Ponte Vecchio ★★★

The medieval shop-lined Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) over the Arno River in Florence, Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy (Photo by Gary Campbell-Hall)
The medieval shop-lined Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) over the Arno River in Florence

Florence's "Old Bridge" is a medieval span lined by tiny goldsmith shops

The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) links the north and south banks of the Arno River at its narrowest point.

The bridge has long been a landmark symbol of the city, overhanging with little shops the way most European bridges were in the Middle Ages (though precious few have survived).

The Ponte Vecchio was destroyed and rebuilt many times before the construction of the 1345 bridge you see today, designed by Taddeo Gaddi, and has been lined with these same goldsmith's shops for centuries.

Why are there jewelry shops on the Ponte Vecchio?

Many of the exclusive gold and jewelry stores are owned by descendents of the 41 artisans set up on the bridge in the 16th century by Cosimo I de' Medici. Cosimo had Giorgio Vasari build him an elevated corridor so he could hurry between his home and his office without mixing with the crowds.

Of course, Cosimo's downtown "office" was what we now know as the world-class museum of the Uffizi (which menas "offices" in local dialect), and his "home" was the palatial new Medici residence in the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river. This corridor still crosses the Ponte Vecchio atop the shop roofs on the eastern side (part of the Uffizi, it is still occasionally opened the public. » more).

Not long after his corridor was complete, however, Cosimo found something else to complain about: The stench rising to his private skywalk from the butchers and skin tanners beneath, whose workshops had traditionally lined the Ponte Vecchio since at least the 12th century.

Cosimo summarily booted out the butchers, moved in the far classier goldsmiths—and, naturally, raised the rent.

(The presence of these pricey shops is why there is nearly always a pair of police patrolling back and forth on the bridge.)

Yes, you really are on a bridge

The funny thing about the Ponte Vecchio is that—though the cobblestones of the street do start to rise in a gentle curve—many people don't even realize they're actually on a bridge until they get to the center, where suddenly the phalanx of shops on either side is interrupted by two small terraces,one on each side, for gazing up or down the river.

Off to the side of the bridge's center, in a small piazza overlooking the Arno, rises a bust of famed Renaissance silversmith, swashbuckling autobiographer, and Perseus sculptor Benvenuto Cellini.

It was from this vantage point that Mark Twain, spoiled by the Mighty Mississippi, once wryly commented:

"It is popular to admire the Arno. It is a great historical creek, with four feet in the channel and some scows floating about.

It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it.

They call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river.... They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it.

I do not see why they are too good to wade."

How the Ponte Vecchio survived the Nazis

Florentines tirelessly recount the story of how in 1944 Hitler's retreating troops destroyed all the bridges crossing the Arno—all since reconstructed, often with the original material fished out of the river, or at least according to the archival designs and with stone extracted from the same ancient quarries—with the exception of the Ponte Vecchio.

Supposedly, the Nazi in charge of the retreat was overtaken by a momentary fit of whimsy, felt that the Ponte Vecchio was simply too beautiful to blow up, and countermanded his orders. (Disobeying orders is not something any officer does lightly, especially not a Nazi.)

Instead, the fleeing German troops bombed both bridgeheads—and the surrounding buildings—to create moutains of rubble to block the way across and slow the Allied advance. 

This is why most of the buildings on either end of the bridge have a distinct, 1950s look in what are otherwise the thoroughly medieval areas of Via Por Santa Maria and Via Guicciardini.

The Arno flood of 1966 wasn't so discriminating, however, and severely damaged the shops. Apparently, a private night watchman saw the waters rising alarmingly and called many of the goldsmiths at home, who rushed to remove their valuable stock before it was washed away.

The love locks of Ponte Vecchio

Thanks to a new city ordinanace carrying a €50 ($56) fine (delineated by a huge, unsightly sign), you might not see as much of this as you did from the late 1990s though the first decade of the 2000s, but: You'll often see hundreds upon hundreds of padlocks (especially of the brass, key-operated kind) attached to the old horse-hitching rings and railings at the two river-viewing terrace.

This habit (filched from a Russian tradition, and now spread across Western Europe) is the Florentine equivalent of carving the initials of your beloved into a tree.

Many of the locks are scrawled with the names of the lovers in indelible marker or nail polish. The idea is that you lock your love to the ancient bridge, then throw the key into the river so your love will stay strong forever. (I am amused by the occasional combination lock in the mix; summer fling?)

Every so often, an anonymous city worker—clearly chosen for his callousness and Grinch-sized heart—comes along with bolt cutters to remove the long daisy chains of love-locks—and the city has begun imposing a €50 ($56) fine on anyone found locking anything to the bridge.

(Not for nothing, but the city might be right; in 2014 a section of Paris's famous Pont de Neuf collapsed into the Seine under the strain of its overload of love locks.)

However, it is never long before they locks begin once again festooning the Ponte Vecchio, for love springs eternal in the Renaissance city.

Photo gallery
  • The medieval shop-lined Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) over the Arno River in Florence, Ponte Vecchio, Italy (Photo by Gary Campbell-Hall)
  • The Ponte Vecchio from above, Ponte Vecchio, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The shops lining both sides (plus the Vasari Corridor above on the left) make it hard to tell the Ponte Vecchio is actually a bridge, Ponte Vecchio, Italy (Photo by Crash Test Mike)
  • The buildings hanging off the side of the Ponte Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio, Italy (Photo by Lars F. Dahllof)
  • Jewelry shops have lined the Ponte Vecchio since the 16C, Ponte Vecchio, Italy (Photo by Richard Mortel)
  • A busker entertains the evening crowds on the tiny piazetta in the middle of the Ponte Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio, Italy (Photo by Joseph Maestri)
  • , Ponte Vecchio, Italy (Photo by Mike Alexander)
  • , Ponte Vecchio, Italy (Photo by Ashley Frillman)
  • A bust of Florentine silversmith (and famed Renaissance sculptor and autobiographer) Benvenuto Cellini graces the middle of the Ponte Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio, Italy (Photo by Monica)
  • , Ponte Vecchio, Italy (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
  • , Ponte Vecchio, Italy (Photo by Larry Lamsa)
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How long does Ponte Vecchio take?

This is a bridge, and you use it to cross a river. It takes only a minute or two to cross.

Yes, it is a particularly pretty bridge (and you'll want to find a spot to admire it and its overhanging shops from the riverbank), but it's not like it will take up loads of your time.

Maybe you'll lean on the railing at one of the midway viewpoints for five minutes, gazing up or down the Arno, and that's about it.

Don't buy anything

Seriously. It's all overpriced, living off busloads of Japanese tourists (whose guides really should advise them to shop elsewhere).

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).