In Florence, Italy, all roads lead to the Duomo. Well, not literally, but the vast cathedral with its soaring dome is the main point of reference in the historic center—wherever you roam, there's a good chance you'll wind up back here, at the building that is one of the symbols of the city itself.
You can easily spend a full day of your visit to Florence exploring the sights of the larger Duomo Complex, and this guide will show you how to do that the smart way by minimizing time spent waiting in line and timing your visits to beat the crowds. Read this article for how many days to spend in Florence.
What is the Duomo Complex?
The full name of Florence's main cathedral is Cattredale di Santa Maria del Fiore. One of the great monuments of the Western World and a symbol of the Italian Renaissance, il Duomo is so-named for its mighty dome, designed by architect Filippo Brunelleschi and still the largest masonry dome in the world. It sits on Piazza del Duomo, a complex that includes several important sites and serves as the center of Florence's historic district—a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Other important monuments on the piazza include Giotto's Bell Tower, the Baptistery, the Opera del Duomo Museum, and, in the basement of the cathedral, the Santa Reparata archaeological site. Some sights on the piazza are free to visit; others require a combined ticket.
If you only have a short time at the Duomo complex, you probably want to see the Duomo itself, duck inside the Baptistery, and climb either the dome or Giotto's Bell Tower for a view you'll never forget. If you have more time, a visit to all of the Duomo Complex sites really helps drive home their importance in the history of Florence and the wider Italian Renaissance.
For more on the Duomo complex, check out this Ultimate Guide to Florence: Cradle of the Italian Renaissance. And read on for how to strategize your sightseeing at these monuments.
Visiting the Duomo
The dominant site in the Duomo complex is the Duomo itself, with its gorgeous marble facade and huge terracotta-colored dome seeming to float behind it. Begun in 1296, the Duomo went through a series of architects, saw a work stoppage due to the Black Plague, and was not completed until 1436.
Start by admiring the facade of the Duomo, done in stripes of white, green, and red marble and the neogothic style. This decorative frontside is modern compared to the rest of the complex—it was completed in 1887 and is a sharp departure from the more restrained original design of centuries earlier.
Inside the Duomo, two things will likely stand out to you—the vastness of the interior and its relative "plainness," especially in contrast to the colorful, intricate facade. Still, there are several things to admire inside, including:
- The clock above the main door dates to the 1400s and still tells time. It has a 24-hour face and is adorned with bas-relief portraits of the four evangelists.
- The stained-glass windows are a relative rarity in Italian churches, dating to the 13- and 1400s. There are 44 windows in total, including several completed by artists who designed parts of the Duomo.
- The inlaid marble floors throughout the cathedral were installed in the 1500s, a gift from the Grand Dukes of the Medici family.
- The interior of the dome is decorated with a series of 16th-century frescoes that dramatically depict The Last Judgment. Most are the work of virtuoso artist Giorgio Vasari.
Like most places of worship in Italy, the cathedral is free to enter. So if you want to see the interior of the Duomo, you have to wait in line in the piazza. The line can be hours-long in peak season (July to October).
- Best times to visit: If you're visiting in high season, get in line before the Duomo opens (at 10:15 most mornings) so you'll be among the first inside. If you're visiting Florence between November and March (except right around Christmas), you probably won't find a very long line to enter—but bring an umbrella and dress for potentially cold weather.
- Worst times to visit: Midday during the summer is the worst time to wait in line to enter the Duomo. Crowds are at their densest, and daytime temperatures can soar to over 100°F (38°C). The cathedral is closed on Sundays.
Climbing the Dome
Brunelleschi was commissioned to complete the cathedral's dome, which remains a seminal monument of the Renaissance and is still the largest masonry dome ever built. He modeled his double-dome structure on the Pantheon in Rome and completed the engineering marvel without interior scaffolding.
A climb up the 463 steps that lead to the top of the dome takes you up close to the interior frescoes and between the inner and outer layers of the structure, along a narrow staircase. It culminates on the exterior of the lantern that tops the dome and offers incredible views of the dome itself and the bell tower, the rooftops of Florence, and the hills beyond.
Fair warning: the climb is claustrophobic and rigorous, with no real place to pause and catch your breath. To climb it, you need reservations for dated, timed entry, which you can purchase through the official website or a private reseller.
- Best times to visit: In the summertime, book your tickets for the earliest time slot available for cooler weather and thinner crowds. In the winter, time your visit for the latest entry of the day to capture the twilight over the rooftops of Florence.
- Worst times to visit: Like the line for the Duomo, the dome climb is best-avoided at midday or even late afternoon in the summer.
