Our Top Tips for Touring One of Florence’s Most Visited Sites: the Cathedral Complex

| Tue, 01/23/2018 - 10:50

“A single great museum comprising the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Brunelleschi's Dome, Giotto's Bell Tower, the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Crypt of Santa Reparata and the Opera Museum. If you haven't seen this, you haven't seen Florence.

So states the website of the Grande Museo del Duomo (Great Museum of the Cathedral), and it is true, you cannot go to Florence and not see the Cathedral complex, at least on your first visit to the Tuscan capital. The visual impact is astounding as you approach the complex from Via de’ Cerretani or Via de’ Pecori (pay attention too when you’re getting into Florence by train because you can see Brunelleschi’s Dome from the window as the train inches toward Santa Maria Novella station).

Florence’s religious life has been centered in the area between Piazza San Giovanni and Piazza del Duomo for some 1600 years. Some of the greatest artists of all time (Brunelleschi, Giotto, Donatello, among others) worked on the expansion of the current complex, whose renovation began toward the end of the 13th century (on the site of an ancient baptistery and cathedral), and made it into a marvelous ensemble of white, pink and green marbles signaling the passage of Florentine art from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  

I was recently in Florence and decided to re-do the visit of the Grande Museo del Duomo and to try the single, 15-Euro ticket that gives you access to all the sites mentioned in the first paragraph of this article. Here are some tips to help you better organize your visit.

  • Buy your ticket in advance on the Grande Museo del Duomo website – this will allow you to proceed directly to each monument with your printed ticket as all you need to do is scan it in the designated machine. Also, by purchasing the ticket online, you can select your preferred time slot (subject to availability) for the climb up Brunelleschi’s Dome; if done on the same day, availability may be limited (or gone) and you may not have the chance to select the time that is most suitable for you. 
  • Split the visit of the Cathedral complex in two days - I did it all in one day and it was tiring! There’s a lot of information and sights to take in, so it makes sense not to cram it all on the same day. The ticket is valid for 48 hours since your first access (72 hours from March 1, see below), so that allows you to spread the visit over the course of two days. Plus, believe me, you don’t want to climb Brunelleschi’s Dome and Giotto’s Bell Tower on the same day (my calf muscles the following day: ouch!).
  • Start with the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Opera Duomo Museum, entrance behind the Cathedral) – this beautiful museum, housed in what was the construction site for the Cathedral complex, overseen by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, founded in 1296, is the perfect introduction to your visit as it will immerse you into the centuries-long history of the Cathedral complex. The museum is quite large (25 rooms over three floors), and is packed with medieval and Renaissance sculptures, statues and reliefs, many of which were originally made for the interiors and exteriors of the Cathedral, Baptistery and Bell Tower. It’s where you can see the originals of the famous doors of the Battistero, and a life-size reconstruction of the Cathedral’s façade as it looked in the 14th century according to the original design by Arnolfo di Cambio, with the statues in the niches (the façade you see now dates to the 19th century). Also, very interesting is the room dedicated to the Dome (built in just 16 years!), with some of the materials used for its construction on display, models of the Cupola and an explanatory video.
  • If you have to pick between climbing Brunelleschi’s Dome (463 steps) or Giotto’s campanile (414 steps), go for the Dome; the climb is more spectacular (more strenuous though), you get to see the Last Judgment fresco by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari up close and the view of Florence once you get to the top is slightly better for the simple fact that it is not obstructed by a safety mesh fence present at the top of the Campanile. On the other hand, the view over the Dome as you walk up the stairs of the Campanile is truly unique. Do both, if you’re up for it, only on different days!

[View of Florence from atop Brunelleschi's Dome. Photo by Silvia Donati.]

[View over Giotto's bell tower and the roof of the Cathedral from Brunelleschi's Dome. Photo by Silvia Donati.]

[View of Brunelleschi's Dome as you climb up the 414 steps of Giotto's Campanile. Photo by Silvia Donati.]

  • Leave ample time for the visit – I was able to see everything in one day only because I visited in the low season (which is very short in Florence: mid-January to end of February!) so there were short lines, and only at the Cupola and the Cathedral entrances; I went straight in at the Baptistery, the Campanile and the Museum. Any other time of the year, the lines will be long. 
  • Carry a small bag – there are bag checks to enter the Baptistry, the Cathedral and the Dome climb, which obviously slow down the entry. The smallest the bag, the quickest the process (plus oversized bags will not be allowed anyway). I asked one of the guards what happens in the high season, having to check every single person that goes in, and he told me they’ll have more personnel; make it easy for them (and for everybody) by carrying a small bag and taking out your cell phone or any electronic device.  

*Please note: the cost of the single ticket will increase to €18 starting March 1, 2018, and its validity will be extended from the current 48 hours to 72.  

One last observation: it is true that you can’t miss visiting the Cathedral Complex, but, make sure you don’t stop there! Lesser-known sites like the Bargello Museum, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, the Medici Chapels, the Basilica of San Lorenzo, and more, are so worth of a visit and also very strictly intertwined with the history of Florence.