Florence is ancient, surprising and romantic,
and has some of the most beautiful art in the world.
Florence has medieval charm and wonderful food.
Step 1 - The bus stop to Santa Croce
If you do the cruise excursion 'Pisa and Florence on-your-own' you will have plenty of time to see the main attractions of Florence. Your bus person may guide you to the Basilica of Santa Croce - but in case you are simply dropped by the river near the tower, here is the first step.
The first sight is the tower - Torre della Zecca. It was built in the 1300's as part of the city's defence. There is a matching tower across the river, and with the concrete barrier across the river, this was as far as boats could come upstream. It used to be much taller, but was cut back to 25 meters in 1530.
Cross the street by the river and walk to the end of the tiny square beside the tower and go down Via De'Malcontenti. (There's a depressing story to go with the depressing name......) On the street corner one block along, there is a tabernacle - a street shrine. Beginning in the 1200's, families put the shrines on the buildings where they lived to protect them from enemies and the plague. One more long block and you are at the Basilica of Santa Croce (pronounced something like 'crotch-ay').
Legend says that the original church was founded by St. Francis of Assisi, and is considered the largest Franciscan church in the world. Many famous people are buried here. Michelangelo is buried in Santa Croce, and Rossini, Machiavelli, and Galileo Galilei. There is also a memorial to Dante, but his sarcophagus is empty (he is actually buried in Ravenna as he was exiled from Florence). In the church are wonderful frescos, statues and works of art. There is a charge to go inside, but worth it - the inside of the church is beautiful.
The basilica looks onto the Piazza Santa Croce, which is the site of an annual game in June, an odd combination of soccer, rugby and wrestling - in medieval costume. Google this for some amusing video!
Step 2 - Santa Croce to Piazza della Signora
Standing with your back to the church, there are 3 small streets that go off the end of the square—walk up the one that goes off the left corner of the square (Borgo dei Greci) - there is a tobacco shop on the corner and there will be lots of people walking it. There are restaurants, and usually vendors on the street. About a block along is the Pinocchio shop, with the wooden boy sitting on a bench.
The Palazzo Vecchio is built on top of a Roman theatre, and its purpose was to house the city council. The current appearance of the building is due largely to the renovation done around 1540, when Duke Cosimo I de’Medici and his wife Eleonora turned it into their residence. The rooms were decorated by artists like Michelangelo, Visari and Donatello. You can tour the palazzo if you wish, for a charge, of course.
The equestrian monument is of Cosimo I. The reference model for the statue was surely that of Marcus Aurelius on Rome’s Capitoline Hill that you have seen.
The fountain of Neptune was designed for the wedding celebrations of Francesco I and Giovanna of Austria. The imposing figure of the god rises from his four-horse chariot. It was supposed to have symbolized Cosimo I’s seafaring aspirations and his intended investment in naval fleets and ports. It seems that the Neptune’s physique did resemble that of the grand duke. The fountain was finished towards the end of the 1500s and immediately caused laughter among the populace who called poor Neptune “biancone” or “big white guy”, referring to his ungainly bulk.
Now you are in the Piazza della Signora - the heart of Florence. Piazza della Signoria has always been the symbol of civic life in the city. It was the scene of important events and even executions. In the 1500s, feasts, shows and tournaments were organized here. At the ringing of the bell over Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentines would gather to listen and approve new laws or, perhaps to run, fully armed, ready to defend city institutions.
Michelangelo created for the government one of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance: the David. It was placed in front of the entrance to the Palazzo in 1504 to represent the civil values of courage and strength in the service of the State. David stood in the piazza until 1873, and was then replaced by the replica as the original was receiving damage. His head and hands are overly large, and the genitals small. Not sure what that means!
The Loggia dei Lanzi has the three large arches to the right of the palace. A loggia is an open area with a roof.
The Medici lions are a pair of marble sculptures of lions, one of which is Roman, dating to the 2nd century AD, and the other a 16th-century copy. The most famous sculpture in the Loggia is Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines—made from one block of marble. Most of the statues seem rather violent!
Step 3 - Piazza della Signora to the Pitti Palace
Walk to the left of the Loggia dei Lanzi - see picture above.
Right behind the Loggia dei Lanzi is the Uffizi Gallery, Italy's top art museum. The Uffizi was built in 1560 for Cosimo de’Medici as offices of the magistrates. There are two parts, separated by a wonderful courtyard from the piazza to the river. The Uffizi is now one of the most famous art galleries in the world. Entry is 20 Euros.
Walk through the courtyard past the Uffizi to a wonderful framing gate (below) of one my favourite views in the world - at the top of this page and beside left - and walk to the bridge. There is a gelato shop about halfway to the bridge.
The Ponte Vecchio was rebuilt after a flood in 1345. During WWII it was the only bridge across the Arno that the fleeing Germans did not destroy. There have been shops on the Ponte Vecchio since the 13 century. In the beginning there were all types of shops including butchers and fishmongers, and later tanners - which caused a pretty rank stench in the area. In 1593, Ferdinand I decreed that only goldsmiths and jewellers be allowed to have their shops on the bridge, a law which remains.
