Some of the finest gems of Western architecture are clustered on Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli, known locally as Piazza del Duomo.
Your first sight of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Duomo and the Baptistery is literally breathtaking, their white marble shining in the sunshine on a bed of emerald green lawn against a summer’s blue sky.
Apart from the glorious architecture – white, red and green marble, Romanesque curves, Tuscan arches and Gothic points – it’s the almost surreal spatial quality of the buildings that creates a sensation.
Come here during the day to see the buildings’ white marble shine in the sunlight, and return again at night when visitors are fewer and the buildings are beautifully floodlit.
There is no shortage of “David” statues in Florence, but if you want to see the real thing—the one that inspired all the copies—you've got to go to the Galleria dell'Accademia, or Accademia Gallery. It was custom built to showcase Michelangelo's masterpiece, and it does so beautifully.
Michelangelo's “David” was carved from 1501 to 1504 and originally stood at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio on the Piazza della Signoria. Not long after the statue was unveiled, a particularly rowdy fight taking place in the Palazzo led to a chair getting thrown out of a window—directly onto the David's arm, which broke in three places. The statue was moved to its present home in 1873 to further protect it from damage, and a replica was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the spot where the original first stood.
The marble Michelangelo was given to work with for this statue was imperfect and had already been partly carved by his predecessor.
Siena's magnificent Tuscan Gothic cathedral is not to be missed. And if you're in Siena you can't miss it because it dominates the place. Rising high with its magnificent white and greenish black stripes, it has a bit of red thrown in on the front facade and lots of detailing - including scrolls, biblical scenes and gargoyles. In the centre is the huge rose window designed by Duccio di Buoninsegna in 1288. Statues of prophets and philosophers by Giovanni Pisano which used to adorn the facade are now housed indoors at the nearby Museo Dell'Opera.
Inside the place is equally impressive with art by Donatello, Bernini and early Michelangelo. Some of the best pieces such as Duccio di Buoninsegni's Maesta have been moved next door to the Museo Dell'Opera. Unlike other cathedrals where you are craning your neck to see magnificent ceilings and frescoes, here you need to look down at the mosaic floor. The whole floor is tiled and is one of the most impressive in Italy.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the most famous structures in the world – not because of its gently rising series of arches, but because of its legendary tilt.
Constructed as the bell tower to accompany the cathedral, the tower began to shift on its foundations in 1178, before the architect, Bonanno Pisano, had completed the first three tiers.
Fortunately, the lean has now been halted, due to tricks with cables and counter-subsidence. The tower now leans on an angle of 4.1 meters (13 feet), rather than the previous 5 meters (16 feet).
It’s well worth paying the extra to climb the spiral stairs leading to the top of the Leaning Tower for views across Pisa. Make sure you book ahead as reservations are compulsory and numbers are limited.
Every Italian city has its central piazza where the city's political, social and cultural business took place, and Siena's is pretty magnificent. The Piazza del Campo was developed in the mid-14th century by the ruling Council of Nine who, naturally, divided the space into nine sectors, each representing one of them. Never be in any doubt that a lot of self-aggrandizement existed during this period.
At one end of the square is the magnificent Palazzo Pubblico, or town hall (now also housing the Museo Civico) and from here the shell-shaped space radiates out. The bell tower of 1297, Torre del Mangia, rises from the palazzo and from up here there are great views. Enclosing the remainder of the square are the Late Gothic palaces of the grand medieval families of Siena. The Fonte Gaia, or fountain of life, is a white marble focal point and meeting place at the top end of the piazza. Twice a year, in July and August, the madness of the traditional bareback horse race.
You'll catch glimpses of the red-tiled dome of the Duomo, or Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori, peeping over the rooftops as soon as you arrive in Florence.
The 13th-century Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio was responsible for building many landmarks in Florence but this is his showstopper. The beautiful ribbed dome was creatively added by Brunelleschi in the 1420s.
The building took 170 years to complete, and the facade was remodeled to reflect Cambio’s design in the 19th century.
Inside the Duomo, your eyes are inevitably drawn upwards to that soaring painted dome and lovely stained-glass windows by such masters as Donatello. Visit the crypt, where Brunelleschi's tomb lies, or to the top of the enormous dome itself for stupendous views over Florence.
Standing tall over the city of Florence, Brunelleschi’s Dome is an architectural feat, the most prominent part of the Florence Cathedral, and a symbol of Florence itself. Located in the city's historic center, the cathedral complex that holds the dome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The whole area is known to locals as the “Duomo” or dome, after the structure. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and completed in 1436, it took sixteen years to build. And at 45 meters wide, it is the single largest masonry dome in the world.
Brunelleschi came to the rescue when, after over 100 years of cathedral construction, there were plans for to add a dome but no idea how to erect one. He went against existing construction norms and resolved to build a dome without wooden scaffolding — one that would support itself as it was built. It was an engineering and design marvel at the time, and the fact that it still stands tall more than 600 years later is a testament to its masterpiece.
