Already born in Etruscan and Roman ages, Florence reached the apex of its glory during the Renaissance. The city quickly became an example to follow for al the other centers of Italy.
Over the years, mainly thanks to the Medici family, tireless patrons of arts, the city was filled with monuments that became a standard to comply with and, if possible, outdo. Churches and palaces in Florence became models to follow while building all over the peninsula and even outside of it and the city is still nowadays an open-air museum, topped by the imposing dome by Brunelleschi.
If you are looking for a property to buy in Florence, be it a luxury apartment, a hotel or a historic villa, most of the monuments in Florence can easily be reached on foot from everywhere in the city. Here below you can find a quick list of the most renowned landmarks, kind-of a guide to discover one of the most beautiful cities in the world, a center which can boast richness in art and history almost impossible to find anywhere else.
Florence’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, is one of the most impressive and spectacular churches in the world.
Built over the pre-existing Santa Reparata church, this cathedral was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 14th century but the works suddenly halted with his death in 1302. Almost thirty years went by before the construction was resumed, under Giotto’s supervision (assisted by Andrea Pisano). The famous painter designed the imposing bell tower, still visible, but didn’t manage to complete it before his death. Works were taken over by Francesco Talenti which completed the bell tower and changed Arnolfo’s initial design by further expanding the rear of the cathedral. When its work was completed, the church was still missing the cover over the intersection and the city of Florence launched a contest to design a dome suitable for the magnificent church, with all the challenges its size would bring. Filippo Brunelleschi won the contest by proposing a self-supporting dome to be built without the support of wooden structures (which could not be built at such height). In 1436 the dome was completed and the only thing missing was the lantern, which came only in 1471 (well after Brunelleschi’s death).
Already consecrated (1436) the church stood witness to many of Florence’s historic events such as the conspiracy plotted by the Pazzi family against the Medici family (1478) and still dominated the city to this day. Its dome, still the biggest ever built with masonry, is the most defining element of Florence’s skyline and can be seen from every single panoramic point around the city.
The second most notable church of Florence, thanks also to the proximity with the train station of the same name, is without a doubt Santa Maria Novella. Built over a pre-existing church, the building followed the rigid criteria of the so-called gotico Fiorentino (less slender than its North-European counterpart) and the current look is the result of multiple interventions during the 15th century. The classic-looking façade was designed by Leon Battista Alberti which exploited the two inlaid spirals to hide the original shape of the church. The cover was completed only in 1920 but following closely Albert’s original idea. An interesting feature is the side cloister, enclosed by a green-and-white-marble portico which gives the impression of projecting the façade around the corner.
As for many other churches in Florence, Santa Croce too was built over a pre-existing basilica which had become too small for the city’s needs. The works were burdened by accidents and problems, among which several floods and the devastating plague epidemics of 1348. The cathedral was reportedly usable in 1320 but works went on until 1443, when the church was finally consecrated by cardinal Bessarione.
The church underwent changed and expansions over more than five centuries, with a first renovation carried out by Vasari in the mid-16th-century to fix heavy damages caused by the umpteenth flood which had hit Florence.
The façade, originally very similar to San Lorenzo’s one, was started in the mid-15th century but further problems prevented its completion. What we see today is the result of a process that removed the old unfinished work and replaced it with a new one completed in 1863 following the Neogothic trend.
In the 19th century, when Florence was chosen as the capital of Italy, Santa Croce became a sort of Pantheon honoring the great artists of Italy (the church was described as a Temple to the Italian glory). When Foscolo was buried in the church (1871) other great writers and artists where transferred inside the church: Gioacchino Rossini, Leon Battista Alberti, Vittoria Alfieri, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Bartolomeo Cristofori are just a few names.
As a curiosity, the most illustrious of Florentine men, Dante Alighieri, is not entombed in Santa Croce: the poet, in fact, died in exile in Ravenna after being banished from its beloved city and opposed the idea of its bones moved back to its ungrateful mother.
