escape rooms’ to hide in, or just to store important documents and items, away from the servants and other members of the household. Palazzio Venchio, has several secret passages now opened to the public.

One other fact about the palace is that it sits on an ancient Roman theatre that had a capacity of 8,000 to 10,000 seats. The theatre was active until the 5th century until the fall of the Roman empire. The archaeological site underground is also opened to the public.

Uffizi Gallery

Long queue

Just behind Loggia dei Lanzi, you can find the famous art museum – the Uffizi Gallery. If you want to visit, suggest you buy the ticket in advance – there was a long queue of people at the entrance when I was there. Famous paintings (that I have heard of – I admit I am not too much of a fan) are Medusa by Caravaggio, Venus of Urbino by Titian (a very controversial painting during that time) and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (have seen so many copies in the movies).

Ponte Vecchio

I have seen this view in many movies, magazines and books growing up. Am so happy to see it in person. Ponte Vecchio also called the Old Bridge, crosses the River Arno. The original bridge – documented as far back as year 966, was damaged in flood and reconstructed in 1345. This was the only bridge in Florence, not destroyed by the German army when they retreated from Florence in World War II. They say that Adolf Hitler, himself, who had always been impressed with the views from the bridge, ever since he came to Florence on an official visit with Mussolini in 1938, gave the order to spare the bridge. Two key highlights regarding the bridge:-

  • The Vasari Corridor – the corridor runs on top of the bridge, connecting the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace. The Medici family commissioned the building of the passageway to allow them to move safely between their home in Pitti Palace to Palazzo Vecchio government offices. You can actually walk through the long one-way 1km corridor, which entrance is at the Uffizi Gallery, but it’s a long walk back to come back to Uffizi Gallery (if you needed to do that). I couldn’t fit it in my one day schedule.
  • The bridge is well known for Goldsmith and jewellery shops with wooden shutters. Previously in the 1500s, the City rented the shops to small traders, like grocers, butchers and tanners (the small traders were responsible for adding the protruding rooms over the river). After the building of the Vasari corridor, the Medici family found that they could not live with the stench coming from the shop activities, whenever they pass through the corridor. The small traders were then ordered to move out, and they were replaced with jewellery shops to make the bridge area more respectable.  

Beautiful Florence

That was a lot to cover – but it’s do-able in a day. You can also squeeze in 1-2 hour at Uffizi – just make sure you get the tickets to the major attractions in advance, and the Skip the line tickets would help for sure. I got the Skip the line tickets for Galleria Accademia – was there super early at opening time!

As usual, I got my Pandora souvenir. One is the Duomo Dome – when you open the clasp at there is a tiny little cricket. A bit too small to see perhaps in the picture – but take my word for it – simply adorable! (why cricket? remember what Michelangelo said about the dome?) The other charm, is a red vespa – so Italian!

I had a super time in Florence – such a beautiful city. Hope you will enjoy it as much as I did!

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