Pisa is a bit off the main railway line connecting Rome to Milan, and usually you need to get down at Florence and take a local train to Pisa. Thus, it makes sense to combine the Florence and Pisa visits.
So this walking tour is about the essential places to visit in Florence when you are short of time. If you have a day, you can take a more thorough look at the places described here, including a visit to the Baptistry, to the dome of the cathedral and to the Uffizi museum. If not, you can limit yourself to external visits and complete it in 3-4 hours. Take a look at the map for a view of the main stops of this walking tour (shown in blue colour - map opens in a new window).
If you have more time, you can also visit some of the lesser known places of Florence in my post on Walking tour 2 of Florence!
So let us start! The image below has an early morning view of Florence along the Arno river.
1. REACHING FLORENCE
Florence is on the main railway line that connects Rome in the centre of Italy to the main cities of the north – Bologna, Venice, Milan and Turin. Florence has two main railway stations – Santa Maria Novella and Rifredi. Most fast trains by Trenitalia (such as Freccia Rossa or Freccia Argento - they cost at least twice the ordinary trains, unless you book them in advance or get some special offers) and Italo (usually costs less than Trenitalia trains), the two Italian train companies, stop at one of these stations of Florence.
Santa Maria Novella (SMN) railway station is more suitable for visiting Florence. Thus, if you have a train that drops you at Rifredi, go to the newspaper kiosk or the ticket office and buy a local ticket to SMN. There are plenty of local trains connecting Rifredi to SMN and the journey takes a few minutes. SMN is an end station – it means that trains coming to SMN must go back, they can not pass through SMN.
When you reach SMN, walk towards the direction of the train and you will reach the main hall with exits on the two sides. Coming from the platforms, take the exit on the left.
As you come out of the exit, you will see the escalators going down on your right while across the street you can see the backside of Santa Maria Novella church, that gives the name to the railway station. You can take the escalator and go straight till the end, coming out at the corner of Via Panzani. (Image below: back of Santa Maria Novella church and the corner of Via Panzani)
2. CATHEDRAL AND BAPTISTRY
Follow Via Panzani and Via dei Cerretani for reaching the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (also called Duomo). It is just a ten minutes walk. The square has the octagonal baptistry, the cathedral and the bell tower. Made of white marble with linings of black, dark green and pink stones, the cathedral is a rich and colourful wedding cake, absolutely marvellous, full of beautiful marble statues on all sides.
Entrance to Baptistry requires a ticket and often there is a queue to go inside. Even if you do not go inside, take the time to look at its solid brass doors with some amazing brass bass-relief sculptures of stories from the Bible.
On the right side of the cathedral, there are street artists who make beautiful portrait sketches and are really quick. You may wish to get your portrait done as a take-away memory of the Florence visit.
Look up to admire the dome of the cathedral, one of the largest domes in the world in the medieval period when it was built by an architect called Brunelleschi. If you have read “Pillars of the earth” by Ken Follett, you can understand the role played by constructions of cathedrals in medieval Europe in expanding the boundaries of scientific knowledge.
Just across the street artists, check the statue of Brunelleschi, where he is shown looking at his dome and making calculations with a compass (image below).
Compared to the rich sculptures and the colours outside, inside the cathedral is relatively simple. You may wish to light a candle to remember your loved ones who are no more or to pray. It is huge. Remember to look up to see the rich paintings on the inside of the dome.
If you have time, you can even climb to the top of the dome (requires a ticket) for an absolutely marvellous view of the city skyline and the cathedral.
Finally below you can see a night view of this beautiful square with rain, tourists and a christmas tree.
3. LORD'S SQUARE
Take Via dei Calzaiuoli on the right hand, in front of the cathedral and a short walk will bring you to the most famous square of Florence – “Piazza della signoria”, or the Lords’ square. In the image below, from the left to the right, you can see the fountain of Neptune, Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) and behind it the famous Uffizi museum.
Outside the Old Palace there is a copy of Michelangelo’s David. Inside this building has some incredible frescoes and stucco work. Old Palace also has a big tower that you can see from different parts of the city and it has different sculptures and art works. Entrance to the Old Palace requires a ticket. (Images below: (1) the copy of Michelangelo's David at night and (2) the ground floor of the Old Palace).
Uffizi museum in the narrow street behind it has an enormous collection of art masterpieces from Renaissance period of Italy. If you have read Dan Brown’s latest bestseller based in Florence, “Inferno” (The Hell), you already know a lot about the masterpieces of this museum. You need at least half a day to visit these museums. Usually there is a long queue of tourists waiting to go inside the museums.
However, if you do not have time to visit the museums, you can still see some of the masterpieces of the Renaissance art that are displayed in the square, especially under a Loggia in front of the Old Palace building. Here are a few examples of sculptures from the Loggia.
If you have some time, take a closer look at the sculptures in the square. For example, in the Neptune fountain, look at the way the horses are sculpted – you can even see the veins on their necks. And, you may also like to take a look at the men standing around Neptune with their fish-like dicks.
4. THE OLD BRIDGE
The “Ponte Vecchio” (Old Bridge) is the third and last stop of this essential tour of Florence. Walk across the road in front of the Uffizi museum (Piazzale degli Uffizi) lined with the statues of important persons of medieval Florence including Macchiavelli and Dante, and you will reach Lungarno, the bank of Arno river.
Turn right on Lungarno and you will see the old bridge. The bridge is full of shops selling gold and jewellery and is always crowded.
If you have time, you can go across the bridge and continue for a short distance along that road to reach Boboli gardens and its museum that play a key role in Dan Brown’s “Inferno”. However, Boboli gardens (require a ticket) are huge, are on a hill and the visit needs at least half a day (not counting the visit to the museum). If you like going up and down the hills, Boboli Gardens have lovely statues and fountains. If not, you can admire the gold and jewellery shops on the bridge.
I love the backside of the shops on the Old Bridge, painted in different colours, hanging over the river. Walking along the river on Lungarno is another favourite past time for me. Seagulls and canoes, and the reflections of the medieval churches on the river bank, make this a magical place.
So my advice is that if you have some time, do not rush, take deep breaths and admire the incredible beauty of this place where nature and man-made constructions come together in a such a wonderful way.
You may wish to go back to the railway station, the way you have come so that you can admire once again the beauty of the Lords’ square and the cathedral. Or you may prefer to take any of the narrow medieval streets on your right and find your way back to the station.
Take a look at the map (opens in a new window) to see the different roads of this walking tour, shown in blue colour.
Finally, if you have more time, you can also visit some of the lesser known places of Florence as explained in my post on Walking tour 2 of Florence!