Florence Destination Guide
Florence is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany. A city with a very rich history, it was a centre of medieval European trade and finance; it is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance and was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. The city continues to exert influence over trends in art, culture and fashion. Florence therefore attracts millions of tourists each year, seeking to experience the culture, Renaissance art and architecture. At Florence’s museums and galleries visitors can see first-hand some of the most famous and influential pieces of art in the world, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo.
The city of Florence dates back to a settlement established in 80BC for veteran Roman soldiers. For the next few centuries, the city experienced turbulent periods of Ostrogothic rule, troubled by near constant warfare. However the 800s saw the turbulence calm and it was around 1000AD that the Golden Age of Florentine art began with construction beginning on the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte.
The Medici family rose to power in the 15th century, when Florence was among the largest and richest cities in Europe. Although technically a democracy, Cosimo de Medici’s power came from an extensive network of allies across the city. He was succeeded by his son Piero, who was succeeded by his son Lorenzo in 1469. Lorenzo was a great supporter of the arts, commissioning pieces by Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, which helped give the city its reputation for great art. Lorenzo’s son Piero II was ultimately exiled in 1494, after facing defeat against the French invasion of northern Italy, ending the Medici rule and restoring the republican government.
Tuscany was temporarily an Austrian territory in the 18th century, following the 1737 accession of Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine and his wife Maria Theresa of Austria. With the exception of a brief conflict with France, Tuscany remained a part of the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty until 1859, before becoming a region of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Florence then became the capital of Italy for a short time between 1865 and 1871.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw Florence’s population expand enormously, as a result of growth in trade, financial services and industry. In 1943, the city was occupied by the Nazi’s for a year and there are memorial cemeteries dedicated to the Allied soldiers who served in Tuscany.
Cash = Euro £1 approximately €1.40
The Tuscany region has two main airports. The Amerigo Vespucci International Airport (sometimes known as Peretola) in Florence is located about 15-20 minutes from the city centre in a taxi or bus. The bus runs to the central train station every half an hour and is fairly inexpensive. Alternatively, many flights from Europe will fly to the Gelileo Galilei International Airport in Pisa. The two airports are connected by train and by bus.
Most of the major tourist sites in Florence are within easy walking distance of each other. Walking from one end of Florence’s historic centre to the other can be done in half-an-hour. Walking is particularly convenient as some of the streets in central Florence are closed to traffic, making bus and car tours less extensive. The compact city is best recommended to be experienced on foot. However, there are buses, trams and taxis available.
Florence has hot summers and moderate to cold winters, which experience light rainfall. As Florence is inland, it lacks coastal wind and therefore the Mediterranean summer temperatures are higher in the city than along the coast. Winters are cool with rain and sometimes snow. With warm, balmy temperatures, late-spring and early-autumn are recommended as the best times to visit Florence.
Italian is spoken in Florence but it is spoken with the distinctive Florentine dialect. Basic English will be spoken, especially in tourist areas.
Entry visas are not required for visits under 90 days for citizens of the EU and the USA.
Florentine food is typical of the Tuscany region, simple with abundant use of local produce, especially cheese and meats. Many traditional Florentine meals revolve around four fundamental ingredients: bread, olive oil, Florentine steaks of beef or game (boar, deer or rabbit) and wine. Florentine restaurants will serve all Italian specialities, not just those that are traditionally Tuscan.
- Crostino – Literally meaning “little toast” in Italian, Crostino is a starter dish which consists of lightly toasted bread with an assortment of toppings. The Florentine crostini di fegato is usually covered in a liver paste (made from veal, chicken, goose or duck) and topped with capers, anchovies, onions and sage for flavour.
- Bistecca alla fiorentina – The ideal meal for all meat lovers, Bistecca alla fiorentina is a T-bone cut of beef, traditionally from the local Chianina or Maremmana cattle breeds. The steak is grilled, seasoned with salt and olive oil. The outside must be crisp and appear well-grilled, whilst the inside remains rare. Typically, the steak is garnished with a lemon wedge and can often be shared between two.
- Tripe – Tripe has traditionally been a staple part of the Florentine diet for centuries, stemming from the desire to utilise all the meat from an animal. Tripe is commonly served in two ways in Florence. Firstly, trippa alla fiorentina is tripe sautéed in olive oil, onions and tomatoes, and served with parmesan. Alternatively, lampredotto is another typical way to serve tripe in Florence, consisting of thinly sliced tripe cooked in broth and often served in a sandwich. It is then usually topped with either a spicy, herb or gravy sauce. Lampredotti are usually served as street food and can be bought from street vendors or in public markets.
- Schiacciata alla fiorentina – Schiacciata alla fiorentina is a traditional cake which can be found in almost any Florentine pastry shop. It is a pastry-style sponge cake flavoured with orange zest and sometimes a filling of some kind. It is not overly sweet, and is often enjoyed for breakfast, afternoon tea or dessert. It is served with vanilla and lemon-scented sugar.
