Sunday, 25 August 2019



Florence, the regional capital of Tuscany is surrounded by bronze coloured hills with vineyards and olive groves, and is a city with a turbulent action-packed history. It is situated on the river Arno, which is spanned by the famous Ponte Vecchio. Florence's most striking landmark is Brunelleschi's Duomo, and its most reproduced sight is Michelangelo's statue of David. Its ancient buildings all fit into a compact area and practically everywhere you look, you will find medieval buildings, cobbled streets, towering marble basilicas and magnificent museums. I had been advised to go to Florence several years earlier and had finally decided to book a short break there, hoping to see as much as possible of this remarkable city.  Here are some of my favourite parts.

The iconic Duomo - Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of  Santa Mary of the Flower) dating from 1296, is on every postcard of the city - a truly amazing sight. This Gothic basilica is one of Italy’s largest churches with its green, pink and white marble exterior and the largest red brick dome ever constructed. 

It is free to go inside, although you might have quite a wait unless you buy a skip-the line ticket or a joint ticket for all the Duomo’s attractions (The Bell Tower, Baptistery, Museo dell Opera, and Church of Santa Reparata). 

Brunelleschi’s frescoes on the inside ceiling of the dome are quite stunning, and for me, the best part of the inside of the Cathedral. 

I enjoyed the architecture of the outside more, it is so impressive and covers such an immense area; and whatever time of the day you go past, it glows in a different light. The Baptistery of St. John stands right in front of the Basilica and is one of the oldest religious sites in Florence containing beautiful 13th century mosaics.

Although its origins are unknown, it is believed to have been built over the ruins of a Roman temple dedicated to Mars as early as the 4th century; and it was first described as a minor basilica in 897. In 1128, it was consecrated as the Baptistery of Florence making it the oldest religious monument in the city. 

It is an octagonal shape, clad in geometrically patterned white and green coloured marble, that is typical Florentine Romanesque architecture. On 3 of its sides there are large doors, famous for their decorations. The oldest doors are the bronze ones on the South side, made around 1330, consisting of 28 panels depicting scenes from St. John's life. The Northern doors show stories of the Life of Christ taken from the New Testament., and the golden Eastern Doors with scenes from the Old Testament are known as the Gates of Paradise - after a famous quotation by Michelangelo who is believed to have exclaimed: "they are so beautiful that they would be perfect for the gates of paradise". The original doors are now in the Duomo Museum.

One of Florence’s lesser-known secrets, and with some of the best views of the Duomo, is the Oblate Library which is in the former Convent of the Oblate, between Via dell'Oriuolo and Via Sant'Egidio. It was originally built as the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in 1288. A few years later, the convent of the Oblate was built, for an order of women who devoted their lives to taking care of the ill - and the order lived here until 1936. 

The library’s main entrance is not at all what you would expect and could easily be missed; it is through a cloistered area that surrounds a garden with plants and seats. Today the Library has 3 different levels and as well as containing documents on the ancient history of Florence and Tuscany, it has a Museum of Prehistory, a children’s section, a newspaper library and modern reading rooms with computers.

My favourite part was the café on the 2nd floor, with a spectacular view of the Duomo - a great place for a cappuccino away from the hustle of the streets below.

Along the busy Via dei Calzaiuoli with its numerous high street shops, you come across the Church of Orsanmichel, that is free to go inside – so it is worth having a look. It is thought a building was here since Roman times and in the 9th century another was constructed on the site of the kitchen garden  of the monastery of San Michel. After being converted into a church, parts of it were used as offices and grain storage areas, designed to withstand famine or a siege. Orsanmichele is famously known for sculptures of its patron saints, placed in the niches on all 4 sides of the church. 

The first "Madonna of the Graces" painting was on a pillar - which was soon followed by miraculous events. Pilgrims inspired by the story of the miraculous appearance of the Madonna there, began visiting in increasing numbers, especially after the Black Plague in 1348. As the legend of the new "Madonna of the Graces" grew, a tabernacle was commissioned to protect it – which still in place, this masterpiece by Andrea Orcagna was completed in 1359. The stained-glass windows added around this time are some of the oldest in Florence and illustrate the miracles of the Madonna of Orsanmichele.

Not far from here is the Loggia del Porcellino, the “New Market/Loggia del Mercato Nuovo. The 16th century loggia was originally intended for the sale of silk, luxury goods and straw hats, but today mainly leather goods and souvenirs are sold. The focal point is the Fontana del Porcellino - "fountain of the piglet" - the 16th century bronze  wild boar (The original is at  Palazzo Pitti and the copy you see today was made in 2008). Visitors are encouraged to place a coin in the mouth of the boar, after rubbing its nose; and make a wish.

