Photographing Florence – Capturing One Of The Most Beautiful Cities In Italy

Photographing Florence

The skyline of this great Renaissance city has barely changed in 500 years, with the great red dome of its Cathedral, its grand medieval palaces, marble church facades and ancient bridges spanning the shimmering river Arno.   Welcome to our guide to photographing Florence, and capturing some of the magic of the Tuscan capital in your camera. 

Florence is endowed with an abundance of art and architecture, but the heart of the city, the centro storico, is surprisingly small and compact. Most of the sights – and subjects – of Florence are within walking distance of each other, so covering the ground doesn’t take very long compared to other cities in Europe. 

As for when to plan your visit, I’ve found that the shoulder seasons – March-April and September-October – have been very conducive to photographing Florence. It doesn’t get too hot or cold at these times of year, and it’s also one of the best places to stay in Tuscany if you’re planning to explore more of the region. 

Tips For Photographing Florence 

Image of the duomo or cathedral and campanile in Florence Italy
A close-up of the Duomo and Campanile

Everyone heads there, but with good reason – Piazzale Michelangelo commands the best view of Florence 

Take a selection of lenses with you to the Piazzale – you get the big overall shot from there, but can also make several other compositions from there – sunset over the river, or focusing on individual features including the Duomo 

You should climb the Duomo’s Campanile (belltower), dome or both – if you only have time for one, I suggest opting for the Campanile  

You sometimes need to retrace your steps when photographing Florence – as different subjects in one place are lit at different times of day 

The lights on the buildings are usually left on overnight until dawn, so if you don’t mind an early start, you can get some extra ‘night’ shoots under your belt 

Piazzale Michelangelo And The View Of Florence 

Image of the city of Florence at night from Piazzale Michelangelo
The classic view from Piazzale Michelangelo

Piazzale Michelangelo is the place to go for the best views of Florence. This large square-come-coach-park is located high above Florence city centre, on the opposite bank of the Arno river (Oltrarno). It’s a short bus ride or a 20-minute walk from the city, and is an absolute Florence must do.  

Image of the Palazzo Vecchio from Piazzale Michelangelo Florence
The Palazzo Vecchio from Piazzale Michelangelo

The view of Florence from the top is spectacular, and has barely changed in 500 years. The old centre, the centro storico, is the same as ever, the Florence skyline dominated by the Duomo and the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. It’s the place from which most pictures of Florence you’ll have seen were shot. 

Image of the Ponte Vecchio and River Arno in Florence at dusk
The Ponte Vecchio and Arno from the Piazzale at dusk

Bring a selection of lenses with you, from standard to long zoom lenses – around 250-300mm focal length should give you ample coverage. The big overall shot is the easy one – be creative and look for other shots within the wide shot.

Image of the Duomo in the early morning Florence Italy
Early light on the Duomo from just below the Piazzale

It’s from here that you also shoot the classic Florence sunset with the Ponte Vecchio, other bridges and river Arno, and you can also zoom in on the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio. I love photographing cities at night, and believe it’s when they look most alluring. The Piazzale is the perfect spot for this. 

The most convenient way of getting there by bus is on the number 13. The Pecori Giraldi stop is close to the Ponte San Niccolo bridge, and 100 metres across the busy junction from the FH55 Grand Hotel Mediterraneo. 

Duomo, Campanile and Baptistery 

Image of the Duomo and Campanile Florence at night
Twilight on the Duomo and Campanile
Image of the Duomo dome from the Campanile Florence Italy
The great red dome of the Duomo from the Campanile

I’ve included all three parts of the Florence cathedral complex together as they’re hemmed in close together in a fairly small square and they can be combined in compositions, especially if you’re looking to create a powerful abstract effect. The Duomo and adjacent Campanile (belltower) dominate the view, but the Baptistery is invisible from the hilltop viewpoint. 

