There’s so much to see in Florence that it can be hard to know what you’re even looking at.
While touring the small, packed city, you’ll stumble upon world class church after world class church. It’s easy to get church fatigue, but with a little bit of background knowledge you can choose which ones interest you the most and save the others for another visit.
The most popular churches of Florence:
Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (the Duomo)
Go: if you only have time to see one church
Florence began construction on its magnificent cathedral in the 13th century but it wasn’t until nearly a century later that work on its massive dome began. Designed by Brunelleschi, it is one of the most significant architectural achievements of the Renaissance. The icon of Florence, Brunelleschi wasn’t the only famous artist to leave his mark on the church. Ghiberti completed the ornate bronze doors on the baptistery and Giotto the bell tower next door, not to mention the hundreds of other architects, artists and engineers who worked on the cathedral during its 100+ year construction.
This is by far the most important church in Florence, if just touring the facade isn’t enough for you, you’ll need the The Great Duomo Museum ticket. This includes the Cathedral, Brunelleschi’s Dome, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Crypt of Santa Reparata and the Opera Museum all for 18 euro.
The ticket allows the holder to visit all the monuments within 72 hours of visiting the first one. Each site can only be visited once with the ticket.
Reservations are mandatory for the climb on the Dome. The service is free.
Read 7 Things You Didn’t Know About The Incredible Florence Duomo over at Walks of Italy.
Santa Croce Basilica
Go: to walk among the greats; to get the most for your money
Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in Italy and holds the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo, no big deal. There’s also a memorial to Dante. The church was severely damaged by the flood of 1966 — inside you can see a plaque showing how far up the water rose on the pillars and walls — and so even today it’s still largely devoid of significant decoration. Still, a visit into the church gets you into the Basilica, the Pazzi Chapel, the Museum of the Opera, the Refectory and three cloisters. Look out for free tours available from volunteers directly inside!
Santa Maria Novella Basilica and Cloisters
Go: if you love art; to show off your Florence knowledge after
Santa Maria Novella is just across from Florence’s central train station with the same name. It’s a perfect first stop on your tour of Florence as you leave the train station and head toward the center of town.
The beautiful church with a white and green marble façade is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles inside and out, giving it a completely unique look. The rose window on the outside is one of the city’s oldest and the inside is another who’s who of Italian artists.
This is an art lovers church. Inside there are crucifixes by Giotto and Brunelleschi, the famous Trinity painting by Masaccio and frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Lippi. Inside the sacristy you’ll find work by Michelangelo, who apparently once called the church his bride.
The Basilica di San Lorenzo and Medici Chapels
Go: if you love history; if you want to get a look into Florence’s most powerful ruling family
The San Lorenzo complex is monumental: there’s the basilica, cloisters, library and a little beyond the Medici chapels. The Basilica is one of the largest churches in Florence as well as one of its oldest. Consecrated in the late 300s, it was Florence’s cathedral for centuries and the Medici family’s parish church. It was the Medici family that commissioned the Romanesque church’s renovations. The Basilica you see today was designed by Brunelleschi and decorated by Donatello. Michelangelo designed a white marble façade to show the church in all its magnificence but it was never completed, leaving the rough strewn look it has today.
Inside, look for Brunelleschi’s Sagrestia Vecchia with a decoration by Donatello. In the attached San Lorenzo Treasury Museum you can find Donatello’s actual tomb in the basilica crypt.
Santo Spirito Basilica
Go: if you’re in the Oltrarno and want to see more of the hip Santo Spirito neighborhood
Santo Spirito Basilica is one of the most important churches in Florence’s Oltrarno neighborhood, or the area on the other side of the Arno, but you wouldn’t know that on first glance. The Basilica’s exterior is stark and nude, completely devoid of any decoration. Inside, it’s an exemplar of Renaissance churches. The wealthy families living in the Oltrarno commissioned Brunelleschi to design and build the church, to show the neighborhoods growing status. The famous architect designed a meticulous church, but died before it was ever finished. His apprentices finished the work the best they could, since Brunelleschi left little notes behind. It was his last major work before his death.
It’s also said that Michelangelo found solace in the Santo Spirito Convent at the age of seventeen when his patron Lorenzo il Magnifico died. As a thank you to the church he carved a wooden sculpture that, after being hidden and disguised during the French occupation, is now back in the sacristy of the unassuming church.
Go: to see something new and unique; to save money
Orsanmichele (or San Michele in Orto) was originally a grain hall, office space and marketplace. Inside, there was a beautiful fresco of the Virgin Mary that had accumulated a multitude of miraculous events. Over time, so many pilgrims flooded the hall that everyday commerce became impossible. Thus, the church was formed.
Its background as a commercial center can still be seen today. For one, there’s no formal church door. The entrance to the church is in the back! Not only that, but the church and museum spread over the three floors. An underrated church at best, Orsanmichele is worth a visit if only to enter and explore one of Florence’s massive historic buildings in the city center. Located between Piazza Signoria and Piazza del Duomo, you can check out the exterior decorated with stonework by Ghiberti and Donatello. Inside, spend more time in the second-floor museum than the church itself, where you can enjoy a remarkable view of Florence.
San Miniato al Monte
Go: for the experience with a great view; for the workout (it’s a hike!)
San Miniato is located above Piazzale Michelangelo with one of the best views over Florence. With your back to the church, you can see out over the city, clear to the massive Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio’s tall tower and many of the city’s other major highlights. But this is more than just a church with a view. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, I’ve never been to a church with more atmosphere than this one. Surrounded by a cemetery filled with famous men such as the author of Pinocchio, the inside is dark and timeless. Check out the mosaic floor (look for the zodiac motifs) and painted wooden ceiling, then head into the even darker crypt where relics of San Miniato are kept, an Armenian soldier who, after numerous attempts to kill him for his faith in 250, was finally decapitated by the Arno River. Apparently, Miniato collected his head and headed up the mount to where the church is built today. How’s that for a story?
A Few More Churches of Florence:
Of course, these aren’t the only churches in Florence – this is an Italian city after all! (Check out this massive list of Florentine churches!) But even a blog post can get church fatigue, so here’s a brief rundown of a few others worth mentioning:
Santa Trinità Church
– First Gothic church in Florence. It has 20 chapels, each filled with masterpieces from various Italian artists.
Ognissanti (All Saint’s)
– Botticelli is buried in the church near his love, Simonetta Vespucci. It was also the original home of Giotto’s Madonna and Child with angels, now in the Uffizi Gallery.
Santissima Annunziata (Church of the Annunciation)
– home of a miracle: a Virgin Mary painting whose face was painted at an angel’s hand.
San Marco Basilica
– Most of the church was destroyed, so visit for the convent and attached museum where you can find beautiful work by the Dominican monk Fra Angelico and super old manuscripts in a library built by Michelozzo.