Don’t know much about Florence? Studying the skyline is a perfect place to start and just the way to fake it. Whether you just embarked on your semester abroad, are a few years settled into your Italian expat life, or are passing through with friends, it’s always fun to dote on your favorite destination and impress your friends and family with your breadth of knowledge about Florence. Not actually a Florence pro (yet)? We’ve got your Cliffs Notes, and they come in the form of a beautiful cityscape. Pointing out your favorite palazzi, piazze, and ponti from above is sure to convince your visitors that you know this city inside-out (even if you’re still kind of faking it).
As Florence is conveniently set in a valley, opportunities for breathtaking views abound. The most well-known, postcard-perfect view of Florence is found at Piazzale Michelangelo, just south of the San Niccolò neighborhood in the Oltrarno. For the purposes of this skyline crash-course, we’ll orient ourselves here.
Synagogue of Florence
I’ll bet you 20 euro that one of the first questions your visitors will ask is, “What is the green dome?” To the east (right) side of your view, the copper dome of the Synagogue of Florence majestically towers above the terracotta rooftops. The Turkish-style Synagogue opened its doors in 1882. Built with pink travertine stone and capped with a green dome, the synagogue boasts being the first Jewish Synagogue in the city that was not disguised as something else, as was common in the Jewish ghetto. The Synagogue is actively engaged with the community, welcoming locals for aperitivo and live music throughout the year. Keep an eye on our monthly events posts, as these events always make the list.
Technically south (but according to your eye left) of the Synagogue you can check out the Basilica of Santa Croce, the first Franciscan church in Florence. The Basilica was originally built in the marshy river waters just outside of the city for the purpose of preaching to peasants. However, as the city grew wealthy Florentines quickly spruced the space up with works of art by Giotto, Donatello, and Bronzino, to name a few. Today, Santa Croce is most commonly known as the pantheon for Florentine greats. Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Foscolo were all laid to rest in this very place.
Just to the left of the facade of Santa Croce, cradled between the two hills in the background, the bell tower on the horizon marks the little sister of Florence–Fiesole. You may not know it yet, but you’ll soon be in love with this hilltop town. The ancient Etruscan town of Fiesole predates Florence by about 5,000 years. When the Romans swooped in around the year zero, they did their thing and added typical Roman touches, such as pagan temples and amphitheaters, whose ruins can still be viewed today. St. Romulus, a close friend of St. Peter, came to convert the town shortly thereafter, and Fiesole became a major Christian center in Europe. Fiesole watched little Florence grow from above for hundreds of years. Rivalries grew but tensions boiled over in the early twelfth century. Florence finally overtook the the hilltop town and turned it into a vacation community for wealthy Florentines. Burn.
Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo)
Ok, onto that big bump in the skyline. Santa Maria del Fiore is not only the cathedral (duomo) of Florence, it’s an architectural masterpiece, a symbol of civic pride, and possibly one of Michelangelo’s favorite things ever. Florence’s cathedral was built and rebuilt over the course of several centuries. Finally, by the fifteenth century, the imaginative Florentines had created a structure grand enough for their city. Only one problem: they hadn’t quite figured out how to cover it (details, you know?). Lucky for the Florentines, Filippo Brunelleschi masterminded the biggest dome the world had ever engineered, altering the history of architecture, and the Florence skyline forever. When Michelangelo designed an even bigger dome for the Vatican, he made sure to note, although larger, it would never be greater than the dome of Florence.
To the left of the dome, a bell tower designed by Giotto balances out the cathedral complex.
Scanning the sky further to your left you’ll notice a mini-me dome peek out from the rooftops. Now, I won’t speak for Meg, but I feel compelled to confess that in a pinch I have in fact, MOMENTARILY, confused this little guy for the real deal. After slapping myself in the face I remember that this dome actually belongs to the Basilica of San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo was the church of the illustrious Medici–the banking-turned-tyrant-turned-royal-family of Florence. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Basilica boasts architecture by both Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, as well as houses the tombs of the most illustrious members of the Medici family.
The Bargello & Badia
Scanning back toward the Duomo, perhaps you noticed the two towers interrupting your view of the cathedral. The tower to the right belongs to the Bargello. The structure served as a torture and execution prison under the Medici. Today, prison cells have been turned into art galleries, but the chapel where prisoners received their last rites before being taken to the gallows is a chilling reminder of the Bargello’s dark past.
To the left of the Bargello, the pointed bell tower belongs to the Badia of Florence. The Badia was built in the tenth century as an abbey and retains its religious function today. With little Dante and Boccaccio growing up in the neighborhood, the Badia makes cameos in both The Divine Comedy and The Decameron.
Visit the church any day at 6 p.m. to hear the absolutely enchanting and beautiful vespers sung by the monks and nuns of the community.
Palazzo Vecchio & The Torre di Arnolfo
While the towers of the Bargello and Badia certainly hold their own in the skyline, the Torre di Arnolfo, which tops the Palazzo Vecchio, trumps them all. In Florence, there was nothing like a good tower to tell your neighbors just how powerful you were, and, as the seat of the government, it was imperative that Palazzo Vecchio have a good one. Arnolfo di Cambio began work on the tower at the end of the thirteenth century and finished it over twenty years later. Upon completion, the lion and lily (symbols of the city) were added to the spire. Inside the tower, prison cells held the city’s most dangerous criminals, and threatening fortifications prevented even the boldest of intruders from attempting to take the tower.
Recently, the Palazzo Vecchio opened this tower the public. Although the ticket comes with a small price, it is not uncommon to find civic holidays which cover the price for you.
Moving our eyes down to the Arno, we finally arrive at the most beautiful bridge in the world (remember, you’re selling the city to your visitors)–the Ponte Vecchio. The Old Bridge has countless stories to tell, including medieval family feuds and World War II meetings between Mussolini and Hitler. Today, the bridge that formerly housed the butcher shops of Florence is known for its jewelry shops, as requested by the Medici, whose secret passage passed above the bridge. They just couldn’t take the stench of the meat! Let Meg give you the full low down on the bridge’s dramatic history here.
That is all you need to know to fake it till you make it as a Florentine skyline expert! And just when you’ve successfully answered all of your friends’ and family’s whats and wheres, don’t forget to enjoy the best part –watching the sun set over it all.