Image of Giotto's Campanile next to the Duomo Florence Italy
Giotto’s superb Campanile next to the Duomo

The Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore (St Mary of the Flowers), the Campanile built by Giotto da Bondone and the Baptistery is one of the most magnificent ensembles of buildings in Europe. The facades are all crafted from white marble, with a mixture of black, red and green shapes, patterns and stripes. After the overview from the Piazzale, this is where you should head to shoot your Florence images. 

Image of the dome of the Florence Duomo or Cathedral from the Campanile
Another view of the dome from the Campanile

Giotto’s Campanile, in my view, is the best Florence viewpoint other than the Piazzale.  It’s over 400 steps to the top, and watch out for some unusual views of the dome on the way up. At the top, you’re rewarded with the stunning sight of the roof and dome of the Duomo, one of the most enduring images of Tuscany and Italy.  

Image of the Baptistery and Duomo reflected in a cafe window Florence Italy
The Baptistery and Duomo reflected in a cafe window

It’s also possible to climb Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome – something I haven’t done myself, despite visiting the city four times.  I’ve climbed the Campanile twice, suspecting that it offered better views, and I’ll stick with that view for now. You would get an excellent view of the Campanile from there, and also looking down on the terracotta rooftops of the centro storico. 

Image of Florence Duomo or Cathedral at night
The Duomo at dusk

Although the piazza outside the Duomo is too small and the building for too large to capture with even an ultra-wide-angle lens, the area has opportunities for some wonderful Florence photography. The first time I went there was in the late ‘90s with a 35 mm film camera and a Chinese 6×6 twin lens reflex so I just had to make do with what I had – and when I next visited with better equipment, the most satisfying images I produced were the ones I replicated from my first visit.  Walk around, revisit at different times of the day (late afternoon was best) and even at dusk. 

Ponte Vecchio 

Image of the Ponte Vecchio Florence at night
The Ponte Vecchio and River Arno at night

The ‘Old Bridge’ is another Florence icon, a street of shops built onto what has become one of the most famous and beautiful bridges in Europe.  It’s also one of the most recognisable landmarks in Italy, its jewellery and craft stores busy with shoppers most of the day. It looks better from a short distance, its distinctive yellow hue glowing in the early morning and late evening light. It works well as a subject both in daylight and at twilight, when it is well lit and looks especially beautiful with its lights reflected in the Arno. 

The Ponte Vecchio also looks wonderful from the Piazzale Michelangelo at sunset, so look to shoot it first when you’re up there, before moving onto the twilights of the rest of the city.   

River Arno 

The main shot of the Arno is from the Piazzale, looking down with the Ponte Vecchio featuring prominently. However, it’s also worth spending some time walking along the river. The handsome buildings either side look so much more evocative when they’re reflected in the still or slow-moving water of the river, so take a little time to check this out as well. 

San Miniato al Monte 

Image of the church of San Miniato al Monte Florence italy
The gorgeous church of San Miniato al Monte
Image of a statue of a woman and children at the San Miniato al Monte churchyard in Florence
The cemetery at San Miniato al Monte offers amazing views over the city

When you visit the Piazzale Michelangelo, it’s worth the short extra climb to the gorgeous Romanesque church of San Miniato al Monte. It has a striking, typical black-and-white Florentine façade not dissimilar to other churches we mention below, and it looks wonderful from the steps leading up to it. 

The church, one of the oldest in Florence, is well worth a visit, and on your way out, pause for a moment. There is a tiny cemetery outside the church, and one of the memorials is especially beautiful. It’s of a woman with her children standing below her, all reaching up to her. The statue just happens to line up with the distinctive dome of the Duomo behind. The first time I visited, over 20 years ago, I couldn’t believe the serendipity of the shot.  Hopefully the mother statue will have been cleaned since my last visit. 

Michelangelo’s David 

Image of the replica of the Michelangelo David statue in the Piazza della Signoria Florence
Michelangelo’s David outside the Palazzo Vecchio

Michelangelo’s David is one of the most famous statues in the world.  The original can be seen in the Accademia, and there is a replica in Piazza della Signoria, near the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio.  It makes for an better photographic subject outside, where, for an hour or two early afternoon each day, a shaft of sunlight squeezes down Piazzale degli Uffizi, illuminating the side of the statue. This gives it more depth than a shot in flat indoor lighting.   

