A stroll through the cobbled streets, the age old red tile roofed buildings, the gorgeous churches and the innumerable art works is like going back to the renaissance era, when art and artists were all over the city of Florence. One of the prettiest cities in Italy, you are bound to fall in love with it the moment you head to its older section where one after the other, magnificent creations open up before you reach Arno river, where sun sets over the many bridges that run across it. It isn’t as crowded as Rome, nor is it as touristy as Venice. Florence is just perfect with the modern city blending beautifully into the renaissance era making it the most desirable place to visit in Italy.
The best way to explore a place is to cover by foot, and Florence or Firenze as it is locally referred is definitely a place which is best covered with a walk. Opposite the main train station is the rear side of Basilica di Santa Maria Novella. I walked along the street beside it and that led to the basilica’s entrance which has a beautifully painted outer façade. Located in the square by the same name, the basilica is surrounded by old buildings and streets that meander between them. The 14th century gothic church’s façade is still an originally planned one and its interiors have tall pillars, beautiful arches and attractive glass paintings. It also houses numerous chapels such as Filipo Strozzi, Gondi, Della Pura, Rucellai, Bardi and Spanish chapel to name a few which are adorned with magnificent art works in the form of carvings and paintings depicting various stories from the bible. All these works are creations by various popular artists from that era. As I walked across gazing at the spectacular art from one chapel to another, the interiors of Santa Maria Novella left me mesmerized. Adjoining the basilica is a large cloister and passages on all four sides which have beautiful arches and faded wall frescoes.
From the piazza outside Santa Maria Novella, I delved deeper into the older part of the city also known as the historic centre. The streets snaked past the tall buildings, shops and outdoor cafes to Basilica San Lorenzo, the first cathedral of Florence. Though consecrated in late 4th century, it was rebuilt in the 11th century and restructured again in the 15th century. The cathedral’s architecture and interior has been designed by artists such as Brunelleschi, Donatello and Michelangelo apart from many others. The cathedral is also a great example of renaissance architecture with numerous columns, arches and a beautiful ceiling. Adjacent to this are the Medici chapels, built for the Medici family, the patrons of the church during the 16th and 17th centuries. Though the outer facade of Basilica San Lorenzo might not be impressive, the steps that lead up to it is an ideal place to relax and see the world go by.
After resting on the steps for a while, the vibrant streets led me further to the majestic Florence cathedral, fourth largest in the world. Locally referred as Duomo, it is located in the cathedral complex in Piazza del Dumo. Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore or the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower stands tall and intimidating in gothic style with white, green and pink marble panels along with intricate works. The spectacular outer façade also has exquisite carvings on its huge doors and paintings above it apart from the huge dome on top. Built in 1436 CE, the cathedral stands over Santa Reparta, a 7th century church. Though the queue to enter was a long one, it moved pretty quickly and I was inside in less than 15 minutes. In comparison, the interior is plain and simple. However, I found the glass paintings and the attractive frescoes of The Last Judgement by Giorgio Vasari to be quite attractive. In the crypt one can also find the remains of Santa Reparta church. One can also go up the duomo, to enjoy the views from the top. There is a separate queue for this.
The cathedral complex which is a UNESCO world heritage site also houses a bell tower known as Giotto’s campanile and a baptistery, all next to each other. The bell tower which is a masterpiece of Florentine gothic architecture has an outer façade very similar to that of the cathedral with marble finishes and richly decorated carvings. Works of art include hexagonal panel, lozenges shaped carvings and life size statues. However, most of these artworks are copies and the originals are displayed at the museum, Museo del Duomo located near the tower. The climb of 414 steps took me past five levels where the vistas got better with each level. The 14th century campanile houses seven bells and offers stunning panoramic vistas of Florence. Aerial view of the dome above the cathedral, innumerable tile roofed buildings and mountains in the backdrop form a gorgeous frame.
The octagonal Baptistery of St. John is a gorgeous monument in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and has similar marble works like the cathedral, but sans the carvings. Built in the 12th century, this is one of the oldest monuments in Florence. The large bronze doors have beautiful carvings on them and relief sculptures above. Though the interiors have nice art works, what amazed me was the breathtaking mosaic works on its ceiling by various Venetian artists. The art includes The Last Judgement with Christ and many other depictions. This is definitely one of the brilliant works in the cathedral complex.
