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Touring Florence: Keep Your Chin Up

On our first evening back in Florence, we had just left a restaurant on a narrow street in the Oltrarno, the neighborhood on the south side of the Arno River, when my husband stopped dead in his tracks.

"Did you forget something?” I asked.

He shook his head.

Noticing the lift of his chin, I followed his elevated gaze. Above a tall door, I discovered a glazed relief in blues and yellows depicting the Annunciation.

“We need to look up,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll miss things.”

Photo by Diana Dinverno

This proved to be an astute observation. In Florence’s historic city center, there are plenty of architectural wonders to direct your attention skyward. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, crowned with Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome, dominates the skyline. A sculpture of Brunelleschi, located across from the church’s south door, shows him peering up at his creation.

Photo by Diana Dinverno

Giotto’s bell tower, next to the church, soars 270 feet above the piazza and provides stunning views for those willing to climb its 413 steps. The Baptistery of St. John, opposite the cathedral, with its set of gilded bronze doors that Michelangelo proclaimed fit for the “Gates of Paradise,” offers a mosaic interior ceiling that will leave you breathless. These magnificent buildings, so close to one another that it’s a challenge to take a good photo, are tourist magnets.

Photo by Diana Dinverno

The must-see structures, clustered at the heart of the city, are just the beginning. No matter what direction we headed, we found jaw-dropping venues, many that date from the Renaissance or earlier, for which visitors have tipped back their heads for a very long time.

While doing all that neck stretching, we noticed abundant evidence of Florence’s rich history. Family crests, of those who walked the streets over 500 years ago, appear above doorways, windows, and at the corners of buildings. The Vasari Corridor, an enclosed overhead walkway used by the Medici (Florence's political dynasty that began during the Renaissance), skims the city’s oldest bridge, Ponte Vecchio, miraculously spared destruction during WWII. We spied one of the city’s symbols—the Florentine lily, actually a stylized iris—embellishing stately iron fences and portions of the remaining medieval walls.

Photo by Diana Dinverno

Mouths agape, we stood before huge stone gates with their massive 40-foot doors, studded with fat nail heads designed to resist battering rams. Embedded in the walls of many edifices, we spotted iron torch holders and brackets for hanging banners during citywide celebrations.

Photo by Diana Dinverno

At the church of Orsanmichele, in niches well above eye-level, we studied copies of sculptures (the originals are now protected from the elements and on display in a room above the church) by Donatello, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and Nanni di Banco, each a Renaissance genius.

Photo by Diana Dinverno

Early one evening as we walked the city streets, my practiced eye wandered upward when I heard the tinkle of piano keys from an open window. I caught sight of a sparkling chandelier and a room painted peacock blue. I glanced to the man by my side, smiled, and lifted my face to the Tuscan sky. I didn't want to miss a thing.

If you have visited Florence, what is the most spectacular or surprising thing you've seen?

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