If you want to catch those iconic, sweeping views of Florence you've seen in postcards, head to Piazzale Michelangelo. From an elevated position overlooking the city, the fabulous views take in the city's fortified walls, the River Arno, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and, of course, the round red dome of the Duomo.
During the day, drink in the views as you stroll along the Renaissance promenade, overlooked by yet another copy of Michelangelo's David. Return in the evening for magical views of Florence floodlit at night.
Pisa’s marvelously striped marble cathedral is a textbook example of Pisan Romanesque architecture, dating back to 1064.
Roughly cross-shaped, the duomo features a galleried exterior topped with a small dome and completed with a rounded apse.
Inside, the building’s five naves create a sea of pillars rising to a golden coffered ceiling.
Much medieval detail was lost during a disastrous fire in 1595, but the mosaic by Cimabue surrounding the altar survived intact. Another highlight is the ornately carved pulpit by Giovanni Pisano.
Giotto's elegant bell tower (Campanile di Giotto) flanks Florence's Duomo and Baptistery, rounding off Piazza del Duomo's prime attractions. Designed by Giotto in 1334, the Gothic tower is faced in the similar nougat-hued marbles of the Duomo. The design features five distinct tiers decorated with arched windows, sculptures and geometric patterns of different colored marbles.
Take a close-up look at the lovely plaques decorating the tower at ground level, sculpted by Pisano. The originals are housed in the nearby Duomo Museum.
More than 400 steps climb to the top of the 82-meter (25-foot) bell tower, for wonderful views of Florence and the River Arno.
The Pitti Palace was built by rivals of the powerful Medici family in the mid-1400s. A century later, the Medicis took over the huge Renaissance palace, and it was the home of Florentine rulers until the early 20th century.
Today the massive palace houses a number of picture galleries and museums, and is surrounded by gardens and ornate fortifications. To see the entire collection would take days if not weeks, so choose your favorites and plunge in!
A tour of the royal apartments reveals the Medicis' taste for over-the-top decor. An impressive collection of Renaissance masterpieces is housed in the Palatina Gallery, with works by Raphael, Titian and Rubens.
To see the Medicis family's silverware, head to the Silver Museum, or take a stroll around the Renaissance Boboli Gardens, with its statues and grottoes.
Saint Catherine of Siena brought this basilica to prominence by taking her vows here in 1363 when she was just 15. Having had her first vision at the age of 6 near this church and deciding to follow a religious life from 7, she went on to lead a highly significant existence tending the sick, receiving the stigmata from a wooden cross in Pisa, mediating for the Papacy during its exile in France and also the time of Great Schism of the West when the cardinals could not agree on who should be the next pope.
She died at the age of 33 in Rome. In 1461 she was made a saint, in 1866 she became a patron saint of Rome, and in 1939 a patron saint of Italy. Finally in 1999, she was proclaimed a co-patron saint of Europe.
The Palazzo Pubblico is hard to miss. A magnificent stone and red brick building begun in 1297, with excellent towers and crenellations, it is everything one could hope for from a Gothic town hall. Situated on the lower side of the Piazza Campo, the building is shaped to fit the design of the civic square and has a subtle curve to it.
These days it retains its government functions and also houses the city museum, Museo Civico, which is well worth a visit for its frescoes, paintings and sculptures. The Sienese school was artistically significant and the late medieval frescoes were some of the first to depict non-religious themes. Instead they made statements about government, justice and patriotic devotion. The most significant is the huge fresco cycle of 1337 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, entitled Allegory of Good and Bad Government; it’s not difficult to get the painting’s message.
Florence’s spacious Piazza della Signoria has long been one of the city’s main meeting points. The Palazzo Vecchio, which anchors one side of the square, was once home to the rulers of the Florentine Republic, and today still serves as the city’s town hall. This square, then, was often used by those seeking favor (or protesting) their government.
Today, the Palazzo Vecchio houses a museum along with the town hall, and the Piazza della Signoria is lined with other major attractions. In front of the Palazzo Vecchio you’ll find a copy of Michelangelo’s famous “David” statue (in the place where the original once stood). The open-air gallery that is the Loggia dei Lanzi contains a collection of sculptures. And to one side of the Palazzo Vecchio is a fountain with a huge statue of Neptune.
The Piazza della Signoria was the site of the 14th century “Burning of the Vanities” led by the monk Savonarola, and it’s also where Savonarola was later hanged.
Work on this beautiful basilica began in 1294, though the facade and bell tower are 19th-century additions. The world's largest Franciscan church, it houses 16 chapels and famous frescoes by Giotto.
On the inside, the church is a classic example of Tuscan Gothic. Take a walk around the immense and lofty interior to spot Michelangelo’s tomb by Vasari, the Giotto frescoes in the Peruzzi Chapel, the Gaddi frescoes, porcelain details by della Robbia, and work by Donatello.