After these spectacular art works, I walked away from the cathedral complex towards Galleria dell’ Accademia, one of the most popular and frequently visited museums in Italy. The long queue took a while to move as only a certain number of visitors are allowed inside and people who had taken reservations (at a higher ticket price) were given first preference. It was quite crowded inside this beautiful gallery with displays of sculptures, paintings and other art by various Florentine artists from the renaissance era. However, what stands out is the magnificent creation by Michelangelo- David. Popularly referred as Micheangelo’s David, this marble sculpture is an absolute masterpiece. The graceful look and the fluent pose are definitely the stand out characters of this master craftsman’s magical creation. The sling in David’s hand that is barely visible, the bulging veins on his right hand and the stern look on his face are some of the points which depict that David is shown here just before his fight with Goliath. This sculpture is also quite different from all the earlier ones of David, where he was always shown with Goliath. Despite numerous other art works, Michelangelo’s David remains the cynosure of all eyes inside this gallery.
I walked back to the duomo and then took the street that led to Piazza della Signoria, a major square in the history and origin of Florence. Palazzo Vecchio, the old palace is the major building here with a copy of Michelangelo’s David just outside it. The original sculpture was first kept here before being transferred to Galleria dell’Accademia. Apart from the many courtyards, chambers and a chapel, the palace also has numerous art works across its interiors in the form of paintings, frescoes, carvings and sculptures.
Next to Vecchio palace is Loggia dei Lanzi, an open gallery which has a display of numerous sculptures. A few blocks away from Piazza della Signoria are two gorgeous cathedrals- Basilica di Santa Croce and Chiesa di San Filippo Neri. Both are known for the beautiful outer facades and exquisitely adorned interiors.
A walk back to Piazza Signoria and further to river Arno took me past Uffizi museum, one of the most prominent art museums in Italy. The 16th century museum houses a huge display of rich and unique Italian renaissance art, and remains one of the most popular attractions in Florence. From paintings to frescoes to sculptures, the museum has works by various artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Bellini and many more. The open courtyard in front of the huge museum has statues of many popular artists. I also spotted numerous artists working on their beautiful creations. Near Uffizi gallery is the Galileo museum which is known for its wonderful collection of scientific instruments.
At the end of the museums, River Arno cuts its way through the city of Florence. With numerous bridges connecting the two banks and colourful buildings on either side, Arno river offers nice views. Ponte Vecchio or the Old Bridge is the most popular of all bridges across the river and it has an array of gold shops.
After a stroll over the beautiful bridge, I crossed over to the southern bank and headed to Pitti palace. The palace dates back to mid 15th century and has changed many hands over the years. The intimidating structure built of blocks and with beautiful arches on its external façade has many galleries and museums. Palatine gallery is the most important one here and it houses a wide range of art works. Just behind the palace is Boboli garden, the largest green space in Florence. The neatly designed and well spread out garden has an obelisk, statues, a fishpond and a ceramic museum.
After a tiring walk through the gardens, I headed further through the less crowded streets south of Arno river to Piazza Michelangelo. Located atop a hill, a fleet of steps took me to the piazza, which probably is the most favoured square in Florence. The square is dedicated to the great sculptor, Michelangelo, and it has a bronze statue of David, a copy of the artist’s magnificent work. However, the major attraction here is the panoramic vista of the magical skyline of Florence with its dominating structures and Arno river. Most of the major monuments such Duomo, Santa Croce, Palazzo Vecchio and the bridges across Arno can be spotted from here. I was there at the right time when the sun was all set to retire. The sky splashed beautiful colours as the sun set and the city lights slowly glowed. This is definitely the best view one can have of Florence or Firenze, and it was the best way to end the walking tour of the renaissance city.
Florence is known for its gelatos and there are numerous shops selling many flavours of the same. Grabbed a few of them as I strolled through the cobbled streets of Florence. Grom, Venchi and Vivoli are the popular brands/ shops here.
The international airport here connects Florence with many major cities across the world. Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway is an international station and connects to major cities of Europe apart from the ones within Italy (check Trenitalia website). To get around within the city, there are buses, trams and taxis available.
There are a wide range of options to choose for your stay in Florence. I stayed at Guesthouse Sayuri, a lovely place which you can book through booking.com. Though a bit away from the attractions of the older part of the town, it is just a 15 minutes walk away from Santa Maria Novella railway station. The host is a very cheerful person who is always ready to help.