Back in October I returned to this famous Italian city overflowing with history and culture (and the one that kickstarted my fascination for the rest of Il Bel Paese).

My first experience of Italy was at the age of 15 with a class trip to Florence. With the risk of sounding cornily sentimental, I have to say that it was during our five days there that I really realised a love for Italy. Returning 5 years later, with a greatly improved command of Italian, gave me a real sense of satisfaction and of course lots of excitement!

For anyone that is yet to visit this amazing city, I would definitely recommend it. I would also say that anyone interested in history should do a bit of research before their trip – Florence was one of the most important Renaissance cities and unsurprisingly has huge cultural, political and architectural significance worth knowing a bit about. Moreover I find trips far more rewarding when you know a bit about the sights you’re visiting!

There’s a plethora of information sites, books and tourist offices that can give the complete lowdown on this city, so I thought that I would share just four of my favourite Florentine finds (the first of which is less about the place and more about the story of what happened there).


The Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola was one of the most important characters in Renaissance Florentine politics and even ruled the Republic for a few years. Following Charles VIII’s invasion into Italy, the Medici family lost their position as city rulers and Savonarola, who had become an influential puritan preacher, took over the family’s role. The friar’s apocalyptic preaching called for Florence to become a city of God, criticising the immorality, corruption and extravagance that it had taken over the city. Although initially revered by the people, when food shortages and outbursts of plague then took over the city, the blame came to lay on Savonarola. Thus, and as with many historical figures, the friar’s ascension to great influence and power was followed by his fall – May 1498 the Florentine people gathered once again in the Piazza della Signoria, this time to watch his torture and execution rather than to hear his sermon.

This painting was completed in 1650 by an unknown artist. It depicts Savonarola’s execution in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of Florence that still looks the same today. The piazza is named after the building that sits on it (also known as the Palazzo Vecchio), where the ruling political body of the Republic of Florence, La Signoria, used to meet. Today the Palazzo Vecchio is still the political centre of the city as it is the town hall of Florence and you’ll most likely pass it on the way to the Galleria degli Uffizi close by. The statue that you can see here of the friar is not actually in Florence but in the Piazza Savonarola in Ferrara, the town where Savonarola was born. It’s one of my favourite statues here in Ferrara, I think it really reflects the powerful effect that his apocalyptic sermons must have once had on the people of Florence and the drama of his tragic ending that came afterwards.

Chiesa di Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross)

Chiesa di Santa Croce and statue of Dante Alighieri

A large statue of the poet Dante Alighieri stands outside the Santa Croce church but he is just the first of many great Italians remembered in this impressive building. It is the resting place of the artist Michelangelo, whose tomb designed by Giorgio Vasari shows the allegorical figures of the arts he mastered – architecture, sculpture and painting. The polymath Galileo Galilei is also buried here and has a grave of similar style to Michelangelo’s. Niccolò Machiavelli, the Florentine that wrote the political treatise Il Principe (The Prince) is remembered with a funeral monument, as well as Da Vinci and these are alongside a second monument to Dante on top of his statue outside. Furthermore, works by some of the most important Renaissance painters decorate the church, including frescoes in the Peruzzi and Bardi Chapels by Giotto. With so many big names in Italian studies to be found one place, the Chiesa di Santa Croce should be a definite on the tourist’s to do list.

Piazza Michelangelo

This is the place where you can take that post-card worthy picture to show friends and family back home. The piazza wasn’t actually built until 1868 by the Florentine architect Giuseppe Poggi. It’s around one kilometre from the Ponte Vecchio and there’s a nice pathway all the way up to the piazza – we walked but for those that would rather take a lift, buses also run regularly. Either way it is definitely worth the trip and there’s a bar at the top to refresh yourself before heading back down.

View of Piazza Michelangelo

San Miniato al Monte (Saint Miniatus on the Mountain)

If you carry on up the hill past Piazza Michelangelo, you’ll come to the Benedictine monastery and basilica built in the name of Saint Miniatus. It’s believed that the martyr saint, who had lived in the 3rd century, came to be buried here and that the relics now held in the church crypt belonged to him. It has been one of my favourite churches to visit so far in Italy and I can see why it has been called one of the finest and most beautiful Romanesque buildings in the country. Not only is the inside fascinating, with examples of iconography varying from the 12th to the 15th century, but you can really feel the age of the building (construction started in 1018). With it being on the top of the hill overlooking the city it also feels incredibly peaceful and the crypt underneath the church, with its many pillars, was particularly memorable for me.


