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Bathed in dreamy Tuscan light, Florence is often the second stop after Rome for many visitors to Italy. The Renaissance city is home to priceless works of art, a cultural sensibility and of course it’s in the heart of wine country. In episode six we explore the highlights of Florence so you know the must sees to add to your itinerary.
In contrast to Rome, Florence is a small and elegant city known for its patronage of the arts and dedication to culture. Often called the “cradle of the Renaissance”, the city nurtured the genius of Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and other masters. Their work can be seen throughout Florence today.
The beautiful cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore is found at the center of the city and from here you can easily explore the main highlights – from the outstanding galleries to historic piazzas. Join us as we discuss our favorite places in Florence, what they mean to us and how you can best explore them on your visit.
For more information, check out our Florence travel guide with tips and articles on where to stay and what to do and see in the Renaissance City.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- Our top must see sights in Florence
- How many steps you’ll need to walk up when you climb the Duomo dome
- Whether skip the line tickets or a guided tour are necessary at the major sights
- All about a secret corridor connecting major landmarks in the city
- How long to expect to stay in each place to help you build your itinerary
- Where to go for sweeping views of the city
Places mentioned in this episode
- Santa Maria del Fiore – the Duomo or cathedral of Florence
- Uffizi Gallery – world renowned gallery home to Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”, statues by Michelangelo and more
- Galleria dell’ Accademia – Michelangelo’s original and magnificent statue of David is displayed here
- Ponte Vecchio – the city’s iconic bridge
- Piazza della Signoria – central square in Florence and home to the city hall – the Palazzo Vecchio
- Piazzale Michelangelo – vantage point for some of the best views of Florence
- Florence guide – includes itineraries and top things to do
- Where to stay in Florence – a district by district accommodation guide
- Day trips from Florence – use the city as a base to explore Tuscany and beyond
- Museums to visit in Florence – exploring the city’s art and culture
- Boutique hotels in Florence – perfectly charming accommodations we recommend
- Florence hotels with pools – the best way to enjoy the hot summer sun in Tuscany
- Preferred tour company – Walks of Italy / Take Walks – have a longstanding reputation for excellent service, groups under 20 people and guaranteed departures. So if you are the only person booked on a tour it will still go ahead
- Preferred tour company – The Roman Guy / The Tour Guy – a fun team known for their focus on making the sights of Italy come alive with stories and tales rather than facts and figures. Our listeners and readers get 5% off small group tours (except special access Colosseum tours) if you click on this link and make a booking. Discount is applied at checkout
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning
- Italy Travel Planning – the FREE Facebook group where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? Below is a full transcript of our episode conversation. Unfortunately it does not pick up our lovely Australian accents however!
Josie: 00:51 Ciao, everyone. Today in episode six of Untold Italy, we’re going to help you plan your trip to Florence and talk about the must see highlights,
Katy: 01:00 Ahhh beautiful Florence. Such a contrast to Rome, isn’t it? It’s much smaller and less chaotic and it’s full of history, art, churches and beauty. What, what do you love about Florence, Josie?
Josie: 01:12 I absolutely love Florence because it’s more compact. So obviously it’s the capital of the Tuscan region and it is the home of the many masterpieces, which I love from the Renaissance, the art and the architecture.
Katy: 01:26 Beautiful. Isn’t it stunning? Some of the favorite places that you can’t miss when you’re going there We’re going to be talking about today. And we’ll go through them in lots more detail, but my favorites are the Duomo and the Uffizi gallery. What, about you?
Josie: 01:40 My favorite is the Galleria dell’ Accademia, which displays Michelangelo’s David sculpture. So I love that.
Katy: 01:48 Yes. And you can’t miss seeing the Ponte Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria. I think, you know, Florence is just one of those places that’s got that atmosphere that you want to go and just wander and explore. And it’s like, it’s like we said, it’s just a totally different atmosphere from Rome. And it sort of symbolizes the fact that Italy is actually a very new country in terms of being fully unified. There really were separate city States in the past. And you’ve got that totally different flavor in Florence than you do to Rome.
