There is a lot to see and do in Italy and it may be hard to decide what are the MUST SEE cities or sights, relative to the time that you have available.
Top of the list of cities to see in Italy are Venice and Rome, but I would certainly put Florence up there too as one of the most culturally interesting cities in Italy to see and visit.
When today's architects, engineers, project managers and builders talk about new buildings, they often use words like 'minimalist', 'functionality', 'sustainability', the 'environment' and other such words. They also talk about the restrictions imposed on them by the client, the site, the budget, time, building code requirements and approval processes and there is no doubt that all of these factors weigh in on what can or could be designed and built.
Imagination is involved in all building – the ability to conceptualise an idea and then see what could be built – then as loose drawings before evolving ideas into plans, layouts and ultimately construction. This has been the same process and practice for thousands of years.
Building also involves costs and sometimes the passion on the part of those who involved who are able or willing to incur the costs, as well as those who are directly involved in the construction.
Sometimes, but not always, great wealth can result in great achievements.
When you come to Florence and see the great buildings here, both outside and inside – think of them not just in terms of the wealth needed to build such buildings, but in terms of the imagination, ideas, artistry, sculpture, geometry, engineering, mathematics, architecture, craftsmanship, the workers and passion all coming together to create building structures of great beauty.
It took over 200 years for a building like the Duomo in Florence to be built (1300AD to 1500AD) and 500 years later we are still looking at it, admiring it, being inspired by it and marvelling at all that has been created here.
When you look upwards, you also see that the artistry is not confined just to the space around you at ground level. The artistry also extends to the very smallest details and also very highest points of the building.
These buildings were not built just for their creators, or even the public at large, they were built for the heavens to look down upon and admire the work of their creators.
If God or the Gods in heaven saw such beauty, perhaps the creators of such work might just have a stairway to heaven.
WELCOME TO FLORENCE – a City to inspire you.
Florence can date its history back to the time of the Etruscans – with Tuscany deriving its name from them.
Julius Caesar (100BC-44BC) is said to have granted land here on the Arno River to soldiers in 59BC who had served and fought for him, with the walled Roman colony of Florence being built here (Colonia Florentina) in the years that followed. Initially the Florence Colony was governed as a Commune, with a structured society of nobles, different rival guilds (representing the skilled workers) and day-labourers, with the main industry in Florence being the making of textiles using wool and silk.
The most significant period of growth and wealth emerged in the 13th Century when the Lombards (hence Lombardy) established banking and the use of their own currency for trade – the Florin (first minted in 1252) named after Florence. They developed a book keeping system of 'creditors' and 'debtors', a system of accounting, with 'Bills of exchange' being used to facilitate trade and business. The Florentine Banks established a network of bank branches – as far distant as Seville in Spain, Jerusalem, Avignon, Paris, Bruges in Belgium and even London – where Lombard Street in still in the heart of the City's Financial District.
The Banks and Banking families of Florence became rich in the process, and while some banks would fail when deals went sour or debtors defaulted, others banks flourished.
In Florence one Banking family would triumph over others and this was the Medici family, and just as the Doge in Venice, the Visconti and Sforza families in Milan and Savoy family in Turin became powerful, so too did the Medici family in Florence, forging not just alliances with the Popes in Rome, but also some of the family members becoming Popes too.
Of the Medici family, the one who had most influence on the way that Florence would develop was Cosimo I de'Medici – (1519-1574) who became the Duke of Florence in 1537 and then the first Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. His statue riding a horse can be seen in Piazza della Signoria in Florence.
Under Cosimo's Patronage and authority, the Uffizi was built as the City's administration centre, the Palazzo Vecchio and Pitti Palace re-designed and upgraded, the Boboli Gardens designed and built, the Laurentian Library established with Cosimo 1 de'Medici becoming the main Patron of a number of scholars, artists and sculptors including Michelangelo.
Amid intrigues, plots, scandals, deaths, marriages, agreements, assassinations, jealousies, murders, wars, battles, exiles, triumphs and failures, the Medici family would have control over Florence for some 300 years, until 1737 with Florence becoming comparable to Rome in the magnificence of its building work and artistry with the Medici family members the most significant Patrons of the Arts, science, astronomy, philosophy and learning over those centuries.
