Things to do PART I: churches, monasteries, museums & gardens

How can I even begin to list all of wonderful art-related things to see in Florence? It is believed to be the city with the largest concentration of famous art in the world!! I mean the place is literally packed to the brim with beautiful objects. And if you are like me, you want to see all them.

Over the many years I have lived in Italy I STILL have not seen them all…but I think I got pretty close. Below is a list of my favorite places to see in Florence that are churches, monasteries, museums, or gardens. This list is really geared towards those of you who do not have a month so I am leaving some really amazing things off this list simply in interest of time. Later I will write a post about all those amazing things I recommend seeing if you do have the time, or if it is your second or third trip to this great city. At the very least, this will help you pick the best things to see for your FIRST trip to Florence (and then some!).

*Opening times listed change ALL THE TIME so always check. The best way to “check” is just to walk by and ask the box office. Internet can be wrong and often phone numbers that actually get answered are hard to come by. If you have to check beforehand I find this site is pretty reasonable.

Duomo and Baptistery
The Duomo (the main cathedral, 10am-5pm Mon-Wed & Fri, 10am-3.30pm Thu, 10am-4.45pm
Sat, 1.30-4.45pm Sun*) and its massive dome (thank you Brunelleschi!) are the most famous and recognizable things in Florence. However, and I am just being honest here, it is really boring inside. The outside is really beautiful and ornate (though hardly any of the decorations are still original), but the inside is pretty stark. I would skip it and go inside the octagonal building across the piazza, the Baptistery…it is GORGEOUS (note the image for this blog, taken inside the Baptistery). It is only about 3 euro to get in (noon-7pm Mon-Sat, 8.30am-2pm Sun).

The Piazza dell’ Duomo (the area around the Duomo) is a good central place to start if you want to walk around the city. If you follow the large main street (Via Calzaiolil) towards the river, it will take you to…

Piazza Signoria, which is probably the second most recognizable place in Florence.
Both piazzas will be equally full of people and sights that cost nothing! If you have a hunger for religious art, check out the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the museum where all the real art from the Church is now kept. It is situated on the street curving around the Duomo, behind the main structure, Piazza del Duomo, 9. (This also happens to be the home of Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà and soem very famous works by Donatello including his Zuccone and his Mary Magdalene.)

Museo di San Marco (*door to the right of the main Church of San Marco)
In piazza San Marco (conveniently right near one of my favorite pizza places – see blog entry on Best Food in Florence for more info) is one of my favorite things in Florence.

It is an old monastery that has been converted into a museum. It houses some amazing 15th and 16th c. paintings in the main “museum” section (rooms that were once the monastery’s hostel for pilgrims) and a wonderful Last Supper by the artist Ghirlandaio in what was once the monks’ dinging hall (now the bookstore). But the real gem is a series of frescos by Fra Angelico (a famous 15th c. Renaissance painter) which adorn almost every surface of this two-floored structure. One of the other main draws for history buffs is that this building was once home to the (in)famous Girolamo Savonarola. In the upstairs dormitory area you can see the very room he slept in! I think it is only about 5 Euro and so worth it. Plus enjoy the escape from the loud piazza. You won’t believe how quiet the courtyard is! (Note: it closes at about 1:30 so go in the morning!)

The Uffizi(8.15am-6.50pm Tue-Sun), Official Site

This is a very famous museum in Florence. It is relatively small considering it houses almost all the most famous art in Italy, not to mention the world! The lines can be insane so see if your hotel will call to make a reservation for the next day (which makes the wait slightly less long) or just go very early (though, to be honest, that is no guarantee either). If you love art is a must see, so plan ahead.

You may also be able to make a reservation online before you leave (see website above). It will be a little crazy when you get there no matter what so just be prepared to ask several different people which line you should get in etc.

Boboli Gardens (8.15am-7.30pm Jun-Aug, to 6.30pm Apr, May, Sep & Oct, to 5.30pm Mar, to 4.30pm Jan, Feb, Nov & Dec)
Piazza Pitti is called this because of the MASSIVE Palazzo Pitti that is situated there. It is so large there are over 4 museums within the one building. They are nice but not worth your time or money (unless you are really into art or just the time, in which case do go to the Palatine Museum, 8.15am-6.50pm Tue-Sun). But what IS worth it for everyone is the garden behind the house. It used to be only 5 euro and is now 10 (which is a lot), but with just a garden ticket you can get some picnic food at a grocery store, bring a blanket and go hang out all day if you want.