Ferrara – The seat of the Este dynasty

When trying to decide which Italian University to pick for my year abroad, I inevitably headed straight to Google to discover more about the different cities and towns I had on offer to me. Being off the general Italian tourist trail, I had like many people never heard of Ferrara before doing some research. It’s elusiveness was one of the aspects that immediately attracted me to the town however it was this article written by the novelist Sarah Dunant that really sparked my interest –  Why less-visited Ferrara is as fabulous as Florence. Funnily enough, having spoken to the other British students here, it seems as if we all have Sarah Dunant to thank in swaying us to come to this little gem of northern Italy. I mean, with a title such as ‘As fabulous as Florence – and not a coach party in sight’, how could any student wanting to get the real Italian experience and improve their language as much as possible not get excited?

Ferrara’s main landmark il Castello Estense certainly does not disappoint. ‘Estense’ comes from the Este family name, a dynasty that ruled Ferrara from the 13th-16th centuries, until 1597 when the last Duca d’Este Alfonso II died without heirs and Ferrara passed on from the House of Este to the Papal States. With four turrets, a moat and two drawbridges, the castle seems to have not lost any of the grandiose or intimidating statue intended by its builder. Built in 1385 by Niccolò II d’Este, the story of why the Duke ordered its construction is really worth its own entry so hang on for that.

I won’t go into the details of all of Ferrara’s historical landmarks but if you do go, of the ones available and that I do not mention, be sure to visit the Palazzo Schifanoia, Palazzina di Marfisa d’Este, Casa Romei, Piazza Ariosto and Il Cimitero Monumentale della Certosa di Ferrara. Besides these, from the castle in the centre of town there are two main areas of the rest of Ferrara to explore. To the south you’ll find the area of the city that was home to the Jewish Ferrarese population from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. It’s impossible not to sense the history of the area with its maze of small cobbled streets and tall, wonky buildings. This is my favourite part of town and is, in my opinion, the place to search for Ferrara’s best trattorias. To the north of the castle is supposedly one of the best (and first) examples of Renaissance city planning and the area in which Ferrara’s numerous Renaissance palaces can be found. Corsa Ercole I d’Este is a huge cobbled street that runs all the way from the castle to the periphery city wall and is your best starting place for exploring that side of town. About half way down is Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara’s biggest palace and now home to some of the town’s rich Renaissance art and impressive temporary exhibitions. The other Renaissance palaces on Corsa Ercole I d’Este are now used as university buildings and during the warmer months students often head straight from these across the road to the Parco Massari to enjoy some sun after lessons.

Piazza Ariostea
Via delle Volte in the Jewish Quarter of the town
Looking down Via Mazzini in the old town onto Piazza Trento Trieste at Christmas. The whole town was covered with these lovely lights throughout the festive season.

Back in the centre of town and around a hundred metres from the castle is the main square, la Piazza Trento Trieste, il Cattedrale di San Giorgio and Ferrara’s Renaissance campanile (bell tower). Unfortunately I can’t show you a picture of the front of the cathedral because it has been covered with scaffolding since my arrival. The works were supposed to be finished by October 2016 but unexpected problems with the facade are apparently to blame for the project’s extension. The thought of spending a year here and not being able to see it for myself is frustrating (particularly considering that I haven’t actually seen much activity on the scaffolds), but restorative work is obviously extremely important and slow not only in Italy, and I would definitely prefer that it is around in the future to see it than not at all!

View from a turret of the castle – spot the scaffolded cathedral

The town is also still holding on to its Renaissance defences, in the form of almost 10 kilometres of wall that surrounds it. Along with the town of Lucca, Ferrara’s wall is one of some of the best conserved in Italy and it is well worth taking the path that follows beside it. Finding ‘la campagna dentro le mura’ (countryside within the walls) and the outside bar and restaurant just off the northeastern section of the route is the perfect place to stop for a drink or spend a lazy summer afternoon

Part of the path following Ferrara’s city walls

Coming from a large city such as Leeds in the UK, the dinkyness of Ferrara was something that I thought I was going to struggle with at first. To be honest I am pretty sure that I have walked almost every street here, however as you have read there is so much to history and interesting things to see. Moreover, in no way does its size compare to it’s strong sense of community and the huge variety of events you can find on almost every weekend. Besides the multitude of markets boasting fresh farmers’ produce from the surrounding countryside, antiques, clothing, books and more, Ferrara is host to an impressive number and quality of events, including one of Europe’s largest hot-air ballooning festivals, a renowned international buskers’ festival and the town’s own concert, film and jazz season.

View from my bedroom window of il campanile (bell tower) – I hear the bells everyday but still haven’t figured out what schedule they run on… on Sundays it feels like they never stop!