The Ponte Vecchio – or Old Bridge – is the oldest bridge of several that span the River Arno and the only one to survive World War II. It was built in 1235 by the architect Taddeo Gaddi and replaced an older wooden version of the bridge, which had stood on the spot since Roman times.
The present bridge has the distinction of being Europe's oldest segmented arch bridge, with the main arch spanning almost 100 feet and the two side arches spanning 88 feet. The innovative design meant that ships could navigate the river under the bridge more easily, and it also made the bridge more resistant to floods.
The unique shops that line both sides of the bridge and give it its distinctive character have been there since the 12th century. The bridge was home to merchants who traded from there because of tax exemption laws – and it's also there that the word 'bankrupt' possibly originated when merchants could not repay their debts. Merchants would break their tables if they had nothing more to sell – bancorotto, in Italian.
Today, the small shops that line the bridge are home to goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewelers, as well as shops selling silk scarves and leather goods – although that wasn't always the case. During the 16th century, the shops were occupied by butcher's shops until it was decided the stench was too strong, and they were replaced by the gold and silver merchants that remain to this day. The gold and silver merchants also bought in more rent for the city of Florence.
The goldsmith's trade is commemorated by a statue of one of the city's most famous residents, the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, who watches over the crowds of shoppers from an alcove at the side of the bridge. Among his many other accomplishments, Cellini was also an accomplished painter, soldier and sculptor.
The Ponte Vecchio is usually crowded with tourists, especially at sunset, as the bridge has become a popular meeting place for young people. In addition to the gold and silver shops, the bridge attracts street musicians and portrait painters.
Stretching the bridge's length, above the shops is a secret passageway (unfortunately closed to the public) known as the Vasariano Corridor, which links several other famous buildings in Florence – the Uffizi gallery and the Pitti Palace. The passage was originally built as a private passageway for the Medici family – who didn't care to smell the butcher's stalls below.
And if you are tired of shopping, the Ponte Vecchio also offers spectacular views of Florence. There's a good view of the next bridge downriver, the Ponte di Santa Trinita which was virtually destroyed during World War II and then painstakingly reconstructed after the war.
The Ponte Vecchio has had several near misses with disaster. During World War II, the Nazis had orders to destroy all the bridges as they retreated from the Allies through Italy – but they spared the Ponte Vecchio, supposedly on orders from Hitler.
And when the River Arno flooded in 1966, some of the shops were damaged, but the bridge was spared major structural damage. On this occasion, a night watchman realized the danger and gave the alarm, thus avoiding further damage.
And in recent years, the bridge has seen a rather endearing custom. Couples have adopted the custom of attaching padlocks along the length of the bridge, particularly around the statue of Cellini, as a demonstration of their eternal love. It's a particularly unique way to remember your time in Florence – one of Europe's most beautiful and timeless cities.