Florence in half a day: All the highlights to see [with an itinerary]

Half day in Florence itinerary: A walk through the squares of power

Are you spending your holidays in Tuscany and want to spend half a day in Florence? Or maybe you’re in transit and don’t want to miss out on Florence? Here is an itinerary of an half day trip to Florence that will allow you to learn about the key points in Florentine history in only 12 hours in Florence.

I will take you on a discovery of the most important “squares of power” and tell you about the history of this important city! Let’s discover Florence in half a day!

Florence half day tour: All the sights to visit – the History of Power

Piazza della Repubblica

The history of Florence started right here, where Piazza della Repubblica is located today. The Forum of Florentia was here, a small Roman castrum founded in 50 B.C. as a colony for the veterans of the Roman army. The founding of Florentia had strategic significance, as the presence of a settlement closely linked to the plots of land allocated to the colonies also in the Arno valley, allowed for thorough monitoring and control of a territory previously dominated by the Etruscans.

Half day walking tour in Florence
Piazza della Repubblica in Florence
The Founding of Florence

In Ancient Rome the founding of a new city involved a religious ritual called the inauguratio. A priest conducted the inauguration. The ceremony started with a prayer and the interpretation of signs. Then the priest would trace a pattern, called the templum, oriented according to the cardinal directions. The high point of the ceremony was the solemn pronouncement of the legum dictionem where the priest asked the gods to manifest their approval and blessing of the new settlement.

Roman rituals were meant to guarantee the protection of the gods, namely the clemency of nature and the elements. Protection of the gods guaranteed the survival of the community.

The pattern traced by the priest during the inauguratio constituted a point of departure for the plotting of the two main roads, the cardo massimo, north-south direction and the decumanus massimus, east-west direction. The intersection of these two roads delineated the forum, next to which the most important temple was built, the one dedicated to the greatest god, Capitoline Jupiter.

Roman Florence

You can still see the traces of this urban plan in Piazza della Repubblica. Via Roma and via Calimala follow the cardo massimo, while via degli Strozzi and via degli Speziali mark the way of the decumanus massimus. Consequently, the present day Piazza della Repubblica, with the forum and the Temple of Jupiter, was the center of social and religious power. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, when the balance of power drastically changed, the forum was transformed into a simple market square. The present day layout of the square is the result of a renovation that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Florence became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy.

Piazza Duomo

Just a few steps from Piazza della Repubblica, you will find Piazza Duomo with the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the bell tower, and the San Giovanni’s Baptistery. This has always been the religious center of Florence, but it was also the site where power was displayed during medieval times. You might ask why?

After the fall of the Roman Empire, an age of great uncertainty began. The centuries that followed led to the formation of two new centers of power: papal rule and imperial rule. Starting in the thirteenth century, however, municipal rule also began to play its part, that is the governments of the cities that were seeking autonomy both from the Papacy as well as from the Empire. In Florence power was assigned to the representatives of the professional guilds, elected by votes and only for short terms.

But how could municipal power be justified and legitimized in an age when it was thought that power came from God? The pope, the emperor as well as the king ruled thanks to divine investiture and by consecration of their office. The prerequisite of a divine mandate meant that cities chose patron saints to legitimize their power over controlled territories.

Venice relied on Saint Marco, Siena on the Virgin Mary and Florence chose Saint John the Baptist as its patron saint. 

The Baptistery of San Giovanni

For this reason the Baptistery of San Giovanni became the most important temple for the Florentines. Dante called it “My beautiful St.John” and the city invested enormous amounts of money to decorate the temple, a symbol of municipal power and authority. The dome of the baptistery was covered with precious mosaics with a golden background. Then three pairs of bronze doors were made, and a silver altar dedicated to St. John the Baptist was placed inside the baptistery.