A few streets away is the Piazza della Signoria and the breath-taking Palazzo Vecchio – a fortress-palace, built in the form of a castle with the 94-metre-high Arnolfo tower.  In 1299 the Florentines decided to build a palace to house its government organizations, but it took centuries to complete. Its function was to become the residence and workplace of the officials of the republic, so it has several rooms, each with a unique personality. 

In the 16th century Cosimo I de Medici ordered its restructuring and redecorating to turn it into his residence - acquiring its present appearance of a Ducal Palace. Later though, he moved to the Pitti Palace; and Palazzo Ducale was renamed Palazzo Vecchio, becoming government offices again. 

He ordered the construction of a corridor that connected the Pitti Palace with the administration offices (currently the Uffizi Gallery) and the Palazzo Vecchio; to be able to move from one place to another in comfort and privacy. Palazzo Vecchio is now home to the Museo dei Ragazzi, the offices of the Town Hall and the Cinquecento Hall. 

At the main entrance are sculptures of Adam and Eve, Hercules and a copy of Michelangelo's David; and in the inner courtyard there are stunning marble columns and more statues. 

Also, in the Piazza della Signoria is the Fountain of Neptune, a huge equestrian statue of Cosimo 1st and the marvellous Loggia della Signoria. This is described as a small open-air museum, with various works of art such as the Kidnapping of the Sabines and the Perseus with the head of Medusa. 

The building is open on 2 sides, with huge arches and columns at the front; and has an extensive seating area – it is one of the most delightful places in Florence to sit and watch the world go by.
Adjacent to the Piazza della Signoria , is the  Uffizi Gallery, built in 1560, on the order of Cosimo I de Medici; as the offices of the Florentine magistrates, hence the name uffizi, "offices”.  

Today the Palazzo degli Uffizi houses the largest collection of Italian Renaissance art and paintings in the world and is one of Florence's most renowned tourist attractions. After the ruling  house of Medici died out, their art collections were gifted to the city by  Anna Maria Luisa, the last Medici heiress. The Uffizi is known as one of the first modern museums. In the 16th century its gallery was open to visitors by request, and in 1765 it was officially opened to the public, formally becoming a museum in 1865. 

As well as lots to see inside, along the outside walls are statues of famous Florentine people and you can easily spend anything from 1 to 5 hours inside here. The building overlooks the River Arno and can also be appreciated from across the water.

The Ponte Vecchio - 'Old Bridge' is one of the most famous landmarks of Florence and there has been a bridge spanning the river Arno close to here, since Roman times. The current stone bridge built in 1345, replaced an older wooden one, and had 43 shops on top of its 3 arches. Over the top of the medieval shops, runs the Vasari Corridor, a private passageway, linking the Palazza Vecchio and the Uffizi, with the Pitti Palace. At the end of the 16th century, to try and make it more refined, only jewellers and goldsmiths were allowed to do business on the bridge. This tradition has continued and even now, the only shops on the bridge sell gold and jewels; in the centre of the bridge there is a bust of Benvenuto Cellini, one of the most famous of the town's goldsmiths. 

The bridge has suffered from numerous fires and floods in the past, but the closest it came to destruction was during WW2; when the Germans retreated, they blew up all of Florence's bridges apart from the Ponte Vecchio, instead blocking its ends with rubble from demolished buildings. Also, in the great floods of 1966, many valuables were washed away down the river from the shops above.  As well as walking over the bridge itself, it is delightful to walk from one bridge to another, admiring the colourful views along both riverbanks.

On the other side of the river is one of my favourite places - Piazzale Michelangelo; an observation terrace, where you can enjoy the most spectacular panorama of the city.  No matter what time of day you visit, you will find the view from Piazzale Michelangelo offers the most stupendous lookout over Florence. 

It was created in 1869 by Florentine architect Giuseppe Poggi, as part of major restructuring of the city. The terrace was intended to be a showcase for copies of Michelangelo’s masterpieces – but that never happened – although there is a huge bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David.  Today, the piazza is filled with tourists, vendors, and a delightful restaurant where you should definitely spend some time soaking up the atmosphere and the view, whilst partaking in some delightful refreshments. 

You can reach the Piazzale by a number 12 or 13 bus or you can walk up from the river. After spending some time there, I opted to walk back down, following an easy pathway; where I came across the Bardini Gardens. The entrance to these is a joint ticket which includes the Boboli Gardens and as I was intending going there too, it was a useful addition to my day. The Bardini Gardens are built on a steep hillside, with a grand stairway, neat lawns, carefully tended trees and shrubs and colourful planting. 

When I visited, the Wisteria Corridor was in full bloom and was the most beautiful sight – a tunnel of mauve flowers hanging from the arched structure; and the view of the city with the surrounding hills, made it all feel so close.  