Santa Maria Novella
Located right by the train station, this church is the only Gothic church in Florence. It also has some of the most famous fresco cycles in all of Florence. Just make sure you go in BOTH sections. They are very clever and have the church and the cloister as two separate entrances with two separate charges. Both are worth it if you ask me. (The Church entrance is to the right of the main façade, the cloister is to the left.)

Santa Croce
Another massive church on the other side of town that is well worth a visit. It has only one fee and is well-known for being the resting place of several very famous Florentines, including Michelangelo and Galileo. This is also the location of Brunelleschi’s most famous building, the Pazzi Chapel. The cloister is one of the most peaceful and beautiful in Florence and the museum (located in the cloister) has two AMAZING altarpieces that only just came out of restoration within the last few years.

Piazza Michelangelo
This is a huge piazza up on a hill that has a really nice view of the city and is easily accessible by bus or walking. (Note: the walk is up a pretty steep hill so make sure you are up for it.)

San Miniato al Monte
On the same hill as Piazza Michelangelo is one of the oldest churches in Florence (up some marble stairs sort of behind/beyond the Piazza-just ask anyone who works there). The church is ridiculously beautiful and the view from up there is even better. There is also an actual monastery attached and at dusk (usually) the monks come out and chant in the church. It is one of the most memorable experiences I can think of. Before they start make sure to run around the back (through the archway to the left of the façade) and check out the massive cemetery complete with some of the most amazing mausoleums I have ever seen! It is definitely one of my favorite things to do but takes a bit of planning, as you have to
catch it at just the right time.

Palazzo Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria (9am-7pm Fri-Wed, to 2pm Thu)
This is the large government building in Piazza Signoria. It has a slew of famous art inside including a Donatello bronze sculpture, gorgeous frescoes by an artist named Bronzino, and room upon room of works by the famous Florentine, Giorgio Vasari. The building has a really amazing history and while it can be pricey to get in, they offer a ton of really fun and creative tour options. I took one tour called “secret passages” as well as one that takes you to the ramparts (the roof essentially) for a really stupendous view. When you go in walk PAST the first set of ticket windows to the desk just beyond. There is usually a nice woman sitting there who speaks great English and will help you plan for a visit. You may have to reserve for the next day but again, very fun, a little different, and a good way to get some Florentine history at the same time.

Santa Felicita, Via de Guicciardini, 3 (Mo to Su from 08:00 AM to 12:00 PM and 03:30 PM to 06:30 PM).
This little church is a very special place for me. It is by far my favorite thing in Florence and the best part? FREE. Hardly anyone knows its there so it is also very secluded (a luxury in a tourist-packed city like Florence). The church is very small and situated on a little piazza en route from the Ponte Vecchio to Piazza Pitti. If you go in the door (avoid mass of course) directly on your right is a little chapel. There is a light box and I recommend dropping a euro or two because you will promptly see what all this fuss is about: one of the most beautiful mannerist paintings in the world as well as some of the most gorgeous frescoes. Even a five-minute detour will be well worth it to see this. Grab a book and read up too. It has a very interesting story.

If you are a real art buff you could easily occupy yourself with art related activities in Florence for years. Other amazing places to check out are:
Accademia. Obviously Michelangelo’s David is pretty amazing. I don’t need to sell it to you but be ready to wait in a line. (The trick is to find out when their late nights are. This might require going to the box office in person since the website might not list it or simply be wrong.)

Bargello Museum. Aside from the David, almost all the other most famous sculpture art can be found in this museum.

Brancacci Chapel, in Santa Maria del Carmine. Reservations required. This is a famous fresco cycle by the artist Masaccio. You only get 15 minutes in there and you cold spend days!

San Lorenzo – which is really three things: 1. the church (Brunelleschian architecture at its best), 2. The New Sacristy (one of Michelangelo’s last works in Florence and well worth the lines), and 3. The Laurentian Library (Mannerist architecture at its best and Michelangelo the architect at his best.) And yes. They each have separate entrance fees.

Santissima Annunziata – a very interesting church that remains very much in use by local Florentines. It houses one of the city’s most treasured miracle working objects, a painting of the Annunciation (the scene where the Angel Gabriel tells Mary she will give birth) which was, according to popular legend, painted by an angel. When you go, don’t miss the gorgeous series of frescoes in the forecourt by some of the best Florence has to offer (Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo and Rosso Firoentino). Also…FREE.

Aahhhhh! I could go on for days. I think I better stop here.
Check out part II for non-churches, monasteries, museums & gardens things to do as well as some day trip ideas.

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