The Duomo is the symbol of Florence, and certainly its most visible landmark. When I first got here I used it to orient myself in the town’s torturously narrow streets. It still never fails to impress, whether I’m walking in Piazza Duomo or driving by Piazzale Michelangelo – I pretty much always have to stop to take a picture. Hundreds of years ago, imagine what a literally stunning sight it must have been, coming up on Florence and seeing this huge terracotta dome rising from the hills, while you were still miles away.
But I ask you – Florence residents and frequent visitors: how often have you walked up it? In your own town do you have anything similar that all the tourists want to visit, but that you never bother? I’m from Toronto and I think I only went up the CN Tower once when a cousin visited from Hungary when we were teens… As for Florence’s famous Duomo, I went up once when I first came as a student in 1997 and then… not again until this Spring! I had forgotten how cool it was to witness Brunelleschi’s genius from inside. The thing that made me go up again? The fact that now you can access the “secret terraces”, a new space I hadn’t seen before.
At just about the base of drum that supports the dome there’s a narrow (but perfectly safe) walkway that isn’t open to all visitors – to access it you have to take a Secret Terraces of the Duomo tour by one of just a very few tour providers who hold the key (literally!) to this special place. I had a chance to go up with Ciao Florence, who combine the walk up with a visit to the museum in the crypt – something else I hadn’t done in about 20 years – and a good review of the history of the Duomo.
As you may know, there is a combined entrance ticket to access everything in the Duomo complex except the nave of the church itself, which is free. From Easter to October there is always a long line snaking around the side of the church to get inside (while the line to climb up is now short thanks to newly introduced timed tickets). The ticket also gets you in to the recently expanded Opera del Duomo Museum and the Baptistery, and into the crypt below the Duomo. The tickets we got for the tour were valid another two days so one could also visit the other parts of the complex. When I had the privilege of visiting the Duomo museum before it opened a few years ago, curator Monsignor Timothy Verdon talked about how he wanted to create closer ties between museum and the Duomo, and that many more people walk up the dome than visit the museum and the other parts of the complex. That may be changing as the word’s out on how great the museum is, but it’s still worth a note to say DO spend half a day or more seeing all the parts that make up this “whole”. Walking up the dome is, yes, about the experience and seeing Florence from above, but it’s also technically more about the dome itself, I think.
This being a VIP skip-the-line tour with a really small group, our guide led us inside the church, actually into the center of the nave, the best point of view for any church (it’s an art historian’s defect to want to stand here and understand as well as photograph the architecture). Here we could properly admire the inlaid marble floor and the various adornments of the interior while being shielded from other groups of tourists. We took a look at the quirky clock on the inside of the façade that has one hand and runs on Italian time.
Our guide also pointed out the frescoed equestrian portraits on the side aisle walls, of Sir John Hawkwood (a mercenary who fought both against and for Florence) by Paolo Uccello, and of Niccolò da Tolentino by Andrea del Castagno some 30 years after.
We then went into the cool crypt (the best place in churches in the summertime) where I was impressed at how much the museum space has come along since I last visited it as a wet-behind-the-ears art history student. This space is really useful for understanding the history of the Duomo way before Brunelleschi came along – when it was the church of Santa Reparata, and having a guide who knows how to use the visual aids makes it come alive much more than trying to figure it out for yourself.
Models and videos illustrate this archaeological history, showing the relationships between the floor plans of the earlier and later churches. While in the very space you’re in, you see evidence of these earlier moments, including early medieval mosaic flooring! There are also walls dating back to Roman times.
Duomo Secret Terraces
Many, many stairs lay ahead from the basement to near the top of the dome, and this was the time to start climbing. The secret terraces are lower than I thought – only 153 steps up, with another 310 to follow after the terrace to the very top. You’re let in through a circular room where there’s a restoration taking place on some sculptures from the façade, and then you’re out on this narrow walkway.
From here you really get a sense of the massiveness of the construction, and also a great view of Florence, quite a bit closer up then from the top of the dome. It’s a different point of view, and a real privilege to have this space almost to yourself.
Our guide left us at this point and we continued on up to the top. For me the thrill here is to see the exposed brickwork with its famous herringbone pattern.
Also, there’s a walkway on the inside of the dome where you can see Vasari’s fresco up close!
If more than a decade has gone by since you last walked up the dome, or if you’ve never done it, it’s an experience I can heartily recommend. If you’re interested in accessing the secret terraces, this tour is your way in. I did the tour before it got really hot out – since it takes place in the afternoon, I’d recommend doing it in the Fall or Spring if possible in order to avoid walking over 450 steps up in the heat of Summer!
Florence Duomo Secret Terraces Tour by Ciao Florence
Every day at 2:30pm
Tour lasts 2 hours
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Ciao Florence on this tour. All opinions are my own.