Josie: 02:15 Yes, I think Florence for me also I love Dan Brown books. So I love walking around Florence and imagining the books that he’s written. And because he really explains Florence in many of his books. So for me, I love that. I love the history behind it. But not just Florence, it’s the outer region of Tuscany, right? So you can then go out. So it’s the starting point of everywhere else that you can go.
Katy: 02:41 Yes those onward journeys in Tuscany are fun. I was always fascinated by the Medici family who ruled Florence for so many years and really created the city as it is today. Such amazing patrons of the arts. And they invested so heavily in the architecture and the artistic heritage of the city. So that’s really my passion and it’s a reason why I’ve always wanted to go there and go back many times.
Josie: 03:05 Yes, I love the fact that you can get on a bike and ride around all the Florence. I think that’s something that I love doing as well. And it just easy to get around. So I think where Rome has is so big and wide, this is very compact and full of different history and amazing art. And I mean you go to the Uffizi gallery where you’ve got Botticelli’s “The birth of Venus”. So I think, you know, when you think of iconic, amazing art pieces, definitely Florence ticks all those boxes.
Katy: 03:34 It’s got it in abundance hasnt it?
Josie: 03:35 It certainly has.
Katy: 03:36 Okay. So let’s just talk about the highlights, in a bit more detail so that people know what are the things that they should see when they’re in Florence.
Josie: 03:44 Definitely, definitely the Duomo as you come up into the main, into the main of Florence, there’s the Duomo
Katy: 03:53 the Santa Maria Del Fiore. It’s such a beautiful building, isn’t it?
Josie: 03:57 It certainly is. I think the terracotta roof, how big it is. And it just sits really lovely just around the way all the roads lean into the dorm wall.
Katy: 04:07 Yes, it’s certainly the heart of Florence, isn’t it? And I just love the exterior, that beautiful green and pink marble inlaid exterior. It just sort of shimmers and it gives it sort of a like a magical quality, when you approach it and also in the distance when you see it from the distance.
Josie: 04:24 Yes. And it was really interesting, the history behind it. It took six centuries for it to be completed. So amazing. But you can see the detail of it and why it is there and it is absolutely pristine. It’s immaculately kept and it’s pristine.
Katy: 04:39 Well, actually the first time I saw it was covered in scaffolding. So, which was slightly disappointing, but important as obviously they really keep it very, very clean and, and shining and, and so beautiful. But one of the things that, you know, you see it from the outside and it’s kind of unexpected to go inside. It’s quite plain compared to other churches in Italy apart from that magnificent dome built by Brunelleschi. So that’s really the centerpiece of the church itself. And you can actually climb that dome, but it’s a lot of steps, isn’t it?
Josie: 05:09 Have you done that – 463 steps, Katy,?
Katy: 05:13 You can certainly earn your gelato for that day. But Yes, you do need to be very fit because there is no elevator to go up to the top there. But the views are spectacular..
Josie: 05:24 And also just be bearing in mind that the day that you do it, make sure it’s not too hot as well because Florence can get really even hotter as you’re waiting to do that. So no elevator, 463 steps definitely have to be fit to go up that.
Katy: 05:39 You do. And I think, you know, the Duomo is actually a big complex. There’s more than the just the inside and the outside of the main church to see. So you can go inside the church, which won’t maybe take so much time. There is a little museum there that you can go and see. You do need to book tickets if want to go up to the dome. But you can also see the exterior buildings in terms of the companies or the bell tower and also the baptistry. So in the bell tower you can also climb that, that’s 414 steps, so that’s slightly less than than the dome. But it was designed and built by Giotto. So it’s an, it’s an amazing piece of work, of art in itself and also the baptistry, which is opposite the cathedral and it’s got very famous bronze doors and an incredible gold mosaic interior, which you shouldn’t miss either.
