Winding cobblestone streets lined with tall, stone buildings filled with shops, cafes and restaurants. Churches covered in the art works of Italian masters. Fashion trends that won't make it to North America for years. Museums overflowing with paintings, sculpture and sketches. Walking in the footsteps of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Raphael (no, not the Ninja Turtles)... what isn't there to see and do in Florence!
1. The Duomo — Though you may have spotted the brown-tiles of Brunelleschi's massive dome long before you have come upon the cathedral, the first time that you turn the corner and find yourself in front of the pink and green marble facade, you are sure to have the wind knocked out of you. The church is huge, towering above all the buildings surrounding it, and breathtakingly beautiful. The best time to visit is in the off-season, when the interior is open to all, nothing is closed off to tourists and the echoing halls are quiet, deserted and filled with flickering candlelight.
2. The Baptistery and The Gates of Paradise — Across from the Duomo sits the octagonal shaped baptistery that was built on the site of an ancient Roman temple as early as the 5th century. Dante was among the celebrated figures that have been baptized in this marble structure that is famous for its gilded bronze doors, the most famous being Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise — 10 intricate panels depicting stories from the old testament. The one's hanging are replicas but you can check out the originals at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
3. Piazza della Signoria — This expansive piazza is the political hub of the city and is surrounded by some beautiful historic buildings including the Palazzo Vecchio which is the seat of the Florentine government and full of murals by iconic artists. The Piazza also contains a sculpture gallery (a great spot to people watch from on a warm evening) and an exact replica of the famous David by Michelangelo.
4. Galleries — The Uffizi Gallery, built in the 16th century by the artist and art historian Vasari, is the home of the private art collection of the Medici family — essentially the 'royal family' of Florence at the height of the Renaissance and passionate art patrons. Works by the 'turtles' can be found here as well as the stunning paintings by Botticelli (my personal favourites). Another 'can't-miss' is the Galleria dell’Accademia, which is the home of the original David and Michelangelo's unfinished Slaves that give a unique insight into the artist's process.
5. Ponte Vecchio — The only bridge that survived the Nazi explosives in 1944, this unique 14th century structure is the home of the city's most beautiful jewellery shops. Unless you are travelling with a pocketful for cash, don't expect to do more then window shop on this pricy strip, but something as unique as a bridge covered in houses is definitely worth the visit.
6. Piazzale Michelangelo — It's a bit of a trek, but the views from this plaza, across the river from the centre of the city, are worth every drip of sweat. On a clear day, you can see straight to the green Tuscan hills beyond the city.
7. Cafes, Restaurants and Wine — There are some fantastic cafes, their tables spilling out into the street, between the Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria, as well as some great spots for gelato. Florence is incredibly close to the Chianti region which means some delicious wine, readily available at extremely low prices... oh, and there are no rules about drinking in the streets so grab a bottle from a local grocery store and head to the Piazzale Michelangelo to enjoy a sunset after a long day of sightseeing.
8. Shop, shop and shop some more — Florence contains everything from department stores to street markets and everything in between. Most boutiques, jewellery shops and designer stores are located between the cathedral and the Arno river, while the best spot to find leather, souvenirs, hand-bound books, clothing and jewellery at low prices is at the Piazza del Mercato Centrale (an open-air market located near the train station).