Top Things to See and Do in Florence
- Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore – The Cathedral is the main church of Florence and is most famous for its terracotta-tiled dome, designed in the 15th century by Filippo Brunelleschi who was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Built over six centuries, it has become Florence’s most iconic landmark. The basilica’s exterior is covered with green, pink and white marble panels and boasts an elaborate gothic-inspired façade, completed in 1887. The cathedral’s interior also boasts many stained-glass windows, including ones by Donatello, and impressive Renaissance frescoes. Climb the 463 interior stone steps of the dome to really appreciate this Renaissance masterpiece, and take in the views of Florence which can be viewed from the small windows throughout the climb. The cathedral is located in the Piazza del Duomo which is also home to the Florence Baptistery, Giotto’s Bell Tower and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
- Ponte Vecchio – The only bridge to survive World War II, the Ponte Vecchio is the oldest and most famous bridge over the Arno River. Ponte Vecchio literally means “old bridge” and is iconic as it remains to be lined with shops, as was common in medieval times. Built with medieval stone, the bridge spans the river at its narrowest point, where it is believed the Romans first built a bridge. Initially, the shops were occupied by butchers and travelling meat merchants but they were moved to decrease the smell in the Vasari Corridor (see below); at present the bridge houses jewellers, art dealers and souvenir sellers.
- Vasari Corridor – The Vasari Corridor is an enclosed elevated passageway which connects the Palazzo Vecchio (the “Old Palace,” now the town hall) and the Palazzo Pitti (a renaissance palace which served as the Medici residence). It begins on the south side of the Palazzo Vecchio, joins the Uffizi Gallery, leaves on its south side, crosses the Lungarno dei Archibusieri and follows the north bank of the River Arno until it crosses the Ponte Vecchio. The corridor then runs over rows of houses in the Oltrarno district until it reaches the Palazzo Pitti. It was commissioned by Cosimo de Medici in 1564 as a way to move freely between his residence and the government palace because he felt insecure in public. Most of it is closed to visitors, but guided tours of certain sections can be arranged in advance.
- Galleria degli Uffizi – The Uffizi Gallery is one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the world. The building itself was constructed between 1560 and 1581 by Giorgio Vasari for Cosimo de Medici as an administration building for the Florentine magistrates. It soon became a location to display the Medici’s extensive art collection, attracting visitors such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The gallery has been open to visitors by request since the sixteenth century, and in 1765 it was officially opened to the public. Pieces that can be seen here include Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, da Vinci’s The Annunciation, Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch and Rembrandt’s Self Portraits. The Uffizi is one of Florence’s most popular tourist attractions, making queues and waiting inevitable. Booking in advance is therefore highly recommended.
- Piazza della Signoria – The Piazza della Signoria is a wide, L-shaped square dominated by the medieval town hall of Palazzo Vecchio. The hub of local life since the thirteenth century, the square remains the political centre of the city and attracts many tourists visiting the square and its nearby sites, including Ponte Vecchio and Piazza del Duomo. The Loggia dei Lanzi is also located in the corner of the square. Consisting of wide arches open to the street, it is essentially an open-air sculpture gallery or antique and Renaissance art.
- Palazzo Pitti – Located on the South bank of the Arno, the former Medici residence is a grand palace featuring mainly Renaissance architecture. Most of the palace was built as the town residence of Luca Pitti, a Florentine banker, in 1458. The Medici family bought the palace in 1549 and it served as their main residence during their reign. It is now open to the public, containing galleries of the art and treasures collected by the family over the years. Additionally, the Boboli gardens are located behind the palazzo. The gardens hold many sculptures dating from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century and offer wonderful views of the city and surrounding countryside.
- Palazzo Vecchio – The Palazzo Vecchio is Florence’s old town hall, built between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is located in the Piazza della Signoria, and can be distinguished by its vast appearance, asymmetrical tower and by the various statues lines up in front of it, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David. Throughout the various state rooms and courtyards, visitors can see original architecture, frescoes and sculptures which date back to the 1500s.
- Fountain of Neptune – Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune (1563-1565) is situated in the Piazza della Signoria, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. The masterpiece was commissioned for the wedding of Francesco de Medici with grand duchess Johanna of Austria. The Neptune figure, whose face is based on Cosimo de Medici, was used as an allusion to the dominion of the Florentines over the sea and trade. The figure stands on a pedestal, decorated with mythical figures, at the centre of the octagonal fountain. The fountain’s location is at the end of a still functioning Roman aqueduct.
- Basilica de Santa Croce – The grand Basilica of the Holy Cross is the main Franciscan church in Florence, situated in the Piazza di Santa Croce. It exhibits a beautiful neo-Gothic façade accented with various shades of coloured marble, which strongly contrasts the modest church interior. Designed and built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, some of its frescoed chapels are better preserved than others, but visitors flock to see them nonetheless. The Basilica de Santa Croce is most famous however as the Temple of the Italian Glories, serving as the burial site of some of Italy’s most famous figures, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Rossini.
- Galleria dell’Accademia – Founded in 1784 by the then Grand Duke of Tuscany, the Gallery of the Academy is an art museum most famous for being the home of Michelangelo’s David. It also houses various other sculptures by Michelangelo and a collection of impressive Renaissance paintings.