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Florence (Firenze) is the most populated city in Tuscany, with 370,000 inhabitants (1,000,000 in the entire Province). It is situated on the plain of the River Arno, in between the hills that have made it one of the most famous cities in Italy.
Florence, the bridge Ponte Vecchio over the river Arno
Located in the heart of Tuscany, Florence is nestled in the Arno River Valley, which originates about 15 kilometers east of Florence near the town of Pontassieve and winds west through Tuscany to meet the Ligurian sea at Pisa. The Arno neatly divides Florence into its north and south sections, connected by several historic bridges. The area of Florence south of the Arno is known as the Oltrarno (literally, “the other side of the Arno”), a neighborhood known for artisan crafts production and antiques shops. Florence’s city center is relatively small and easy to navigate on foot with a map in hand. Walking may well be the most effective and pleasant way to discover this city. Spend time strolling along the Arno or amid the city’s beautiful architecture and museums to best discover the history and traditions of Florence.
Florence’s rich culture can be attributed to its complex history. The nearby hilltop town of Fiesole was originally an Etruscan settlement, known to and eventually conquered by the Romans, who, in the 1st century B.C., established an army camp in what is now downtown Florence. Owing to its location, the settlement Florentia flourished commercially. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Florence, like most of Italy, was overrun by tribes from Northern Europe, then experienced a more stable period under Lombard rule. Late medieval Florence was a place of bloody civic unrest, due in large part to the 13th-century clashes between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines and their respective political allegiances (the Guelfs were the party allegiant to the Papacy, while the Ghibellines fought for the Holy Roman Empire), and the resulting conflicts among warrior members of Florentine noble families. The 13th century also saw the economic success and rise of the Florentine merchant class, whose members formed guilds and declared themselves the rightful representatives of Florence. They founded, in effect, an elective governmental system - the Florentine Republic.
The city flourished in the early Renaissance, through the continued economic success brought by the trades as well a thriving banking system, established earlier by members of the Medici family. As financiers to European kings and future popes, the Medici quickly grew to be the wealthiest and most powerful clan in Florence. The late Renaissance era saw the Medici family gain even more political power, becoming absolute rulers of the so-called Florentine “Republic”. In the mid-19th century, the hitherto fractured and culturally diverse Italian peninsula was swept up in the unification movement, the Risorgimento. When unification was finally achieved in 1861, Florence became the second capital (1865-70) of the new nation known as Italia. It was during this time that many Neo-classical buildings, such as those found in Piazza della Repubblica, and the lesser known Piazza Beccaria, were constructed.
Given its intriguing and complex past, Florence offers countless opportunities to discover its historic layers. Start with one of its many museums that display the rich culture and traditions of the city. The Uffizi, home to masterpieces by Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Andrea del Sarto, is the most renowned and culturally rich museum in Florence, not to mention one of the most important museums in the world. Michelangelo’s David, located in the Accademia, is a truly incredible sight that art lovers and curious travellers alike will surely appreciate. Not far from the Accademia is Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore, or duomo.
A visit to the 'duomo' is an essential Florentine experience. Florence’s cathedral has the third longest nave in the world, just after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. Its complex exterior design merits a walk around the church to fully appreciate the surprising contrast with the church’s minimalist interior. Climbing to the top of the duomo offers arguably the most breathtaking view of the city. Together, the baptistery, the bell tower, and the duomo make up Florence’s Piazza del Duomo, the city’s religious center. The two bronze doors created by Ghiberti for the baptistery, including the Gates of Paradise named by Michelangelo himself, merit an un-rushed observation, preferably with a reliable descriptive source in hand. Giotto’s soaring Gothic masterpiece, the campanile, or bell tower, concludes the visits to Piazza del Duomo’s main sites. The bell tower’s 412 steps lead to yet another stunning view of the city.
Another essential stop is the Piazza della Signoria, a 13th-century square home to the Palazzo Vecchio on the east side and the Uffizi Gallery just to the south. Piazza della Signoria came into existence as a result of the Guelph-Ghibelline struggles, when many Ghibelline homes were destroyed to create space destined for civic use. Still Florence’s civic and political center today, the piazza is adorned with many famous sculptures, such as Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune, colloquially referred to as Il Biancone; a copy of Michelangelo’s David; and, within the 14th-century Loggia dei Lanzi, Cellini’s bronze Perseus and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine.
Piazza della Repubblica, the commercial center of Florence, offers yet another rich historical sketch. In the Roman era, this was the site of the forum, the very heart of the Roman settlement. During the middle ages it was the site of a bustling market, the Mercato Vecchio. An inscription found in the piazza states “Ancient center of the city, squalid for centuries, returned to new life,” referencing another episode in the piazza’s past, when it was home to Florence’s Jewish Ghetto. Today Piazza della Repubblica’s look is quite modern: the late 19th-century buildings house popular cafes, restaurants and shops, making it one of Florence’s most popular and lively public squares.
Having explored Florence’s art and architecture, its numerous museums and interesting neighborhoods, it’s time to experience traditional Florentine cuisine, which rivals any of Italy’s famous regional cuisines. The streets of Florence are lined with osterias, trattorias and ristorantes serving such classic dishes as bruschetta al pomodoro, ribollita, and bistecca Fiorentina. Famed Chianti wines will not be hard to find, and, afterwards, countless gelaterias offer a perfect finish to a classic meal.
Not surprisingly, shopping is a favorite past-time in a city that boasts centuries-old craft traditions. Look for hand-made leather goods, ceramics, top-quality textiles, artisan marbled paper, perfumeries and high-end boutiques. The Mercato di San Lorenzo is a must for those in search of leather products, while the chic designer shops and boutiques along Via Tornabuoni, together with the exquisite jewellery shops lining the Ponte Vecchio, form an itinerary to satisfy any shopper’s desires.
Discovering the true heart of Florence could arguably take a lifetime. Yet with a few well-planned and informed days, you can begin to uncover and enjoy the city's remarkable cultural, artistic, political and culinary history.