These gardens are definitely worth a visit. Next I headed downhill to the Palazzo Pitti, as behind are the Boboli Gardens - described as an open-air museum containing treasures - put in place by the Medici 4 centuries ago. They cover a vast area and were designed as a venue for extravagant gatherings - dotted with statues, fountains and features taken from the Medici art collections. 

There is a lake with an ornamental island, a variety of wooded hillside paths, and the Neptune Fountain. In 16th century Tuscany, grottoes were an essential part of affluent family’s gardens, having natural looking caves constructed and decorated with fountains, sculptures, and frescoes. 

The grandest of the Boboli's grottos is the Grotta di Buontalenti built about 1583; peering through the bars you can see the cave with ornamental stalactites, sculptures and strange decorations. The Medici family Coat of Arms is in the centre of the upper band, along with plaques featuring zodiacal signs. Because of its unusual atmosphere, this Grotto was chosen for a dramatic scene in the film Inferno – but I found it rather eerie and grotesque. I have to admit that I was rather disappointed with the Boboli Gardens, they are fabulously laid out, but it was a long way between the attractions - and there wasn’t much colour. 

They are initially the back garden to the Palazzo Pitti - one of Florence's largest architectural monuments. The original palazzo was built for the Pitti family in 1457 but later sold to the Medici’s - and became their primary family residence. It was then enlarged and altered; a grand courtyard and lateral wings added, and the facade begun to assume its present appearance. Today, the Pitti Palace is one of the most important museums in Florence, containing paintings from as far back as the 16th century (including works by Raphael), the Royal Apartments, the Treasury of the Grand Dukes (Silver Museum), and The Gallery of Modern Art.

Also on this side of the river is the Basilica Santa Spirito, home to Augustinian monks who came onto the scene in about the 12th century. As you walk around the outside of the church, you will see that it is rather stark with no marble decorations and its façade was added about 1792. The church has columns dividing it into 3 aisles that surround the high altar, with pilasters on the side walls and a coffered ceiling. 

In 1492, At the age of 17, Michelangelo found refuge in the convent of Santo Spirito, after the death of his patron Lorenzo il Magnifico. It was within these walls that students and artists had the opportunity to analyse corpses from the convent's hospital to study the anatomy of the human body and as a thank-you, Michelangelo carved a highly realistic wooden sculpture to hang over the altar.
Back over the bridge towards the city and there is so much more to see. 

The Basilica of San Lorenzo, one of the largest and oldest churches in Florence, is the burial place of all the principal members of the Medici family. When it was consecrated in 393, it stood outside the city walls and for 300 years it was the city's cathedral. 

The church is part of a monastic complex that contains important architectural and artistic works: The Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi, with interior decoration and sculpture by Donatello; the Laurentian Library by Michelangelo; the New Sacristy based on Michelangelo's designs; and the Medici Chapels. 

Close to here is the colourful market of San Lorenzo, which comprises of an indoor market where you can buy all sorts of perishable goods, and the outdoor section in the surroundings streets - selling leather, clothing and souvenirs. 

There are many bargains to be had here, but my favourite section was back in the main Mercato Centrale; on the upper floor is the gourmet food court which is open every day from 10am until midnight. Here you can chose from so many Italian and worldwide speciality dishes – the choice is mind blowing and I would love to have been there longer to try more dishes! There were also local delicacies such as cheeses, wine, gelato, chocolates, the pizza and pasta stall, meat, fruit and vegetable and much more. 

You can watch bread being made, how cheese is handcrafted or have a go at a pasta making class. It is definitely worth popping into this beautiful building, with cast iron and glass all around – especially when you are feeling a bit peckish!

Palazzo Medici Riccardi built in 1444 by Cosimo the Eldest, was the first Renaissance building in Florence; a cube shape with arched windows and doors arranged along its front façade. Its 15th century courtyard and Renaissance garden are free to go in. 

The most important works here are in the large hall, one of the most significant examples of Baroque architecture in Florence - decorated with frescoes. Perhaps the most important section of the palace is the Chapel, with a 1459 fresco representing the Procession of the Magi. 

I was happy just to walk through the courtyard and garden, enjoying the surroundings before exiting on a different street.

The 18th century San Marco Basilica is in the square of the same name - founded in 1267 by Silverstrine monks, it includes a bell tower, numerous side chapels and a museum next door. 

There are so many religious buildings in Florence, it is daunting which to choose (and most charge a fee), and if you aren’t careful you may stop appreciating them and miss the best ones. The next 2 should not be missed, so make sure, if you don’t see any others – you see these; they are worth your time and money.  

Santa Maria Novella is one of the most important Gothic Churches in Florence. Its entrance is opposite the Train station and you enter immediately into The Cloisters of the Dead, an ancient area with arched ceilings, that used to be dormitories for the Dominican Friars – taking you back a thousand years. 

