You want to visit the best churches in Florence. But with such a choice, how do you know where to start? We take you on a tour of the top religious artistic gems that you just can’t miss.
Beginning with the world-famous Cathedral, and passing by Santa Croce Church and fresco-filled Santa Maria Novella, to the Medici church of San Lorenzo, these are the most beloved of all Florentine Churches, the ones you really can’t afford to leave off an itinerary. Visiting one of Florence’s churches means taking a dive into its history, and getting a real feel of what this extraordinary city is about.
Best churches in Florence – The Duomo
Glorious, grand, this is a true Italian icon. It was built with the idea that it could be seen from everywhere when approaching Florence, and this is still the case today. Florence Cathedral is unmistakeable with its gigantic red dome (one of the biggest in the world!) that the architect Brunelleschi built using innovative methods that still puzzle us today. You can admire it, climb it and awe at the magnificent spectacle. Frescoes embellish its interior and some other works of art can still be found in the cathedral (Dante’s portrait, frescoes by Paolo Uccello), whose interior is sparser than the lavish exterior. And remember, the multicoloured marble facade is not medieval, it was added only in 1883.
Next to the Cathedral sits the Baptistry, one of the oldest religious buildings in Florence. An elegant 8-sided edifice with a striking green and white marble exterior and a magnificent interior. You’ll need a combined ticket to visit both. Make sure you visit the Museo Opera del Duomo to learn everything there is to know about this church’s fascinating history.
Santa Croce Church – Where geniuses are laid to rest.
In Italian the Church of Santa Croce in Florence is known as “tempio dell’Itale glorie”. This is a reference to all the great Italians who are buried here – Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and the Romantic Italian poet Ugo Foscolo are amongst those who have been laid to rest here. Here you can admire the celebrated Pazzi Chapel attributed to Brunelleschi, considered to be one of the masterpieces of Early Renaissance architecture.
This vast Gothic church was built in the 14th century thanks to the influence of the Franciscan order and the rich Florentine families who poured lots of money into its construction. The Bardi and the Peruzzi, both great Florentine bankers, had their chapels here that were frescoed by Giotto. Take some time to gaze at these impressive frescoes, where Giotto creates a sense of tension through the disposition and movement of the figures. In the main chapel you find frescoes by Giotto’s pupil Agnolo Gaddi inspired by a popular Medieval legend “True Cross” (1380).
As with the Duomo, the facade in Neo-gothic style is a relatively recent addiction (1853-63), and so is the bell tower.
Planning a trip to Florence? Here’s a 3-day itinerary to get the most of this fascinating city!
Santa Maria Novella Church – A feast for the eyes
We’re biased about this church. Many tourists skip it in favour of more famous sights, but we advise you not to miss it. It’s a brief account of Florentine art history – an architectural and artistic masterpiece. The cloisters are magnificent, the gloomy ‘Chiostro dei morti’ (cloister of the dead) matches the airy and lovely Chiostro Verde, onto which the splendid Spanish Chapel (1355) opens. In here the Spanish that came to Florence with Eleonora da Toledo, Cosimo I’s wife used to meet and pray. The Medieval frescoes teach the lessons of the Dominican order.
You can easily spend a couple of hours taking in the delights of Santa Maria Novella Church; from Ghirlandaio‘s creations in the Tornabuoni Chapel to the fantastical details of Filippino Lippi’s frescoes in the Strozzi Chapel, and the revolutionary “Trinity” by Masaccio whose use of perspective is a landmark in art history.
San Lorenzo Church – The Medici’s parish church
Of all the churches in Florence, this one has the strongest ties with the Medici family. It was their parish church into which they poured a lot of money. The Medici employed Brunelleschi (the ‘hot’ architect at the time) to renovate it, and the result is the Old Sacristy, one of the purest examples of his architectural style. Here’s where Giovanni di Bicci, godfather of the Medici and his wife are buried, while many other members of this famous dynasty are in the adjacent Medici Chapels.
In the Medici Chapels the New Sacristy is one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, a truly ‘iconic’ work where the space is designed and organised following Brunelleschi’s lesson, but with a twist. There’s more action and great pathos thanks to the beautifully carved statues that languidly recline on the sarcophagi.
You need a separate ticket to visit the Medici Chapels – the entrance is in Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini, just behind San Lorenzo Church.
Fan of Michelangelo? Check out our complete list of Michelangelo’s works in Florence.
San Miniato al Monte Church – A church with a view
San Miniato al Monte is set on a hill overlooking Florence, just above the viewpoint Piazzale Michelangelo. The location is part of the charm, as this church sits undisturbed in a wonderfully green and quiet spot, and welcomes the visitors who venture up here with its luminous facade and gorgeous views over Florence. In Florentine Romanesque style, this edifice is one of the oldest and most fascinating of all the churches in Florence.
The church, built in the 11th century, is structured on three levels: the highest (the upper raised choir) represents Jerusalem, earth is the ground level, and the crypt represents death. The inside of the church is dominated by the golden mosaic of Christ, and the highlight is the Cappella del Crocifisso, the elegant ciborium over the altar by Michelozzo (1448). The crypt is the oldest part of the edifice, where the relics of San Miniato, to whom the church is dedicated, are guarded. He was an early Christian martyr who, after being decapitated, walked up to this spot carrying his own head.
The church is part of a working monastery. Next door there’s a shop selling traditional products such as cakes and candles made in the monastery by the resident Benedictine monks.
Santo Spirito Church – the hot spot of the Oltrarno
The elegant facade of Santo Spirito lights up the square of the same name. This is a popular spot in the Oltrarno neighbourhood in Florence with a scattering of aperitivi bars. The church is a simple structure, with a typical Renaissance interior, designed by Brunelleschi who died in 1446 before his work was completed.
After admiring the geometrically designed interior, the artistic highlight is in the Sacristy, which you can reach from the left of the facade. through the recently re-opened cloister that hosts a wooden crucifix by a young Michelangelo, who used to be a guest in the monastery after the death of his patron Lorenzo il Magnifico. Ticket required for the Sacristy.
Santa Maria del Carmine – Masaccio’s masterpiece
The other artistic gem of the Oltrarno in S. M. del Carmine, where flocks of art students and artists arrive as pilgrims in search of inspiration. They come to admire the frescoes by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel– exactly as Michelangelo did five centuries ago. These frescoes represented a shift in the art world, a new way to see reality and represent life. For the first time the representation of religious figures was taken to another level, with the Gothic static figures being left behind in favour of more realistic details and drama.
If you love frescoes, you might want to read about the best frescoes to visit in Florence.
The Church’s facade, like many other churches in Florence, is unfinished. The interior was completely redone in Rococo style at the end of the 18th century after a fire. The richly decorated Corsini Chapel is Baroque, and the lavish ceiling is the work of Ferretti, an important artist of the 18th century.
Photo credit: @KaiPilger on Pixabay