When we were in Rome, a woman at our hotel asked us if the museums in Florence were worth going to. I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t know anything about her tastes, but since then I’ve thought about it and here is the answer for me: The Academia (with the David) isn’t worth it, but the Uffizi probably is. What follows is a description of our experiences at those two places.

Florence is the birthplace of the renaissance, basically, so the main reason to go there is to check out the art and accomplishments of that time period. Accordingly, when Alessandra our hotelier got us reservations at the two biggest museums in town we were pretty excited, and on our second day in the city we set out to see some of the biggest, bad-est art works of western civilization.

Our first stop was the Academia, home to Michelangelo’s David. The lines at this place get pretty long, and so we were looking forward to using our reservations to bypass the wait. When we got to the museum, however, we were sad to discover that there was A) a long line even for reservation holders and, B) literally no organization. Basically, it was just a giant mob of people standing around a door. Everyone thought they were in the “right line,” but in reality there were six or seven blobs of people that were sort of like lines. It was disappointing. To top it off, it was raining, which I think made everyone a little aggravated (though I was glad that it wasn’t hot).

While I got in what seemed to be the most likely line-blob, Laura went to ask the museum workers by the door where we needed to be. While she was gone I met a college-aged guy and his mom, who were in line behind us. Before Laura got back I talked to the guy about the Tuscan tours they had been on. Though they loved the tours and felt that was the best option for them, comparing experiences made me glad that we were traveling independently.

After a few minutes, Laura got back and said that we were indeed in the correct spot. We waited around for about half an hour until we finally got to the front of the line. There, we showed our confirmation number and bought our tickets (14 euros, plus a 4 euro fee for reservations, if my memory serves me). (The American mom and son duo behind us didn’t get in. They thought they had purchased their tickets online a long time before, but the place they bought them from didn’t give them a physical ticket, a confirmation number, or anything else. They had also forgotten what time the tickets were supposed to get them in. They sort of reminded me of this one episode of Seinfeld, where George pretends he’s a tourist in New York to impress a woman. As he tries to date the woman he pretends to move to the city, but the woman warns him that the city will eat him alive. By the end, George is standing naked and jobless at a public phone, true to the woman’s predictions. Like George, the duo sadly seemed to be getting eaten alive by their travel experience.) One interesting thing about this whole ordeal was that they only people who seemed to know what was going on were the street vendors. Their helpfulness was much appreciated and made Laura and I reconsider our usual attitude of just brushing them off whenever they approached us.

Anyway, we got into the museum and immediately saw the Rape of the Sabine, a statue by Giambologna. It’s a cool and dramatic statue that I was glad we saw, until I realized (just now as I was writing this, actually) that the finished work is actually outside, and therefore free to see, near the Vecchio. Apparently the one in the Academia is the artist’s gesso for the finished product. In any case, the museum had some minimal information displayed, so at least we learned more about it. (The gesso, it’s worth noting, is also in much worse condition than the final piece outside.)

Next, we saw Michelangelo’s Prisoners. These are a series of unfinished sculptures depicting prisoners that appear to be muscling their way out of solid rock. They line the hall leading up to the David, and are quite impressive (though there are a couple of similar, but finished, Michelangelo scupltures in the Louvre). Following that, we saw the David. Like many people, I was impressed by the size and scale of the statue. Not being a sculptor myself, I’m not really qualified to comment on the workmanship, but the cultural clout that the piece enjoys definitely makes seeing the real thing impressive.

Once we had had a good look at the David, I was ready to move on to the rest of what I thought was going to be a large museum. To my surprise, however, there wasn’t much else. A couple of small rooms to either side of the David had some Renaissance paintings, and there was a room with some medeval art in it, but we had already seen so much of that kind of thing that it was kind of disappointing. (There was also a room with “special exhibit” that the museum uses to raise admission prices, but it was perhaps the most poorly curated exhibit I’ve ever seen.)

Soon we had left the Academia, and I was left wondering if we had just fallen victim to the Florentine version of a highway tourist trap. Between Laura and I, we had spent nearly 40 euros to get in. That was as much as we spent for everything, including food and lodging, on our cheaper days. If I was rich and didn’t care about money, I guess it wouldn’t have mattered, but seeing the David almost cost us as much as extending our trip by a day. If the museum had been as large and impressive as, say, the Louvre I wouldn’t complain, but it’s basically just a couple of rooms—in a building with an ugly exterior no less—designed to hold the David. Plus there is a full-sized replica of the statue outside the Vecchio, in the spot it originally stood. Ultimately, I’m glad I can say to people that I’ve seen the original, but as long as I’m a budget traveler, I can’t forsee any reason I would blow my budget like that again.

Following the Academia, I didn’t have high hopes of the Uffizi Gallery. This museum is supposed to be one of Europe’s greatest, and it has prices and lines comparable to the Academia. Luckily, however, our reservations got us past most of those lines this time, and pretty soon we were walking through was turned out to be a fairly extensive series of halls and chambers.

Inside the Uffizi we saw paintings by just about everyone from the Renaissance that I can think of. (That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.) There was work by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Titian, Rembrandt, and many many more. While the structure of the museum is rather mundane compared to those in London, Paris, Berlin, Prague, and elsewhere, the actual collection was well worth the time and money.

By the time we left the Uffizi Gallery we were pretty tired of museums (and crowds). We walked around some more, got some gelato, and just kind of hung out. While we did that I was again intrigued by the fact that Florence was one of my favorite cities to visit, but it’s top sites (which are what bring people, including us, into town) were among the more disappointing. Maybe that says something about me (perhaps I don’t value art enough), but in the end I’d rather wander the streets and sample the food than go broke seeing exorbitantly priced masterworks.

I’ve also noticed that while this is a relatively long post, I don’t have much to say about the art works themselves (or the experience of being in the museum generally). I think that’s because while hiking a trail in the Cinque Terre or floating through the Amazon can truly be transcendent experiences, it’s hard for a museum jam packed with agitated visitors to offer much more than bragging rights. Sure, I’ve now seen the Mona Lisa, the David, etc., but did seeing them really change me? Did it leave me contemplating anything? The answer is, unfortunately, not so much. In these major European museums it’s a constant fight to get close to the art works, and oblivious tour group are constantly bumping into everyone (and occasionally everything). Sometimes there are a plethora of rules, and if the price of admission is high I always became preoccupied about what I’d have to sacrifice to continue to have enough money (lunches and dinners were often what got cut out).

Anyway, I believe I love art and art museums, but the big famous ones were uniformly not the most rewarding experiences of the trip. In Florence that fact was glaringly true. I don’t regret having gone to them, but in doing so I was surprised to discover something I hadn’t previously realized about my own travel philosophy.


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.


  1. I agree with you about the Academia. It is a little disappointing, especially if you have to queue. The Uffizzi is more impressive. I think the best bit is the corridor from one side to the other. It has the most amazing views across the Ponte vecchio and the Arno towards our mountains in the Garfagnana. One of my best days in Florence ever, was last year in February, when there were no crowds and the day was glorious, I stood at the window here looking towards the snow capped mountains across a sparkling Arno. I always tell my visitors not to queue for a gallery unless they really must see something inside. The best bits of Florence are free – just wandering in the back streets I find amazing. I am lucky, I live not too far away for several months a year and I can pick my times to visit the museums. There is a real benefit to being in Italy in winter.

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