Florence, Italy, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world—and for many visitors, it is the most splendid. While travel to the city usually centers on its attractions, including museums, palaces and churches that overflow with masterful paintings and sculpture, it is not limited to those destinations.
Visitors encounter the spirits of da Vinci, Dante, Boccaccio, Michelangelo and the Medicis, and the days of the Renaissance seem close at hand.
As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence combines unequaled beauty with centuries of history in a heady mix. Visitors' first glimpse of the Duomo is likely to take their breath away.
Florence is essentially a proud, provincial city, with a conservative mentality yet very liberal politics. Visitors can sense that its citizens pay a price for living in what has become, essentially, an open-air museum. Florentines—especially those who deal with masses of tourists daily—can be haughty and standoffish toward visitors. But there are many who will offer visitors a warm smile and a helpful gesture.
The vitality of this small city, the robustness of its cuisine, the enduring beauty of its architecture and the richness of its treasures cannot fail to educate, exhilarate and dazzle those who visit Florence.
The historic city center of Florence, the Centro Storico, is where you'll find most of the city's monuments and attractions. The area was once encircled by medieval city walls. In the 1860s, when Florence was briefly capital of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, the walls were replaced by large boulevards that today form a ring road (viali di circonvallazione
) around the old city. The city falls naturally into two sections: the Duomo side of the Arno River, called di qua d'Arno
, and—across the river—the Oltrarno side. (Oltrarno means "beyond the Arno.")
On the Duomo side, where visitors usually spend most of their time, Piazza della Signoria and the Duomo itself are grand, historic centers of religious and political power. The Oltrarno has its share of monuments such as the Palazzo Pitti and the churches of Santo Spirito and Santa Maria del Carmine, but it is less imposing and can feel more accessible. The last bastion of old Florentine popular culture is in the Oltrarno: The San Frediano neighborhood is still known for its artisans who handcraft shoes, restore furniture and practice goldsmithing, although their workshops are slowly disappearing.
A note about Florentine addresses: A street number such as 36/R means "36 rosso (red)," and 5/N would mean "5 nero (black)." All storefront commercial properties are marked with red street numbers (the coloring is usually worn off, making them simply stone-colored); residences have black numbers (sometimes they may look blue). Don't be surprised if the sequence of numbers is not continuous between the two colors: You may have 5/R followed immediately by 27/N. If there's no letter designation, the address is probably in the black sequence.
Julius Caesar established Florentia, the "flourishing one," in 59 BC as a military post along the banks of the Arno River, and Roman walls embraced what is now the city center. The city did not truly come into its own until the 12th and 13th centuries, becoming an independent republic in 1198. In this period, a few merchant and banking families began to distinguish themselves in the world market, establishing guilds and bringing international commerce to the city. The florin, named after the city, became a standard unit of currency in Europe.
During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Guelphs (supporters of the pope) and the Ghibellines (upholders of the Holy Roman Emperor) battled each other. After these factions faded into history, the Medici family of bankers ruled the city. Their courts employed artists, designers, architects, artisans, musicians and poets, fostering an explosion of artistic production that has shaped the city to this day. Their dynasty lasted, on and off, until 1737, when Florence came under the rule of Maria Theresa of Austria.
At this time, a pact was drawn up in Vienna to guarantee the longevity and integrity of the Florentine artistic patrimony. The masterpieces of the Austrian crown and the private collections of the Medici family were handed over to the Tuscan government. The agreement stipulated that no work of art could be taken from the enormous collection. It also emphasized that the priceless works would be showcased to attract visitors to the region.
Italy itself was unified in 1860, and Florence became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy from 1865 to 1870. (Rome later became capital of the Republic of Italy.) The city had several setbacks in the 20th century: During World War II, all the bridges were blown up except the Ponte Vecchio, and many buildings along the river were destroyed. In 1966, a particularly devastating flood swept through the city, causing an incredible amount of damage to buildings and artworks. (You can still find markers throughout the city that indicate the water level that day.) More works were lost or seriously damaged in 1993 when a car bomb exploded in front of the Uffizi Gallery. After all three events, Florentines quickly rallied to restore the city and preserve its vital Renaissance legacy.
Visitors rarely allot enough time for Florence, partly because until you've been there, it's difficult to comprehend how much there is to experience in the city. Any visit, brief or extended, should begin with the magnificent Duomo. Don't be content with admiring its stunning exterior: Go inside and gaze at the frescoes and take in the view from the top of the dome.
Afterward, check out the exquisite detail of the famed bronze doors of the adjacent Baptistery. The striking Palazzo Vecchio on Piazza della Signoria still functions as city hall. Take a tour and learn about the palace's integral role in Florentine history—as well as the reason for its unusual trapezoidal dimensions.
The most celebrated art museum in the city is the Uffizi Gallery, considered by many to be, along with the Louvre and El Prado, one of the most important museums in the world. The Uffizi has 13th- to 18th-century Italian and European masterworks—paintings by Botticelli, Hugo van der Goes, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, Raphael and Rembrandt, among others. The line at the Uffizi can get very long, so we strongly encourage advance reservations. Many hotels can make reservations for the Uffizi and other attractions for a small surcharge, similar to booking online in advance.