That rich history continues today.
In Florence there are over 70 different museums , churches, villas, galleries to see and of course shopping and you can also just sit in a café, bar or restaurant in or off one of the many Piazzas to just enjoy the delights of being in Italy and the City of Florence.
The best way to see museums and the main sites is to purchase a Firenze Card – available on-line at www.firenzecard.it The card is also sold from many of the main tourist locations in the City and its also provides you with a pass for travel in the city too on public transport. Parking can be a big problem to find in the City centre – and most of the main city centre sights are all walking distance from each other.
The most famous sculpture in the world is 'David' a massive 5 ton and 5 metre high statue of a naked warrior (David) carved out of marble in 1502 by Michelangelo and located here in the Galleria dell'Accademia here in Florence. It is a remarkable statue to see. He is also buried here in Florence too – his tomb located in the Basilica di Santa Croce – on Piazza di Santa Croce, about 800 yards/metres away from the Duomo Cathedral. A number of other famous people are also entombed in the Basilica di Santa Croce, including Galileo Galilei, Rossini and Machiavelli. While the exterior may appear plain in colour, it is full of intricate detail and inside it is quite stunning. There is also an elaborate but empty crypt here for Dante, who at one time was exiled from Florence, and ended up being buried in Ravenna.
The Galleria dell'Accademia is located at Via Ricasoli 60, north of the Duomo and here in the Galleria you will find other statues by Michelangelo, along with paintings by Botticelli and other Italian masters. For great views over Florence head to the Piazzale Michelangelo – located on the hills just to the south of the Alba River, an extension of the Bardini Gardens. In Florence probably the most popular or prolific use of the Statue of David is as a Tourist souvenir sold by every Souvenir vendor.
The Duomo, officially called the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore with its dome roof cupola dominates the skyline of Florence with its construction beginning in1296, consecrated in 1436 and said to have been completed 150 years after the construction began. There are 463 steps to go up the spiral staircase if you want to look at the view from the dome, or 414 steps to the Campanile (Bell Tower) and here in the Duomo you can see the great use of marble, the Grand Museum, Cathedral Crypt, Baptistery, Bell tower and frescoes, paintings, sculptures, statues, stained glass windows and other features of the Duomo.
For Art lovers the Galleria degli Uffizi is the vast gallery complex that is located between the Piazza della Signorio and the River Arno. It is huge and contains a mass of paintings by grand masters set out in rooms and staircases and corridors on different levels. There are works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto and many others. It has to be one of the greatest art galleries in the world with priceless artworks. In the Piazza della Signorio you will also find the Fountain of Neptune and replica of the Statue of David too.
Palazzo Vecchio – 'the Old Palace' is on the Piazza della Signorio too. This is the great square building with the squarish Bell Tower above it. It was built in 1299 as a defensive palace and fort and is now a Museum, but also the Town Hall where the Mayor and town council meet too. Inside you will find a mass of rooms, chapels, halls, apartments, chambers, with paintings, sculptures, incredible decorative ceilings and even a hall containing Geographical Maps. If you look at the Bell Tower you will see a one handed clock and there are 3 bells in the tower. If you enjoy seeing statues, look for the Loggia dei Lanzi where there is a Gallery of Statues. At night the Palace is lit up and the Bell Tower with its castle tower turret on top looks magnificent. There are also secret tunnels inside the Palace – and there are tours you can take to see them.
For opulence the best place to see is the Palazzo Pitti, south of the River, the Palace on Piazza dei Pitti first constructed in 1457 where Cosimo I de'Medici moved to from the Palazzo Vecchio. The Pitti Palace is amazing to see – with the Royal Apartments and a number of Galeries with paintings, frescoes, ceiling murals and some rooms where you are almost surrounded by Gold in the decor. Look for the Silver Museum, the Gallery of Modern Art (19th and early 20th century), and the Costume Gallery. There is a lot to see with the interior of the Palace an absolute stunner. Close by the Pitti Palace there is the area known as Oltrarno, an interesting part of the city and best known for its artists and lifestyle. Look for the Piazza Santa Spirito for a place to just enjoy being in Florence.
