16 Things Florence is Known and Famous For

Today I’ll show you a little bit of one of the most stunning cities on the planet. Florence is known for being the birthplace of the Renaissance and an open-air museum, as well as for its simple yet amazing cuisine.

While the capital of Tuscany is less obvious as a final stop than Rome or Venice, it’s the fourth most popular destination in the country and is definitely not to be missed next time you tour Italy.

Florence panorama at dusk

So let’s find out all the wonderful things Florence is known for. Just watch out for Stendhal Syndrome symptoms; the city’s beauty is so overwhelming some folks feel dizzy and even hallucinate!

1. Florence Cathedral

Beauty and monumentality aren’t the only reasons why Florence Cathedral is the city’s ultimate icon. A self-supporting dome like its own hadn’t been built since Antiquity because the technique had been lost.

This engineering breakthrough was a major symbol of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance (and the modern era).

When it was completed in 1436, it became the largest church on Earth. It’s still the third-largest in Europe (after St. Peter’s and Milan Cathedral) and can hold up to 30,000 people.

Florence Cathedral. Brunelleschi's Dome. Giorgio Vasari's Last Judgement fresco.
Editorial credit: Kotroz / Shutterstock.com

Despite being massive, the interior of Florence Cathedral might feel underwhelming in terms of ornamentation — over-the-top interiors would become a thing almost two centuries later.

But the frescoes covering its dome, as you can see above, totally make up for that. If you look close enough distracted they’ll make you feel like you’re being raptured off to heaven!

2. The Renaissance

In a way, we can say the Renaissance was the first time in 1,000 years the West started looking within and around instead of looking up. More people were learning how to read, as intellectuals and artists rediscovered Greek and Roman texts that taught them about perspective, architecture, philosophy, and government.

By the early-to-mid 1400s, Florence was an extremely rich city and was lucky to have art-loving rulers with tons of idle cash (the Medicis). They served as patrons to geniuses like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, who came up with a brand-new way of experiencing the world.

Visitors take photos in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy.
Editorial credit: katuka / Shutterstock.com

The Renaissance even allowed for the birth, about a century later, of modern science through the scientific revolution, which peaked in the very city of Florence when Galileo Galilei invented the scientific method.

Now next time you stroll around Florence, you’ll remember how all the beauty you see is connected to modern life as we know it. You can almost feel the weight of western history here!

3. Arno River

As in many cities that developed around a river, the Arno is to Florence both a blessing and a curse.

It gave the city a major port and should be thanked for the breeze that cools down the valley around it. Yet it threatened Florence with flooding for two millennia as well.

Aerial view of Florence skyline along Arno river at sunset with Ponte Vecchio bridge in foreground, Florence, Tuscany, Italy.

Walking along the Arno offers the perfect chance to discover the city’s bridges and spot lots of charming townhouses as you go. As the second-longest river in Italy, it’s imposing enough to flow through a city like Florence.

4. Ponte Vecchio

Speaking of the Arno, let’s now talk about the most famous bridge spanning it: Ponte Vecchio. It’s not every day you cross a bridge with buildings on top, especially 100-year-old jewelry shops.

Bearing witness to its huge historical relevance is the fact that the Nazis destroyed all the bridges in town to slow down the advance of Allied troops, except for this one.

Originally, Ponte Vecchio was lined with grocery stores and butcheries, until a nobleman passing through a secret corridor above the bridge had enough of the foul smell and ordered their replacement with fancier businesses.

Gondola under Ponte Vecchio

Apart from being a must-see when you visit Florence, Ponte Vecchio is one of the most important roads citywide.

It connects two of the main sights in town: there’s Palazzo Vecchio and the historic core (where Renaissance rulers worked) on one side and Palazzo Pitti and the Oltrarno district (where they lived) on the other.

5. Chianti

While Chianti is not exactly exclusive to Florence, it’s the wine more commonly associated with the city. It’s produced across central Tuscany mainly from Sangiovese grapes.

Folks have been making wine in the region since pre-Roman times, but the first rules regulating the production of an authentic Chianti date back to the early 1700s (which is ancient in the winemaking universe, by the way).

