Full disclosure, I have been to 4 museums only, and not the most famous ones, and I visited almost all the churches. The fact is, Florence, even more than Venice, is a very expensive city, and so are its monuments. I made a lot of research before going to carefully choose the places I thought would be the more interesting for me. And the Uffizi Gallery was not. I was happy to see a copy of David and not the real one. Also, always check if the museums are undergoing restoration works or not, in order not to pay full price and see only half of it. If there is one specific painting/sculpture or else you want to see, do check if it is not on lease or under restoration. While researching, I saw a lot of comments about what not to be missed and that you cannot go to Florence without going up the Duomo and visiting the Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzo Pitti. Well, I did. This is why I decided to write this post. You can visit a famous city without setting foot in any of its most famous monuments and this, without shame. And you will avoid some grumpy tellers trying to sell you full ticket when you know there is a cheaper one ;-)
The Stendhal Syndrome
Also called the Florence syndrome, this is a psychosomatic disorder one can experienced when visiting the city. It is named after the French author Stendhal who said he was overcome with emotion when he visited the beautiful Basilica of Santa Croce in 1817. Avoiding churches and museums do not guarantee that you will not be overcome with emotion as well because the city really is beautiful.
What to see then?
There is plenty to do and see in Florence. You may not like churches or museums but they are worth a look from outside, by day and by night. Some also have beautiful courtyards and cloisters you can see for free.
I will show some inside views of my favourites. Maybe you will be tempted to visit them anyway.
Here are some of the most beautiful museums. No worries, I am talking about the buildings, not the collections ;-)
I encourage you to visit this one because it has beautiful frescoes as well as a terrasse from where you have a fantastic view over one side of the city. Schedule is erratic so check ahead.
The exhibition is finished now but the Palazzo is really beautiful. The access to the courtyard is free, as is the wifi.
Take a look at the statues of famous Renaissance people.
Apparently a great place to have lunch.
Loggia del Bigallo
This cute loggia is composed of three rooms only and its entry is free.
There are a few places in Florence that are still free of charge but their opening hours are often erratic so check them ahead.
Palazzo Medici Riccardi
It is a museum and the site of the Metropolitan City of Florence.
The frescoes in the Chapel of the Magi, executed by Benozzo Gozzoli, are really remarkable.
Casa di Dante
This little museum is occupying a beautifully restored medieval house.
It houses the Museum of the Old Florentine House. If the artefacts are not really exceptional, the walls are beautiful! If you want to see the original kitchen on the third floor, and the view, you have to book a guided visit. The list is filling in very rapidly as only small groups can go because of the size of the room.
They are everywhere. You cannot miss then. But no need to go inside if you do not want, they are beautiful seen from far as well.
Piazza del Duomo
Sit on a bench at sunset and watch the monuments changing colours. It is a wonderful experience. You can spend hours watching people, horses, the piazza. One tip though: do not buy your gelato (ice cream) there. It is awfully expensive!
Will you be able to find the cow's head on the left of the Duomo? According to one of the legends linked to this insolite gargoyle, the wife of a baker had an affair with a carpenter working on the cathedral. The affair was discovered and they were sentenced to never see each other again. The carpenter then carved this cow's head right in front of the baker's shop to remind him that he was cuckholded. In Italian it is said "cornuto", i.e. having horns.
Chiesa di Ognissanti
For the view ot the facade and the surrounding houses.
San Lorenzo and Medici Chapels
This is the mausoleum of the Medici family. The church was their official church. Most of the family members are buried here, as well as Donatello. . Don't be fooled by the unfinished facade, it is much more nicer inside.
For the view, the facade, the cemetary. Inside is not bad either.
This is where Stendhal fainted. And once you are inside you understand why! If there is ONE church to see in Florence, it is this one.
Santa Maria Novella
Spectacular by night and day and in black and white!!
For this one, you should make an exception because the view from upstairs is splendid and free! Check the opening hours beforehands because the upper floors are not accessible every day.
For its Spanish-like facade.
Strolling in the city
Strolling in the city and getting lost in its narrow streets are the best ways to discover Florence. The city centre is really well preserved and you will see medieval and renaissance architecture side by side.
Markets are really nice to see. Do not miss the boar for a bit of luck and look at the architecture surrounding you.
Go to Oltrarno, the other side of Florence. It is quiet and some nice places can be found there. Also food is cheaper here.
You will have to cross the river. The best way is to take the famous Ponte Vecchio and another bridge that will give you a view over the Old Bridge and the Vasari Corridor. The latter was built for the Medici so they could go from one palace to another unseen, in this case the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti.
Historical Centre (UNESCO)
Always look up. Some facades are beautifully decorated. Do not miss the sculptures at the corner of some streets. There are also beautiful fountains. The Neptune fountain on Piazza della Signora is superb. You will find a Replica of Michelangelo's David in front of Palazzo della Signora, along with other sculptures in a loggia nearby.
Some of the best views
I have not been to Fiesole or up the Duomo but the views from Piazza Michelangelo, the Boboli Garden and San Miniato are beautiful. They are the best spots to watch the sunset over Florence. Beware that the Boboli Gardens are closed during winter time.
If you want a good spot on Piazza Michelangelo, go early. It gets very crowdy.
Florence is a city of art, and street art has its place here too. From Renaissance inspiration to contemporary influence, if you are into street art, you will find your happiness.
Clet is the most famous of Florentine street artists. You will see a lot of street signs modified by his collages.
Another famous artist is Blub, whose work is called "L’arte Sa Nuotare" (Art Knows how to Swim). He often features famous figures and artworks in swimming masks on small posters.
Many more artworks can be found in the city, Oltrarno included.
Not for the faint ones
La Specola, Museum of Natural History
La Specola is the largest and most famous wax anatomical collection, for the connoisseurs. It is also the oldest European museum. Almost nobody visits the Museum of Natural History so you might have it all for yourself/ves. Famous people like Goethe, the Marquis de Sade, Napoleon... appreciated this collection.
My little hidden gem
I kept it for the end. The entrance look very formal but do not let that impress you and push the door. it is open to everyone.
The Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella (Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella) is one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. It was founded circa 1221 by Domenicans. The products are expensive but you are not obliged to buy to visit. Also, it perpetuates the ancient traditions of herbal care by using only natural raw materials produced locally and not tasted on animals.
If you were successful at not setting a foot in any museum or church, by visiting this old Pharmacy, you will see at least one Renaissance interior.
I do hope this post gave you the desire to visite some of the museums and churchs. If you are on a small budget, some are free. One of the best I have seen is actually free: Museo di Casa Martelli. Not many people, guided visits and one of the best preserved houses in Florence, showing you the whole history of the city through its rooms. Open only a few hours a week.