This travel article will explain to you what Florence is famous for. Florence has a compact historic centre with an incredible story to tell, great food and a gaggle of top notch sights to see. It should be on any life time to-do lists. If you are visiting Italy for the first time Florence is among the three ‘must-see’ destinations alongside Rome and Venice.
Florence isn’t a Renaissance theme park, it’s a living city, with plenty of other activities to do.
It is important to understand Florence, before you go, if you are going to get the most out of it. Learning what Florence is famous for will help you decide how to best use your time in this city.
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Michelangelo’s David was commissioned by the Republic of Florence in 1501. It was intended as an anti-tranny icon after the mighty ruling Medici family were temporarily overthrown.
The original David is in the Accademia museum and it really is a beautiful sight. They have displayed it for maximum impact. But if the queues to see him in his true beauty puts you off a copy (albeit a dull version) sits in the Piazza della Signoria.
Piazza della Signoria is typically packed with tourists. But that is because there is a hub of things to see here.
There is an equestrian bronze of Cosimo I notable because the horse was cast in a single piece…
The Bargello holds Florence’s main set of sculptures, such as Michelangelo’s Drunken Bacchus and Brutus (the only bust he’d ever sculpted) and can be found a minutes walk away. But here in the square, the Loggia dei Lanzi is also impactful with pieces such as Cellini’s Perseus.
The loggia itself used to shelter civic bigwigs ‘back in the day’ during ceremonies. By the 15th century it had turned into a meeting place for local old men to shelter from the sun and gossip.
A much over looked piece of art is on the wall of the Palazzo Vecchio. It is a piece of grafitti by Michelangelo…
Other than that the square has an ornate café which serves great coffee and exquisite cakes (pricy tho’).
You can also pick up a horse and carriage from here.
By the way Furla (left of the picture) is a very popular place for tourists to sit and eat fruit and ice-cream and watch the crowds meander by.
Florence’s Town Hall – Plazza Vecchio
It’s a 13th century civic building which is impressive, austere and commanding. It still houses the main government offices (it’s original purpose) but is also home to an impressive museum.
You may recognise it from the film Hannibal.
Even if you don’t want to go into the museum, step inside and view the courtyard.
If you go inside, don’t miss the Hall of the Five Hundred.
- Where members of the great council met.
- Should have been decorated my Michelangelo and Leonardo, but Leonardo abandoned the project, leaving Michelangelo who had only completed a cartoon sketch of the battle scene before being summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II.
- Vasari painted an uninspiring scene of the victory Florence had over Siena and Pisa.
- Some believe Michelangelo Da Vinci’s sketches are still beneath the mural.
Also, Michelangelo’s Pietà, Botticelli’s Venus, Filippo Lippi’s Madonna and Child and Da Vinci’s Annunciation are all must-sees.
Florence is famous for being best explored on foot
In the old centre there is no need to catch a bus or other mode of transport because it is small enough to explore on foot. Florence is famous for being compact, so most of the important sights are within walking distance of one another.
Do not bring your hire car if possible. We actually did this year because we were staying in The Medieval Hill Town Of Montepulciano but it is a mare to park.
You’l come across a few bikes and mopeds mainly, otherwise it’s tourists in sensible shoes.
Apart from these quieter back streets, the shear numbers of people prevent cars from getting around easily!
You could always explore by horse and carriage if it all gets too much.
Florence is famous for the Renaissance and it is a massive source of pride there and very much part of it’s identity even today.
In a nutshell, the Renaissance is a ‘rebirth’ of language, learning and art of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which had been lost and forgotten. Therefore, Pagan heritage was reconciled with Christianity.
This manifested in Florence as an astonishing outpouring of art. But, it was actually the classical studies that sparked a new age beyond.
All this took place in the 15th century and the main players that got it rolling included Dante.
They basically began to believe that all people should strive to be educated and learned in literature, the classical arts and science. They wanted realism and human emotion in their art. It also became ok for people to pursue comfort, riches, and beauty.
Leonardo was famous during the Renaissance for ‘improving’ his anatomical drawings by using semi-scientific methods. However, science as we know it, didn’t really get going until the 17th century.
Why did the Renaissance come to an end? Because Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ died in 1492 and Charles the VIII of France invaded abruptly snuffing out Florence’s flow of art and ideas.
Two other events made this situation worse:
- The ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’.