Chianti wine

Touring a Chianti winery in the Province of Florence is a great excuse to explore the hills and valleys around the city (not like you need one, though!).

Yet the city is dotted with specialized wine bars too, because a wine-soaked night out in Florence is everything you actually knew you needed when you visit.

6. Uffizi Gallery

Florence serves as a sort of guardian of Italy’s enormous cultural heritage — and the Uffizi works as the safe where that treasure is stored.

In the 16th century, the Medici rulers commissioned a building to house the offices of judges topped by a private gallery for the family’s artworks (talk about rich and powerful).

Uffizi Gallery

Two centuries later, that same building would become one of the earliest modern museums, after the last Medici heiress left the vast collection to the Tuscan state.

The Uffizi is home to world-famous masterpieces like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Caravaggio’s Medusa.

It’s no wonder you might have to stand in line for several hours during peak season (unless you book your tickets in advance, which I do recommend).

7. The Italian language

In case you don’t know, about 30 languages are spoken in Italy besides Italian. Many centuries before the country’s unification in 1861, there was a lively debate regarding which local dialect should serve as a common language in the Peninsula.

In the 1500s, Venetian grammarian Pietro Bembo started sponsoring Il Canzoniere as a role model for what an Italian language could sound like. 

Il Petrarca, old leather book spine. closeup spine detail. Shallow depth of field

Il Canzoniere was a 14th-century collection of poems by Francesco Petrarca, who wrote in the medieval dialect spoken in the Florence of his time.

While Bembo’s suggestion did catch on among intellectuals, it would take four more centuries before literacy campaigns and mass media eventually turned Italian into a true national language. 

8. Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio

Florence is one of the few Italian cities whose central square doesn’t feature a church, which attests to the major role politics has always played here.

The main building in Piazza della Signoria, in fact, is Palazzo Vecchio, from where Florence has been ruled for 700+ years.

Piazza della Signoria, Firenze, FI, Italia

Yet the plaza is much older than Florence’s best-known palace; it hosted every important event in town from Roman times and seems to have been settled still in the Neolithic.

Other highlights in Piazza della Signoria include the 16th-century Fountain of Neptune (i.e. the first public fountain in Florence) and Loggia dei Lanzi, a porticoed structure that features major Renaissance and Baroque sculptures.

9. Bistecca alla fiorentina

Italy’s not generally prized for its beef dishes, but Florentines are indeed quite obsessed with them (check out no. 13 for more).

The bistecca alla fiorentina (or steak Florentine style) is the most popular dish of the local cuisine and consists of a barbecued T-bone steak of either steer or heifer.

steak Florentine

The greatest part is that the steak should be thick enough to stand on its own for the last minutes on the grill. It’s normally paired with white beans, salad, and a glass of good ole’ Chianti.

10. Michelangelo’s David

David may have defeated Goliath, yet ironically Michelangelo’s version of the biblical figure is a giant in its own right. At 5.2 m (17 ft) tall, the marble sculpture is simply massive.

The marble statue was originally meant for Florence Cathedral, but ended up being placed in front of Palazzo Vecchio.

Michelangelo’s David

It soon became a symbol of the then city-state’s resistance to its powerful neighbors and has remained Florence’s main icon to this day.

In the late 19th century, a replica was installed at Piazza della Signoria, as the sculpture was moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia.

Speaking of which, do book your tickets in advance if you can. The gallery is far smaller than the Uffizi, so wait time can be even longer for walk-ins.

11. Street art

Ever since the Renaissance, Florence has remained a chief artistic hub within Europe. Although it’s not as cheap to live there as it was a few decades ago, the city is still mildly affordable for artists (especially in the outer boroughs).

In a place where museums are filled to the brim with masterpieces, the more inventive artists want to stir controversy and often shock their audiences rather than create beautiful artworks. The streets are of course the perfect stage for that kind of art.

modern road sign with drawing by Clet Abraham in Florence, Italy
Editorial credit: Bulgn / Shutterstock.com

Street art is so big in Florence it has developed its own star system. There are for instance Clet Abraham subverting road signs with witty drawings (as pictured above) and the mysterious Blub, who paints “underwater” historical figures on doors and walls.