The Medici women didn’t want to be stared at on the street, so had a walkway above the street where they could go from the Palazza Vecchio across the river to the Pitti Palace without being seen. This hallway is the top floor above the Uffizi gallery arch looking out to the river, and crosses the river on the top of the bridge. As you leave the bridge, the first street on your left has an arch, and the walkway is on top of the arch. You can continue to see it in the small square ahead.
The view on your right as you cross the bridge is interesting….. On a calm day the next bridge is reflected in the water, and the bridge past that is reflected under the first.
After crossing the bridge go straight down the street about three blocks to the Pitti Palace - it is huge, but it isn’t a particularly attractive building. There are interesting shops on the way.
The Pitti Palace houses several important museums, and there are important gardens behind it.
Step 4 - The Ponte Vecchio to Piazza della Repubblica
Retrace your steps back over the Ponte Vecchio and walk straight ahead. This is a busy pedestrian shopping street. In a couple of blocks you come to the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo (new market).
This is a place of contrasts! The loggia was constructed between 1547 and 1551, during the reign of Grand Duke Cosimo I. The design of the rectangular hall with tall arches is attributed to Giovanni Battista del Tasso, a Florentine sculptor and architect. Two niches were created on each corner of the loggia. Gold and silks were originally sold here. This magnificence is in severe contrast to the touristy stuff sold here today.
The most popular attraction at the market is the 'Fontana del Porcellino', a small fountain with a 17th century statue of a wild boar. (I’m not sure where this is in the market.) The bronze statue is a replica of a Roman statue which in turn was a copy of the original Greek statue. Legend has it that anyone who rubs the - always shining - snout of the boar will return to Florence. The procedure is rather complex: one has to place a coin in the mouth of the boar and when it falls into the water you have to rub his snout.
Continuing up the street you come to Piazza della Repubblica. This is one of the main squares in Florence and marks the center of the city since Roman times. The Colonna della Dovizia or also known as the Column of Abundance marks the point where the Roman forum stood. It was the location of the market and the Jewish Ghetto, where the Jewish people were forced to live by Cosimo I. The original area was destroyed and the present day square dates to about 1860.
Step 5 - The Piazza della Repubblica to Piazza Santa Elisabetta
Take a short detour to see one of the oldest squares of medieval Florence. Halfway along the Piazza della Repubblica turn right on Via del Corso, and walk 1 1/2 blocks. (The second block has narrowed a lot.) Halfway in this second block there is a VERY narrow passage to your left, just past a shoe store. There is also a sign on the wall that says ‘Torre dei Donati dei Ricci'.
Turn left at this alley and shortly along you will find yourself in Piazza Santa Elisabetta. In medieval times the rich and powerful people in Tuscany towns built tower-houses — and tried to make their towers as tall as possible to show their power—urban castles. In this tiny square are two that managed to survive civil wars and reprisals, lightning strikes and demolitions. The height did not survive, as in 1251 the city government decided all towers of Florence - and there were about 150, some with a height of 70 meters (more than 20 stories on our buildings) - to be cropped down to 29 meters or even less. In the piazza the Torre della Pagliazza (also called the ’Straw Tower’ - in the middle ages it was a women’s prison and they slept on straw) is the round one—and may be the oldest structure in the center of Florence, and the Torre dei Ricci-Donati the square one. The bottom floor was usually stables, and the door was on the second floor.
If you like to wander - the streets around here are the oldest in the city, narrow and dark. There are surprises around every corner.
Step 6 - The Piazza Santa Elisabetta to the Duomo
Leave the square with your back to the square tower, walk to the next street, turn left and then right to the Duomo.
The Duomo consists of three buildings; the 8-sided Baptistery, the bell tower, and the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. All three are faced with pink, white and green marble in marvellous patterns. Work on the cathedral began in 1296, and by 1418 only the dome was incomplete. Filippo Brunelleschi was awarded the contract and the dome was completed in 1436. He looked to the Pantheon’s dome, but that was done with a kind of concrete and scaffolding. It was a mystery as to how he kept it from collapsing as it was being built with its tremendous weight. I wonder how he got the cupola on the top! The dome starts 52 metres (171 ft) above the floor and spans 44 meters
(144 ft—it’s a lot larger than it looks). It was a mystery how the dome could be build without scaffolding (there wasn’t enough wood in Italy to do this).
Three of the Baptistry doors are very famous, the carvings by different artists. They date from the 14th and 15th centuries. The doors that you can see on the Baptistry are copies - the real ones are in the Duomo museum, behind the church.
Step 7 - Back to the bus
1. Walk between the Baptistry and the bell tower and down that street until you come to the square at the Palazzo Vecchio.
2. Walk down the street to the left of the Palazzo Vecchio until you come to the square at Santa Croce.
3. Walk down the street to the left of Santa Croce - and the tower and bus stop are ahead.
The total walk, as shown, is 5 km. or 3 miles.