Basilica Hopping in Florence

As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence has become a destination for art lovers, foodies, and the religious alike. With so much history around every corner, it’s easy to miss something when wandering the city’s cobble stone streets. But you don’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate the wonders of Florence’s many basilicas—with so many grandiose structures in a small footprint of the city, it’s easy to dedicate a day to see them all (with stops for gelato of course!). For this tour, we start at the Santa Maria Novella, located right by Florence’s main train station.

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Florence renovated the courtyard in front of Santa Maria Novella, creating the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

Santa Maria Novella: ‘Novella’ translates literally to ‘New,’ identifying this church as the first true great basilica of Florence. Commissioned by the wealthy textile merchant Rucellai family, this basilica was designed by architect Leon Battista Alberti and constructed between 1448 and 1470. It’s most prominent feature is of course the elaborate facade design that overlooks the courtyard, but be sure to visit inside to spectate Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, an early Renaissance fresco that brought perspective back in vogue.

Basilica di San Lorenzo: Our next stop takes us down Via Sant’Antonio and then turning towards Via de’ Gori, right to the façade of the Basilica de San Lorenzo, a final resting place for some of Florence’s most powerful patrons. What detail the outside of this church lacks is made up for inside, with its iconic white and gold ceiling. While much of the church’s design is credited Filippo Brunelleschi, it is not entirely of his doing. However, the true gem of this church and must-see for all visitors is the Cappelle Medicee (Medici Chapel), with Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florence’s golden child, designing the marble statues adorning the tombs of Guiliano di Lorenzo de’Medici and Lorenzo di Piero de’Medici.

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PIT STOP: For true Michelangelo fans, be sure to visit the Laurentian Library, an extension of San Lorenzo and a perfect example of Michelangelo’s renaissance architecture design with its oversized staircase and reading room.

LUNCH BREAK: Hungry and looking for something authentically Italian? Visit the Mercato Centrale, located on Via dell’Ariento, right around the corner from the Basilica de San Lorenzo. Here, you can eat at the take-out counters, or buy a variety of fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, and more to create a picnic. Staying at a place with a kitchen? Buy your ingredients here and cook at home!

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Walking along the streets of Florence, you can always catch a glimpse of Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo): As you walk the streets of Florence, there is one landmark you can always pick out. Whether you are hiking in the hills above the city, or catching glimpses of the great dome from Florence’s narrow streets, you can’t miss the city’s main attraction. Towering above the city, the most prominent feature of this basilica is of course its dome—designed by Filippo Brunelleschi after winning a contest to design it. The story goes, that while the Gothic Revival base of the church was built in the 1200s, it was left uncovered because the opening was too large for a traditional dome. And because the Florentines would rather die than see its beloved church supported by flying buttresses a la French Gothic design, they commissioned any eligible architect to find a solution. Thus comes in Brunelleschi, who designed a dome inside a dome (a double dome!) to top the structure. Today, you can climb the 463 steps and actually walk between the two domes to reach the top for spectacular views of the city and the surrounding hills of Tuscany.

ALTERNATE CLIMB: If the dome seems daunting, you can also climb the bell tower, designed by Renaissance heavyweight Giotto. It’s still quite a climb though, but at only 414 steps you’ll save that bit of energy for more walking later.

PIT STOP: All that dome climbing will absolutely make you hungry, so as you make your way over to the Santa Croce basilica, stop at famous gelateria Grom at the corner of Via del Campanile and Via delle Oche. It’s a popular spot, and once you have your first bite you’ll know exactly why.

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Santa Croche at sunset.

Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze: You’ll have to pull your map out for this one—heading south towards the Arno River, take your time to explore the winding streets as you make our way to the smaller but dazzling Basilica di Santa Croce. Translated as “The Sacred Cross,” this church is a part of the Franciscan order and still has a functioning cloister. However, the true draw to this church is its collection of Renaissance history—here, you can view works by Giotto, Donatello, Cimabue, and Vasari, or pay respects at the tombs of famous Florentines including Michelangelo, Alberti, Galileo, Ghiberti, and Machiavelli.

San Minato Church: High above the city on a hill on the south bank of the Arno is the ever-popular Piazzale Michelangelo. For urban hikers, this is a true challenge as you climb the stairs up to the peak, but the view is worth it. From here, you get a full glimpse of the city, with the Santa Maria del Fiore watching over it. I love visiting this spot at sunset, but for the purpose of this walk, be sure to get there before 7 p.m. to visit the San Minato al Monte, a small Romanesque church near the Piazzale, and then venture over to the lookout point to watch the day end.

Return to Florence

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When you return to your home you realize you can be a little cheesy–tourist photos are allowed.