Josie: 06:31 Yes. And just a little tip, which I always like to give regarding around the bell tower, you have to line up outside. So again, make sure you have water and a hat and it is 414 steps. It’s quite narrow as you walk up. Definitely worth the view. The view is amazing when you get across it. So I think for all of those that have looked into Florence and seen photos you definitely will have seen the photos out of the Duomo and out of the top of the bell tower. So definitely.
Katy: 06:58 Yes, you do need to book those in advance those so and get a time to entry. I wouldn’t recommend just showing up and hoping to do that. You’ll be queuing for a long time. So make sure you jump online. We’ll share the links as always to those to those places so you can organize that. Some tour companies included in the tour. And I think it’s really interesting to understand the architectural process behind how the dome was built and the history behind the church. You find out so much information, it’s so incredible to actually be there and inside the church and just hear about how the dome was made and how important it is to the people of Florence.
Josie: 07:39 Yes, I agree. And I think for me, I love tours and we’ve spoken about this in other podcasts, but I think here with the history, the rich history from Florence with the Medici and, how it was built and why it was built, I think is really worth doing in this city. How long do you think that you should take to do that whole area, Katy?
Katy: 08:00 Well, I think it’s a minimum of one hour, really, if you just popping into the Duomo more, you can kind of get away with about one hour. But I think that’s kind of a bit of a waste because it’s such an important, part in the life of the city. So I think two to three hours is a reasonable time to climb the dome and see the baptistry and the bell tower. And I think, Yes, after that you’ll, we’ll have earned your gelato or your big plate of pasta and you’ll really enjoy it. But the Duomo reflects the wealth of Florence during the, during the Renaissance. And it’s such an important place to see that you shouldn’t definitely not miss that. But just not far from the Duomo is actually another symbol of the city that’s really enduring. And you will see it in all the photos. Pretty much of Florence. And that’s the Ponte Vecchio.
Josie: 08:51 Yes. Amazing. The oldest bridge in Florence spanning the river Arno, that winds through the city. So it’s, it’s an amazing place to be.
Katy: 09:01 Yes. It’s just beautiful and all the different sort of muted I guess you call them Tuscan colors that the bridge is painted in, the buildings of the bridges painted in and they’re lined with the traditional jewelers and a gold makers of the city that have been there for 700 years. So it’s just one of those places where, you know, it’s a cobbled bridge. It’s 700 years old and there’s just beautiful, dreamy, dreamy views down the river and across the bridge you can wander over to the Oltrano district, which is the home to the Pitti palace, which was the former residence of the Medici family once they got too big and too important to live in the pallets of Vecchio on the other side of the, of the river. And of course they were joined by the Vasari corridor, which is like an absolutely fascinating piece of architecture. Do you know much about it, Josie?
Josie: 09:53 No, but I know that it’s opening very soon that we can actually go through it.
Katy: 09:58 Yes, I believe in 2021. The Vasari corridor is a private corridor that the Medici family built to connect the Uffizi gallery to the Pitti palace. Apparently you could have written a horse down it, and it goes above the panto Vecchio so it’s quite high. And it’s, it’s very private, so they didn’t need to mix with the local people at all. They could keep themselves completely private and and go about their business and probably spy on people. I think they, they used to do that a bit in those days. But it’s a very special part of the city and it’d be very exciting to see that open in a couple of years time.
Josie: 10:39 And I think this is the sort of thing that Katy has a wealth of information that even I learn from her a lot about things in the city. So for me we’re still learning. We’re still exploring different these cities. So I think Ponte Vecchio is one of my favorite places to go.
Katy: 10:57 Yes. And you can just wander over there in about 10 minutes, but you want to soak up the atmosphere there. You see people, having their photos taken just enjoying the atmosphere and you can grab a gelato, walk across and maybe buy some jewelry if you feel like getting a memento for home. They are quite expensive, those jewelers. But of course the craftsmanship is very, very high and it’s worthwhile taking a look. So the other place that I think that people the other thing that people want to see is the statue of David and it’s probably the most famous statue in the world, I think. And for good reason. The statue of David is 17 feet high, which is over five meters. And it was a made from a single block of Carrara marble by Michelangelo over three years. I mean it is an absolutely beautiful work of art.
