The Florence Guide
The Florentines know how to enjoy life—and they’ve known it for roughly 2,078 years. In 60 B.C., Roman soldiers named the city Florentia, meaning “may she flourish.” We’ll cut to the chase here: She did. She flourished with some of the greatest sculptures, the greatest architecture, the greatest artwork the world has ever known. She flourished with exquisite fashion, with world-class hotels, with pasta, with gelato, with wine that may well be the nectar of the gods.
To bring the Renaissance back to life, pick up a copy of Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists. After all, art is also the gateway to the city’s social and political history (and the reason there are so many exchange students here). The men who commissioned and paid for all those palazzi, sculptures, and cathedrals were the most powerful figures in Italy (and the Mediterranean) for centuries, with the infamous Medici family being the most famous among them.
For all of her accomplishments, for all her beauty and world historic significance, Florence has another side. The side of beauty to be quietly absorbed, beauty that will stay with you for the rest of your life. There is no better city in the world to walk around in, to get lost in, to stumble into a new place, to try new flavors. It’s what the Italians call “dolce far niente,” the sweetness of doing nothing. And if there is one place where doing nothing may well be life-changing, it’s in the modern, bountiful, fascinating, energetic, historical city of Florence.
Il BargelloVia del Proconsolo 4, Florence | +39.055.2388606
Il Bargello has seen Florence’s power players come and go since 1255. Throughout its long history, it’s been the residence of the head of police, a prison, the meeting place of the Council of the Hundred (a government entity, of which Dante Alighieri was part), and since the mid-nineteenth century, a museum. The many halls and galleries are full of sculptures, including several works by Donatello.
Boboli GardensPiazza Pitti, 1, Uffizi | +39.055.2298732
During the Renaissance, landscaping was considered just as important as the architecture. Behind the Pitti Palace, the Boboli Gardens are a maze of grottos, fountains, and tree tunnels that set the tone for an Italianate style rapidly adopted by the palaces of Europe. Don’t miss the cerchiate grande—a long avenue of trees planted in 1612 that have grown into each other, forming the loveliest tunnel of shade.
Gucci MuseumPiazza della Signoria, 10, Florence | +39.055.75927010
Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele conceived of this multihyphenate space with the company’s in-house art curator. It took over two years to complete and now contains a garden, a museum, a store, and a restaurant helmed by Massimo Bottura (of Osteria Francescana fame)—everything created through the lens of Gucci. Anyone who appreciates design and fashion history will find the experience fascinating.
Palazzo PittiPiazza de' Pitti, 1, Florence | +39.055.294883
Designed in part Brunelleschi amongst others in the 1400s, the Palazzo Pitti has been the home to various Florentine dynasties for centuries, starting with Luca Pitti and including, most notably, the Medici family. Today, the immense structure is divided into four museums: The Palatine Gallery contains collections of Medici-owned paintings; the Gallery of Modern Art is home to works from the Neoclassical period up to the 1930s; the Treasury of the Grand Dukes displays the Medicis’ decorative arts; and lastly, there’s a costume museum. We love to wander around the beautifully preserved royal apartments to see the furnishings, tapestries, ornate silk wallpaper, and tables inlaid with precious stones—the sumptuousness is next-level.
Tempio MaggioreVia Luigi Carlo Farini 4, Florence | +39.055.245253
It’s a little out of the way, but the Tempio Maggiore is so worth a visit for both its historical value and sheer magnificence. Nearly destroyed during World War II—local Italian partisans defused the bombs in the nick of time—the synagogue was built in the late 1880s for the local Shaphardi community. The interior, inspired by the architecture of southern Spain as well as the Hagia Sofia, is quite Moorish—full of rich mosaics, marble, and stained glass. The Tempio Maggiore is still in use today. Afterward, a visit to Ruth’s for the best kosher spread in town (with excellent vegetarian options) is mandatory.
The UffiziPiazzale degli Uffizi 6, Florence
Take your time at the Uffizi. Either go early in the summertime or in the winter months to beat the crowds and amble at your leisure across the two horseshoe-shaped floors of galleries and staterooms with their breathtaking collection of Renaissance masterpieces. There is nothing like seeing Botticelli’s dreamy Birth of Venus or Artemisia Gentileschi’s grizzly Judith Beheading Holofernes in person. Book online in advance to jump the line and get the combination ticket for the Uffizi, Boboli Gardens, and Pitti Palace to save a ton of time.
Brancacci ChapelPiazza del Carmine, Santo Spirito
Of all Florence’s cultural gems, the pre-Renaissance frescoes at the tiny Brancacci Chapel might be the ones we return to the most. The architects broke ground on the chapel in the mid-1200s, but artists Masaccio and Masolino’s era-defining frescoes weren’t painted until around 1425 and 1427. They depict the life of St. Peter, the most famous scene being the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Their bodies mark the first time an artist attempted perspective, depth, and realism in depicting the human body, and these frescoes signal the beginning of the Renaissance.
Vasari CorridorVia della Ninna 5, Uffizi
A secret passage spanning close to a mile across Florence, the Vasari Corridor was built by Cosimo de Medici to traverse the city—and the Arno river—from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti safely and secretly. Enter from the Uffizi, which feels like passing into Narnia. The narrow corridor is filled with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artworks and self-portraits by several artists, including Andrea del Sarto, Marc Chagall, and Delacroix. Don’t forget to look out the windows as you cross the Ponte Vecchio—yes, it will be packed with tourists, but yes, it will be worth it—to see the most beautiful parts of the city, as intended by the architect, Giorgio Vasari.
Galleria dell’AccademiaVia Ricasoli, 58/60, Florence
The Accademia is famously the home of Michelangelo’s David, long considered by Florentines a symbol of their city’s strength, fighting off nearby foreign aggressors (remember, Italy has only been a unified country since 1871). A relatively new addition to the gallery is the instruments section, full of pieces like violins made by Stradivarius himself and a piano constructed by Bartolomeo Cristofori (the inventor of the piano), commissioned by the Medici family.