- Largely blamed on Girolamo Savonarola, a fanatical Dominican monk.
- It was this monk that called for the people to cleanse Florence of sin by throwing material odjects onto a fire.
- The fire, held in piazza della Signoria was huge.
- Priceless art was among the things thrown in. Including works by Michelangelo and Botticelli.
- Later the city took it’s revenge on Savonarola and he was hanged and burnt on the exact spot of the ‘bonfire of the Vanities’.
- The later sacking of Rome, where Michelangelo, Bramante and Raphael were still working.
Still, Florence today is a city full of world class art thanks to this period and the world looks at Florence as the spiritual heart of the Renaissance.
The Uffizi Museum
Florence is famous for it’s Renaissance art.
We did a tour in the Uffizi on one of our visits and found it to be really informative. Otherwise you wander through the rooms largely missing the point. Headphones are also available.
The statues outside commemorate many of the most interesting scholars and artists in Florence.
If Florence is famous for it’s Renaissance art, the Uffizi is it’s greatest treasure trove.
The two most famous paintings in the Uffizi are
- Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
- Botticelli’s Primavera ‘Allegory of Spring’.
It is better to pre-book your tickets, but expect to queue through security at least.
The Medici family
The Medici family (also known as the House of Medici) is a name that comes up again and again when you learn about the history of Florence.
They first attained wealth and political power in Florence in the 13th century through their success in commerce and banking.
- supported arts and humanities made Florence as the Renaissance flourished
- The family encouraged careers of luminaries such as Michelangelo and Galileo
- Many paintings in the art museums today in Florence were amassed by the Medici’s
- The ‘secret’ passage the runs from the Palazzo Pitti over Ponte Vechhio and into the Uffizi was used by the family to get around the city.
- The family produced four popes
- Their genes have been mixed into many of Europe’s royal families
- The Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens were the family home and grounds
- They ruled for over 3 centuries
Florence is famous for it’s gelato (even for Italy’s standard)
Let’s be honest Italian gelato knocks it out the park. The gelato in Florence is some of the best of the best! I’m not kidding, it’s worth a trip just for the gelato alone. Our favourite, and over the years we have done a fair bit of research, is a place between the Piazza della Signoria and Piazza di Santa Croce called Vivoli (Via dell’Isola delle Stinche).
Try the chocolate orange, yogurt, coffee or strawberry. They do have a load of exciting flavours but I stick to the classics.
Florence’s famous for it’s panoramic view
There are several places to get a fantastic view of panorama Florence is famous for with Terrazza Bardini being the most recognised. I’m going to give you a few other places to get your photo-frame photo.
First is from the steps leading to the Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte, an abbey on one of the highest points in the city. You can reach it on foot from within the city, but it is a bit of a climb up the zig zag paths.
It is well worth it tho’ because not only do you get a ‘bigger’ view, you also get to visit a unique abbey where monks still live and work.
I’ve taken this behind the graveyard which is either side of the wide steps. You get an uninterrupted view on the steps.
I’ve read that it is considered, ‘one of the finest Romanesque structures in Tuscany and one of the most scenic churches in Italy‘.
I adore this abbey. It is really interesting inside – the interior is Romanesque, with three naves and an elevated presbytery and a crypt.
Also, you see Monks spin round the corner in their tiny cars and then serve you in their healing shop. One year I could barely talk with a soar throat and a kindly monk served me all sorts of goods they made with honey. Wonderful memory…
Another place is from this incredible roof top bar on top of Hotel Continental along the river right by the Ponte Vecchio.
It has views of many sights Florence is famous for …
Another bar is the other side of the river at the Hotel Lungarno, they have a handful of seats and tables with this view…
If you don’t want to sit at a bar table however I have one more spot for you. Go back across the bridge and turn right. Go along the river until you are level with the Uffizi, there is a little nock that pokes out. Magically, despite the crowds you can get a really nice couple shot…
Florence’s bread is salt free
Florence is famous for it’s unsalted bread. This is a Tuscan thing due to a ruling back in history. Today, the people keep with this tradition allowing it to act as a canvas for their peppery olive oil and their famous wine. Sometimes they hold salted bread behind the counter for foreigners.
The origins of Tuscan salt free bread are a little unclear and as I understand it there are two possible reasons
- Back in the Middle Ages Florence and Pisa were rivals. Pisa blocked Florence’s salt arriving at the port, preventing it reaching Florence, in an attempt to force them to surrender in one of their endless battles. Hence, pane toscano (Tuscan bread) was born aka salt-free.