I have this necklace that at some point became more than just an accessory. It’s part of who I am, like a tattoo, but a little less permanent (the whole ‘you must keep this symbol on your body forever’ thing kind of creeps me out). It’s a simple chain with three charms attached, each with its own meaning. The first is a golden hen with a tiny pearl egg under it, like it’s nesting—that one is a gift from my mother. It’s my little reminder of the family that raised me. The second charm is a Tibetan dorje, which in Buddhism is a symbol of sudden enlightenment, of finding happiness within yourself. I wish I could say that the charm itself is a symbol for my own inner happiness, but I actually bought it in a store on MacDougall Street on my first day living in NYC—it was my official new home, and in my mix of excitement and fear for my big move, I wanted to buy something to commemorate the moment. So I bought the charm, and it has become a symbol of courage for me throughout my 20’s.

My final charm is my favorite—it’s a small silver heart with a blue cloisonné decoration inside, traditional to the craft done by Florentine artists. I bought this charm back in 2011 when I visited Florence again after four years of being away.

There are certain places in a person’s life that you can consider a true home. For some, it’s where you grew up, and no matter where your life takes you, that place will always be home to you. For me, it’s a little more complicated than that—home is where I evolved, where I spent time growing and learning to become the person I am today. And the list keeps growing.

Florence, Italy fell into the literal term of my home in the fall of 2008. It was my semester abroad in college, and I wanted to join a program where I could study art by looking right at it, and Florence, well, it was the perfect place. I immersed myself in the sculpture of Michelangelo, studied fresco techniques in a studio near the Arno River, and ate every type of pasta I could find. It was, to express my love for Florence, my Bella Citta, my amore. But even with four months of living in a city, you run out of time to explore, so a few of my ‘must sees’ fell by the wayside. One in particular was Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, a manuscript repository and reading room in the cloisters of Florence’s San Lorenzo church.

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Family dinners were a regular item on the menu in 2008 Florence.

That was what brought me back to Florence in 2011—first, I wanted to carve out time to see the library, and second, I wanted to spend time with my home again, doing nothing but walking the streets, listening to the chatter of local Italians and sip coffee from an outdoor café while the world flew by.

The first thing I noticed when I returned to Florence was that there are more students there than I expected. I guess I forgot how popular this destination was for students and tourists, and I was disappointed to find that as I crossed the Ponte Vecchio I could hear young girls complaining about their art final in clear English. I wanted to decipher Italian conversation, I wanted to try my hand at speaking the language, an instead, I was dropped into a tourist destination overrun with Americans.

But I was being overdramatic. The memory of Florence in 2008 was still engrained in my head. I returned to recapture the days when I was 20 years old, reading about Botticelli in the morning, grabbing paninis with a friend for lunch, and walking down a new street in the afternoon with no real destination in mind. I wanted the fuzzy, wine-induced nights at the bars, I wanted the dance clubs, the late night snacks with my friends. What I forgot was that while Florence had left an imprint in my heart, the city itself would change and evolve, just as I had.

You cannot recapture a part of your life that has passed. This was the first time I really encountered this lesson—I saw Florence as one thing, but that part of my life ended when I boarded my plane back home. In the four years I was away, I had graduated college, landed my first job and was creating a new home. I was different, and I saw Florence in a new lense.

On our second morning in Florence, after spending the night dancing at one of my favorite clubs, I woke with the sun and slipped out while my friends still slept—I left them a note saying that I would return in time for our wine tour out in Tuscany, scheduled for the mid-afternoon. I was on a mission, I wanted to find that café, get my coffee, and just sit with my city. That’s the thing about these ‘homes’ we create throughout our lives, as we grow and change, we can always come back to that familiar place. We feel safe there—for me, Florence was my first time living in an apartment, cooking for myself and being away from my family. It taught me how to be confident, how to navigate city streets and find comfort in a new place. I missed Florence, and even though some things had changed, the spirit was still there. I just had to take some time to find it.

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The steps of the Laurentian Library, designed by Michelangelo.

I took that morning to relax, I wrote in my journal while sipping coffee, and at 10 a.m. I was the first person to enter the Laurentian Library, right as they opened the doors. For a short period, it was just me and Michelangelo’s work. I had the time to walk down the center aisle of the reading room, the click of my shoes echoing on the walls. I saw every curve, every panel of the staircase for what it was, and I felt complete. I had found that feeling I was looking for, the feeling of home, of returning to a place I loved, and it gave me the renewed energy I needed to bring back to my life in the states. It’s funny, how those moments alone with something you love are the most rewarding.

I still dream about Florence. Every time the summer air cools, I’m brought back to those months of exploration in my favorite city. It was a city that taught me how to be independent, how to survive on my own, and it was the city that taught me how to embrace change. That is what keeps bringing me back—even though I don’t live there, Florence will always have lessons for me. It’s my home—like New York, or Rhode Island, or Worcester—and it will always be a part of who I am.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.