Florence: Italy’s Renaissance City

Both the birthplace and the showplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence is a priceless art and architecture sanctuary that appeals to tourists of all ages.

Almost no city on earth packs so much priceless art and architecture into such a small space as Florence, Italy. This compactness is convenient—nearly every major tourist sight is within an area of only a few hundred square yards. But it’s a double-edged sword, for the art that attracts tourists brings them in droves that fill the central streets almost to the breaking point. The sheer crush of people, the interminable waiting lines and jostling for a good position to see the great works of art sometimes make the tourist wonder if the trip is worth it.

The answer is to avoid the summer, when crowds are heaviest, and school spring breaks, when Florence is the target of what seems like every traveling high school and college student on the continent. Try fall, when summer’s heat and crowds have abated and Florentines can enjoy their city themselves and take time to welcome you properly.

Avoid waiting lines at the most popular places by arriving early in the morning, just before the doors open, when you’re likely to walk right in. This is especially true at the Galleria dell’Accademia, home of the famous Michelangelo statue of David, which opens while most tourists are still eating breakfast. Another slow time is at noon, when the tour groups have lunch. If you plan to tour the Uffizi, book your time before you leave home.

Florence for Families

Churches and museums filled with Renaissance art—what Florence has in spades—don’t excite most kids, and the city is a difficult one to make appealing, especially when seeing major attractions involves waiting in line. But it’s possible to bring the city to life for kids and see some of its great sights at the same time.

Mix the art museums and churches with other experiences kids can relate to more readily—visiting craftsmen in their shops, poking about in markets, looking for some of the city’s oddities [read our Florence article, Secrets of the City] and exploring its parks [read our Explore Florence's Parks and Gardens article].

The San Spirito neighborhood is filled with artisan shops where children are welcome to watch leather workers tooling intricate designs and learn how gold leaf is applied in whisper-thin layers to woodcarvings. Another good area is across the Arno, but our children found several shops in other neighborhoods simply by keeping a sharp lookout as we walked.

Shops around Piazza Santa Croce are good places to look for moderately priced leather goods, especially at the Scuola del Cuoio (tel. +39-055-244-533), where they have wallets, handbags and backpacks at good prices. San Lorenzo Market is filled with stalls selling everything from crafts to silk scarves and cheap clothing. It’s also a good place to look for picnic foods, in order to avoid jam-packed restaurants and cafés near the tourist sights.

Although it has little to do with Florence and purists might dismiss it as out-of-sync with one’s sense of place, there’s no disputing the child-appeal of the Museo Archaeologico, with its Egyptian mummies and their tombs.

More pertinent to the locale is the Museo della Storia dalla Scienza, or the Museum of the History of Science. Currently under renovation, the museum remains partially open with its highlights displayed in temporary galleries. When the museum fully reopens (scheduled for fall 2009), so too will its excellent program of themed tours in English.

Piazza Dei Giudici 1, tel. +39 055 293 493, www.imss.firenze.it. Until Sept. 30, open Mon., Wed.-Fri. 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tues. and Sat. 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 1-May 31, open Mon. and Wed.-Sat. 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tues. 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Brunelleschi’s Dome

You’ll see the Duomo from almost anywhere in Florence, even as you approach the city by train or car. It towers above the Centro Storico, the historic center of the city. But the importance of this masterpiece of Renaissance architecture is even greater than its size.

For the best picture of Florence during the quarter century that the dome rose to its commanding height, take along Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture  (Walker Publishing, 2003) as airplane reading. Interestingly, Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose panels on the Baptistery doors are also considered the epitome of their art from the Renaissance period, were bitter rivals.

Stand directly beneath the dome to admire its vast vaulting, then climb inside the great double shell to see it (and Florence) from the top. For the closest view of the exterior of the dome, ascend Giotto’s bell tower, Il Campanile, beside the cathedral. Dome open Mon.-Fri. 8:30 a.m. to 6:20 p.m., Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., times which seem to change at a whim. Campanile open Apr.–Oct., daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Nov.–Mar. 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Giotto’s color scheme in decorating the outside of the tower set the pattern for the later marble facing of the cathedral itself, white from Carrara, green from Prato and red from Maremma. No less of artists than Pisano, della Robbia and Donatello added the reliefs picturing the history of the human race.

