The historic centre of Florence – Days of wonder

view over the historic centre of Florence from Campanile

The historic centre of Florence is surprisingly empty on a cold evening in March. At night, the cathedral of Florence and its separate baptistry are spectacularly lit up, and the black and white stripes and the marble figures sparkle in the darkness.

We have just arrived and are passing the famous Duomo on our very first walk through the Old Town en route to our hotel. It’s stunning!

Queuing for tickets in Florence

The next day we queue for tickets for the most famous site of the historic centre of Florence: The Duomo. The queue is already long before the ticket office even opens at 10. In front of us, people tell each other stories about snatching up ticket time slots in other Italian must-see attractions. Behind us in the queue, we hear someone remark in Russian that you could also do a virtual tour instead of queuing.

But we don’t want a virtual tour, we want all the real sights! To go up into the cupola of the Duomo of Florence, we have to buy the combined ticket for five or six sights related to the cathedral. In normal years, or more in season, it wouldn’t be possible to book such tickets on the day, but today we get a slot for noon. As a start we climb up to the Campanille, the bell tower.  

The builder of the Florence Duomo

The neogothic facade of the Duomo of Florence

The Florence Duomo towers over the main square. Around 1300, an architect by the name of Arnolfo di Cambio started to build a gothic cathedral here. “Ille hic est Arnulphus” proclaims the caption below a marble bust next to our ticket queue in somewhat weird Neo-Latin. Arnulphus is lucky to have got a bust in the square, because the vastly more famous builder of the cathedral is Filippo Brunelleschi.

By the 14th century, the cathedral construction was stuck with an unfinished dome. The Florentines didn’t want a cupola held by those large gothic buttresses that everyone else had. But the layout was too big to sustain the weight of any traditional cupola without buttresses. It was Brunelleschi who came up with a solution, involving an inner and outer dome, a number of circular chains serving as a kind of barrel hoops, and a herringbone pattern for the brickwork to shift the weight.

This extraordinary, huge dome structure became one of the symbols of Renaissance architecture and technology. In its grandiosity, the cupola reminds us of the blue-tiled domes of Central Asia such as Gur Emir in Uzbekistan or the Turabeg Khanum mausoleum in Kunya Urgench (Turkmenistan).

Small steps to the top

After passing a number of checkpoints (for tickets, weapons, and vaccination certificates), we find ourselves in a narrow staircase. Up and up we go. Eventually we emerge into the narrow space between inner and outer dome but search in vain for the herringbone brickwork. Nevertheless, the view from the cupola top is marvellous! On the way down, we stop on the narrow balcony on the inside of the dome to gape at the enormous frescoes of the Last Judgement. “Oh wow, this guy has horns and a tail!” a visitor rushing past us exclaims. We refrain from discussing the devil with him since his wife is waiting downstairs.

The Cupola del Brunelleschi in the Duomo of Florence

By the time the cupola was finished, the gothic part of the Cathedral was out of fashion. And over the following centuries, the rest of the Duomo changed again. The fresco of the last judgment arrived a hundred years later, and then the gothic façade was torn down only to be eventually replaced by a neo-gothic one in the 19th century.

Today, the Florentines cherish what is left of the original gothic façade: The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo displays dozens of original statues and decorative elements. They originate from the cathedral, the tower, and the separate baptistery. One hall even recreates the original façade with copies and some surviving original parts.

Beyond the Duomo: Exploring the historic centre of Florence

View over the historic centre of Florence

After spending a whole day exploring the various attractions of the Duomo, we want to see more of the old town around it. After all, the historic centre of Florence as a whole is part of the UNESCO World Heritage inscription. Of course, there are numerous churches and palaces to visit, but most of all we like the streetscapes and the atmosphere of an old metropolis.

large paintings covering walls and ceiling of the Palazzo Vecchio

The Palazzo Vecchio, the old town hall, is large and impressive. Most famous is the Salone dei Cinquecento (“Hall of the Five Hundred”) with its huge 15th/16th century paintings. However, not only are we unfamiliar with the local battles shown, which the Medici princes commissioned. We also don’t agree with the pictures’ message when we read it up. The paintings show the Florentine troops always in disarray while they were a (semi-democratic) republic, but efficient and victorious under the autocratic Medici rulers.

We side with Michelangelo. The famous artist was an opponent of the Medici rulers. His celebrated statue of the biblical David was openly a symbol of the fight against oppression: showing the boy David with the simple sling with which he defeated mighty Goliath! Quite similarly, the Florentine citizens had just expelled the Medici rulers and placed Michelangelo’s hero in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.

More art in the historic centre of Florence

Inside the Uffizi

Nowaday’s, there’s a copy of the David statue at the Palazzo Vecchio. At the Accademia di Belle Arte, where you can admire the original, there are again long queues. We did that, too. But first we went to the Uffizi Galleries for a full day. One of the most famous art galleries in the world, the Uffizi fill several stories and several wings of a huge building in the town centre. It was intended as an office building (“Uffizi”) but soon filled with the art collections of the Medici. We had visited the Uffizi before and pined to come back. Emerging tired and happy onto the streets of Florence is a unique experience that we would happily repeat.

