I think it’s impossible for one to overstate the cultural and social impact Florence has had on the modern world. City of the Medici and birthplace of the Renaissance this historic city is jam packed full of priceless works of art, stunning architectural beauty, and a lively spirit that breaths life into the Italian city.
A Little History
Interestingly, the city was originally founded by the Roman general Sulla in 80 B.C. as an army colony and named Fluentia, owing its name to the location being between two rivers. Despite initial flourishing and success, in the centuries to pass the city would become stagnant under Gothic and Byzantine rule and would not see prosperity again until the 11th century.
The golden age of Florence began around the 11th century with great construction projects and the stronger patronage of the arts. In the 14th and 15th centuries the city came under the influence of the Medici, the so-called ‘Godfathers’ of the Renaissance. It was the Medici family who gave patronage to almost all the great artists of the time including Michelangelo, Da’Vinci, Botticelli, and so on. Florence, and indeed the western world, would probably not be the same without the near obsessive patronage of the arts and sciences by the Medici’s.
After back and forth power grabs between the Medici and rival families, the city eventually came under the sway of the Austrian crown in the mid-18th century. The city served a brief stint as the capitol of the newly established Kingdom of Italy from 1865-1871. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a boom in economic growth, and despite the obvious setbacks by both World Wars, the city has maintained a healthy level of growth into the modern era.
Piazza della Signoria
This is the heart of Florence’s historic district and the busiest square in the city. The entire square is practically a free open-air sculptural exhibit, as you’ll find breathtaking pieces of art in nearly every direction you look. The piazza has been the center of Florence’s political scene for centuries, and the city’s town hall sits in the piazza. You will find a beautiful recreation of Michelangelo’s David outside the town hall. Take some time to take in the sights and sounds of this bustling square.
‘The Duomo’ Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
My first visit to Florence I arrived late at night and had to cross through the city center to get to my hostel, and I stumbled onto the Duomo; what a stunning thing to come up on unexpectedly. It’s huge white marble facade makes a lasting impression, especially in the dim of night. The Gothic duomo (church) was begun in 1296, and has an exterior made of green, pink, and white marble. The history of the duomo’s dome is particularly interesting, for it sat incomplete for over 100 years before it was finally completed under the patronage of the Medici’s.
Tip: Make sure to climb the 436 steps to the top of the dome for a beautiful view of the city.
The Uffizi Gallery
As the world’s most important collection of Renaissance art, The Uffizi Gallery is Florence’s most popular and crowded museum. You will find works of art from Michelangelo, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Raphael and many other Italian masters, as well as ancient sculptures and select tapestries from around the world.
Tip: Make sure to book ahead as it will get very crowded in the peak summer months.
This small museum is best known for housing the famous David sculpture by Michelangelo, which stands at a whopping 17ft tall. The museum also houses important paintings from the 13th-16th centuries, as well as some peculiar musical instruments constructed by the Medici’s.
This beautiful square overlooking Florence is absolutely the best view you will find of the city, and is also the most reproduced on post cards. Perched on a hill on the south bank of the river Arno the large piazza has the best vantage point for encapsulating all the beauty of Florence in one shot. Built in 1869 during an urban renewal, in which Florence was currently the capitol of Italy, the square was dedicated to the famous Florentine Michelangelo for all his contribution to the city’s fame. Climb the steep hill and mozy around the piazza with a bottle of wine and take in the stunning views of the city while pondering what life was like back in the Renaissance.
The only bridge to survive World War II and a major shopping destination the Ponte Vecchio is always a bustling and lively place to be. With a number of fine jewelry stores located along the bridge, you’ll often find the rich and famous among the bridge’s many visitors.
A Night Out In Florence
A night out in Florence can certainly be an eventful one as there is no shortage of club happy people to keep the party going. The city has had to keep up with the influx of study abroad students, particularly American students, which have nearly outnumbered the Italians in the city it seems like. Below are a few places I recommend going if you’re a young traveler looking for a fun night out.
Glam it up at ‘Yab’
As Florence’s most glamorous club, this is where you’ll find the ‘who’s in’ crowd in an upscale discotec bumping pop and dance to the night’s end.
Dance ’til Morning at ‘Space Electronic’
The name sort of gives it away but in case you couldn’t guess this club is solely for the hardcore dance/electronic junkies who are looking to bump until the wee hours of the morning.
Mellow out at ‘The Blog Club’
Located just a few blocks from the Uffizi Gallery, this mellow club offers non-party goers a chance to enjoy a party scene without being rocked by over zealous clubbers.
Grab the best pastry you’ve ever had
One really cool thing about Florence is this little late night bakery near the historic center. Around 3am you might see a long line of people standing in line in front of a closed up shop. But, if you investigate you’ll find they are actually waiting in line for a late night pastry. The bakery opens early in the morning and if you’re patient and quiet you will find yourself munching down the best darn Italian pastry you’ve ever had for just a euro.
Great Places To Eat In Florence
Florence is among the large group of cities in the country where you’ll find fine Italian cuisine. One need not look very far an authentic Italian dish, some high class delicacy, or just some street vendor panini if you’re on the go. Here are a few suggestions if you’re looking for something a little more specific.
Trattoria Dante – Open everyday until 1am this bustling trattoria is always busy and is a great place to find a true Italian dining experience. The wine is excellent and the food is reasonably priced. Make sure to book ahead though as it is often over booked. Located in Piazza Nazario Sauro.
ZaZa – If you’re looking for a fun and American friendly pizzeria then head over to ZaZa’s for a great pizza in the open air patio on a warm summer night. Located in Piazza del Mercato Centrale.
Gelateria Santa Trinita – If you’re looking for the best gelato in Florence then look no further than Santa Trinita. They serve all the classics flavors with a few specialties of their own that will melt your taste buds! Located in Piazza Frescobaldi.
Helpful Hints When Visiting Florence For The First Time (or any time)
- Get the Firenze card– If you’re planning on seeing a lot in Florence then you’ll definitely want to get this card. It costs 50 euro and covers all the major museums, including the Uffizi gallery and the Accademia, as well letting you skip the tourist lines and free rides on the local buses.
- Do NOT drive into Florence– You must have special permission to drive downtown. Most of the historic center is closed to traffic, and 24 hr cameras monitor the streets and take pictures of every license plate that comes in or out. The only way to get permission is to call ahead with your hotel and license plate number, but that isn’t a guarantee. Better to just park outside the city center and walk or take a bus/cab.
- Book ahead for the Uffizi and Accademia– These places get awfully crowded, sometimes with a line well in excess of 2 hours, so booking ahead would be prudent. Telephone: +39-055-294-883 or book online at www.firenzemusei.it.