Another fabulous art museum is the Bargello, with its impressive collection of medieval and Renaissance armor, furnishings and sculpture—including Donatello's lion sculpture, the Marzocco, the symbol of Florence. The Accademia, near Piazza San Marco, is chiefly known for housing Michelangelo's David, although his many other sculptures there are worth the visit in their own right.
Cross the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio, which has spanned the river since 1345. The bridge still has shops and rooms jutting out over the sides—a common feature in the Middle Ages, although few examples remain today. The Vasari Corridor, which runs above the bridge, links the Uffizi with the Palazzo Pitti.
Sights on the other side of the Arno include the Palazzo Pitti, the archetype of all European royal residences and one of the best preserved, with beautifully decorated baroque interiors and the gorgeous Boboli Gardens on the hillside behind it. Be sure to see the Palazzo's Palatine Gallery, which contains 16th- and 17th-century paintings by Raphael, Titian, Veronese, Rubens and Van Dyck.
The fully furnished Royal Apartments date back to the last kings of Italy. Don't confuse the Palazzo Pitti with the Medici Chapels, which are connected to the Church of San Lorenzo—but they are also well worth a visit.
Early summer evenings are tranquil—Florentines and visitors alike stroll the narrow streets with an ice-cream cone in hand, or sip aperitivi
or iced tea in the piazzas. Although there are places to go as the night goes on, the town doesn't have a big local nightlife scene. The Florentine idea of a pleasant evening is a good meal, a pizza, an evening at the opera or visiting with friends at home.
The bars and discos that do exist generally shut down around 3 am and mainly attract young people, especially foreign students. In the past few years, some British- and Irish-style pubs have sprung up, and if you have energy left after a day of sightseeing, you may well enjoy yourself there.
Florentines, like people of other regions of Italy, are very proud of their cuisine. "Italian cooking" as such does not exist—Florentine, Roman and Milanese cuisines do. In Florence, you might say that the cuisine mirrors the character of the city's inhabitants: no-frills, solid and dignified.
Bistecca alla fiorentina is a traditional thick, high-quality, grilled T-bone steak served very rare. But steak was not a large part of the diet of the people whose culinary arts made Florentine cooking what it is today. The staple fare was stick-to-the-ribs, vegetable-based soups served with a drizzle of olive oil on top. Among the soups, two traditional Florentine favorites are pappa al pomodoro (tomato, basil and bread soup) and ribollita (bean and vegetable soup with bread).
Porcini mushrooms, a real delicacy, are a staple in risotto ai funghi porcini (risotto with porcini mushrooms), tagliatelle ai funghi porcini (egg pasta with porcini sauce) and porcini alla griglia (grilled porcini caps). And it would be a disservice not to elaborate on haricot beans when talking about Tuscan food. Classic preparations include cooking with fresh sage and tomato (fagioli all'uccelletto) or with sausage (fagioli e salsiccia). The prosaic sound of these dishes belies their irresistible flavor.
Tuscany is undeniably one of the greatest wine-producing regions in the world. Chianti is the most ubiquitous, although quality can vary. Deviation from Chianti's traditional recipe guidelines has given rise to a new regionally specific classification called "Super Tuscan" you should try. In addition to sampling the Chianti, you should not leave without tasting the exquisite and expensive Brunello di Montalcino or the more moderately priced, but very good, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Navigating the seas of Florentine dining spots—from the inexpensive fiaschetteria to the pricey enoteca, from the ristorante to the trattoria and pizzeria—can be as bewildering as it is exhilarating. Once upon a time, the trattoria was an everyday establishment offering simple, hearty fare. Nowadays, because the charm of these places has acquired a price tag, a meal in a well-known trattoria may be just as elegant and expensive as one in a ristorante.
Pizzerias frequently offer a whole gamut of choices, from steak to fish, but it's worth remembering that the pizzeria's specialty is pizza—usually cooked in a wood-burning oven. In Florence, pizza is baked in large rectangular baking sheets, and you decide the size of your slice. Price is by weight.
The fiaschetteria and enoteca are specialized wine shops that frequently serve light meals, including sandwiches made with porchetta (roast pork), soup and crostini. If you'd like to try a takeout specialty and are not too squeamish, try a lampredotto or tripe sandwich from one of the tripe stands (trippaic) in the markets of San Lorenzo, San Ambrogio or Il Porcellino.
The trend for people who work in the city to have lunch near their workplace rather than at home has meant a surge in inexpensive lunch places. Paradoxically, the same restaurant may offer the identical menu for dinner that it does for lunch, but at double the price. Also, in order to be competitive at lunchtime, elegant cafes will provide a splendid buffet lunch for the same price as their scruffier counterparts.
Italians don't usually bother with breakfast (apart from a cappuccino and maybe a pastry). However, some of the hipper bars and restaurants now offer what they call an English or American breakfast or even an American-style Sunday brunch.
Most restaurants open for lunch noon-2:30 pm, with the rush 1-2 pm. Dinner hours begin at 7 pm at the very earliest (more typically at 7:30 pm) and continue until at least 10 pm; many places stay open until midnight. Florentines dine punctually at 8:30 pm, so if you want to enjoy your meal at a quieter time or avoid lines, plan to dine a bit earlier.
Here is a sampling of restaurants in town. Expect to pay the following for dinner for one, excluding drinks and tip: $ = less than 20 euros; $$ = 20 euros-35 euros; $$$ = 36 euros-65 euros; $$$$ = more than 65 euros.
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