The cathedral of Florence, officially the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, is the main church of the city, and for many, also the most beautiful. It is located in the square of the same name and its history is indeed long: work began in 1296, but lasted until 1903, when the bronze doors were completed.
Even more than the wonderful façade, the symbol of the cathedral is its enormous dome, the largest in the world in masonry, the work of the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. It is possible to climb up the dome and admire a spectacular panorama of Florence, but even just seeing it from below, with its approximately 50-metre diameter, is impressive.
Next to the cathedral, its bell tower stands out: it is Giotto’s bell tower, another of the undisputed symbols of Florence, completed in 1359. The bell tower is aligned with the façade, houses 12 bells and is built as a totally independent building, to give it even more importance.
Finally, completing the picture of the cathedral of Florence is the beautiful baptistery, dedicated to Saint John, the city’s patron saint. With its octagonal layout and finely decorated bronze doors, it is one of the most special monuments of the Tuscan capital, and is worth a visit both as an integral part of the cathedral complex and as a building in its own right.
Many of the art masterpieces originally housed within the complex have been moved to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, located right at the intersection of Piazza del Duomo and Via Calzaiuoli. Don’t miss a visit, to get even more in touch with this wonderful square and its buildings, symbols of the Renaissance.
Needless to say, visiting Florence Cathedral and its beauty is an absolute must for anyone in the city. Honestly, it must also be said that it is difficult to pass through Florence and not notice it, since it is located right in the city centre, a stone’s throw from the station and right at the beginning of Via Calzaiuoli, the city’s main shopping street that leads to Piazza della Signoria.
As mentioned, the cathedral of Florence is actually composed of four distinct entities: they are the cathedral, the dome, the bell tower and the baptistery. These are flanked by the Opera del Duomo museum, which houses treasures and works of art that have been housed inside the buildings during their centuries-long history.
When its main structure was completed in the mid 1400s, Florence’s cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was the largest church in the world. Today, other places of worship have reached the top of this ranking, but the cathedral of Florence is still one of the most beautiful, imposing and important churches of the Christian Catholic rite.
The cathedral can also be visited from the inside, provided you are willing and able to make the very long queue. If you have better things to do during your visit to Florence, devote yourself to the outside, starting with the beautiful façade, with its truly tormented history: work began in the 15th century, but it was not inaugurated until 1887, almost 500 years later, designed by architect Emilio De Fabris, who unfortunately did not manage to see his work delivered to the citizens, as he died shortly before the completion of the work. Today, the façade of the cathedral is one of the most important examples of the Neo-Gothic style in Italy.
Inside, however, the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore shows its simple and austere side, almost as if it were empty. One can admire the gallery, which runs around the entire perimeter of the church, and its 44 stained glass windows, compared to 55 windows. Among the noteworthy works on display inside, mention the Dante with the Divine Comedy by Domenico di Michelino, the monument to Niccolò da Tolentino by Andrea del Castagno, and the equestrian monument to John Hawkwood by Paolo Uccello.
Don’t forget to raise your eyes to the sky and admire the dazzling interior decoration of the dome, with its fresco of the Last Judgement, originally by Vasari, but later taken up by Federico Zuccari and his collaborators. The idea of depicting the Last Judgement came from Cosimo I de’ Medici.
Next to the cathedral, totally detached from it, is Giotto’s bell tower, built in the Gothic style from 1298 to 1359. Managed by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, an organisation that also oversees the museum and the other monuments overlooking the square, it is one of the most visited and appreciated landmarks in Florence by tourists: referring to the year 2000, its visitors numbered about 300 thousand.
The bell tower has a beautiful sculptural decoration, very rich and meticulous, with bas-reliefs and icons displaying arts and crafts, some religious themes and some references to ancient Greece. But honestly, the best thing about Giotto’s bell tower is that you can climb to the top of it by climbing the steep stairs. So much effort will be repaid by a truly unique panorama of Florence, with privileged views of the cathedral, the dome and the entire historic centre.
brunelleschi’s dome is one of the main symbols of Florence, and one of the reasons why the Tuscan capital is known all over the world. Its dimensions are such that it is one of the most important architectural works ever built in Europe, and various hypotheses have arisen around its construction, as the construction technique in vogue at the time did not allow for such large domes.
Looking at it from the inside, you can see why: it is not actually a dome, but a solid with an octagonal base. Incidentally, on its inner sides there is a splendid fresco of the Last Judgement, which can be admired when visiting the cathedral.
The beauty of Brunelleschi’s dome, from a purely touristic point of view, is that you can climb to the top, climbing 463 steps. Once at the top, you can have a truly unique perspective of Florence, with views of Giotto’s bell tower and the city’s various monuments from above.