The most important manifestation of Florence’s territorial power took place during the festival of St.John on the 24th of June. The highlight of the celebrations was a procession of representatives from the territories dominated by Florence who passed through the city carrying their gifts. The procession ended in the baptistery and the gifts were placed on the magnificent silver altar, symbol of strength, power, and the authority of the city, guaranteed and legitimized by the Baptist.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, which today stands opposite the baptistery and whose construction started in 1296, was built to show Florence’s wealth. However, the baptistery has always been the symbol of power and of the pride of Florence. The cathedral in its interior has remained quite plain to present day. Don’t waste time on your short walk through Florence waiting in line to enter the church. It’s only worth a visit if you have half a day to visit all the monuments in Piazza Duomo: the baptistery, the archaeological area containing the ruins of the ancient church of Santa Reparata and the Museum of the Opera del Duomo.

Half day tour in Florence
Piazza Duomo in Florence

Book your private guided tour of the Duomo Complex in Florence (Cathedral, Baptistery, Cathedral Museum):

Piazza della Signoria

Today via Calzaiuoli is one of the main streets in the center of Florence and connects Piazza Duomo to Piazza della Signoria, the political heart of the city. Piazza della Signoria is dominated by Palazzo Vecchio, the ancient seat of the republican government which was transformed by the Medici Family into their first Ducal Palace in the sixteenth century. The construction of Palazzo Vecchio began in 1299 following Arnolfo di Cambio’s project; subsequently, in 1350, the republican government decided to have a loggia built opposite Palazzo Vecchio for holding assemblies and public ceremonies. La Loggia della Signoria, later called “dei Lanzi”, was built between 1378 and 1382. The square formed by these two buildings became the center of power, and civic ceremonies were mainly held here. It was also here that political battles took place daily between the supporters of a republican government and the members of the Medici Party, which tried to impose its influence on the politics of Florence throughout the fifteenth century. During the fifteenth century the artworks displayed in the square were involved in this bitter struggle for power.

half day in Florence
Piazza della Signoria in Florence
Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes

The first protector of republican freedoms placed in front of Palazzo dei Signori was Donatello’s Judith. The Medici Family commissioned this sculpture in the 1450s. Initially, the work was placed in the garden of their private palace, Palazzo Medici, and served as a fountain. The statue represents Judith, a heroine of the Old Testament, who saved her people from the attack of the Assyrians. Judith set a trap for the commander of the enemy troops, Holofernes, and retired to her tent. Infatuated with the beautiful queen, Holofernes let his guard down and drank too much wine. Once he was too drunk to defend himself, Judith pulled out a sword and cut off his head, thereby saving her people. The sculpture shows Judith ready to strike Holofernes.

Things to see in half day in Florence
Donatello, Judith and Holofernes, copy.

The statue was stolen by the Florentines in 1494 during the violent plundering of the Medici Palace and the expulsion of the Medici from Florence. The statue of Judith and Holofernes was removed from the Medici gardens and placed in front of Palazzo dei Signori. Symbolized in this woman’s figure defeating a strong opponent, the Florentines immediately saw a weak Florentine Republic struggling with the Medici and with foreign powers, France and the Papacy. Thus, Judith, a heroine symbolizing liberation from one’s enemies, became the first “republican” statue to be placed in this symbolic location.

Michelangelo’s David

In 1501 the Opera del Duomo turned to Michelangelo Buonarroti, the young Florentine sculptor, asking him to finish the work on a piece of marble that had already been started by others and that was to depict David, the King of Israel and the author of the Psalms.

What to see in half a day in Florence?
Michelangelo, David, copy.

The giant sculpture was supposed to be placed at the top of one of the apses of the cathedral. The artist started working on the sculpture with great effort and was able to finish the work in just three years. Once it was completed and revealed to the Florentines, the sculpture aroused considerable admiration and amazement for its revolutionary vision of the biblical hero. The artist transformed his David into a Greco-Roman hero: the prophet is represented as a mature man, completely nude, with only a slingshot hanging off his shoulder; his body of ideal proportions, is sculpted with astonishing attention to anatomical detail, exuding strength, confidence, and pride.

