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 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
Never miss a new post! Get notifications about new posts straight into your inbox!