Florence Travel Guide
Florence is one of the most beautiful cities in the world; for many people, it is the most splendid. Its palaces, churches and museums overflow with paintings and sculpture, and this combination of unequalled beauty with centuries of history is a heady mix. As a result, Florence often overwhelms its visitors.
Your first glimpse of the Duomo is likely to take your breath away, and you may have a hard time regaining your composure after viewing a dizzying succession of other monuments. The spirits of Leonardo da Vinci, Dante, Boccaccio, Michelangelo and the Medicis are palpable on virtually any street, and the days of the Renaissance seem close at hand.
HISTORY OF FLORENCE
Julius Caesar established Florence in 59 BC as a military post along the banks of the river Arno. He christened the town Florentia, or “the flourishing one,” but the city did not truly come into its own until the 12th and 13th centuries, when a few merchant and banking families began to distinguish themselves in the world market.
Many street names in Florence refer to the colorful figures who shaped its extensive history. The Countess Matilda of Tuscany took control of the city—by then known as Firenze (Florence)—in 1052, and helped it forge its own identity. Florence became an independent republic in 1198 and rose to prominence in the European scene. The Guelphs (supporters of the Pope) and the Ghibellines (upholders of the Holy Roman emperor) battled each other during the 13th and 14th centuries. After these factions faded into history, the Medici family of bankers took reign of the city. Their dynasty lasted, on and off, until 1737, when Florence came under the rule of Maria Theresa of Austria.
At this time, a “family 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 concordat 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. Florence was on its way to becoming one of the most important artistic centers of activity ever.
Italy itself was unified in 1860, and in 1861 Florence became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. (Rome later became capital of the Republic of Italy.) Much of Florence was damaged or destroyed during World War II—all the bridges were blown up except the Ponte Vecchio. And in 1966, a particularly violent flood swept through the city, doing an incredible amount of damage to buildings and artworks. 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 their city and preserve its vital Renaissance legacy.
WEATHER IN FLORENCE
Summers are hot, with July being the hottest month. Temperatures can range between 18 to 32°C.
Spring and fall tend to be mild. In fact, our favorite time to visit is in late October—the sky is clear and the long, hot and muggy summer is over.
Rains are common in February and March but get heavy in November, when the Arno River often swells over its banks.
Although winter temperatures are not very low, dampness makes the cold very penetrating. Winter temperatures will drop two or three degrees below freezing at night and will warm up to 46 F-50 F/8 C-10 C during the day. Snow is rare.
THING TO SEE & DO
Landmarks & Historic Sites
Battistero di San Giovanni
There are few buildings in Florence older than the Baptistery of St. John – thought to date back to the 300s or 400s. Its present look, however, stems from 11th- and 12th-century renovations. The monumental doors trace the development of Florentine sculpture from Gothic to Renaissance style.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – the Duomo -is the city’s main cathedral and one of the largest in the world. It’s topped by Filippo Brunelleschi’s cupola, a stupendous feat of 15th-century engineering. The architect used a method of his own creation to build it, inventing equipment and machines to meet his needs. The exterior is quite ornately decorated with white, pink and green marble. The inside of the church is vast, imposing and severe. The inner vault of the dome features Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari’s Last Judgment. It’s the largest painting in the world and took 16 years to restore.
Loggia della Signoria
Also called the Loggia dei Lanzi, this arcade shelters a number of important sculptures, including Cellini’s Perseus Slaying Medusa and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines – both of which are much more impressive than the square’s Neptune statue. Near the Palazzo Vecchio, on the Uffizi side of the Piazza della Signoria, Florence.
The palace and surrounding square have been at the heart of Florentine political life since their inauguration in the 1200s. The palace is still city hall, so its vitality is important to the Florentines. It’s not uncommon to see newly married brides and grooms exiting the building and entering horse-drawn carriages for a traditional trip around the city. The unusual shape of the Palazzo Vecchio and the off-center position of the main entrance and the bell tower have interesting historical antecedents.
