The principal Tuscan city of Florence (Firenze) nestles below the wooded foothills of the Apennines, along the banks of the Arno River. The works of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Bruneschelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Boccaccio, Alberti, Masaccio, Donatello, Vasari and Fra Angelico imbue the city with the magnificence of their contribution to art and life. The city itself is muse to some and home to many stylish citizens, who enhance the cobbled streets and fashionable piazzas with their inimitable Italian flair.
The heart of the city, where everyone from tourist to tout seems to congregate, is the Piazza de Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria. The statues dominating the Piazza della Signoria commemorate major historical events of the city's life, and the magnificent Palazzo Vecchio still performs its original role as Florence's town hall. The adjacent Uffizi is the oldest art gallery in the world, with a collection of the greatest works of the Renaissance, commissioned largely by the Medici family. The man who founded the great long-ruling Medici dynasty was Cosimo il Vecchio. His legacy is imprinted in the city's northern area, marked by the churches of San Lorenzo, San Marco and the Palazzo Medici Riccardi.
The western stretches of the city are formed by Florence's railway station at one end and the Ponte Vecchio at the other. The quaint Ponte Vecchio bridge was built in 1345, and was one of the few areas to emerge unscathed from the wartime bombs. Little workshops that used to belong to butchers, tanners and blacksmiths peer onto the river from their timber supports. The church of Santa Maria Novella also rises from the city's western boundaries in true gothic splendour, preserving some of the most important works of art in Florence.
The Oltrarno (meaning 'over the Arno') area became the place from which the Medici ruled from the Palazzo Pitti. The magnificent Boboli Gardens were designed and laid out around it. The area surrounding Via Maggio and Piazza di Santo Spirito boasts a collection of other palazzi built during the 16th and 17th-centuries.
Florence has wonders and treasures enough to occupy travellers for many holidays.
The Uffizi is one of the world's greatest art galleries, with a collection of Renaissance paintings that includes the works of Giotto, Masaccio, Paolo Ucello, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian and Caravaggio. The collection is housed on the top floor of a building designed as the offices (uffizi) of the Medici, commissioned by Duke Cosimo I. From 1581, Cosimo's heirs used the upper storey to display the Medici art treasures. Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures line the inner corridors of the gallery and a series of rooms jut off from here, showcasing the chronological development of Florentine art from Gothic to High Renaissance and beyond. The scale and magnitude of the collection may need to be enjoyed over two visits. Rooms 1-15 (Florentine Renaissance) could be explored more thoroughly on the first trip and on the next visit one could concentrate on rooms 16 to 45 (from High Renaissance to later Italian and European paintings). The Uffizi is a must-see attraction in Florence if you have any interest in and appreciation for art, and many would argue that if you only visit one gallery in Italy this should be it. The queues can get frustratingly long so it is best to arrive as early as possible.
Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo or Cathedral of Florence, is set in the heart of the city and perches above the metropolis like an emperor before his subjects. Its most distinctive feature is the enormous dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and built between 1420 and 1436. Visitors can climb between the two shells of the cupola for an unrivalled panorama of the city.
The original Gothic exterior was destroyed in 1587 so that it could be replaced by the styling of the High Renaissance. However, this vision died prematurely with its patron, the Grand Duke Francesco de Medici, and the funding to build the neo-Gothic façade that we see today was not found until the 19th Century. The Campanile (bell tower) was built according to Giotto's designs in 1334, and is an elegant prop to Brunelleschi's stout Cathedral. The tower is decorated with two garlands of bas-reliefs, strung around its pink, white and green marble façade. Above, sculptures of the Prophets and Sybils, carved by Donatello, look down upon the city below.
The Campanile can also be climbed for the magnificent views over the square and the adjacent cathedral. The neighbouring Baptistry, with its famous doors designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, is one of Florence's oldest buildings and was originally a pagan temple. The gilded brass doors, dubbed the 'Gates of Paradise', were commissioned in 1401 to mark Florence's deliverance from the plague. The original panels are in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (the Duomo Works Museum), which exists largely to safeguard the sculptures removed from the doors and niches around the Piazza del Duomo. The museum also contains the machines used in the construction of the cathedral's dome, and has displays devoted to the problematic construction of the cathedral's façade. A room containing Ghiberti's baptistry doors provides an opportunity to closely examine the stiacciato relief technique used.
Other noteworthy artefacts found in the museum include Michelangelo's Pieta, the carved figures of Donatello's Prophets as well as his Magdalene sculpture. In the anteroom are Andrea Pisano's panels from the first few levels of the bell tower.
