To properly tour Florence you must uncover history and art—in addition to lots and lots of food and wine—and in the churches there’s both and lots of it. I decided to take myself for a tour by spending an afternoon in Santa Maria Novella’s area. I hope to do the same for each area/piazza—there’s lots to cover, so wish me luck!
Piazza Santa Maria Novella
SMN (Santa Maria Novella) is where I spend lots of time because it’s close to a few family businesses and the closest piazza to the train station. It’s easy to get to and a two minute walk to the Duomo or the Arno.
On a good day there’ll lots of people (tourist) sitting on the modern benches hanging out. There’s a guy who plays music in the late afternoons who’s the quintessential American folk singer. It’s nice to listen to him while you’re walking by or taking a break with some gelato and waiting for friends.
On a bad it’s speckled with gypsies and people asking to sign petitions. If you’re into cheap sunglasses and poor prints of Dalí then this piazza is for you. It’s still very safe and close to many hotels.
The newly installed grass and flowers brighten it up, so it looks more presentable and has been known to host large meditation circles—they Om and everything. This piazza is full of surprises!
Santa Maria Novella church & art
For just € 5 (free for Florence residents) you can tour Santa Maria Novella, which includes the Basilica, Spanish Chapel (my favorite!) and the many cloisters.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
It’s the oldest basilica in Florence and the easiest to find because it’s across from the train station. This Dominican church has works of Gothic and early Renaissance art like sculptures, paintings, frescoes and woodwork dating back from the late 12th century to 15th century.
The black and white marble beams and arches are what drew me in the most. It’s home (tombs) to important men like Antonio Strozzi and it’s lit up with intricate stained glass from the 14th and 15th centuries.
The most eye catching artwork is The Crucifix by Giotto which is hung over the alter. There are also side chapels within the basilica where other treasures are preserved like the Crucifix by Brunelleschi. The largest of the chapels is the Tornabuoni Chapel. All have their own personality and workmanship.
The Spanish Chapel
I was extremely moved the second I stepped foot into the Spanish Chapel. It was built in the mid-1300’s and initially called Guidalotti Chapel. It was later referred to as the Spanish Chapel in 1566 when Cosimo I assigned it to his wife Eleonora of Toledo for a place where fellow Spaniards could use it for religious purposes.
What I loved is that there were grids explaining the frescoes to help explain the continuous narrative of what’s depicted. The colors jump out as if they were painted in this century, a must see!
‘Cloisters’ meaning enclosure for monks or nuns hold an endless amount of tombs. The tombs are all marble with beautiful etchings. These three cloisters deserve a pass since there’s some great artwork weaved between them.
SMN map & hours
Don’t forget to fill up at the best bars and restaurants in the area after your tour!
What’s your favorite church or piazza in Florence and where should I go next?