- Another version of this story is when there was wide-spread poverty throughout the Middle Ages in Italy. It is said that salt was a luxury to have and far too expensive for the Florentines to use in bread-making.
Florence is famous for it’s oldest bridge – The Ponte Vecchio
It is a 14th century bridge with jewellery shops along it.
As the shops open a light of gold appears from behind the wooden hatches.
In the 16th century the tenants were a mix of tanners, butchers and blacksmiths. But they were removed by the French King Ferdinardo I (he invade for a while). Quaint workshops took their place and eventually goldsmiths which are still here today.
It is famous for being the only bridge spared from destruction from the German army’s retreat in 1944.
Along the middle of the bridge you will find a statue (bust) of a goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini. People seem to want to attach a lock to it’s railing aka Paris although they are regularly taken down.
We got a cute photo instead…
If you want a nice photo on the bridge, step behind this bust against the wall. You can just get enough elbow room, if you are patient, to get a shot down the river.
Florence sells a lot of leather goods
There are many markets around Florence and it seems most sell leather goods, including San Lorenzo market. The quality is great actually.
The Florentine tradition of working leather dates back into antiquity, due to the Arno river which provided an endless supply of water necessary for the tanning process. Florence is famous for it’s quality leather today.
If it’s raining head to Mercato Nuovo, in the covered Loggia del Mercato…
Around this market you will see a group of people huddling around a bronzed statue of a boar. You MUST rub it’s nose if you want to return to Florence. We have always followed this famous tradition and so far so good.
Florence’s Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore)
Florence is famous for it’s most important religious building and it is a a truly awe-inspiring sight.
The Santa Maria del Fiore took over 6 centuries to complete and was built from the wealth acquired by the city from the hugely successful wool trade during the 13th century. Previously the monks and priests financed the cities development.
Building continued despite the city losing half of the population to the bubonic plague.
The highly patterned exterior is made of different coloured marble. There are huge changes in patterns and these reflect the different time periods the work covered.
The man who designed the dome and worked out how to accomplish it hadn’t even been born when it was first conceived! This was the first octagonal dome built without a wooden supporting frame. He made the dome support itself by building 2 supporting shells.
Inside the Duomo is considered a little dull compared the the exterior and the queues are generally long, but I am glad to have seen inside, especially standing beneath the dome where it looks huge and is one of the largest frescoed surfaces in the world. It was originally intended to be a mosaic (like the one in the baptistery – glorious, by the way). However, Cosimo de’ Medici (more about him later) commissioned Vasari to paint the inner surface.
The other reason to head inside is to see the Roman ruins of the original church beneath in the Crypt.
- 414 steps – narrow staircase to viewing area.
- Designed by Giotto, but improved by others.
- Decorated by 16 statues (prophets/patriarchs/pagans).
- Made with the same pink, white and green marble.
- Most famous for it’s bronze doors (the ones that face the church).
- The north doors design was chosen by a competition and is full of religious scenes.
- Then another set were commissioned for the East doors and are considered ‘undeniably perfect in every way’ and are called the ‘Gates of Paradise’. (the ones there today are copies and the originals are in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo).
- The first set of baptistery doors are on the south side.
- Many of the Medici family (them again) used this baptistery for double baptisms as they were both Christian and Florentine.
- For me the best thing is inside – the dazzling Last Judgement mosaic that lines the vault ceiling is incredible. If you get the sun touching it, you’ll never forget it.
The place to get the tickets you have to find the ticket booths within a building on the left hand side (if you are facing the Duomo). Toilets are there too (you’ll need money for this too).
That violent sport in the square!
The final thing on my list of what Florence is famous for is calcio storico – that violent Italian sport that inspired modern football. Despite some horrific injuries, Florence’s neighbourhoods still compete for glory in calcio storico every June.
It was created during the Italian Renaissance and is the original goal game i.e. where two teams fight on a field to defend their side and invade their opponent’s goal. The chances are you have played some version of it – hockey, football, rugby etc.
When we were there this year they were setting it up. Scaffolding fills the Piazza Santa Croce but we have always missed the actual event. If you do manage to get a ticket expect a battle of one on one combat where players injuries can be severe. There is intense cultural pride within the game and they play for glory.
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