View of Arno and Ponte Vecchio in the historic centre of Florence

During our days in Florence, we also took in the historical Ponte Vecchio bridge and visited the Palazzo Pitti. That’s another one of the Medici palaces, also converted into a somewhat stuffy and dark museum space. The Boboli Garden behind Palazzo Pitti is rather famous for its 16th century layout, its views and its sculptures.

A fountain in Boboli Garden

But as we were visiting in March the garden was not at its best.

Ice cream, wine windows and street art in the historic centre of Florence

While the highlights of Florence were clearly the famous tourist attractions – the Duomo, the Uffizi, Michelangelo’s David – we also loved the trimmings. Every day, we tried out a different ice cream shop. And we kept our eyes open for the witty street art by French artist Clet on traffic signs.

As we were at it, we also noticed some small openings in the walls of mediaeval houses. It turned out that these tiny windows were widespread since the 16th century. The Buchette del Vino or “wine windows” allowed noble families to sell their wine by the bottle directly from their own house. That was the condition to avoid paying taxes on the wine, and it became popular immediately. Later on, during various pest epidemics, the windows were again in use – and the Corona pandemic even led to some revivals.

A wine window in the historic centre of Florence

During our travel in Tuscany we also visited the nearby cities of Siena, Pisa, and San Gimignano. And of course we went for some Brunello wine tasting too!

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Florence and will come back in the future for sure. Have you been to Florence? What did you like especially about the city? Let us know in the comments!

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19 Comments

  1. Wow, you made me miss Florence so much and it’s been only 30 years since I last visited here so I guess it’s time to go back and climb those tower steps while I can and treasure all the historic parts of this beautiful city center. Oh I really do need to go back to Italy and Florence someday soon!

  2. Forence centre seems amazing. I am particularly interested in the Palacio Vecchio, and bridge. The Florence Duomo towers are impressive. Wine tasting in that area must be really a good experience.

  3. Florence is such a wonderful city. I have been there several times but never went inside the Domo. I must do next time I visit the city, I can see in your photos how amazing it is. Can you book your time slot online, or just in person on the day?

    1. Dear Joanna, you can book online as well. Actually timeslots for the Duomo are not that hard to come by. It is more difficult to get tickets for the Bruneleschi dome as the number of people is limitied.

  4. Yes! I loved Florence. We visited in 2017 and rented a flat in the city as our home base to explore Tuscany, and beyond. In retrospect, I would have liked to have spend more time visiting the sites in Florence, like the Boboli Garden, Palazzo Vecchio, Academia Gallery, and more. We saw a lot, but I now realize that our visit was simply an introduction to Firenze – I will surely return again!

    1. Dear Jackie – we explored Firenze for five days and still want to come back. I suspect it is one of the cities you can return to over and over!

      1. It is an Interesting story and Duomo sounds beautiful with all the fascinating buildings, such as the Palazzo Vecchio truly impressive and the cathedrals amazingly built. I would love to try ice-cream in Florence and the street sgin arts looks witty indeed. I would love to meet this artist.

  5. Ah I went to Florence in middle school and am dying to go back! We went to Tuscany a few months ago and wanted so badly to make it to Florence. Now I definitely want to add it to our next trip

    1. Ooooo Florence. I want as a high-schooler and will never forget it’s magic. While this city as been written about extensively, guides like these are still so important to keep up with changes on ticketing protocols and how to avoid the crowds. thanks!

  6. I loved visiting Florence. It’s one of my favourite smaller European cities. Like you I fell in love with the historic buildings, especially the Duomo. I also liked visiting the Boboli Garden behind Palazzo Pitti, the views are incredible as are the sculptures.

    1. Dear Renee, as it was early spring, the Boboli garden was not in full swing yet. But we could imagine how it would be in summer. Visitng garden is a lot about timing for sure.

  7. I loved Florence Duomo too, think it is has a mavellous architecture and interesting history behind. Your photos are really good and I never miss a gelatto in Italy either!!

  8. I just saw my friend’s pictures in front of the Duomo, but I think she didn’t get inside. It’s an interesting tour with your story about inside the Duomo. I think I will spend a long time to learn the interpretation of the The Last Judgement frescoes. And I will tell my friend to look for the traffic signs and wine windows.

    1. Dear Umiko, looking out for the street art and the wine windows was one of the things we enjoyed most in Firenze. Of course the museums were great too, but just leisurely exploring the many streets and alleys was the best.

  9. We did Florence as a day trip and we knew we needed to plan a return visit. Your post shows me all the things we need to enjoy at a more leisurely pace. The art and architecture could take days to enjoy properly. With lots of stops for yummy ice cream. I would want to go back and use Florence as a base for some great day trips too. And of course, eat my way around the city.

    1. Dear Linda, we utterly fell in love with Florence. It is a city we will return for sure over and over again. And you are right – a day trip does not justice to all Firenze has to offer.

  10. I fell in love with Florence 30 years ago when I visited with my aunt. Sadly I haven’t been back yet. I enjoyed reading your article and seeing your pictures. It made me feel nostalgic.

  11. Love your black and white pictures of the Duomo. We just spent a day and saw the Duomo and David in the Academia, missed Uffizi and Ponte Veccho but got to the leather school and the other church. Would have loved going to some Tuscany towns!

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