The walls are covered in hundreds of years-old frescoes of saints, the life of Christ and important people from Santa Novella. There are 2 separate cloisters, the Green Cloister has frescoes with scenes from the Old Testament on 3 of its 4 sides and, being outside, some are rather worn. 

The Chapter House, (Spanish Chapel) is also here; it was used by the courtiers of Eleanor of Toledo, wife of Cosimo I, and features frescoes depicting Jesus Christ's passion, death and resurrection on the front wall – it is a fabulous room. The other cloister, the Grand Cloister, is so called because of its size, having 56 arcades surrounding its courtyard corridor; also look out for the famous Santa Maria Novella Pharmaceutical and Perfume Laboratory. 

Then you come to the fantastic Tornabuoni Chapel, which has got to be one of the most magnificent chapels I have ever seen. The inside appears vast and looks even longer than it is, due to clever colouring of the central arches. 

The magnificent marble altar was enlarged in the 19th century and to me, resembles Florence in miniature, with white buildings and its red domed roof. The Trinity, by Masaccio is on the far-right wall right as you enter the church, and the incredible Crucifix by Giotto hangs above the central nave. 

The Strozzi Chapel, to the right of the main altar, is dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and scenes of his life are portrayed in the beautiful frescoes painted by apprentices of Domenico Ghirlandaio - one of which was a very young Michelangelo.

The Strozzi di Mantova Chapel is decorated with frescoes depicting Paradise and Hell - Dante himself is represented in the Last Judgement just behind the altar. You will want to spend several hours here, there is so much to see – it is not just a church.

The other place you should not miss is The Basilica di Santa Croce, rebuilt in 1294 and the principal  Franciscan church in  Florence, also known as The Temple of the Italian Glories.

It is the burial place of some of the most famous Italians, such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Gentile, Rossini, and Pisan-born Galileo Galilei, who was tried by the Inquisition and was not allowed a Christian burial until 1737, (95 years after his death) and also has a memorial to Dante

There is an immense artistic wealth in Santa Croce; with beautiful frescoes in the Chapels showing scenes from the life of St. Francis and St. John the Evangelist. The memorial to the 19th century playwright Giovanni Battista Niccolini is said to have been the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty. The original structure dates from 1212 when St. Francis of Assisi visited Florence, and later, with a group of followers, he settled in the city, choosing an inhospitable, marshy area just outside the city walls - the original footings were re-discovered after the flood in 1966 (which severely damaged much of the church). The present building dates back to 1294 and took years to finish and its exterior is covered with a marble façade which was added in 1863

There are 16 family chapels behind the main altar, with numerous intricate, brightly coloured frescos in the separate alcoves; and  the Crucifix by Donatello, known as the "farmer" Crucifix, " due to the rustic, peasant appearance of the Christ figure. The Ancient cloister in the shade of the 78-metre-tall bell tower, used to be a cemetery; but now has with cypress trees, colourful shrubs, neat lawns and tombs around the cloister.

There are some famous people remembered here, so it is worth spending some time finding them. 

Pazzi Chapel was used as the chapter house by the friars, its entrance is supported by six Corinthian columns; the main room has an umbrella-shaped dome, with frescoes looking like they are in the sky. The chapel is not large but is described as holding up the four corners of the earth! There are 3 separate cloisters with covered walkways, each built at a different time – and all very picturesque with interesting things to discover whilst walking around them. 

The Refectory, where the Friars used to eat their meals, is another fascinating place; there are more impressive frescoes on the walls especially the one of the Last Supper and the entire end wall. 

There is also a marker in this room showing the level where the 1966 flood came to. There are so many brilliant things that make this church so special, but it is its reputation as the final resting place for so many famous names, that distinguish it from others in Florence. I loved The Basilica de Santa Croce, and it is definitely worth spending a morning here. From the outside, you have no idea what is going to be behind that marble façade – there is so much to explore.

I haven’t even touched on Florence’s museums, except the Uffizi – but there are so many. The Galleria Del Accademia which has the original statue of David by Michelangelo; The scientific Museo Galileo; The Museo Nazionale full of art and sculptures and the Archaeological Museum with a good collection of Egyptian artefacts.

I did go into the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum and see models of everything he invented and the vision he had in his lifetime – he really was a man who lived before his time. I can highly recommend going here, it isn’t too expensive – but you can’t take photographs inside.

If you love history, architecture, art, breath-taking sights and scenery – Florence, the City of Frescoes, is the place to go. I had wanted to go for many years, and it didn’t disappoint. Make sure you decide which places you want to see before you go – you don’t be over-awed by the number of churches and museums. Lastly, my favourite part of each day was early in the mornings before the crowds arrived……………..!

Thank you for taking time to follow my adventures,


These are my other blogs :-