The Best of Florence, Italy

Following our far too short detour to Assisi, we hopped back on the tour bus and continued our journey to Florence, Italy. Much to my dismay, a great deal of the third day of our trip was primarily reserved for traveling. Luckily for me, the seats on the bus reclined and were extremely comfy, allowing me to spend a good portion of the ride sound asleep. When we arrived in Florence, the evening was only just beginning. Dusk had fallen on Florence making the streets glow bright with promise; the night was still young! After quickly settling into our hotel for the next two nights, our group traveled to a nearby local restaurant for dinner.

SIGHTS TO SEE

Florence is known as the birthplace of the Italian language and opera. For this reason, it is one of the most cultural cities across the globe, rich in breathtaking architecture. In ancient times, Florence was a Roman city and before long it transformed into a prosperous medieval commune. During the 14th to 16th century, Florence became known as the focal point of the Renaissance movement, solidifying its historical importance. Similarly, the city was the home of prominent figures like Machiavelli, Lorenzo Medici, Dante, Michelangelo, Donatello, Galileo, and Raphael.

One of the biggest phenomenons linked to Florence is the Stendhal syndrome, a condition that is said to affect tourists. This syndrome is a psychosomatic condition involving a quick heartbeat, fainting spells, and even hallucinations. These things allegedly occur when individuals become exposed to artworks, objects, and architecture of extreme beauty and antiquity.

1. THE FLORENCE CATHEDRAL

If you are searching for real Italian culture, monumental creations like the Florence Cathedral will surely draw you in. The Florence Cathedral, also known as the Florence Duomo, is one of the most celebrated cathedrals in the world! There is no denying that the duomo is the prized jewel of Florence. Located in the middle of the old city, the structure is visible for miles on end, making it an imposing yet grand sight amidst all else. Thankfully, the Florence Duomo was only a short walking distance from the hotel we stayed at! If you ever find yourself lost in the city or struck by the Stendhal Syndrome, the sight of the cathedral will surely be enough to steer you in the right direction.

The construction of the Florence Cathedral took nearly a century and a half to build, it began in 1296 and was structurally completed by 1436. The exterior design was the work of Arnolfo di Cambio, an architect and sculptor who treasured the Gothic style. Although the idea of constructing a grand Cathedral sprouted in the middle of the 13th century, the spectacular white, green, and red polychrome panels were revived in the 19th century by Emilio Fabris’ new facade design. The colorful style is simply breathtaking; pictures will never be a sufficient method to do its distinctiveness justice. For this very reason, Florence’s Duomo holds a special place in my heart! In my opinion, one of its most interesting designs is the large dome that sits at the head of the cathedral and the best part is that it is open for public access! After climbing the 463 steps to the top, the sight before your eyes will be enough to shock you: the entirety of Florence’s beauty on display.

2. THE FLORENCE BAPTISTERY / THE GATES OF PARADISE

Directly across from the Florence Cathedral is the Florence Baptistery, also known as the Baptistery of Saint John. Its location in the religious center of the city is significant because it represents the civic identity of Florence. Long ago, its wealth and prestige coupled with its glorification of the city’s patron saint led it to be known as the heart of the Republic.

The Gates of Paradise, designed by the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, was intended for the north entrance of the Baptistery of Florence. Yet, upon its completion, the bronze door was installed at the east entrance instead. Each side of the gate contains five large rectangular designs that showcase scenes from the Old Testament. The ten panels are among the greatest works of the Early Renaissance and became an icon of that period. The intricateness of each panel demonstrates that the Florentine artists had perfected the linear perspective by the 15th century. It is said that the 17-foot-tall door—once known just as the East Door—was designated the Gates of Paradise by Michelangelo Buonarroti because of its exceptional magnificence. On my guided tour, I also learned that the original doors were restored early in the 21st century and they reside in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Nowadays, replicas furnish the entrance to the baptistery and it is impossible to tell the difference!

3. ALL THINGS AUTHENTIC LEATHER

On our second day in Florence, we toured a famous local leather shop and shopped around for over an hour! This was such a neat experience because we also had the opportunity to listen to an artisan talk about the leather industry in Florence. If you are traveling to this beautiful city, you should put aside money to spend on Florentine leather products. If you have not considered doing this, you most definitely should! For hundreds of years, Florence has been home to some of the world’s best leather craftsmanship. If you know where to look, shopping in Florence will gift you with expertly crafted products—ranging from change purses to much larger items. I found that the products are an unbeatable quality and retail at much lower prices than in the United States! I purchased a black trifold wallet that still looks brand new.

Since Florence is known for its leather, it truly pays to do your homework! Although there are plenty of authentic shops, Florence has attracted a suspicious business in lesser-quality faux items, which are often sold to tourists who do not know any better. Buyers beware: it is not only illegal to sell knock-offs in Italy but it is also prohibited to purchase them!