Florence from above: dome or bell tower?
Of course, to optimise the time of your visit, it is best to choose between the dome or the bell tower: the two views once you reach the top are similar, and if you have little time to visit Florence, we do not advise you to see both: choose on the basis of the monument you prefer to observe: by climbing the bell tower you can see the dome, and vice versa.
The fourth and smallest building in the Florence cathedral ensemble, though certainly not the least important, is the Baptistery of San Giovanni. Visit it from the outside, where you can admire its beautiful octagonal plan and especially its magnificent entrance doors, among which is the Gate of Paradise, made by Lorenzo Ghiberti and divided into 10 rectangular panels, presenting scenes from the Old Testament. The door you can see is a copy: the original is in the Opera del Duomo museum.
Inside the baptistery, on the other hand, you can appreciate the octagonal plan, and the decorations inspired by Roman buildings. The marble floor with its geometric and animal motifs, including fantasy, is very beautiful, while the high altar, in neo-Romanesque style, only dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, replacing the 18th-century original, which is also part of the Opera del Duomo museum holdings.
On the north-east side of Piazza del Duomo is the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, one of the most interesting art museums in Florence. Founded in 1891 and opened on 3 May of the same year, it now occupies an area of over 6000 square metres, is divided into no less than 28 rooms and is directed by Timothy Verdon.
On display are numerous works of art, originally contained within the cathedral, Giotto’s bell tower, the baptistery and Brunelleschi’s dome. Noteworthy are the originals of the Gates of Paradise of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, by Lorenzo Ghiberti, Michelangelo’s Pietà Bandini, and a large selection of works by Donatello, second only to that of the Bargello Museum.
Visiting the museum of the Opera del Duomo is a unique experience, especially after its total renovation in 2015, which converted it into an educational itinerary that allows visitors to discover the places and artists that gave life to the entire complex of the cathedral of Florence, one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance.
Admission tickets for the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Brunelleschi’s dome and Giotto’s bell tower can be purchased on site or online.
Admission to the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is free, but watch out for the queues, which can be very long indeed. Entrance is through the right-hand door of the façade, and is only allowed with appropriate clothing, so it is recommended to cover your legs and shoulders. Furthermore, no bulky bags or backpacks are allowed. Disabled access is through the Porta dei Canonici on the south side. Florence Cathedral is open Monday to Saturday from 10:45 to 17:00, with last admission at 16:30.
The Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the official institution in charge of the Cathedral of Florence, organises guided tours of the entire complex, allowing you to enjoy its centuries-old history to the full. The guided tours are of various types:
Of course, you can also rely on the services of private guides, who offer group or individual tours. Rely on the Internet to find the most experienced, recommended and highly reviewed ones.
The queue to get inside the cathedral can be scary. Objectively, especially during hot summer afternoons, it makes a certain amount of sense to see so many people under the scorching sun. Try, if you can, not to waste an afternoon in a queue risking sunstroke, equip yourself with initiative and book tickets online in advance, or alternatively, choose to make your visit outside peak times and high season.
The abundance of things to see in the entire Florence cathedral complex can be disorientating: entering the 4 buildings and visiting the attached museum can take up to a whole day. If you are short on time in Florence, we recommend concentrating on the exterior only, and climbing up to the dome or bell tower to admire the view from above.
Getting to Florence Cathedral is really easy, as it is located in the historic centre. From the central station of Santa Maria Novella, walk along the elegant Via Panzani and Via Cerretani to Piazza del Duomo. The walk takes between 5 and 10 minutes, but it must be said that there are many shops along the way, so it is easy to linger a little.
From Piazza della Signoria you get to Piazza del Duomo by walking along Via Calzaiuoli, also literally overflowing with shops of all kinds, while from Ponte Vecchio the route is all straight ahead, taking Via Por Santa Maria, crossing Piazza della Repubblica and ending on Via Roma. Again, walking at a good pace takes no more than five to ten minutes.
It is important to emphasise that Piazza del Duomo is completely pedestrianised, and interdicted to vehicular traffic. It is not possible to get there by car, also because in the neighbouring streets, such as at the entrance to Via Panzani, there are cameras. Therefore, unless you are a resident or authorised by a garage or hotel, it is not possible to approach the cathedral by car.
If you have mobility difficulties , you can rely on the buses that pass along Via Panzani, which however stop a few dozen metres before the square, or rent a car from car sharing companies, which are allowed to enter the centre. Even in this case, you will still have to park before entering Piazza Duomo.
The cathedral of Florence is located in Piazza del Duomo, in the heart of the city's historic centre. It is only a few minutes' walk from Santa Maria Novella station, via Panzani and via Cerretani.