Florence, or Firenze, as its known by the locals, is an amazing city full of art, great food and architecture. It is often credited with being the birthplace of the Renaissance, and for good reason: Donatello, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Galileo and Caravaggio all worked and created art here. It was here where the world saw a dramatic transition from the Medieval flat paintings of Madonnas with haloed babies to incredibly realistic Baroque art with an almost photographic quality.
If you've never been to Florence and it's on your bucket list, chances are you'll end up here one of two ways: either on a tri-city tour with Venice and Rome, or a one-day stop in neighboring Livorno on your Mediterranean cruise. So, how do you squeeze 500 years of art and history into a single day? The quick answer: you don't. However, you can supercharge your trip and catch many of the highlights of the city in one day. Here's how:
1. The Duomo
Also known as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (which is why most people just stick with "Duomo"), this cathedral is a UNESCO site and the center of the city. Many credit the creation of its famous dome as a contributing factor that sparked the Renaissance movement. The church was under construction for over 100 years, as its original plans included an ambitious dome larger than that of the Roman pantheon. Filippo Brunelleschi, a local designer, won the task of figuring out how to build the part of the cathedral that everyone thought impossible. He and fellow artist Donatello visited Rome and studied the construction methods employed by the Romans, then invented a machine for lifting 4 million bricks into place and completed the dome. This kicked off a revival of Roman architecture and was a catalyst for the reinvention of cement and progressive art.
This famous church complex is the symbol of Florence moreso than any other place or structure in the city. The Baptistry building contains the famous bronze doors also designed by Brunelleschi and is one of the most photographed places in Florence. Admission to the basilica is free unless you'd like to go to the top. Make sure you check out the inside view of the dome from below, with a style reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel.
2. Gallerie dell'Accademia
This museum gallery is the home of David, Florence's most prized sculpture and one of the most recognized pieces of art in the world. Michaelangelo may have been the third artist to work on this marble behemoth, but he truly made David his own. Along with Il Duomo, the David is an absolute must-see.
The museum also has a collection of plaster casts including Rape of the Sabine, some medieval pieces and some unfinished Michaelangelo statues. You can breeze through this intimate museum in about half an hour if you're on a time constraint. Other than David, the statue room is the most interesting, with scores of marble heads and funerary pieces. You have to go through the whole museum to get to the exit, so it's doubtful you'll miss anything.
3. Ponte Vecchio
This bridge is a couple of blocks from the Uffizi Gallery Museum and is also an enduring symbol of the city. According to some, the bridge was spared destruction by the Nazis after Hitler viewed it on a tour with Mussolini. Whether the bridge is as beautiful as some say is surely in the eye of the beholder. Today, it's mostly an outdoor jewelry mall, but it also offers great views of the Arno river and makes a nice rest stop on the way to Piazza Pitti.
4. The Uffizi Gallery Museum
This gem of a museum is Italy's answer to the Louvre. Originally an office building for the Medici family in the 16th century (uffizi means "office" in Italian), it now houses several must-see paintings including world renowned Botticelli's Primavera and The Birth of Venus. Caravaggio, Da Vinci and Rafael are also represented, and you can easily spend two hours here even if you're moving quickly.
5. Santa Croce
What's the next best thing to meeting Michaelangelo in person? Visiting his grave. The story goes that the famous artist lived in Rome for 30 years before his death and was buried in Rome, before his body stolen and later shipped to Florence. So, this isn't just the grave of the famous sculptor—it's the resting place of the dug-up,-bootlegged, stolen body of Michaelangelo. Machiavelli is also buried in the tombs of this famous Franciscan church, as are Galileo (you know—the guy from "Bohemian Rhapsody") and Marconi, the Italian inventor of the radio, is also in this amazing cathedral. If you have an issue with walking on graves, you'll have to get past it. The whole floor seems to be made of marble memorial panels marking the famous and fallen.
6. Anywhere That Serves Italian Sandwiches
Forget gnocchi or pasta e fagioli. The top two must-do restaurants in Florence are sandwich dives. Stacking them fast and furious, eateries like SandwiChic and Panini Toscani sate the endless queues of hungry patrons with truffle spreads, spicy meats, eggplant, arugula and other fresh ingredients piled high on chewy ciabatta loaves. Choose wisely and the young Italian boys will cheerfully fill your order. Thirsty? There are lots of local Chianti choices to wash down your meal.
7. Piazza della Signoria
You'll be hard pressed to find a display of more public statues than you'll see in this vibrant square. If you can't get into the Gallerie dell'Accademia to see the real David, you can always see his doppelgänger standing in this piazza. Also look for Neptune's fountain and dozens of random works of art clustered together throughout the square.
There are plenty of other museums and piazzas to keep you busy if you have more time, but if you get an early start and follow my list, it's likely you'll be able to hold a conversation with most anyone about Florence's top tourist spots.