When it comes to art in this Italian cultural capital, there are a few must-sees: Michalangelo’s David and the Uffizi, of course, but what most visitors don’t realize is how many of the best museums in Florence, and the best local art offerings, lie beyond popular choices.
Many collections are tucked into Florentine corners that most people walk past without really noticing. Did you know that there is samurai armour on show around town? Or that you can gaze at personal artifacts from orphans that have shaped the city’s past? Or that some of the city’s top shopping destinations actually double as art displays?
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RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Florence
Best museums in Florence
What is it: The museum of Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, better known as Il Duomo di Firenze.
Why go: Just having undergone an impressive renovation, the museum of the Duomo is not to be missed, with its prized possession the recently restored “Doors of Paradise” that were originally on the Baptistery. This museum also has a three-story facade to show the Duomo as it was before the most recent facelift (in 1587). Also expect to find incredible masterpieces from the likes of Donatello, Michelangelo and more, including the latter’s The Pietà, which he started working on in his 70s and eventually attempted to destroy.
What is it: An absolute treasure trove of Renaissance art.
Why go: Ultimately, to gaze upon one of Botticelli’s finest pieces, The Birth of Venus. But don’t spend too long at her feet because there are hundreds more iconic works to see. We'd recommend setting aside at least three hours to navigate the sprawling gallery and glimpse at all the unmissables. Plus, the venue itself is architecturally fascinating: built in the 16th century and designed by Italian painter Giorgio Vasari, the extending colonnades, linear columns and traditional pediments perfectly blend with the astonishing artwork housed within the walls.
What is it: Only the home of Michelangelo's most famous work of art.
Why go: Even if you aren’t the most artsy and even if museums usually bore you, go see David, the man that 26-year-old Michelangelo carved out of a single abandoned block of marble 500 years ago. There’s something utterly impressive about this piece of history, which makes it a must-see even if you have to wait in line. Just recently has the ban on indoor pictures been lifted, which means selfies with David are a-okay.
What is it: The famous building in Piazza Signoria that has been the city hall of Florence and even residence to the Medici family.
Why go: Though many will be in line next door at the Uffizi, most won't know about the beautiful building just next door. The “old palace” – a name earned after the “new palace,” Palazzo Pitti, was built across the river – is thronging with magnificent pieces of artwork and rooms full of frescoes. In this museum, you can see Dante’s death mask and even embark on a tour that leads you through the secret passages built into the palace that make this place seem like it came out of a storybook. Make sure you climb the tower during your visit. On the way up to the top, you’ll be able to see the prison cells where the famous Savonarola was kept before he was executed down in the piazza in front of the building.
What is it: Chapels built by the famous Florentine family that give you everything that the inside of the Duomo doesn't.
Why go: Though the Duomo takes up all the popularity, the second largest dome of Florence is mostly overlooked – but it shouldn’t be. The inside of the famous Duomo is almost depressingly bare after seeing the outside, but the treasure chest that is the Medici Chapel will take your breath away. From floor to ceiling, this beauty is covered in marble and jewels that you thought only belonged to the movies. If you can break your gaze from the gorgeous frescoes, make your way to the smaller chapel for some of the most beautiful statues carved by none other than Michelangelo. The best part? You may even get this place all to yourself because it’s not usually on top ten lists.
What is it: One of the most incredible and unique museums and collections in Florence, hidden away on the outskirts of the city.
Why go: Few know about the Stibbert museum because of its location outside the city centre, but it’s a lesser-known jewel of Florence that deserves some recognition. After being a private collection for years, Frederick Stibbert donated his villa, gardens and his treasures to the city and now you can tour his house and see his lavish displays of armour from the Middle East and Japan, artwork lining the walls and furniture all in a museum almost devoid of tourists. Standing in the great hall with a fully reconstructed army complete with their horses in battle armour will take your breath away, and the prized possession of the entire collection has to be the cloak that Napoleon (yes, that Napoleon) wore when he was coronated. This is also a great tour for kids, seeing that they feature a little space for interactive learning.
What is it: The largest palace in Florence that holds multiple museums (eight!) within its walls.
Why go:. Get a combined ticket for all of the eight museums inside this palace and take an entire day out of your travels to really soak in these masterpieces. Roam the costume museum to see beautifully detailed fabrics worn by Florence royalty, study how they lived in the royal apartments and feel like royalty yourself as you roam the Boboli gardens.
What is it: The Bargello itself is the oldest public building in Florence and used to be the police headquarters for hundreds of years. Now, it is home to artwork by famous artists the likes of Donatello.