This Gothic Palazzo shelters a treasured national collection of Renaissance sculpture. Before its renovation to become Italy's first national museum, the building, constructed in 1255, functioned as a town hall, private residence and prison. It is one of the oldest buildings in Florence and has been the setting for some important episodes of civic history over the centuries, including sieges, fires and executions; the most famous being that of Baroncelli, who was executed for his involvement in a plot against the Medici, an execution witnessed by Leonardo da Vinci. An extensive collection of decorative art is on display, in addition to the magnificent sculptures of Michelangelo, Donatello, Giambologna and Cellini. The Palazzo's inner courtyard is ornamented with numerous coats of arms and the grand stairwell leading to the second-story loggia overflows with bronze birds created for the Medici's gardens. Other notable displays include an Islamic collection, an assortment of ivories (the largest collection in the world) and 16th-century majolica porcelain from Urbino, Faenza and Florence. The Bargello is one of the most famous and popular museums in Florence and seldom fails to impress and awe visitors.
Santa Croce, a magnificent Gothic church built in 1294, contains the tombs of many celebrated Florentines, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Ghiberti and Machiavelli. The Gothic interior is graced by the radiant frescoes of Giotto and his pupil Taddeo Gaddi, and integrated into the cloister next to the church is Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel (Cappella de' Pazzi). The tomb of famous composer Rossini is also a great favourite with visitors. When Lord Byron first laid eyes on the church he declared himself 'drunk with beauty'; a feeling shared by many visitors today. There is such a wealth of historic art and so many notable people buried at the church that tours are a great way to experience Santa Croce, but as it is a place of worship and they try to keep noise to a minimum headsets are compulsory for guided tour groups and must be requested at the Ticket Office by the tour leader. There are also detailed audio guides in English and other languages if you want to explore alone, but you will have to leave some form of identification at the desk when you collect one. The large square in front of the church is a great meeting place and there are some lovely restaurants and cafes about for refreshments.
The Ponte Vecchio's status as the oldest bridge in Florence saved it from destruction during the Nazi retreat from Italy in 1944. They defied orders to blow up the stately bridge straddling the Arno River and bombed the ancient buildings on either side of it instead. The Arno Flood of 1966 also tested the bridge's resilience, and swept parts of it away in its powerful current. The most affected sections were the iconic overhanging shops belonging to the gold and silversmiths. In 1593 the original tenants - butchers, tanners and blacksmiths - were evicted from the workshops because of the noise and stench they created, to make way for more refined merchants and craftsmen. To one side of the bridge is the majestic bust of the most famous Florentine goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini. Perched above the shops is a secret passageway, the Vasari Corridor, providing an elevated link to the Palazzo Pitti via the Uffizi. It was the private walkway of the Medicis who could move between the various residences without having to rub shoulders with the riff raff. The Ponte Vecchio is charming at night, when it is lit up and the bright shops beckon in visitors. It is an icon of Florence and an enduringly popular attraction.
Originally owned by the wealthy banker Luca Pitti, the Palazzo later became the property of the Medici family and was the one-time residence of the Italian king. It is a grand structure that now boasts no less than seven museums. Among these are the Medici treasures that are showcased in the Museo degli Argenti, the Museum of Costumes and the Porcelain Museum. The Galleria d'Arte Moderna provides a fascinating display of works from the Macchiaioli school - early 19th-century proto-impressionist paintings - as well as a collection of Neoclassical and Romantic art. The collections in the Palazzo Pitti can keep visitors captivated for hours.
Extending behind the palace are the elaborately landscaped and beautifully maintained Giardino Boboli (Boboli Gardens), one of the oldest gardens in Italy and well-known for its fountains and grottoes. The most celebrated aspect of the gardens is the Grotta del Buontalenti, located close to the entrance. In the deepest recess of the cave is the sculpture Venus Emerging from her Bath, attended by curious imps. Another notable structure is the enormous amphitheatre designed on a scale to serve the Medici's tastes.
Florence enjoys a humid, subtropical climate, with the city's location in a valley making its climate slightly different to the rest of Tuscany. Summers are hot and muggy with temperatures higher than those found along the coast. In the hottest months, July and August, temperatures range between 88°F (31°C) and 63°F (17°C). Visitors should note that in August many locals take their holiday and a number of restaurants and businesses close down for at least part of the month. In the coldest month, January, the temperatures range between 50°F (10°C) and 34°F (1°C). Rainfall prevails in the winter, with cool to cold temperatures and occasional snow. November is the wettest month but visitors should anticipate rain in October, December, March and April as well.