12. Oltrarno

In a way, Oltrarno is to Florence what Trastevere is to Rome: it leaves all the serious business to the historic core on the other side of the river and focuses on what matters (fun, of course!).

Florence’s nightlife revolves around Oltrarno’s three squares: Piazza del Carmine and Piazza della Passera at each end and particularly Piazza Santo Spirito between them.

View of Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens in Florence on a winter morning

There’s no lack of beauty here, though: in the late 1400s, Oltrarno became an early suburb so to speak as rich families started moving away from downtown and settling here.

That’s why you have the majestic Palazzo Pitti (with its massive Boboli Gardens) and numerous other villas within the district. It’s also where you’ll find Piazzale Michelangelo and the commanding views of town seen on the top of our post.

13. Lampredotto

You may picture Florentines as lofty and sophisticated, but in reality they’re pretty down-to-earth. That’s best represented by lampredotto, their favorite street food.

The local specialty is made from the abomasum, i.e. the fourth stomach of cattle. Yup, that’s officially tripe, which means I’ve never tried lampredotto and won’t be able to tell you what it tastes like.

Making of traditional lampredotto sandwich in Florence, Italy. Lampredotto is a typical Florentine dish made from the stomach of a cow

It’s apparently soft and spongy, by the way. Lampredotto is typically used as a sandwich filling, so that’s a good contrast with the crunchiness of the bread.

In case you’re interested in trying it out, look for specialized food carts in tiny squares and intersections across the city center. The majority of visitors will obsess over gelato and waffles and shun lampredotto, so it sort of stays in the shadows.

14. Centuries-old traditions

Florence has been consistently hosting several festivities throughout the year from the Middle Ages. 

Though most have some kind of religious background (like the Procession of the Magi seen above), many have lost that edge throughout history.

drummer in traditional red and white costumes parades in the Piazza Duomo, during the historical recreation of the "Procession of the Magi"
Editorial credit: Federico Magonio / Shutterstock.com

Others are downright derived from ancient pagan celebrations. That’s the case with Trofeo Marzocco, a competition held on May 1 in which teams wearing colorful clothes vie for the title of best flag-waving skills.

Another highlight is Carro Matto (literally Mad Car), which takes place each September 29.

Back in the day, an ox cart full of Chianti bottles would enter the city and give out wine to the citizens. Now, however, just local authorities get their fair share of booze (bummer!).

15. Florentine gelato

Ice cream as we know it outside of Italy (which has more air and fat than gelato) had been around since the Middle Ages, brought over from China.

In the 16th century, a Florentine pastry chef called Bernardo Buontalenti was tasked with impressing a Spanish delegation visiting the city and came up with what’s arguably the earliest Italian gelato: the Florentine cream (or crema fiorentina).

Gelato in Florence

The new flavor was made with honey, egg yolks, and a touch of wine. Luckily for us, crema fiorentina is available to this very day in the greatest gelato shops across town.

In this case, you might want to skip chains that you’ll also find in other Italian cities (e.g. Venchi and Grom) and head to local shops like Gelateria La Carraia and Gelateria dei Neri.

16. Pinocchio

While Geppetto’s wooden son rose to global stardom thanks to Disney’s 1940 movie, the original story was actually created in Florence.

Author Carlo Collodi published The Adventures of Pinocchio in a weekly magazine for children between 1881 and 1882.

Pinocchio puppets for sale in a souvenir stall and tourists taking pictures on the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, Italy
Editorial credit: jan kranendonk / Shutterstock.com

Upon being printed as a book a year later, the novel went on to become one of the most widely translated and best-selling books ever, besides one of Florence’s informal symbols.

Souvenir stalls across the city are awash with puppets, keyholders, and other Pinocchio memorabilia, which makes for an unusual gift to your loved ones back home.

Conclusion

Historic center of florence oltrarno district urban street view

A few glasses (or perhaps a bottle?) of Chianti and countless Renaissance masterpieces later, we’re done discovering the major things Florence is known for. Now it’s time to experience all that in person, or is it?

When you do, consider booking a trip to Tuscany so you can visit the region’s quintessential towns (Pisa, Siena, Lucca,…) — as well as iconic landscapes like Val d’Orcia — after you’re done exploring Florence.

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