Why go: Once the scene of Florence’s executions, this beautiful building with an open-air courtyard is brimming with artwork carefully spread among its ancient rooms and hallways. Just behind the famous Piazza Signoria, the Bargello is usually overlooked, but it holds Donatello's version of the David, which is incredibly different in its technique than Michelangelo’s.
What is it: A private collection from a famous antiquarian that was given to the city for the public to admire.
Why go: Located in the beautiful neighbourhood of San Niccolò, known for housing many of Florence’s artists, the Bardini Museum was created out of a private collection, much like the Stibbert. One of the most unique and interesting pieces is from the 1900s: a rug laid at Hitler’s feet when he visited the city in 1938, the spurs of his shoes damaging the fabric which you can still see today. If you have time, make sure to also visit the gardens behind the museum.
What is it: A historic palace in the city centre, known as the Museum of the Florentine House since the early 1900s.
Why go: If you want to really see and feel how Florentines lived before the tourists took over the streets, head to the lesser-known Museo di Palazzo Davanzati. Renovated in the early 1900s by another antiquarian, Davanzati is decorated as a historically accurate elegant Florentine home from centuries ago. Here, you can step into history and discover the everyday items that these Italians used to surround themselves with. The detail in the decoration is on full display, unlike the artwork or sculptures at other Florence museums.
What is it: Another private home that was turned into a museum showcasing locals’ lavish lifestyle.
Why go: Like Davanzati, Casa Martelli is a museum meant to show a private collection but of a more modern time, focusing on the 17th and 18th centuries. This house was still a private accommodation until 1986 and wasn’t renovated by anyone in particular, so it is one of the last examples of a true Florentine home, complete with a beautifully intricate frescoed garden room. You’re only allowed to roam through the property while on a guided tour, which is offered for free.
What is it: The most Florentine fashion museum there is and a must-see for anyone that loves shoes.
Why go: Visiting the famous shoemaker’s museum is a must while in Florence. In a palace on the banks of the Arno, this museum created by the Ferragamo family allows everyone that visits to get an inside look into the mind of Salvatore Ferragamo and how he created his famous shoes. From drawings to wooden models built for individual feet like Sophia Loren’s and Audrey Hepburn’s, you’ll get to thoroughly appreciate this man’s passion for fashion while here.
What is it: The historic palazzo that housed the family that made Florence what it is today.
Why go: Though the Medici family and crest is on almost every corner of Florence, most forget to visit their actual home built in 1444 just down the road from the Duomo. The structure itself has been through many renovations, though the most recent has returned it to its original Medici splendour. The most beautiful rooms are the tiny chapel bright and brilliantly frescoed with a procession of the three Magi and the baroque and gilded gold galleria, with mirrors that reflect you into the frescoes themselves.
What is it:A beautiful palace in the center of Florence that houses temporary and permanent exhibits, some focusing on modern art while others functioning as more traditional historical exhibitions.
Why go: If you’re looking for more of a modern take on the art scene in Florence, check out Palazzo Strozzi to see what events are happening while you’re visiting. In the past few years, this palazzo has played host to Ai Weiwei and Marina Abramović. Sometimes, the exhibits involve interactive artwork, like the three-story slides of "The Florence Experiment." Up next for the rest of the year: Russian artist Natalia Goncharova’s excellent work.
What is it: One of the least-known museums that’s become a pillar of natural history studies.
Why go: Though there are many natural history museums in the world, none are like the one here in Florence. Hidden away past Palazzo Pitti, this one still holds the largest anatomical wax collection in the world and is the oldest public museum in Europe, opened in 1775. Though a bit creepy, the destination allows you to look back through studies of the human form and understand how far we’ve come in medical history and understanding of the body.
What is it: A hands-on museum fully dedicated to Da Vinci’s inventions and ridiculously innovative mind.
Why go: If you’re traveling with kids or just feel like a kid yourself and are tired of standing behind barriers and just looking at beauty, head to the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum where you’ll be able to interact with the exhibits. From boats to helicopters, see over 40 of the artist’s creations up close and then try them out yourself. There’s also a room dedicated to his paintings as well as interactive workshops.
What is it: Built by Brunelleschi to be a hospital then an orphanage, the Museo Degli Innocenti reopened in 2016.
Why go: Located in Piazza Annunziata, this is another museum that is normally overlooked but holds an absolutely unique aspect of Florentine history at its core. Once a hospital then an orphanage, the museum has beautifully displayed its history throughout three floors. The most interesting aspect is the room of artefacts belonging to the abandoned children that were anonymously entrusted to the care of the orphanage.