Josie: 11:52 It’s fantastic every time. I mean, I’ve been to Florence numerous times and every time you have to go, you need to go and see it because I think once you see it once, you’ve just got to stand there and admire and take photos of every different part of it. And it’s, it’s a very impressive sight.
Katy: 12:09 Yes. I mean it’s just so beautiful, that single piece of marble. It’s reflective of the city. It’s just unique and it’s special. David’s supposed to be the perfect man, I guess, and reflective of the city of Florence and it’s the symbol of Florence really. And you can see just how much genius went into that statue. And I don’t think you can see it from some of the replicas. So there are replicas in other parts of Florence, but the, the real one, the original is, is literally the best. It’s actually so beautiful that you have to see it with your own eyes.
Josie: 12:50 Yes, I agree. I think this is definitely one to visit the Accademia to actually see David is amazing and then all the artwork around it. So you’ve got amazing statues and sculptors in amongst that as well.
Katy: 13:03 Yup, exactly. It’s really small gallery, so it’s quite digestible. If you’re someone that you know gets a bit overwhelmed by art, you can go there and visit it within about an hour and it’s very easy to do. And it’s just a short walk from the Duomo and in like most places in Florence, it’s very easy to reach everywhere on foot. So it’s definitely a highlight and one of those places that you must go and see when you’re in Florence.
Josie: 13:27 Yes. I think the beauty of Florence is that it’s so compact. It’s not that you’re going to be in these museums or galleries for hours and hours unless you want to. And then there’s so many other things to do as you’re walking around as well.
Katy: 13:41 Yes, that’s right. And so then obviously the next place to talk about, which is one of the most incredible galleries in the world, is the Uffizi gallery, which is right on the banks of the Arno just down from the Ponte Vecchio. And this is a priceless collection of art that was amassed by the Medici family and gifted to the city of Florence by the family in perpetuity. So it is just an incredible building in its own right and it’s just full to the brim with treasures, which is quite astounding actually what you can see there. What are some of your favorite pieces in the Uffizi Josie?
Josie: 14:16 I love Botticelli’s. Birth of Venus. I think that is always my favorite when I go to visit. I think the, the enormity of the Medici comes to you when you’re there. Because of the amount of priceless art that they accumulated over their many years. So I think that hits you as well,
Katy: 14:38 Oh it really doesn’t, and you can see how important Florence was at that time to the world. Really and has continued to be. So my favorite, I love I guess the Medusa by Caravaggio. I like that those kind of dark, moody paintings that Caravaggio did. And I guess there’s so many works by Leonardo da Vinci and it’s just, it’s just like every room you go, Oh, I recognize that piece. I recognize that piece. And it’s one of those places where you know, you, you have to actually go because you can see a picture of the painting and you can take your own. Obviously there’s, it’s selfie central in the Uffizi gallery. But you know, you can take pictures, but it just won’t,
Josie: 15:26 You just don’t do it justice of how it, how, how it is, I suppose. You’re right,
Katy: 15:30 You can’t see the depth, the intricacy of the painting, the light that reflects, it’s just an amazing thing to do and look at the Uffizi it really does get busy. And so I implore you to, especially in peak season, outside of winter, you really need to book your tickets in advance. And there’s a time to entry for you. Uffizi gallery and make sure you do that because it does get incredibly busy. It’s quite compact inside and you will be within a crowd of people. It’s also a very good idea to do a tour if you want to learn a bit more about the art too.
Josie: 16:07 Yes, I’m a, as I said, big, big fan of the tours because I think you can be walking past a painting that you don’t know the history of it and they’d give you a really good understanding and you really understand the Medici and how powerful they were and why Florence has become what it has and you understand a bit more about the Uffizi. So I 100% agree with the tour. I, I’m a tour person. I love, I love it because I, that’s just something, but again, it’s all an individual thing. I mean you might really know and understand the art and so you my not need that. So it really goes with what each individual person wants. .