Soon the Florentines bestowed a new significance on David, as they had previously done with Judith: the statue became the symbol of the Florentine Republic, incarnation of the virtues of fortitude and wrath to which were entrusted liberty and the glory of the city. His nudity symbolized moral perfection, and the power and beauty of his body exalted the humanistic values of the dignity of man. It was decided to place David in front of Palazzo della Signoria, in the spot previously occupied by Judith. The pro-republican significance of the sculpture was evident to all.

The Return of the Medici

On the 12th of August 1530, after the long siege of the city of Florence by the troops of Emperor Charles V, who wanted to restore the Medici to power, the Florentine Republic signed the surrender. Power returned in the hands of the Medici Family, appointed the Dukes of Florence. In 1537 Duke Alessandro de’ Medici was assassinated and power passed into the hands of the 17 year old Cosimo de’ Medici.

Despite his young age, Cosimo was an ambitious Duke, whose actions were immediately aimed at strengthening and enlarging the Duchy of Florence. Alongside political action, Cosimo enacted a full-fledged propaganda campaign by which the young Duke was able to promote the idea of the nobility of the Medici Family, while at the same time shaping his own image as a powerful and victorious Duke.

Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus

The commission of Perseus to the sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini is set in this climate of political propaganda: Perseus constitutes a response to the “republican” sculptures of the Piazza, Judith and David. The work represents the young mythological hero who defeated the terrible monster, Medusa. Perseus is nude, and tramples the dead body of the enemy. He holds a sword in his right hand, while triumphantly showing Medusa’s severed head in his left hand. Perseus, as a symbol, represents Duke Cosimo and his strong power over the territories of the Duchy.

What to visit in half day in Florence
Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus, 1545-1554, Piazza della Signoria, Florence.

Piazzale degli Uffizi

Just behind Piazza della Signoria you will find the Uffizi Gallery, one of Italy’s most important museums. The Uffizi hosts numerous masterpieces of Italian painting. The building that hosts the Uffizi, however, was originally built starting in 1560, as the center of ducal power of the Mecici Family in Tuscany. In fact, here we can find the seat of the most important magistrature of the Duchy.

Book your private guided tour at the Uffizi Gallery:

Piazzale degli Uffizi takes you towards the Arno River and towards Ponte Vecchio.

Ponte Vecchio

In your half day in Florence you cannot skip the visit of Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in Florence to survive the Nazi destruction of 1944. It was built in the fourteenth century as a market-bridge. Initially butchers sold meat in the shops on the bridge. Having a meat market over a river was very important in the medieval ages as far as hygiene was concerned. In fact meat could easily become a source of contamination and the river permitted a quick sorting of waste, which would simply be dumped in the water.

The fate of the bridge began to change under Medici rule. The Dukes first built the corridor that connected the Uffizi with Palazzo Pitti, their splendid private residence. Later they moved the butcher shops to piazza del mercato, and invited goldsmiths to Ponte Vecchio instead.

Piazza Pitti

Following the Vasari Corridor you can cross the Arno river. First, you will find the Church of Santa Felicita on your left, an ancient place of worship dating back to the fourth century. Inside you can admire the magnificent Capponi Chapel (the first one on the right, at the entrance), with The Deposition by Pontormo, a work from the late Renaissance that still can be found in the same spot it was originally painted for.

Continuing straight on via Guicciardini, you will arrive at Palazzo Pitti, the impressive private mansion of the Medici Grand Dukes.

Sights to visit in half a day in Florence
Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

Eleonora di Toledo, the wife of Cosimo I, acquired the palace with its gardens in 1549. Starting that same year, Palazzo dei Pitti became a characteristic mansion of the Grand Dukes and a model for suburban palaces of European monarchs. Extensions were added on to the palace several times. The garden was transformed into a formal garden and a place of leisure for the Medici Court.

In the years where Florence was the capital of the kingdom of Italy, Palazzo Pitti became the Royal Palace and the residence of Vittorio Emanuele II. 

Our half day walk in Florence ends here: discovering the history of the city via the squares of power.

Florence in half a day: Itinerary and MAP

Do you want to visit Florence in half a day but don’t know where to start? Contact me for a guided tour today!