Every city has a list of “must see” sites. London has the Tower, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. Rome has the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Trevi Fountain. In Florence, everyone wants to visit the Galleria degli Uffizi, the Accademia, and the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore–more specifically, a climb up Brunelleschi’s famed dome. While I think that these places are important and definitely worth a visit, I also know how crowded and unpleasant they can get during peak season. Where is the joy in seeing Michelangelo’s David or Botticelli’s Primavera if you’re fighting through a sea of tour groups and selfie sticks just to catch a glimpse?
If this isn’t your first trip to Florence or you don’t have your heart set on visiting the “must sees” of the city, then this blog post might just be for you. Here, I’ve compiled a list of my top alternative sites in Florence.
- Palazzo Pitti instead of the Galleria degli Uffizi: I can’t deny it; the Uffizi has one of the most fabulous collections of Italian Renaissance art in the world. In one afternoon, you can feast your eyes on more than 300 years of Italian painting, not to mention beautifully-decorated rooms and an impressive collection of ancient Roman sculpture. The heavy hitters of the gothic and Renaissance periods including Giotto, Masaccio, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio are all under one roof (a roof and palace paid for by the Medici family, BTW). However, the price one often pays to see the very best of the Italian painting (besides the ticket) is incredibly long lines and rooms so crowded they certainly are breaking a fire code or two. If your goal is to see amazing works of art contained within a palatial setting, then I suggest that you head across the river to the Palatine Gallery of the Palazzo Pitti instead. The Pitti was the residence of the Medici dukes and it houses a collection of Renaissance and Baroque painting that easily rivals the Uffizi. There are Raphaels and Titians around every corner, as well as works by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Andrea del Sarto, and many more. Plus, the entire collection is contained within extravagantly-decorated apartments, which once belonged to the duke and duchess. Your ticket will also get you into the Modern Art Gallery upstairs, which showcases Italian art mainly produced in the 19th century.
- Bargello Museum instead of the Accademia: Giorgio Vasari once said of Michelangelo’s David: “Whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or in other times, by no matter what craftsman.” Now, no offense to the David–admittedly, he still takes my breath away every time I see him–but he is not the be-all, end-all of Renaissance sculpture. And yes, the Accademia is also home to Michelangelo’s unfinished Prisoners as well as a really nice collection of paintings from the gothic and Renaissance periods. However, if it’s Renaissance sculpture you’re after and Michelangelo is your guy–then head over to the Bargello Museum.* This medieval civic palace-turned-prison-turned-museum is one of my favorite places in Florence. Not only can you see works by Donatello, Michelangelo, and Giambologna, but you can also see Brunelleschi and Ghiberti’s famed Competition Panels–the works that were the catalyst for the ENTIRE RENAISSANCE! The Bargello also boasts a fascinating collection of household objects including devotional panels, game boards, and majolica dishes.
- Arnolfo’s Tower instead of the Brunelleschi’s Dome: So you’re dying to climb one of the tallest structures in Florence, but you don’t like crowds and really cramped spaces? Then I suggest heading over to the Palazzo Vecchio and climbing Arnolfo di Cambio’s watchtower instead of Brunelleschi’s dome. Yes, I am the first to admit that I am obsessed with the story of the dome and how a Florentine goldsmith was able to construct such an impossibly large and complicated structure in only a decade and a half. However, my claustrophobia often gets the best of me when I’m inside the largest freestanding masonry dome in the world. So when I’m craving a climb and spectacular views in the center of Florence, I’ll go to the Palazzo Vecchio. This 14th-century palace has been the home of the Florentine government for more than 700 years. And like the cathedral, it features beautiful gothic architecture and an incredible history. The climb up Arnolfo’s tower is a bit easier than the dome and from there not only can you marvel at the cityscape, but also take in the dome itself.
*If Michelangelo is really, REALLY your guy, I would also suggest a trip to the Medici Chapels. Michelangelo’s 16th century tomb for four members of the Medici family (including Lorenzo the Magnificent) features fantastic mannerist architecture and seven sculptures by the man himself!