My other favourite place is the small bridge over the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge dates back to 1345, but it is the small Goldsmith and Jeweller shops on the bridge – almost dripping with gold that sets this bridge apart from all others. If you are travelling with a girlfriend or wife, it may be an expensive bridge to cross. Just walking beside the Arno River is also something to do too, and with nightfall, the city and its lights take on another atmosphere too.
Boboli Garden (The Giardino di Boboli) is behind the Pitti Palace and was the private garden of the Cosimo 1 de'Medici , the Grand Duke when it was first designed in 1550. Since then the Boboli Garden, spread out over its 111 acres of grounds, has evolved over the centuries becoming a classic Italian garden complete with an Amphitheatre with statues, fountains, great pond with a Statue of Andromeda on an island in its centre, grottos, garden temples, the Boboli Obelisk, wide avenues and grand vistas. It is a garden on a grand scale and definitely a garden to see when you are here in Florence. If you like this garden, another Medici garden to see is the Villa Medicea Garden at Castello (Via Castello 6) near the Airport. This garden was designed in 1538 for Cosimo 1 de'Medici too.
Also in the Boboli Garden is the Museo delle Porcellane (Porcelain Museum) with its 2000 individual porcelain plates, cups and services made by Italian, French and German Porcelain makers, including Sevres. It is located in the Casino del Cavaliere building in the Gardens.
Bardini Garden –on Via de Bardi is almost next to the Boboli Garden running up the hillside and covering an area of about 10 acres. There are lawns, flower terraces, stone walls and stairways that lead to the Bardini Museum with its antique furnishings, coffee shop and views over the city. A little further on is the Piazzale Michelangelo at the top of the hillside.
In Florence there are many historic Basilicas and churches and it is highly doubtful that you will see them all. The most famous are the Duomo and the Basilica di Santa Croce listed above. There is also a great Jewish Synagogue here in Florence too – the Tempio Maggiore Israelitico di Firenze – located at Via Luigi Carlo Farini 6. The Synagogue was built between 1874 and 1882 in a Moorish design.
There are almost or maybe more museums than churches in Florence and again it is doubtful that you will see them all too - It really depends on how much time you have.
Next to the Pitti Palace is the Museo Specola – Via Romana 17. This is a natural history museum with wax casts showing the inside organs in human bodies. It's not for the squeamish!
To see a typical Florentine Merchant's house as it would have been in the 14th Century, head to the Palazzo Davanzati – Via Porta Rosa 13. This restored house museum will give you an insight into the life of a merchant and their family.
The Museo Galilei – Piazza dei Giudici 1, close to the Uffizi Gallery near the River Arno shows scientific instruments, telescopes and globes – unique items used by Scientist, Astronomer, Mathematician, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)and others in early scientific discovery work. In the Piazza, outside the Gallery there is a Monumental Sundial (erected here in 2007) that has a Liziper on its side. A Liziper has a half lizard head and body with the other half being a Viper, with the tip of the tail being the head of the Viper. Quite incredible!
The Ospedale degli Innocenti – on Piazza della Santissima Annunziata 12 is a long two storey building with semi-circular archways running along its frontage on the Piazza. This was a foundling hospital/orphanage for abandoned new-born babies that was first opened in 1419 and continued in use as a hospital/orphanage until 1875.
The Stibbert Museum – on Via Frederick Stibbert (see www.meseostibbert.it/en ) is a fascinating museum named after its founder, Francis Stibbert (1838-1906), whose grandfather was a British Governor in Bengal, India and his father was in the Coldstream Guards in England too. Francis inherited a fortune from his grandfather, and spent his money collecting arms, armoury and military attire and costumes from across the world – even the attire (The Pwtit Costume) used by Napoleon Bonaparte when he was made the King of Italy in 1805.
The Museo Archaeological ( National Archaeological Museum of Florence) at Piazza Santissima Annunziata 9b has a vast collection of ancient Etruscan Bronzes, ceramics and other finds dating back thousands of years, along with a significant collection of Egyptian antiquities too – around 14,000 items.