Piazza della Signoria – Palazzo Vecchio and Neptune Fountain 

Image of the statue of Neptune Piazza della Signoria Florence
Ammannati’s statue of Neptune in the Piazza della Signoria
Image of the Palazzo Vecchio Florence
The Palazzo Vecchio in warm evening light

The Piazza della Signoria is one of the most popular places to see in Florence.  As well as David, there are plenty of other photos to be had here.  The austere, imposing Palazzo Vecchio is one of the most prominent Florence landmarks, and up close, it’s a full-on medieval skyscraper. It looks its best in late evening light, and to fit most of it in the frame, you’ll need to head back to the edge of the square. 

Just below the Palazzo Vecchio , the Neptune Fountain is one of the most common images of Florence in guidebooks and brochures. Surrounded by smaller mythical figures, the main white marble Neptune figure is the focal point, and there are two angles to go for when photographing it. One is looking north across the square with the towers of the Badia Fiorentina and Bargello Museum behind it. The other is later in the day with the Palazzo Vecchio looming behind it. Michelangelo was not impressed by the statue, telling sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati he had spoiled a beautiful piece of marble.  A little harsh, perhaps, but the Neptune statue in Bologna is more impressive. 

Santa Croce 

Image of Santa Croce Basilica Florence
The fine facade of Santa Croce Basilica

This splendid Gothic basilica is located slightly away from the centro storico, just outside the former city walls near the Arno river.  The main exterior shot is of its black-and-white marble façade, which was added over the old brick one in the 19th century. The interior is fascinating, with a glorious Gothic chancel and the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo Galilei, not to mention the arch political schemer Niccolo Machiavelli. Photographing church interiors and monuments is usually fraught with difficulty – it’s often banned outright, and if not, you tend to get very little time and have to shoot hand-held at very high ISO.  Tripods are nearly always a no-no, so it’s not something to which I devote much time. 

Santa Maria Novella Church 

Image of Santa Maria Novella Church Florence
The facade of Santa Maria Novella

Santa Maria Novella is one of the finest churches in Florence, and the city’s main station, named Firenze SMN on timetables, is located just behind it and named after it. The main shot of this handsome Florence church is the marble front, which, unusually, is at the east end of the church (as opposed to the usual west end) so it’s a morning rather than evening shot. This former monastery church is filled with artistic treasures, including the frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Cappella Tornabuoni. 

Mercato Centrale and San Lorenzo Basilica 

Image of the street markets of Via dell'Ariento Florence
Looking down Via dell’Ariento towards San Lorenzo

The Mercato Centrale – Florence Central Market – is a great place to photograph food stalls and just food. It’s one of the biggest in Italy and there are also several cafes and trattorie where you can tuck into some delicious food rather than photograph it.  

Image of a window display in a deli in Florence with stuffed animals around a table eating
Feeding time at La Norcineria

The streets between the Mercato and the Basilica of San Lorenzo offer up some of the best opportunities for Florence street photography. One of the best photo spots in Florence is near the market entrance, looking down Via dell’Ariento towards the Basilica di San Lorenzo.  Also look out for the food shops in this area – the little place I’ve photographed here was on Via Sant’Antonino, within metres of the Central Market and Via dell’Ariento, but it looks like it has closed down in the last couple of years. 

Image of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Florence
San Lorenzo from the Campanile of the Duomo

San Lorenzo is one of the most impressive churches in Florence. Photographically, its main feature is its red tiled dome, and inside the tombs of the Medici dynasty in the Cappelle Medicee are a must-see.  There is ticketed entry to this part of the church, and don’t count on being able to photograph them. Sometimes just seeing it is the most you can do. 

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David Angel
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 25 years.  His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.