The peak tourist season in Florence is summer, between June and August, when it is hot but beautiful. However, the sheer amount of visitors during summer can be off-putting for serious art-lovers and sightseers, and the best time to visit Florence is therefore in spring or autumn. Winter is definitely also an option, with the bonus that the galleries and museums are far more peaceful at this time, but come prepared for rain if you holiday in Florence in winter.
Florentine cuisine is, quite simply, good old-fashioned, home-cooked fare that we all know and love. Stemming from a more peasant-type style of eating, there is a strong emphasis on meat, and various kinds of tripe - trippa and lampredotto - in Florentine dishes. Although the meats, cheeses and breads are often incredible, fish is not a feature of Tuscan cuisine and ordering seafood in Florence may lead to disappointment. Expect to see antipasti like sliced rounds of bread topped with chicken-liver pâté or sliced meats, known as crostini toscani, as well as soup served with saltless Tuscan bread in dishes like ribollita and pappa al pomodoro. The various Tuscan varieties of Pecorino cheese are still arguably the region's finest product so be sure to sample some.
Dining out in Florence can be a tiring affair. With so many restaurants, cafés and other eateries abounding on just about every street corner and around every major tourist attraction, travellers wary of tourist-traps might have a hard time deciding where to begin. Head to the Santa Croce and Oltrarno areas, where the highest concentration of authentic and quality restaurants can be found. Although eating out in Florence can be expensive, it is possible to find cheaper restaurants - lookout for places frequented by locals.
Visitors should note that it is customary for a 15 percent service charge to be added to the bill - or, if it isn't, that they should tip this amount.
Widely recognised as Florence's most famous restaurant, the stylish décor and innovative Tuscan cuisine intertwined with subtle notes of French cuisine make dining here an experience to remember. Start with a poached egg with cauliflower, crispy bread and pancetta with black truffle before moving on to a mouth-watering rack of lamb with garlic and herbs served with Jerusalem artichokes and mint. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Saturday. Bookings recommended.
One of Florence's little treasures, this family-run trattoria has been serving local Florentines for over 30 years. Try the pesto spaghetti or spinach ravioli to start, before diving into the tasty beef stefado with potatoes and Osso Buco (veal crosscut shin) cooked in tomato and served with mashed potato, or the tender stewed rabbit with a side of grilled vegetables. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
A fabulous place in central Florence, Ristorante Celestino serves a mouthwatering array of traditional Tuscan dishes. With candlelit dinners in a picturesque courtyard, this restaurant is a must for any visitor to Florence. Start with the Tuscany Salami and polenta canapés or a tortellini soup before moving on to freshly made pasta or Florence style crepes with buffalo mozzarella. The Risotto with champagne and porcini mushrooms is delectable, and the option of adding a truffle to your meal is not to be missed. Their menu has a wide selection of meat and fish dishes and a whole page dedicated to cheese as well as desserts such as chocolate truffle, green apple sorbet or gelato. Closed on Sundays.
No trip to Italy is complete without pizza. Florence has a wide selection of pizzerias but Da Tito I Peccati di Gola Pizzeria takes the cake. This funky restaurant has a vast selection of pizzas and a piping hot clay oven. Be sure to try the simple Amon with porcini and prosciutto or the Caprese with buffalo mozzarella and rocket leaves.
More than 10,000 athletes take to the streets of Florence in the annual Florence Marathon. The 26-mile (42km) race sets off from the Piazzale Michelangelo and crosses the Ponte alla Vittoria. The course winds through the Parco delle Cascine, Piazza del Duomo, and Piazza della Signoria, before ending at Piazza Santa Croce in the town centre.
A famously beautiful city, the marathon's extremely picturesque route contributes hugely to its popularity. It takes participants past landmarks like the Ponte Vecchio and the Basilica of Santa Croce, among others.
The Florence Marathon was established in 1984 and is now the second largest Italian marathon, the first being the Rome Marathon. Italians make up the majority of competitors but many international runners also compete.
There is a Marathon Party after the event, with Tuscan food and a live music concert. There is also a fun Family Run which kids love to participate in.
Florence's Indian Film Festival is the first festival in the world entirely devoted to films from and about India. River to River features a collection of independent Indian movies, as well as the latest productions focusing on India by directors from all over the world.
The films screen in their original language with English subtitles. Held annually at the Odeon Cinema, the audience votes for winners in the different categories. The winners receive the River to River DigiChannel Audience Award.