If you want to see some amazing Religious art, then one of the best places to see it is in the Museo di San Marco Convent – at Piazza San Marco 3 a convent that dates back to the 12th century. Here in the cloisters and Refectory you can see the works of Fra Angelico with the life of Christ being the main subject.
Leonardo da Vinci is probably the most respected and prolific inventor of all time and he was born in the small village of Vinci about 30 kilometres away from Florence. Here in Vinci there is the Museo Leonardiano in the Castello del Conti Guidi, with many of his inventions on display. The village itself is a great place to just wander, and with a 3 kilometre walk along the 'Green Route Pathway' you will come to the place where he was born. For walkers and hikers, the Montalbano Conservation area with its many trails is close by too, once the hunting grounds of the Medicis.
Florence is very much a city with great history and if you have the time and inclination, it is worth seeing the Cimitero delle Porte Sante Cemetery – Via delle Port Sante 34, (Bus 12 S. Miniato Stop) on the hilltop a short distance south from the Piazza Michelangelo. The cemetery has a mass of large and impressive family crypts, statues and graves dating back centuries and is located behind the Abbazia di San Minitiato al Monte Abbey. Carlo Collodi (Lorenzini) (1826-1890) who wrote the story of Pinocchio ( whose nose grew longer when he told a lie), was born in Florence and also died here too. He is buried here in the Cemetery.
There is no shortage of shops and places to buy souvenirs, a coffee, gelato, pastas or have lunch, dinner or a drink. Besides the Ponte Vecchio Bridge gold shops (a MUST SEE), head to Piazza Santa Trinita where you will find all the fashion boutiques and if looking for leather – look for San Lorenzo. The Central Market is here too. Another market is the Sant'Ambrogio Market that operates Monday to Saturday, and there is also the Porchellino Market between Piazza della Republica and Piazza Signoria.
OUT OF FLORENCE –
There are many places to see too – the Chianti wine region, just south of Florence, is famous for you guessed it – Chianti wine; the stunning medieval town of Siena and close to the coastline also on the Arbo River there is Pisa and its famous leaning tower.
Sienna, about 75 kilometres south of Florence rivals Florence in the beauty of its buildings, with the Piazza del Campo at its centre, Duomo Cathedral dating back to the 12th Century, churches and museums. Probably the best way to see Sienna if you don't have a car, is to take a local bus tour from Florence to see Sienna, but if you can stay over, you will also get to see and feel more of the atmosphere of Sienna and its people. On the way if you can stop over in the small walled village of San Gimignano.
Pisa, like Florence is located on the River Arbo and has history dating back to the Etruscan days. It is roughly 90 kilometres (50 miles) west of Florence and has a population of about 90,000 people. The most striking and photographed building here is the leaning tower of Pisa, the famous Bell Tower that tilts at about 5 degrees off vertical, built as the bell tower for the Cathedral. Construction began on the tower in 1173, and then again in 1272 to build it to the current height. You can go to the top of the tower by climbing the 300 or so steps for a great view over the city, but numbers are limited so you may need to queue or miss out.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is on the Piazza dei Miracoli – and there is a large lawn grass area and pathways around the tower and Cathedral that provide lots of space for the sometimes big crowds that come here to see the Tower. The round Battistero building in the same location is equally impressive. Construction of this Baptistry started in 1152, but what you see here now was largely constructed in the 14th Century. If you can, see inside both the Battistero and Cathedral. It is well worth the effort.
A lot of people also take photos of themselves positioning themselves so that it looks like they are holding up the Tower using their finger, body or shoes. It ends up as a bit of fun.
Not far from Pisa and Florence if you are tired of seeing ancient works, take time out to head to the Spa town of Montecatini in the beautiful Tuscan countryside.
As with all travelling, it is often the people that you meet that really create the journey, and as much as the big name 'sights' are the reason you are here, it may well be the small Osteria or bar in a village or side street that you discover, that become the highlight of your travel.
I am sure you will have a great time in Tuscany.