Church of Santa Croce

Church of Santa Croce

Florence is a living museum of Renaissance art and architecture, and home to some of the world’s most beautiful masterpieces.

After sailing overnight from Rome along the northwest coast of Italy, we arrived in the port of Livorno, which serves as the gateway for the magnificent Tuscan cities of Pisa and Florence.

There were lots of organized shore excursions for us to choose from, including a half-day trip to Pisa, a three-quarter day visit to the Tuscan countryside and Chianti wine region, and a full-day guided tour of the highlights of Florence. Since we enjoy exploring on our own, we chose the “Florence on Your Own” bus transfer for just $70 – a good value for the 100 km drive to one of the most treasured cities in Europe.

Orsanmichele's Tabernacle

Orsanmichele’s Tabernacle

After a 90-minute drive, we arrived in the “Renaissance City” and began our walking tour at the 14th-century Church of Santa Croce (Holy Cross). The elaborate façade of the church features beautiful green, white and rose-coloured marble, and inside the walls are lined with the tombs of famous local citizens like Michelangelo, Lanzi, Machiavelli, Rossini and Galileo. There’s also a statue and monument to Dante, but since he was exiled from Florence and died in Ravenna, he is buried there (although I’m sure the locals would now take him back).

From the Piazza Santa Croce, we walked west along narrow cobbled-stoned alleys to the Church of Orsanmichele on Via Calzaiuoli in the centre of the old city. However, we weren’t here just to see the marvelous interiors of the church, which include the famous “Tabernacle” by Andrea di Cione.

Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori

Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori

For day-trippers to Florence, there’s a bigger attraction next door to the church – a ticket office that sells pre-purchased ducats for “advance reservation” admission to the city’s biggest museums. These include the Academy of Fine Arts, where Michelangelo’s original statue of David resides, and the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s most renowned museums with examples of nearly every important Renaissance period artist. It used to be that long line-ups waiting to get into these museums made them impossible to see for anyone not on a guided tour or without an advance reservation ticket.  However, tickets can now be purchased in advance online at or by visiting the special ticket office.

After getting our tickets for the 1:45 pm entrance to the Uffizi Gallery, we walked north along Via Calzaiuoli to the Piazza del Duomo and the Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori. Built in the 14th century, the spectacular cathedral features a huge dome that used a revolutionary design by the great architect Filippo Brunelleschi, which was

Gates of Paradise

Gates of Paradise

later copied for use at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The roof of the Duomo is supported by gothic vaulting, and its interior is adorned with a fresco of the “Last Supper” and magnificent stained glass. Outside is Giotto’s gothic Campanile (or Bell Tower), which stands 85 meters high and has a staircase with 416 steps. Together with the dome, they provide a stunning focal point for the Florentine skyline.

Next, we crossed the street into the Piazza Giovanni where we found one of the oldest buildings in Florence — the splendid Romanesque-style Baptistery. Built somewhere around the 11th century on the site of a former Roman palace, the Baptistery boasts an inner dome decorated with beautiful mosaics and one of the most famous sets of doors in the world.

Piazza della Signoria

Piazza della Signoria

Designed by sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti and completed in 1452 after 27 years of work, the two doors feature 10 scenes from the Old Testament in gilded bronze, each one of them a stunning example of Renaissance sculpture. Michelangelo was a great admirer of the doors, and years later remarked: “They are so beautiful that they would grace the entrance to Paradise.”  They’ve been called the “Gates of Paradise” since.

It was now time for some refreshments and light lunch, so we walked west to the nearby Piazza della Repubblica for some great Tuscan wine and delicious wild boar pasta. In order to build the piazza in 1895, the Old Florence Market had to be torn down and its demise is commemorated above the huge arch overlooking the square. Today, the Piazza is a popular gathering spot for both Florentines and tourists alike because of its many open-air cafes.

Leonardo da Vinci's "Annuciation"

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annuciation”

After lunch, we made our way past the 14th-century Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria, where there’s a monument to Cosimo di Medici, the Fountain of Neptune, and copies of Michelangelo’s “David” and Donatello’s “Florentine Lion.” In addition, the entrance to the Uffizi Gallery is just off the south side of the square.

Completed in 1585 as an administrative building for the ruling Medici family of Florence, the Uffizi is now a marvelous museum that houses more than 3,000 pieces of art. These include Renaissance masterpieces like Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”, Paolo Uccello’s “The battle of San Romano” and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annuciation.”

We could have spent all afternoon in the Uffizi, but since it was nearly time to return to our bus, we slipped next door for a last-

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

minute visit to the Ponte Vecchio. The oldest span across Florence’s Arno River, the beautiful Ponte Vecchio was built in 1345 and features small jewelry shops that overhang the bridge. Above the shops sits the “Vasarian Corridor,” which the Medici’s used to walk from their offices at the Uffizi to their home at the “Pitti Palace” on the other side of the Arno.

It was now 4:00 p.m. and time for the drive back to Livorno. Despite spending a whole day walking around Florence, we had sampled just a small part of the great cultural treasures she had to offer. As we boarded our bus we thought, “If there is a more beautiful city in Europe than Florence, we have yet to visit it.”

Florence feature

Featured image – Florence skyline at night

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