The Gates of Paradise
When Michelangelo first beheld Lorenzo Ghiberti's gilded bronze doors on the east portal of the Baptistery of St. John, he dubbed them "the Gates of Paradise"—as they're still referred to today. The low-relief panels vividly depict scenes from the Old Testament and are the crowning works of art of Ghiberti's career. For art historians, Ghiberti's deft use of linear perspective—a key tenet of the Renaissance—marks the firm break from the flat, motionless style that dominated the Middle Ages.
The gleaming 10-panel door that stands at the Baptistery, right across from the cathedral, is a replica of the original, which was moved to the Opera del Duomo Museum for restoration and protection from the elements. The doors are free to visit and are a not-to-be-missed attraction of the Duomo complex.
- Best times to visit: Like so many sights in the Duomo complex, the Gates of Paradise are best viewed in the early morning, before crowds of day-trippers descend on the piazza.
- Worst times to visit: Midday in the summer, or any time when the summer sun is beating down on the piazza, is a bad time to visit. There are usually crowds clustered in front of the gates, often big tour groups who don't move on quickly.
Baptistery of St. John
Considered the oldest building in Florence, the octagonal Battistero di San Giovanni was constructed over older sacred structures in the 10th and 11th centuries. It contains one glorious room covered in gold and multicolored Byzantine mosaics, which were installed in the 1200s. They recount stories of the life of John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and the Last Judgment.
Because the Baptistery consists of a single room, it makes for a relatively quick visit. However, consider studying the various stories depicted in the different sections. Admission here is included with a combined Duomo ticket.
- Best times to visit: Because this is a quick visit, you'll never find much of a line here.
- Worst times to visit: There's not really a "worst" time unless the Baptistery is closed for a periodic mass.
Giotto's Bell Tower
The Campanile di Giotto, or Giotto's Bell Tower, sits just to the right of the Duomo. The square bell tower, or campanile in Italian, was designed and initiated by painter and architect Giotto di Bondone, remembered in art history books as Giotto, easily the most important figure in the early Italian Renaissance. Work began on the white, red, and green marble-clad tower in 1334, though it wasn't completed until 1359, more than 20 years after his death.
There's one thing to do here—climb the tower. It's an experience that many prefer to Brunelleschi's Dome. The climb is a little easier, as there are 414 steps up to the 778-foot-high roof terrace, with places to pause and catch your breath along the way. The Bell Tower is almost always less crowded than the dome; best of all, it allows for great views of the dome itself.
Tip: unless you are fit and energetic, don't attempt the Bell Tower and the dome on the same day.
- Best times to visit: Early morning, or anytime when the line is not too long is a good time to make the climb. Or go an hour before closing to see the Duomo and Florence bathed in the evening light.
- Worst times to visit: When it's swelteringly hot outside, a line anywhere on the piazza is the last place you want to be.
Opera del Duomo Museum
The Opera del Duomo Museum, or Museo di Opera del Duomo, houses a significant collection of sculptures from medieval and Renaissance Florence, as well as fascinating scale models of the cathedral facade and dome, and treasures, including reliquaries, tombs, and architectonic features from inside the Duomo and the Baptistery. The collection is spread over 28 rooms and, thanks to signage and multimedia presentations, helps visitors understand the significance of the Duomo Complex in the development of the Renaissance.
Highlights of the collection include:
- The original Gates of Paradise are housed here to protect them from the elements, and they've been restored to their former glory.
- The Pietà Bandini, an unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo, still shows the original Renaissance man's chisel marks. The figure of the old man standing over Mary and the Dead Christ is a self-portrait.
- The Penitent Magdalene by Donatello, with its bedraggled Mary Magdalene, is a stark departure from conventional depictions of her as young and beautiful.
Admission to the museum is included with combined Duomo tickets. It's located behind the Duomo, at the back of Piazza del Duomo.
- Best times to visit: Anytime, as it's never very crowded, is a good time to visit.
- Worst times to visit: There's not a worst time—art lovers frequent the museum, and crowds are never very dense.
Santa Reparata Archaeological Site
Accessed from within the Duomo, the ruins of the old Basilica of Santa Reparata are among the earliest Christian monuments in Florence, with the foundation laid in 405 CE. Ancient pillars, mosaic floors, and evidence dating back to the Roman era are among the draws.
Because you're walking among the accumulated layers of four basilicas, centuries of development, and even older Roman houses, it can be confusing to know what you're looking at. Take time to study the signage, and don't miss the mosaic peacock dating to the 5th century.
Even if you visit the Duomo for free, you can't access Santa Reparata without a combined ticket to other Duomo sights.
- Best times to visit: If the Duomo is not crowded, Santa Reparata won't be crowded.
- Worst times to visit: When the crowds in the Duomo are at their densest, it can get crowded and a little claustrophobic in this underground site, especially at the entrance.