Once the central nerve of Europe’s intellectual and cultural scene, Florence is now one of the world’s best monuments to the Renaissance. It was here that writers and artists, like Machiavelli, Botticelli and Michelangelo, illuminated the Tuscan city with their masterpieces, unwittingly sealing Florence’s fate as the birthplace of Renaissance arts. Today, Florence stands as a testament to that period of artistic growth, while thriving as a modern cosmopolitan city. It’s estimated that more than 1 million people will visit Florence this year, so to give you a head start on your vacation, we put together some insider information to the world’s most popular Renaissance city.
The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, often referred to as the Duomo, is the city’s main focal point. Rising nearly 400 feet about the city, the church as well as its monuments, like the Baptistery and Campanile, provide the perfect place to start your explorations into the city’s rich Renaissance past. The top of the basilica’s dome is open to the public and is the perfect place to take in sweeping panoramas of the city. Santa Maria Novella is Florence’s other great church, featuring chapels adorned with rich frescoes. It sits to the west of the Duomo’s orange-tiled dome next to the city’s main train station, which shares the same name.To the east is the church of Santa Croce and its magnificent frescoes by Giotto. South of the Duomo is Piazza della Signoria–the city’s political center, where Florence’s town hall—Palazzo Vecchio—and the Uffizi Museum are surrounded by cafes and restaurants–and Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge of gold.
Florence Fact: The “David” statue in Piazza della Signoria is a copy of Michelangelo’s famous work. The statue, which symbolizes triumph over tyranny, was moved from the square in 1837. It is now housed in the city’s Galleria dell’Accademia.
Cafe culture is alive and well in Florence, especially around the main piazzas and Duomo. However, if you want to escape the crowds and higher costs, look for cafes along the city’s narrow corridors just off of the popular squares or check out Piazza di Santo Spirito on the other side of the Arno River. Boccadama in Piazza Santa Croce is an excellent choice for good, affordable Tuscan cuisine. Head to Pizzeria Toto near Piazza della Signoria for some of the best pizza slices in Florence. Right next to the pizzeria, there is a grocery store and an Irish pub if you find yourself in need of a beer fix. When it comes to desserts, especially cannoli, there is no better place than Caffe Paszkowski in Piazza della Repubblica. Florence also has several food markets, the main one being Mercato Centrale. Additionally, produce can also be found at the Mercato di Sant’Abrogio, and on Tuesdays, at the Parco delle Cascine.
Don’t let Florence’s compact size fool you, it’s a shopper’s paradise. Florence is renowned for its high quality leather good shops. All the best names in Italian fashion and jewelry can be found in Florence. And for those seeking out a unique gift from their visit, artisan workshops, family-run businesses and antique shops dot the city’s narrow medieval streets. The city’s historic center is filled with all sorts of shops as well as street carts selling everything from souvenir boxer shorts to leather jackets. For jewelry enthusiasts, Ponte Vecchio is the place to go. The small shops that give the ancient bridge its shimmer sell new and antique jewelry pieces.
Florence Fact: During World War II, Adolf Hitler, a devoted art lover, spared Ponte Vecchio because of the priceless Medici art collection that hung in a secret passage above the bridge. Little did he know, the collection had already been removed by the time his army stormed the city. All of the city’s other bridges were destroyed by the Nazis.
Florence has one huge advantage over other major European cities: it’s extremely walkable. In fact, the historic city center is best seen by foot or bicycle. Taxis are available in the city and can be useful when you have to travel with luggage to and from the city’s main train station, Santa Maria Novella. The railway station is approximately a 10 minute walk from the Duomo, and it’s the main national and international train station in the city. Additionally, Florence has a good bus service, which is a much more affordable option than using the city’s taxis. Florence’s Amerigo Vespucci Airport is located approximately 4 kilometers from the city center, and the SITA/ATAF “Vola in Bus” operates between the airport and Santa Maria Novella train station. The journey takes about 20 minutes.