The 5 best museums in Florence that should be on your bucket list
When visiting Florence it’s almost impossible to not be struck by the endless lists of beautiful historical buildings, museums, churches and artworks. It sometimes even gets too overwhelming, as the 19th century French writer ‘Stendhal’ found out in person when he came to Florence in 1817. The surroundings he found himself into were so moving that he felt physically unwell because of the overwhelming effects of them. This effect was later named the ‘Stendhal Syndrome’, indicating the total state of being overwhelmed when looking at art.
Of course I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed, but it does show how much beauty there is in the city. To make your life a bit easier I’ve put together a list of museums that are really worth the visit. Some of them are world famous, others are not as well-known. Here are 5 museums that you definitely shouldn’t miss when you’re in Florence!
Being one of Florence busiest museums, you definitely want to book your ticket and timeslot ahead before arriving (click here). That being said, you shouldn’t skip this museum. It’s home to probably the most famous statue in the world: the David by Michelangelo. Originally designed for the North Tribune of the Duomo, it ended up in front of the Piazza della Signoria. Nowadays a copy can be found there, and the original work can be admired in this museum. The Republic of Florence commissioned the David as a symbol for Florence. Carved out of one big block of marmer, it’s one of Michelangelo’s absolute masterpieces.
Apart from the David you find other (unfinished) works by Michelangelo, as well as pieces of Lippi and Botticelli.
More info: galeriaaccademiafirenze.beniculturali.it
During the Renaissance, the Bargello was the palace of the ‘podesta’: in our time we would call him a judge. Not only was it a court, it was a prison at the same time. After the final judgement, prisoners who were sentenced to death were transported to outside the city gates where most executions took place.
Today the Bargello is a museum with a beautiful collection including some highlights of Renaissance art. Two masterpieces both depict an already familiar scene; David who has just defeated the giant Goliath.
There are two Davids in the Bargello, one by Verrocchio and one by Donatello. They differ greatly in style whilst depicting a similar topic. The bronze David by Donatello was the first freestanding sculpture after Antiquity to be cast in bronze. It was commissioned by the Medici family and for a long time stood in the courtyard of their city palace. By the end of the 15th century however, the Medici for a couple of years were banned from the city and the statue was moved to the Palazzo della Signoria (also known als ‘Palazzo Vecchio’).
Another remarkable part of the Bargello’s collection are two bronze panels made for a competition to design a set of bronze doors for the Battistero, in front of the Duomo. Two masters of the Renaissance, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, competed against each other. Despite both panels being very detailed and beautifully cast, Ghiberti won the competition. One of the reasons? He used less bronze for his cast, by leaving the back hollow. It made the doors a lot cheaper. Something even the rich men of the Renaissance were sensitive to!
More info: bargellomusei.beniculturali.it
Museo dell’opera del Duomo
If you buy a ticket to enter the Duomo or maybe even climb the dome, it will include all ‘Duomo’ sites: the cathedral, the Battistero, Giotto’s bell tower, the dome and the museum itself.
The museum is a great example of a modern way of presenting art. Instead of passively showing you different artifacts, it takes you on a journey through the construction of the cathedral and the art involved. It is modern, bright and set up very well.
The Battistero, bell tower and cathedral have been of great importance for the development of art in Renaissance Florence. And not only that, numerous times they have also been the backdrop of important historical events, such as the ‘Pazzi conspiracy’. A conspiracy in which an attempt was made to kill Lorenzo ‘The Magnificent’ de’Medici. He managed to get away, but his brother Giugliano was killed.
Some of the most important works in the museum include the original bronze doors (The Gates of Paradise) of the Battistero, designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, a touching statue of Mary Magdalene by Donatello and various original statues by a.o. Michelangelo, Donatello and Pisano. If you have time, don’t forget to pass by the workshop in Via dello Studio, where copies of the original statues are made in order to be able to move the original works to the museum.
More info: ilgrandemuseodelduomo.it
The ‘old palace’ or ‘Palazzo della Signoria’ is one of the defining buildings of the historical centre of Florence. It’s where both the municipality of Florence and a museum are located. The building consists of 3 different parts, all built in different periods. The most characteristic part of the building, the front part with the tower, is the oldest and dates back to the late 13th century. It was originally designed as the seat of the ‘Signoria’, the ruling body of Renaissance Florence. Throughout the centuries it has been both the seat of the local government, as well as the place where the Medici family (when they ruled the city as dukes) lived.
Nowadays you can visit part of the building for free (ground floor) and the upper floors are home to a beautiful museum that give a great overview of the city’s history. Planning on getting married in Florence? You can still do that in this building as well!
Some of the highlights of the museum include the enormous ‘Salone di 500’ (room of 500) designed to house city council meetings. The walls and ceiling are richly decorated and the room is said to have a hidden painting by Leonardo da Vinci under one of the currently existing wall decorations.
It is possible to book very good and affordable tours of the museum. There are tours that go around the rooms of the museum, but there are also a few special tours that get you to places that you wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. My favourite tour is the ‘Secret Passages’ tour, that takes you, amongst others, to the ceiling above the Salon di 500. A pretty mind-blowing experience! The only thing you need to do is book the tours on beforehand. It’s definitely worth the (little) effort!
More info: musefirenze.it
Last but not least is the beautiful Palazzo Davanzati. Probably my favourite museum in town! It’s the old family palace of the Davizzi family and dates back to the mid-1300s. It belonged to the Davizzi family until the mid-1800s and was later turned into a museum showing how a rich Florentine family lived during the Renaissance. The decorations on the walls of the various rooms are absolutely stunning and as often in life, also here the beauty is very much in the details. Throughout the museum you find little scribbling on the walls. Drawings, texts, a historical reference: Renaissance versions of post-its. It’s like stepping into a time machine and exiting in Renaissance Florence.
The museum has done a beautiful job not overdoing their interpretation, but keeping it simple and letting the different rooms speak for themselves. It’s one of the few places in Florence that really give you an idea of (luxurious) life during the Renaissance.
If you want to visit, make sure you book ahead to also be able to access the 2nd and 3rd floor, where the most important rooms are located. Take your time and walk back into rooms you were in before; I’m convinced you’ll see details you didn’t see the first time you walked in!
More info: bargellomusei.beniculturali.it
Museums in Florence
It’s safe to say that you can spend a few weeks just visiting all the museums, churches, convents, gardens and palaces Florence has to offer. Also, you may have noticed some of the world famous museums, like the Uffizi Galleries and the Palazzo Pitti are not on this list.
Why? Because I personally think there are other places, like the 5 museums above, that give you a better feel of what Florence and the Renaissance are and were all about. It’s easy to get lost in the enormous museums that the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti are. Especially if you don’t really have a clue what you’re looking at.
The museums above are more accessible and, except for the Accademia, a bit quieter as well. Less worries, more time to really have a look around and take in what this city is all about!
If you want to read more tips for your trip to Florence, make sure to check out my other blogs as well.