Updated: Aug 2
Here’s my guide to visiting Florence Cathedral in Florence Italy, with must know tips.
This guide includes the history of Florence’s Duomo, everything to see at the Duomo, how to get skip the line tickets, and how to climb Brunelleschi’s iconic dome. It will help you make the most out of your visit to the Duomo, which is Florence’s #1 attraction.
The burnt orange Duomo cupola is the very symbol of Florence, a city overflowing with Renaissance beauty and art. A visit to the Duomo and a climb up Brunelleschi’s dome is on every Florence itinerary or bucket list.
I’ll tell you about the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s iconic dome, and how to visit both without waiting in the notoriously long queue. Smart travelers save hours of lining up by planning ahead.
Nicknamed the Duomo, Florence Cathedral is the most prominent, and popular, landmark in Florence. Duomo doesn’t mean dome, despite the dominating dome. The word Duomo is a nickname for a cathedral, combining Latin words that translate as house of God.
It was built over 172 years, beginning in 1296. The Commune of Florence hired architect Arnolfo di Cambio, a man responsible for building much of 13th and 14th century Florence.
Florence Cathedral is nicknamed the Duomo. It’s also called the Cathedral of Santa Maria della Fiore, or St. Mary of the Flowers. There was no such saint in real life. But Florence, or Firenze, means lily flower. So the city cathedral took on the symbol of Florence.
What To See at Florence Cathedral
1. History and Architecture
Arnolfo di Cambio was the original architect, who got the project off the ground. The patron was the Commune or the city of Florence.
There was a pre-existing church on sit, Santa Reparata. The citizens weren’t that excited about demolishing it. So Arnolfo built his church around the older church.
The first part that went up was the brownstone facade. Then, Arnolfo built the walls around the older church. The old church would remaining standing for 100 years. Finally, when the original protestors were long gone, the Florentines tore it down.
Florence Cathedral is Gothic in style. But not in the light and elegant way you think of France’s Notre Dame or Chartres.
The cathedral is made of pietra forte, brown sandstone. The sandstone was beautifully faced with pink marble (from Tuscany), green marble (from Prato), and white (from Carrera) marble.
The Duomo has two marble facades, one from the 14th century (on the sides) and one from the 19th century (the front).
The 14th century facade was designed by Andrea Orcagna and Taddeo Gaddi. There’s an intense amount of Gothic detailing and copies of early Renaissance sculptures (originals are in the Duomo Museum).
The original 14th century facade on the front, built by Arnolfo di Cambio, was taken down in the 1587. It was considered outdated. The city wanted a Renaissance facade.
Unfortunately, due to corruption and scandal, a new Neo-Gothic facade wasn’t rebuilt until the 19th century. In the interim, for 300 years, the front facade was just raw brownstone.
In the Duomo Museum, you can see a giant reconstruction of Arnolfo’s facade that was torn down, along with the statues that once adorned it.
The 19th century facade is an extravaganza of Neo-Gothic decoration, too much to even try to describe. It has a large Rose window and smaller Rosette windows.
There are three main doors, or portals. The portals have lunettes with architraves and mosaic decoration.
The main portal has over-the-top Gothic decoration with Mary, saints, popes, and trumpeters. On both sides of the bronze doors in tabernacles are statues of the Florence’s patron saints: St. Reparata on the left and St. Zenobius on the right.
3. Facade Sculptures
On the original 14th century facade, the sculptures were created by the greatest artists of the day — Arnolfo di Cambio, Donatello, and Nanni di Banco. The sculptures reflect the transition from the Gothic to the early Renaissance style. If you want to see these statues in person, the original works are now in the Duomo Museum.
The sculpture in the middle of the reconstructed facade is Arnolfo’s famous Madonna With the Glass Eyes, dating from around 1300. It’s one of the most famous sculptures in history. Arnolfo introduced naturalism and paid attention to anatomy, unlike the prior Byzantine style.
And, of course, Michelangelo’s David was originally intended to be set atop the Duomo. But it was deemed too beautiful. Instead, David was placed at the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio. Now, it’s in the Accademia Gallery.
On the Duomo’s 19th century facade, there’s a long row of tabernacles containing sculptures of Mary and Jesus and the 12 apostles. It’s right under the rose window. Above that, between the rose window and the tympanum, there’s a gallery with busts of famous Florentine artists.
4. Giotto Bell Tower
In 1334, the Commune decided to add the bell tower. They hired Giotto, the most famous painter of the 14th century. Giotto was pretty old by this time. He died 3 years later in 1337. He may not have had much real input.
Then, Florence hired Nicola Pisano, who designed the earliest set of the Baptistery bronze doors. But he was dismissed two years later.
Then, Francesco Talenti was hired. He finished the project in two years flat. For his dispatch, he was named head architect of the cathedral.
When you look at the bell tower, you can see the different architects at work. Talenti likely did levels 5-7.
On a Giotto Campanile climb, you have Florence’s best views of the Duomo and Brunelleschi’s dome. There are no elevators though, and it’s 414 steps to the top. The lines can sometimes be quite long.
READ: Best Views in Florence
While Florence Cathedral is elegantly and intricately “frosted” with colored marble on the outside, inside Florence Cathedral is austere and almost empty. You might even wonder if it was ever finished.