4. THE PONTE VECCHIO

Later that day, we found ourselves at the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval bridge where many of Florence’s famous leather and gold artisans have shops. Italian history dates the bridge as early as 996 but its true origin remains unknown. Situated on the Arno river, the Ponte Vecchio is an extremely famous bridge with decorated history. The structure is admired for the several jewelers, art dealers, and souvenir shops built into the sides of the bridge, making it stand out like no other. After admiring the exterior and taking several pictures, we walked the entire length bridge and when we reached the middle, we were immediately rewarded with a fantastic view of the river Arno and the beautiful buildings outlining each side.

6. THE BASILICA OF SANTA CROCE

As a minor basilica of the Roman Catholic Church, the Basilica of Santa Croce is the main Franciscan church in all of Florence. It was built on the Piazza di Santa Croce in 1294 by Arnolfo di Cambio, and the southeast of the Duomo sits very close. Santa Croce also happens to be the burial place for the major figures in Florence, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Rossini to name a few. There is also a memorial dedicated to Dante, but his sarcophagus is empty because he is buried in Ravenna as a result of his exilement from Florence.

The Basilica of Santa Croce

The duomo spans over five hundred feet in length and the tallest point of the dome is roughly 295 feet high. Surprisingly enough, the Basilica of Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world! On the inside, one can expect to find sixteen chapels—the most famous of which is the Capella de Pazzi. As a result of its several burial monuments, the Santa Croce actually earned the title of the Pantheon of Florence!

5. THE GALLERIA DELL’ACCADEMIA

Located close to the Duomo and our hotel was the Galleria dell’Accademia of Florence, an extremely famous museum! Much to my surprise, it appeared to be a simple building that one might pass by if he/she/they did not know where the museum was located. I found this very ironic because the Gallery is home to masterpieces of Renaissance art including Michelangelo’s original sculpture of David. As to be expected, Michelangelo’s masterpiece sits high on a pedestal for visitors to admire since it is the most famous statue in Florence and possibly the entire world. When I was standing in front of the perfect marble statue, I felt so small and insignificant in the presence of such a profound Renaissance sculpture. For reference, the David stands 14 feet tall and depicts the Biblical hero in an entirely nude stance.

The museum is divided into several interesting halls, some containing other famous works from Michelangelo and other notable artists. Many of the artworks were commissioned by and were also part of the Medici family’s private collection. However, the powerful family donated the pieces to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany so that others could also enjoy these astonishing contributions. I spent hours surveying the remarkable artwork and ornate sculptures, truly captivated by the grandeur of it all. The experience was surreal to me because I was in the presence of ancient art I learned about in high school history classes, a great deal of it prevailing in 14th and 15th century Florence.

7. THE PALAZZO VECCHIO / THE PIAZZA DELLA SIGNORIA

While the Duomo is the most important religious building in Florence, the Palazzo Vecchio is the highest revered administrative building in the city. It is located in the Piazza della Signoria, the main square in Florence that is filled with heaps of ancient statues and fountains. The piazza functions as the focal point of the origin of the Florentine Republic. Even today, it still maintains its reputation as the political epicenter of the city!

Constructed in 1299, the Palazzo Vecchio was designed by the same architects that helped build the Duomo and the church of Santa Croce. In early times, this structure was the palace of the Signoria of the Republic of Florence and many years later it became the town hall. The building has a square design and a number of crenelations, resembling a large castle. On the exterior, a series of nine coats of arms represent the Florentine citizens, influential figures, and important alliances that have greatly shaped the history of the city.

8. THE UFFIZI GALLERY / THE VASARI CORRIDOR

Sadly, I did not have the pleasure of touring the inside of the Uffizi Gallery while I was in Florence. When I visit again, I will make it a point to cross this art museum off my list! The Gallery is famous around the world for its remarkable collections of ancient paintings and sculptures that range from the Middle Ages to the Modern period.

On the other hand, the secret passageway of the Medici, known as the Vasari Corridor, begins from the West side of the Uffizi Gallery. On my walking tour, I found out that the covered passage was commissioned in 1565 by Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici to commemorate his son Francesco I’s marriage to Joanna of Austria. The corridor goes towards the Arno river and follows it as far as the Ponte Vecchio by passing on top of the famous jewelry stores. This incredible project connects the Pitti Palace with Palazzo Vecchio, a prime example of architectural genius. Centuries ago, the corridor made it so the members of the Medici family were able to move freely throughout the city center without anyone noticing them. How neat!

Although Florence may not be the first city that comes to mind when you think of Italy, it will likely become a favorite after you visit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the Stendhal syndrome is no joke because the city’s never-ending mystery and beauty will leave you wanting more. When I ventured through Florence, I found my mind wandering hundreds of years back in time and it was almost as if all of the stories unfolded right before my eyes. Time and time again, I found the history of the city so inspiring. Simply put, Florence is a magical place full of hope and promise. The energy in the air is buzzing with creativity and there are gorgeous sceneries to be appreciated everywhere you turn!

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