Fun facts about Florence, Italy are represented on a map of the city

Going places

7 fun facts about Florence, Italy we learned on an EF tour

Is it possible to travel the world through the pages of Wikipedia? Sure is. But if you’re a middle or high school student, it’s not nearly as much fun as hopping on a plane with your favorite teacher to see a new city firsthand. We joined a student group on an EF tour in Florence, Italy, where we learned a bunch of things well beyond the reach of even our best Googling skills.

Local guide, Silvia, whose tour provided the fun facts about Florence, Italy that appear in this story

Here are seven fun facts about Florence, Italy as shared by our expert local guide, Silvia, on a walking tour of the city center.

An iconic image from Botticelli's Birth of Venus, which--fun fact about Florence, Italy--appears in the Uffizi Gallery

1 / Florence’s most famous art museum got its start as a suite of offices.

When we think “government office building,” our brains go to beige walls and drab carpets. But the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici, was thinking bigger and fancier when he commissioned a building for his administrative offices. He hired Florentine artist and architect Giorgio Vasari to oversee the project. Construction on the de’ Medici offices wrapped in 1581 and included a second-floor art space. The gallery continued to expand over the next couple of centuries, eventually opening to the public in 1769. Fast forward to today, the Uffizi Gallery is a world-renowned art museum (with nary a government office in sight) that’s home to priceless works of art like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and masterpieces by Giotto, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio.

Dive deep into the museum’s history on their official site

You can't have a story on fun facts about Florence, Italy without featuring the Duomo; here, we see students looking up at the cathedral's iconic dome

2 / Experts actually aren’t 100% sure how the city’s iconic dome was engineered.

Construction on the Florentine cathedral commonly known as the Duomo began in 1296. By 1418, much of the building was complete, but no one could quiiiiiite figure out how to build the dome to top it off. Enter Filippo Brunelleschi, a goldsmith and sculptor with no formal architecture training. He suggested creating two domes, one nested inside the other. Thing is, Brunelleschi was notoriously prickly, and, even during the double-dome’s construction, he refused to divulge all the minute details, destroying most of his notes and sketches. It took over 500 years, minds from Princeton and the University of Bergamo, and some fancy computer modeling to figure out the physics of it all. (That’s a fun fact about Florence, Italy if we’ve ever heard one.) But there’s still a lot we don’t know about the innovations in design, engineering, and construction that hold up this fixture of the Florentine skyline.

Watch a NatGeo explainer video on the dome

An interior image of the Duomo; a fun fact about Florence, Italy, is that the design of the interior is deliberately simple to keep visitors' minds on their prayers

3 / In contrast to its ornate exterior, the Duomo’s interior is intentionally simple.

According to local guide Silvia, simplicity on the Duomo cathedral’s interior is actually a functional design element. It’s meant help churchgoers avoid distraction and stay focused on their prayers. Think lofty stone pillars that draw your eye up, up, up. They’re paired with simple gothic arches that mark off the main sections of the cathedral. The walls are mostly unadorned, save for a few Renaissance paintings (NBD in a city that’s positively overflowing with priceless art). The Duomo’s marble mosaic floors, plus the frescoed underside of the dome, are probably the cathedral’s most intricate interior elements.

The Duomo’s exterior, however, is all about swagger, meant to show off the city’s wealth. (How else could you afford to ship in red, white, and green marble from quarries all around Tuscany!?) It was designed to impress both visitors and locals.

See student photos of the Duomo and more

Another fun fact about Florence, Italy is that the Ponte Vecchio bridge, pictured here, was once home to butchers--a major departure from the goldsmiths who have shops there now

4 / Storefronts on the now-glitzy Ponte Vecchio bridge were once home to local butchers.

The smell of the long-ago Ponte Vecchio left something to be desired, according to Silvia, when a number of local butchers occupied the many shops that line both sides of the bridge. It was all by design, to keep undesirable elements away from the wealthy neighborhoods in the center of Florence. It wasn’t until 1593 that the aesthetically inclined Grand Duke Ferdinand I decided to clean house (er, literally) to make way for the goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewelers who still occupy the bridge today.

Read up on the Associazione Ponte Vecchio and its history

A view of Orsanmichele, which--fun fact about Florence, Italy--got its start as a granary but is now a church

5 / One well-known church had humble beginnings as a grain market.

Built in the 1290s, the building where Orsanmichele Church now stands once housed a market selling wheat, straw, and grain. But when a painting of the Madonna inside the building became attributed to a growing number of miracles, worshippers began to outnumber marketgoers. The market moved elsewhere, and the building was transformed into a church. Today, the niches surrounding the structure pay homage to building’s commercial roots, featuring sculptures of the patron saints of Florence’s 14 major guilds.

Check out close-ups of Orsanmichele’s patron saints

A view of the top of Michaelangelo's David, who's featured in our fun facts about Florence, Italy story

6 / The sculpture of David in Piazza della Signoria is actually a dupe.

Silvia describes Piazza della Signoria as something of an open-air museum. Tourists and locals alike can admire a number of sculptures on display in the square, the result of an effort by the Florentine government to bring art to the people. Michelangelo’s real David statue actually did sit in the piazza back in 1504, when it was initially completed. But a few centuries later, it was replaced with a copy. The original was brought indoors to the Accademia Gallery, where it’s still on view today, for protection from weather and other damage.

See more of (the real!) David on our YouTube channel

Fun fact about Florence, Italy? Gelato, like the three kinds pictured here in cups and a cone, may have been invented here

7 / Gelato was invented to mark a royal visit to Florence.

The origin story of Italy’s signature dessert, gelato, differs depending on which historian you ask. But here’s Silvia’s take: The de’ Medici family was hosting a banquet for the king of Spain and commissioned their chefs to dream up something impressive for dessert. They landed on a frozen sweet made with eggs, honey, milk, and ice—the crema flavor that’s still in heavy rotation today.

We couldn’t gatekeep Silvia’s other excellent gelato tips for this list of fun facts about Florence, Italy, either: Choose the gelateria with stainless steel tubs (their product’s more likely to be made locally), and avoid super-bright colors and big, fluffy mounds of gelato—the thicker, creamier options are more likely to be slow-churned and of higher quality.

Visit Florence’s oldest gelateria, Vivoli

A view overlooking the city of (and, yes, this story featured fun facts about) Florence, Italy

Interested in more fun facts about Florence, Italy?

Learn them firsthand on one of our student tours.

Explore Italy tours

Heather McHugh

Heather is a writer and associate creative director at EF. She drinks an excessive amount of seltzer, she’s happiest when she’s at the beach, and, if she wasn’t a writer, she’d probably be a professional organizer. Her favorite place to visit is Italy.