San Lorenzo is traditionally regarded as the oldest church of Florence, dating back in its original shape to the 4th century. The church is universally known for its raw façade which, despite numerous projects forwarded by notable artists, was never actually realized. The convent right next to the church houses the imposing Biblioteca Laurenziana, built by Michelangelo on behalf of Lorenzo de’ Medici above the original medieval building. The two sacristies, designed by Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, were built to accommodate the remains of notable members of the Medici family (Lorenzo and Giuliano above all).
Another peculiar feature of the church is the dome covering the Cappella dei Principi: the structure is the second one in Florence for size after Brunelleschi’s one and is a notable landmark when traveling through the city.
Designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, Palazzo della Signoria was built to celebrate the city government and provide a respectable workplace for governors and senators. The building, in typical 14th-century style, looks very much like a small castle topped by the Torre del Vacca.
Completed in 1314, the palazzo underwent changes and enlargements over the following two centuries, the last two of which by Vasari and Buontalenti, which doubled the building’s volume and led to the construction of the so-called Corridoio Vasariano to connect Palazzo della Signoria with Palazzo Pitti and provide safe passage to the Medici family on their way to the government seat.
Between 1540 and 1550 it became Cosimo de’ Medici’s private house and when he later moved to Palazzo Pitti, Palazzo della Signoria took over the name Palazzo Vecchio, since the city’s whole administration was also moved to the nearby Palazzo degli Uffizi (hence the name). Between 1865 and 1971, when Florence was the capital of Italy, the palazzo housed the government of Italy only to become a museum when the capital was ultimately moved to Rome. It still retains its function as a government seat for the municipality of Florence.
Palazzo Pitti was built by the homonym family in the neighborhood of Oltrarno with the purpose of competing with the new Medici palace (Palazzo Medici). Mindless of expense, the residence was also enriched by an ample square. Financial problems prevented the Pitti family from completing their masterwork and the unfinished building ended up, in a roundabout manner, in the hands of the Medici family.
The palace was then completed and was chosen as a new residence by the new owners, since it was less poky and stifling than Palazzo Vecchio. The Medici moving to Oltrarno allowed the neighborhood to prosper and many rich families had new residences built in the area.
Behind the palace, the Giardino di Boboli spans over 4.5 hectares and constitutes an extensive green area dotted by original statues (from Roman age up to the 20th century), ponds, graveled walkways, small temples, altars and grottos.
After the end of the Medici family (1737), Palazzo Pitti was chosen as their home first by Leopold of Tuscany and after him by Vittorio Emanuele II when Florence was capital of Italy (1865 – 1871). Nowadays, Palazzo Pitti houses five beautiful museums.
Palazzo degli Uffizi was designed and built by Giorgio Vasari on behalf of Cosimo de’ Medici and was intended to house the offices of thirteen political organs of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
Cosimo’s son, an art enthusiast and collector, converted a good chunk of the building into a private museum for his collection and so did its descendants, with more and more portions of the building being converted over the years. With the end of Medici lineage, the collection was further expanded by the Lorena dynasty only to be partially stolen by Napoleon’s army not even fifty years later. Between the 19th and 20th century the museum shifted the focus of its collection towards paintings and many other masterworks (statues, weapons, scientific equipment) were moved to other museums around the city. To this day, the Uffizi Gallery is one of the most appreciated and visited museums in the world.
Last but not least, there is Ponte Vecchio, a unique bridge connecting the two halves of Florence near Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti.
Its current shape, with buildings hanging over the side above the river, dates back to the 15th century when butchers around the city were forced to move their shops over the bridge so that they could get rid of meat scraps directly into the river, thus removing one of the main causes of stench around the city.
Following this decision, Vasari built the Corridoio Vasariano to provide the Medici family with a safe and relatively odor-free passage through the bridge between Palazzo Pitti and Palazzo Vecchio.
In 1944, with the German troops retiring from Florence, Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in the city to survive, thanks to the work of German consul Gerhard Wolf, and only suffered minor damages at both ends. Today, the bridge is home to gold workshops, watchmakers and jewelers, which makes it a unique attraction in Florence.