Katy: 16:41 Yes. I think, I think a minimum of an audio guide is, is worth doing. I think on my first visit when I was, I’m a very poor student, I I went along and I hooked up with a group and I learned so much and that was kind of an interesting thing because I was hearing about the paintings and the art history and I really learned so much from them that I started to become a tour person as well. One place that I do recommend that you go apart from all the beautiful galleries inside the Uffizi is also to visit the terraces there because there are some incredible views of Florence from the terrace, including really up close and personal view of the Duomo and the dome. And it’s, you know, it’s a great place to take a little time out and enjoy the outside views of Florence as well.
Josie: 17:30 Yes, I know, I agree. Now Katy, how long do you usually take to do the Uffizi?
Katy: 17:36 I think, look, I think two to three hours is probably including a stop at the terrace. I get quite overwhelmed actually by the art as much as I appreciate it, I find it overwhelming. So I like to think about how the art, and the genius of the people that were doing it and how they managed to portray feelings and emotions in their paintings and get across the time and a place. And I find galleries, I love them, but I do find it a little bit overwhelming. So two to three hours is ideal, but I guess if you love art, you could probably spend days there.
Josie: 18:10 Yes. And another place that we both like is the Piazza della Signoria.
Katy: 18:15 Yes I mean this is an iconic piazza in Italy and it’s one of those places where you sort of like, you can’t believe it’s real. Really, because, we come from a country where, you know, the buildings and those structures in our country are very new and this is one of those places where you sort of go, wow, these people thought to beautify their spaces and decorate them with such beauty so many years ago. And it’s really such a pleasure to go and just spend time in the Piazzas, but in the Piazza della Signoria area you want to go see the Loggia dei Lanzi and that’s where an amazing collection of statues are, including a replica of the David. But as we said before, it’s good, but it’s not quite the same as seeing the real one.
Josie: 19:09 Something else that you’ve put on our notes when we were talking about the show is the Gucci cafe.
Katy: 19:14 Oh Yes. That’s, that’s there too. You can actually go and have a coffee or even we had a meal there and for anyone who loves fashion and they’ve actually got a little small museum there in the Piazza della Signoria and it’s really lovely. It overlooks the beautiful fountain in the middle of the Piazza, which is a statue and gushing fountain of Neptune. And it’s really in prime position, this Gucci cafe and if you want to do a bit of shopping you can do that as well.
Josie: 19:44 Great to know. Definitely going to go and see that next time. So you think about 30 minutes to an hour around there, depending on if you’re having lunch.
Katy: 19:53 Yes, I think it’s another one of those places. It’s all about the atmosphere. But if you have time and if you are really interested in the history of Florence, then you must step inside the Palazzo Vecchio, which is right on that Piazza as well. And that’s the Florence town hall and it’s the original palace where the Medici used to live. And it’s just, again, it’s full of artwork and amazing views if you peek out the windows and the, very, very grand town hall, which has, gold ceilings and paintings. And it’s a really wonderful place to go. Most people don’t go there actually, but I love it.
Josie: 20:30 You love it. And where else do you think is the next place that we would go and see?
Katy: 20:36 So then I guess for me to get a really great perspective on Florence is you need to visit Piazzale Michelangelo and that’s up just outside of the San Nicolo district. And it’s a bit of a trek up there, which I recommend doing cause you get a really nice views of the city as you go up and you go past a beautiful rose garden. And you get up to the top of this Piazza and it’s just sweeping views of Florence. You can see the churches, Santa Croce, the different different districts. You see the Duomo rising, you see the Palazzo Vecchio tower and you can see Florence laid out before you, spread across the two banks of the Arno. And it’s really beautiful and it’s a great place for photos as well.
Josie: 21:27 And if you go just at sunset or just before sunset and you see the sun coming down through it, it actually adds a beautiful color across your photos. And you can see the Duomo in that light. It’s sort of that orangy color coming down and it’s just beautiful.
