And there was good reason to bypass the Palazzo Vecchio: it was, first of all so obviously "vecchio" -- old, dark, and dank, and dirty, and nobody inside or at "city hall" seemed to care. The latter was particularly ironic because the Palazzo Vecchio was, for most of those same long years, city hall.
But all of this has now changed. Renovation and repairs completed for the 2000 Jubilee Year have made the Palazzo Vecchio into a spiffy museum space, which is billing itself with the purposely paradoxical title "the New Palazzo Vecchio." Many areas never available to visitors before are now easily accessible including previously private apartments and offices, some behind the scenes work areas, and even structural spaces. You can get up to the top levels of the Palazzo and, with special permission, into the 90-meter tower. New lighting and ventilation have been installed, long-closed stairways have been reopened (and there are elevators and ramps for the disabled), new signage has been installed, and there are helpful guard/ushers in every room. There are good guidebooks and Audio-Guides available in a well-stocked museum shop. Everything sparkles after the first real cleaning in decades if not centuries. There are even clean restrooms, but only on the ground floor -- understandable in such an old building.
And there are three important additional innovations: first, there are scheduled walks through the "Prince's Passageway" -- it goes from the Palazzo Vecchio through the upper floor of the Uffizi (no access to the Uffizi), then over the Arno River on the upper level of the Ponte Vecchio, along the river's south bank, and up to the Pitti Palace. Second, there is a new Children's Museum on the ground floor of the Palazzo, where kids can get some hands-on art experience. For a small fee you can check in your kids while you go upstairs to see the exhibition rooms. Italian, English, and several other languages were being spoken by caretakers and art instructors as we walked through. And third, there are computer terminals spotted all over the Palazzo where you can get audio-visual presentations (English of Italian) about the areas where the terminals reside, about artwork in the rooms, and about the Palazzo in general. The terminals are mounted high enough so that people can gather around to see and hear the appropriate presentations, which are well enough done that visitors stood transfixed for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. (At the museum shop, you can buy all the presentations on a CD-ROM for your home computer.)
There is no room here to go into either the long and interesting history of the building or the great renaissance and baroque art it contains. All of that information is available at several really good Internet sites.
The Florence municipality's "Nuovo Palazzo Vecchio" web site (Italian): http://www.comune.firenze.it/nuovopalazzovecchio/
Basic info about the building from ArcaNet's Florence site (English): http://www.arca.net/db/musei/pvecchio.htm. (The ArcaNet Florence site is at: http://www.arca.net/florence.htm. It contains the following startling statement: "According to statistics produced by UNESCO, 60% of the world's most important works of art are located in Italy and approximately half of these are in Florence". Click on the "Arts" link to see some of them.)
Rice University's Palazzo Vecchio site: http://es.rice.edu/ES/humsoc/Galileo/Student_Work/Florence96/jyoti/vecchio.html
The Children's Museum -- an article from La-Stampa (Italian): http://www.lastampa.it/Rubriche/Ultima/Rubriche/lst/Arte/MUSEIFirenze.asp
A few of the Palazzo's most important art works from Thais: http://www.thais.it/scultura/fpv.htm
Uffizi Gallery info, including the all-important number to call to pre-book tickets and avoid the monster queue: http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/infoE.html. (It's (39) 055 264406 if you don't want to look it up.)