Talenti was responsible for the interior decoration. Talenti was an “architect’s architect.” He wanted the decoration to be minimal to emphasize the architecture. There’s geometric proportion and a few pointed arches.
The octagonal crossing space is vast, 143 feet across with large bays. There’s no real transept space. There are five radiating chapels.
There are two important frescos painted by Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno —Condottiero Giovanni Acuto“and “Niccolò da Tolentino.“
6. The Dome
Filippo Brunelleschi’s magnificent terra cotta colored dome, built from 1420-36, is the highlight of Florence Cathedral. It’s a true Renaissance masterpiece. When it began building the Duomo, Florence knew it lacked the requisite technology to complete the dome.
Before Brunelleschi came along, the Duomo lay open for well over a century. But Brunelleschi was the perfect balance of architect and engineer, visionary and traditionalist.
Brunelleschi developed a “dome within in a dome” double shell concept that worked without wooden centering. Financed by Cosimo de Medici (the Elder), it catapulted the Medici name forward in Florentine society.
READ: Who Were the Medici?
Brunelleschi’s dome was over a foot wider than the Pantheon in Rome. That was intentional; size mattered. It’s still the largest brick dome ever built.
7. Climbing the Duomo’s Dome
If you need to burn off some pasta carbs, climb the 463 steps to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome. It’s one of the best things to do in Florence. When you make the climb, you’re between the two domes Brunelleschi designed.
But be forewarned, it’s very tight. The narrow twisting corridor gets clogged. It can be hot, stuffy, and potentially claustrophobic. And there’s no elevator. If you’re doing the dome climb in the summer, it will be stifling.
8. Vasari’s The Last Judgment
About 2/3 of the way up is a viewing ledge at the base of the drum. From here, you have a splendid view of Giorgio Vasari’s dome fresco of The Last Judgment, painted from 1572-79. The fresco was cleaned and restored in 1996.
Covering some 3,6000 square meters, the fresco is the largest one in the world. Originally, the architect Brunelleschi wanted his dome covered in gold mosaics like the Baptistery. But that plan was never realized.
120 years after Brunelleschi’s death, Giorgio Vasari was commissioned by Cosimo I to fresco the dome. The Last Judgment is divided in to five zones.
Enthroned in the center is Christ the judge. The various levels separated by bands show the other players in the drama — the elders of the apocalypse, saints, member of the Medici family, and the damned in hell.
In their monumentality, the figures floating against the background of heaven are reminiscent of those of Michelangelo, who Vasari revered. Michelanglo’s The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was Vasari’s inspiration.
Back inside the dome, the climb gets progressively more challenging. The magnificent panoramic view from the top is worth the discomfort though. You can see all of Florence and some of the Tuscan countryside.
Getting Tickets For the Duomo and the Dome Climb
So how does this all come about? What’s the best way to get Duomo and dome tickets in Florence? You have three options. Option 1 is the best way to go, I think.
1. Combination Ticket
Purchase the “Grande Museo del Duomo” combination ticket online for 18 euros, which gives you one entry to each of the Duomo sites over 72 hours. The ticket includes admission to the Duomo, Baptistery, Campanile, Duomo Museum, Brunelleschi’s dome, and the Santa Reparata crypt (inside the cathedral).
A PDF containing a barcode will be sent to you via email. You can have it scanned on your phone. Click here to see my comprehensive discussion of these (and other) must see Florence sites.
The dome climb is ONLY possible with an advance reservation. You can book a time slot when you purchase your combination ticket online. Dome climb time slots can fill up days in advance, so reserve well ahead.
Once you’ve made the reservation, you can’t change it. Show up 20-30 minutes early. The entrance for the dome climb is on the north side of the Duomo.
2. Guided Tour
Book a guided tour with Get Your Guide or another company. The disadvantage of this is that you aren’t free to set your own itinerary and pause on things you personally want to admire.
3. In Person
You can buy your combo ticket in person in Florence and try to reserve a dome climb entry time. Go to either the main Duomo ticket office (facing the Baptistery) or at a ticket machine in the Duomo Museum lobby.
How To Plan Your Visit To the Duomo Sites
To help plan your visit to the complex, here are the time schedules of the Duomo sites. They all open and close at different times. Check the website because sometime’s hours change.
I would start with the Baptistery at 8:15 am, move on to the Duomo Museum, and then have a bell tower climb scheduled for 11:00 am or so. Don’t rush through the wonderful museum, which has an outstanding collection of Medieval and Renaissance sculpture and a reconstructed Duomo facade.
You don’t want to climb both the Duomo dome and the Giotto bell tower on the same day. Also, because there are religious sites, you must dress conservatively. No sleeveless tops or short/skirts above the knee.
Duomo:10:00 am to 4:30 pm
Brunelleschi’s Dome: 8:30 am to 5:00 pm
Giotto Bell Tower | Campanile: 8:15 am to 10:15 am & 11:15 am to 7:30 pm
Crypt: 10:00 am to 4:30 pm
Duomo Museum: 9:00 am to 7:00 pm (but closed Sunday afternoon)
Baptistery: 8:15 am to 6:30 pm
If you just love Florence, here are some of my other Florence guides:
If you’d like to visit the Duomo in Florence, pin it for later.