Florentines waited 140 years for the Florence cathedral to be finished, but once it was finished it became the city’s defining landmark. When thinking of Firenze, it’s a huge dome the color of burnt sienna that first comes to mind. Il Duomo (as Santa Maria del Fiore is popularly called) is one of the most breathtaking churches you will ever lay eyes on.
Florence’s main cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, was started in 1296 under Arnolfo di Cambio but it wasn’t until Brunelleschi added his immense dome in 1436 that it was finally finished. To think, the church lay open for almost a century and half waiting for someone to finish. Thankfully, Brunelleschi had the creative genius and vision to develop a “dome within in a dome” concept that would allow a topper nearly 150 feet wide and 180 feet above ground. The time was also right as Cosimo de Medici was ready to provide financial backing for the project and catapult his family’s name forward in Florentine society.
If you’re in the mood for a stair-stepping workout, climb the 463 steps to the top of the Florence dome. It is very tight though and the twisted corridor can get clogged with one group (either those going up or down) having to wait for the other to pass before moving. This can lead to hot, stuffy moments standing still. Halfway up is a viewing ledge where you get a splendid view of Giorgio Vasari’s frescoes. Back inside the dome sandwiched between the inner and outer shell, you will find the climb getting a little more challenging. Every time, I’ve watched people get claustrophobic and climb back down. Sensing the curvature of the inner shell can be a little unnerving. The view from the top of Brunelleschi’s dome is worth the discomfort though. Rarely have I seen such a stunning vista. It is quite dramatic to see all of Florence and some of the Tuscan countryside spread out below. Magnifico!
When you’re done with your workout…and after you’ve enjoyed some deserved gelato…you will want to check out the cathedral’s interior. It is free to enter the cathedral, so sometimes there can be quite a line. The church itself is quite large and kind of bare. Your ticket pass, however, includes a visit the Santa Reparata crypt within the church where you can see the remains of four ancient churches. The most striking feature is a mosaic. This neat video highlights its restoration: https://youtu.be/KZKQ1xanJxY
To the side of the church is Giotto’s Bell Tower (Campanile). Finished in 1359, the campanile tower has a stately look—a tall, square spire with a colorful rose, green, and white marble facade that complements the exterior of il Duomo. You can climb it, too. And it only has 414 steps, so you save 49 steps off of the Duomo climb and you get a close-up view of the great Florence cathedral.
Across from the Campanile is the Baptistery whose doors cause quite a stir. Clad in white and green marble, the octagonal building has a detailed mosaic ceiling illustrating Biblical stories for believers to ponder. In 1401, a door design competition was held. Lorenzo Ghiberti beat out Brunelleschi and Donatello to create the vivid, ornate, bronze portals that launched the early Italian Renaissance and that Michelangelo dubbed the “Gates of Paradise.”
Behind the church is the Duomo Museum which highlights the golden age of Florence art, in particular sculpture—statues of popes, saints, and sinners abound. They have a wonderful pieta by Michelangelo, works of Donatello, reliquaries and relics, and Ghiberti’s original “Gates of Paradise” doors. Make sure to visit the terrace for a panoramic view of the Duomo—one of the best around.
How to buy Duomo Florence tickets: You must make a reservation in order to climb the dome. You can do this online, at a kiosk in the lobby of the ticket office, or by standing in line at the ticket office (Piazza San Giovanni—across from Baptistery). According to their website, a single ticket provides access to climb the Dome, climb the Campanile, visit the Baptistery, visit the Santa Reparata crypt within the church, and go to the Duomo Museum (tickets are usable for 72 hours from first passage). You will need to make a reservation to climb the dome and it is likely going to be at least two days before they will have an available time. Make sure that you allot enough time from your first visit to encompass your Duomo climb. Also, be careful not to lose your reservation. It looks like a receipt and you may be tempted to toss it, but you will not get in without it. To be safe, just keep everything until you’ve visited all the sites on the pass or until your time expires.
To orient yourself to Florence and get a feel for the land, you may want to take a walking tour of the city first. I recommend the Tour Guy tours. If you use our code link, you save 5% off of most small-group tours.
Silly YouTube Video of Me at the Duomo: https://youtu.be/ypKTdehvhBA
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