First held in 2001, it rode a wave of interest in Indian cinema and Bollywood influence on blockbuster films. Many filmmakers, actors, and producers attend, and its popularity and success has led to a Rome edition over the last few years.
The River to River Florence Indian Film Festival may seem an odd sort of cultural collision but the festival is well-run, well-supported, and entertaining. It's a treat for anybody interested in Indian film or culture.
Each year, the Florence Tango Festival welcomes top dancers from across the globe to Florence's Saschall Theatre, where art exhibitions, shows, workshops, dinners, and tango classes inspire locals and tourists alike. Channel your inner Latin lover with a tango class, impress your date, or simply learn more about the fascinating art of tango.
The tango lessons are divided into six different skill levels accommodating beginners and experienced dancers. Lessons can only be taken in couples. But if you don't have a partner, the organizers make every effort to help find you a partner suitable to your skill level.
There are a number of different festival packages ranging from participation in a single lesson to the full extravaganza with nine lessons and all social events and shows included. Check out the official festival website listed below for information on the events, a workshops programme, and registration details. The Florence Tango Festival is fun and energetic and a great way to meet people and learn some new skills in a friendly and inspiring environment.
Renowned more for its classical architecture than for its bargain shopping, Florence was, in fact, the historical home of fashion in Italy. Home to the likes of Giovanni Battista Giorgini, the father of the Italian school of fashion (the country's equivalent of France's haute couture), Giorgini held informal fashion shows and soirées in Florence in the early 1950s. Florence still manages to pack a powerful punch compared to sister-cities Rome and Milan when it comes to shopping. With everything from luxurious designer boutiques and vast shopping malls to bustling open-air markets and street-side hawkers, visitors to Florence will be able to shop to their hearts' content.
Head to the Via de' Tornabuoni, Florence's main upmarket shopping street, where luxury fashion houses and jewellery stores abound and high-quality leather goods, shoes and clothing can be found; or head to The Mall, a huge designer outlet where labels such as Alexander McQueen, Gucci, Fendi and Burberry (to name a few) can be found. For jewellery, visit the Ponte Vecchio, where tiny shops dot the sides of this medieval bridge over the Arno River; while the place to find great antiques and objets d'art from the 16th century is the Via Maggio.
Those looking for something a little less pricey should visit the local markets, such as San Lorenzo, a popular spot where souvenirs and leather goods abound. Head for the Mercato Centrale in Via dell'Ariento, the best food market in Florence, or visit the Sant'ambrogio in Piazza Ghiberti, where everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, cheeses, clothes, flowers, shoes and homeware stalls are plentiful.
Travellers should beware of buying fake designer goods from hawkers, as it is illegal, and could lead to a hefty fine if caught by the police. Shops generally open from 9am to 1pm, and reopen at 3.30pm until 7pm from Tuesday to Saturday. Most are closed on Sundays and on Monday mornings.
The best way to explore Florence is on foot: the city centre is compact, and traffic is restricted. There is a comprehensive bus network (ATAF) operating from 5.30am until midnight. Tickets are valid for 90 minutes for a single-use ticket, or multiple-ride tickets of two or four 90 minute-uses can be purchased. Tickets must be validated by punching them in a machine when you board the bus. Tickets, and various bus passes, are available from any vendor displaying the ATAF sticker, such as newsagents, automatic dispensers, coffee bars and on-board the bus.
Using taxis in Florence is difficult, as they cannot be hailed on the street. Taxi ranks can be found outside the train station and most tourist sites, or they can be phoned.
The entire Renaissance city of Florence is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is one of the most popular cities to visit in Italy with countless churches, cathedrals, art galleries and museums. Deciding where to start your sightseeing tours may prove to be the most tricky part of the whole process, and that's not even taking into consideration the numerous stunning excursions into the Tuscany region possible from the city.
For starters, head to the most popular site, the Cattedrale de Santa Maria del Fiore, which began construction in 1296, was consecrated in 1436, holds 20,000 people, and offers some breathtaking views over the city. Visit one of Florence's oldest buildings, the Baptistery of John the Baptist, to enjoy views over the Arno River; and stroll across the Ponte Vecchio to the Giardino di Boboli to enjoy the park dotted with fountains behind the Pitti Palace. Navigate the crowds at the Uffizi Gallery, the Bargello, and the Florence Accademia, which exhibit some of the best art collections in the world.
Culture-lovers will enjoy a trip to Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in Italy, which holds the tombs of Michelangelo and Dante, among others; as well as the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of the historic centre and an open-air sculpture exhibit, where visitors can sip on a cup of coffee and watch the world go by from one of the surrounding cafés.
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