Along with Michelangelo, other famous names buried or commemorated in Santa Croce include the Renaissance architect Alberti, Galileo, Ghiberti, Machiavelli, Marconi, and Dante.
Built in the 16th century in Florence’s Boboli Gardens, Buontalenti Grotto is the largest grotto in the city. Named after the architect who oversaw its construction in the late 16th century, it was commissioned by Grand Duke of Tuscany and has since featured Dan Brown’s bestselling novel.
A curious-looking place indeed, on both the outside and inside the grotto’s covered in man-made stalagmites and mythical mosaic creatures including sea goats. Buontalenti Grotto is divided into three rooms with the first, and biggest, styled in the most natural way as a cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. There are also a few anthropomorphic creatures created out of stones and shells thrown in there for good measure. The next room is similarly decorated to the first, and includes frescoes depicting Minerva and Giunone. The third room is also known for its impressive frescoes, but here you’ll also see a green marble fountain and a ceiling painted to resemble a sky full of birds.
Rising high above the Piazza del Campo is the bell tower, Torre del Mangia, built in the early 1300s. It reaches nearly 90 metres above the Palazzo Pubblico and was intended to be exactly the same height at the bell tower of the Duomo to indicate equality between church and state. These are the two structures that still soar high above the historic center of Siena.
If you have the stomach for heights and no fear of tight spaces, climb the 500 steps for a great view down onto the square and across the city beyond. The irony is, of course, that the tower is named after its first watchman, an overweight glutton, hence the name Tower of the Eater. It’s not sure he would ever have made it up the top to see the view.
One of the oldest buildings in Florence, it's thought that the octagonal Baptistery stands on the site of an ancient Roman temple. It may even have been built as early as the 5th century. The striking Romanesque cladding of white and green marble was added in the early 12th century.
Inside, the Baptistery features gold mosaics, marble columns and tombs. Look up to catch the best views of the gilded mosaics covering the cupola.
Perhaps the Baptistery's most famous attraction is its trio of gilded bronze doors, decorated with panels. Examine the panels up close to admire their incredible details.
Designed by the renowned architect Giovanni Mengoni in the late 19th century, Florence’s Mercato Centrale is a cavernous, two-storey market hall that’sl full of Tuscan foods. The biggest market in the city, on the outside it’s all iron and lots of glass. Enter on the ground floor to see rows and rows of meats and cheeses including mounds of fresh buffalo mozzarella, and food bars where you can stop for a snack or a panini. The northern corner’s where to buy fish and shellfish, while the second floor is given over to vegetable stands.
All kinds of foods can be bought here, from fresh bread to pasta and pizza, gelato and chocolate. There’s also the popular Chianti Classico wine store, which you can arrange to have any wine you buy shipped home. You can also sign up for wine tasting classes or head to the market’s cooking school.
The pretty Piazza Santa Croce is a public square in central Florence located just to the east of the Piazza della Signoria. The square gets its name from the main building facing the piazza, the Santa Croce Basilica.
The Basilica of Santa Croce is a 15th century Franciscan church in which you’ll find the tombs of many famous Florentines. Those buried at Santa Croce include Michelangelo, Maciavelli, Rossini, Ghiberti, and Galileo. The church’s interior also features some noteworthy Giotto frescoes.
Two other buildings of note facing the piazza are the Palazzo dell’Antella and the Palazzo Cocchi-Serristori. The former is a one-time residential palace with a 17th century facade covered in detailed murals, while the latter was a smaller private home built in the 15th century from a 14th century structure. In the Piazza Santa Croce itself there is a statue dedicated to Dante.
The heart of Siena is the Piazza del Campo and the beating heart of the piazza has to be Fonte Gaia, the ‘fountain of joy’. Dating from the 15th century, it is surrounded on three sides by bas-relief panels made by Jacopo della Quercia who is considered a precursor to Michelangelo.
These days the original panels are housed in the Ospedale di St Maria della Scala in Piazza Duomo, and the fountain’s waters splash around 19th century copies (minus two female nude sculptures considered too risqué back then).
The white marble fountain is a magnet for those looking to rest their weary feet and be lulled by the sound of running water. Hopefully, despite being thoroughly fenced off, it continues to deliver the promised happiness.
The Piazza della Repubblica is a public square in the center of Florence that sits on some of the city’s most important historic sites. It was once the city’s Roman Forum — then subsequently its market and old ghetto, after the forum was extensively built over in the early Middle Ages. The present square was established in the 19th century Risanamento during the period in which Florence was briefly the capital of a reunited Italy. The expansion of the square meant the demolition of many significant structures.
The square was revitalized after the war, and today is the home to many street performers and artists as well as historic literary cafes and traveling exhibitions. Sitting in the piazza you can see the Colonna dell'Abbondanza (Column of Abundance) and the Arcone, the most prominent remaining structures of the past.