Katy: 21:43 It’s just that Tuscan light isn’t it and it’s really hard to describe, but it’s sort of like a, like a glow from the sun and you just, Yes. And it just like bounces off the buildings and, and off the river and it’s a very, very magical spot. And if you want to go up there yet again at dusk, there’s a cafe there, but it’s not great. And, but if you go there at dusk and then take a walk down the hill back down there, there’s some excellent restaurants down in the San Niccolo district and it’s not a far walk at all. It’s maybe 20 minutes, but there’s also plenty of taxis and buses to get there if you don’t want to walk.
Josie: 22:23 Yes, I think it’s definitely a must see. And if you’re a photo enthusiast and you want an amazing photo, definitely just at that, go a little bit early than sunset cause you want to sort of get your positioning in and have a look and enjoy it. So really, really a must do thing in Florence.
Katy: 22:41 So Josie, Florence is, there’s all these attractions and there’s so much art and culture, but what are the experiences and the feelings that you, that you want to get when you go to Florence?
Josie: 22:53 I think it’s about sitting down and just enjoying it. So again, like we do in Rome, it’s about, I love people watching, so, and Florentines are, an amazing people to watch and to, so to sit and have a drink and, and just relax or have a gelato or have a plate of pasta at lunch and really just soak up that atmosphere. Walking around, it’s just easy to get around experiencing the different people and food. It’s just a really magical place as you said I think the light spark sparkles on it. And I feel that as we walking around you slow down a little bit. I find that Rome’s probably a little bit faster. And also you’ll find that the Florentines around August leave, they’ve all got beach houses, so it becomes a bit quieter with the locals, but a lot, still a lot of tourists. So be aware that it’s still a tourist hub and there is still a lot of people out.
Katy: 23:45 Yes, it can get quite busy, but I think you’re right. The Florentines are very elegant. And do, you know, there’s a lot of artisan shops there where you can buy leather and you know, beautiful jewelry. There’s some amazing jewelers. They’re just highly creative that take the inspiration from the city that they live in and sort of modernize Renaissance pieces. There’s some beautiful perfume shops. So I love to go shopping actually in Florence.
Josie: 24:11 Yes. I must admit, I’ve definitely bought a leather jacket. And look, you know what, it’s about walking around and just talking and seeing. And I think the art bit of it, I think the history and the artisan culture that they have there, that underlying amazing, different, even I’minto oils and, and you can go and get some beautiful oil as well and, and wine from there. So, again, as you experienced, I mean this is Florence itself, but when we talk about Tuscany as a region even when you sit there, you’re getting really amazing wines when you’re sitting there because it’s coming from that Tuscan region coming into the city.
Katy: 24:49 Yes. I mean the food is incredible and it’s different to Rome, so, and, and Venice obviously. So you know, it’s a great idea to go and taste all the food wherever you are and the, and the wine and really try the local wines. But yes, I think Florence is one of those places that stays in your heart forever. And then a lot of people, their favorite city in Italy is Florence. And I can understand that because it’s just so compact and it’s just a concentrated essence of Italy almost. That’s how I feel about Florence. It’s got that very refined cultural part of Italy that you kind of expect. And so you can never stop me going back from Florence either.
Josie: 25:30 No, no. It’s very sophisticated, I call it. So I think that’s definitely somewhere that you definitely add on your itinerary as a first timer. You definitely would go there.
Katy: 25:41 I think so too. So if you have any questions about visiting Florence, feel free to ask them on our free Italy travel planning Facebook group. I’ve put a link to our city guide for Florence in the show notes as well, and hopefully that’ll help you plan your time there.
Josie: 25:57 And in our next episode, we’re going to be talking about tipping in Italy the cultural expectations and when and how you should tip.
Katy: 26:05 Wow. I know a lot of people want to know the answer to those questions as we get them regularly. So don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast for all the latest episodes and grazie. Thanks for listening.
Josie: 26:18 Ciao.