This panoramic terrace on a hill overlooking Florence from the Oltrarno offers a splendid view encompassing not only the city but also the surrounding hills. This area was one of the hot spots in the siege of 1529 and 1530, when Michelangelo was appointed military engineer. For his role in defending Florence, the city decided – centuries later, in the 1800s – to name a new enormous, open square and avenue after the artist. An uninspiring monument to him was erected there in 1875, combining a full-size bronze copy of David with the four allegories of Dawn, Day, Dusk and Night. The “Piazzale,” as it’s known to the Florentines, gets very crowded on weekend afternoons and evenings, especially in fine weather. Try to catch the view at sunset – it’s stunning. A delightful 20-minute walk from Piazza Giuseppe Poggi, alongside the Arno, southeast of the city center.
One of the greatest museums in the world, this collection was originally the private property of the Medici family. When their dynasty was about to come to an end in the early 1700s, Anna Maria Ludovica de’ Medici – the last of the family – determined that the museum would become the eternal birthright of the city of Florence and its citizens. The museum contains the greatest collection of Italian Renaissance painting in the world, starting with pre-Renaissance masters such as Giotto and moving on through Masaccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and innumerable others. Don’t miss the Botticelli rooms – the works are just breathtaking.
Of the three Michelangelo Davids in Florence, the real one can be admired there. In 1873, it was moved from its original position in front of Palazzo Vecchio, where a copy of it stands today. The David is not, however, the only masterpiece in the Accademia. Michelangelo’s prisoners seem to struggle to emerge from the marble. There’s also a notable collection of 13th-18th-century paintings, which – as is often the case in Florence – would themselves constitute a remarkable museum collection.
BEST PLACES TO EAT IN FLORENCE
Florentines, like other Italians, are very proud of their cuisine. “Italian cooking” as such does not exist; Florentine, Roman and Milanese cuisines do. You might say that the cooking in Florence mirrors the character of the city’s inhabitants: no frills, solid, dignified.
Here is a list of our favorite restaurants in Florence:
This eatery boasts an owner-chef (Fabio Picchi) whose unusual and original cuisine attracts fine-tuned palates and a goodly number of noted faces. The first thing you’ll notice about the menu is that there is no pasta, which gives you the opportunity to try the minestre (mostly vegetable- and cereal-based soups), which are lesser-known and underrated elements of Italian cuisine. Try the polenta all’erbe verdi (polenta with green herbs) or choose from among 20 other creative entrees. The bar is a welcoming place to wind down before dinner.
This restaurant, one of the most elegant bar-restaurants in Florence, opened in 1953. You’ll find classic food there – try the curried chicken breasts or the Milanese-style cutlets. Unlike many places, Harry’s doesn’t close in the afternoon for a break. Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. Reservations required.
Much favored by students and Florence’s young professionals, Rose’s is a pleasant and conveniently central place (just off boutique-lined Via Tornabuoni) to stop off for a drink, a sandwich or a light pasta lunch. In the evenings, Rose’s becomes a sushi bar – one of the very few in Florence. More important, for anyone wanting to tune into the city’s nightlife scene, early evening (i.e., 10-11 pm) is when Rose’s becomes a stopping-off place for partygoers and clubbers. Having a drink at the bar will fill you in on what’s happening in town that night.
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. While there are places to go as night falls, the town never really gets hopping. There’s not a big local nightlife scene, and tourists are often too pooped to play. The bars and discos that do exist generally shut down around 3 am. If you do go out, you may notice a surprising number of North American and other foreign students out and about at night. Visiting students (who are numerous in Florence) head to the city center for their fun, while Florentine youths often avoid it because of parking hassles. If you are looking for a place to go for a few drinks in the evening, start walking around the city and listen for North American accents – they’ll be heading somewhere or can point you in the right direction.
One of the largest pubs in town, it sells great beer and typical pub food, including fish and chips and hot dogs.
Citt a di Firenze
This elegant, traditional U.S.-style bar is good for drinks, dinner (which is expensive) and more drinks accompanied by live music.
La Dolce Vita
This is the place to be seen. It’s favored by the beautiful people who, on summer evenings, spill out into the piazza with their drinks.
Currently the most fashionable nightspot in Florence. Deejays go there from all over Europe to spin, but there are live shows, too.
Formerly the Florence institution Meccano, this nightspot is still extremely popular. After midnight a young crowd gathers to dance inside, outside, upstairs and downstairs. Every night there’s a different type of music or theme. There’s also a pizzeria.