Although our kids were suitably impressed with the dome and thought it was cool to see it from the inside, they found an oddity in the Duomo that most tourists miss. The youngest had glazed over a bit and was standing watching the 24-hour clock on the inside of the façade wall when she realized it was moving backward. And not only does it run backward through its 24 hours, it begins the day with the setting sun.

Seeing the Sights

Florence’s major sights are so close together—most are within a 500-yard radius of Piazza della Signoria—that you might be tempted to think you can breeze through them in a hurry. You can’t, because each one contains so many highlights that it’s hard to aim for a single highlight from each. Not only are the sights in Florence superbly worth seeing, but they also represent the work—and often the masterpiece—of the greatest names of Renaissance art.

The Baptistery is the city’s oldest building, its foundations probably from before the 8th century, and the rest of it from 1059–1128. Its famous doors are aligned with the two great Roman roads that intersected here. The east door is considered Ghiberti’s masterpiece, and the original panels are in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo after very nearly being lost in a devastating flood in 1966. Inside the apse are 13th-century mosaics.

The Duomo’s museum is worth visiting for more than the original doors. Inside is one of Michelangelo’s most moving pietas, sculpted of Carrara marble that he personally selected from the quarry. Treasures of the cathedral complex were brought here for protection in the museum’s controlled climate. This bright and modern museum is one where you can probably get kids to spend a bit of time, especially if you promise them a visit to the current repair workshop for the Duomo, around the corner at Via dello Studio 23.

San Lorenzo is another larger-than-life church, lavishly decorated by the powerful Medici family, who hired only the best—Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Donatello. Around to the side are the Medici Chapels, a mausoleum of Medicis, several of whose grandiose tombs are also by Michelangelo.

Piazza della Signoria has another cluster of sights that includes the Palazzo Vecchio (the city hall), one of two copies of Michelangelo’s David and a loggia of other statues. Between the café-filled piazza and the river stretches the fabled Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s great art museums. Anyone with an interest in Renaissance painting will have 15 of the 45 galleries to savor; the best-known work is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Beyond is Ponte Vecchio, lined with shops and one of Europe’s most widely recognized icons.

Lodging and Dining

Hotels in Florence run the gamut from youth hostels to art deco villas. In the center, 10 minutes from the Duomo and a few steps from the church of Santa Maria Novella, we like Grand Hotel Minerva (Pza S Maria Novella 16, tel. +39-055-27230, www.grandhotelminerva.com). The kids loved the swimming pool on the roof with a view over the city. When we’re there without the kids, we head for Hotel Villa La Vedetta (Viale Michelangiolo 78, tel. +39-055-681-631, www.villalavedettahotel.com), which overlooks the entire city from terraced gardens. The décor is stylish and the amenities include marble bathrooms, whirlpool tubs and a free courtesy bus to the center.

Cantinetta del Verrazzano, near the Duomo, serves light meals and sandwiches (not your usual, the options include wild boar). Via dei Tavolini 18, tel. +39-055-268-590. Open Mon.-Sat.

La Spada patrons like to order the tris (trio) of house-made pastas to share; kids will like the abundant pastas, roasted pork and lively atmosphere. You’ll like the family-friendly prices and location near Santa Maria Novella. Via della Spada 62, tel. +39-055-218-757, www.laspadaitalia.com. Open Tue.-Sat. noon to 3 p.m., 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Mario only serves lunch (generous helpings of it) near the Mercato Centrale market. A good choice for kids. Via Rosina 2, tel: +39-055-218-550.

The Mercato Centrale itself is a good source of picnic fare, open Mon.–Sat. 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. (Saturday also 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.).  

Destinations: Florence, Italy

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Sightseeing

User Comments

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A City of Amazing History Florence is one of Italy's most amazing cities. This is one place we'll have to put on our calendar the next time we are shooting in Italy. Great post!