Home to such masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Dante Alighieri, Florence earned a lasting reputation as a prestigious cultural center. But questions remain over who actually founded the “City of Lilies” and when. Most people give a nod to Julius Caesar as the founder of Florentia dating back to 59 B.C., claiming it for its strategic position linking Rome to northern Italy. Meanwhile, archaeological evidence suggests the Etruscans of Fiesole likely founded Florence in 200 B.C.
Regardless of its origins, Florence emerged as a thriving artistic and cultural hub and one of the most important business centers in Italy. Global corporations, technology firms and fashion houses bring business travelers and expats alike to its metropolitan quarters. But when area businesses shutter their doors, Florence’s softly lit cobblestoned streets welcome lovers to explore.
No one can (or should) escape Florence without paying respects to Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia. Prioritize the visit and spend the morning quietly contemplating some of the world’s greatest works of art. Purchase priority tickets through your hotel or a local tour and skip past the throng of tourists straight to the priority entrance. The extra fee is worth it. Inside, you’ll find the original statue of David, two unfinished Michelangelo statues and Botticelli’s famed paintings.
Some tourists mill through nearby Piazza della Signoria, glimpse the impressive marble cast of David and assume it’s the real thing instead of an impressive replica. The real David stood there for more than 350 years but was showing signs of environmental damage. In 1873, the original statue was moved to the Galleria and a replica created to pay homage to the historic spot.
Palazzo Vecchio is worth its own visit. The impressive palace served as the town hall where politicians and important Florentines gathered and overlooks Piazza della Signoria, where shops, restaurants and vendors line the street. Spend a few hours taking a leisurely walk and sampling house wine and fresh pasta from a local restaurant.
For those who want to get to know Michelangelo better, head to the beautiful and intimate Basilica of Santa Croce. Although the church is impressive, you wouldn’t suspect it’s a who’s who of the Renaissance and holds the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. Michelangelo has a controversial neighbor here: Galileo’s tomb can be found directly across from the artist’s, but it took nearly a century for his remains to rest prominently in the main body of the basilica. The famed astronomer was accused of heresy for his beliefs that the Earth revolved around the sun and other (correct) theories and was placed under house arrest until his death in 1642. He wasn’t actually allowed a Christian burial until 1737.
As the sun begins to make its swift descent over the museums, galleries and basilicas of Florence, make your way to Piazzale Michelangelo for stunning, panoramic views of the city. Architect Giuseppe Poggi erected a monument base to celebrate the works of Michelangelo with copies of David and Medici chapel statues. Don’t expect to sneak a private moment in the piazza; tourists flood its corners year-round. But no one will look twice at a cozy cuddle while you enjoy views of the moonlit Duomo below.
Once you’ve had your fill of the great Michelangelo, head to the Duomo for a slow and steady climb to one of the most thrilling views of the city. The cathedral was built in the 1400s, when Italy’s ancient city-states competed with one another in a race (albeit a slow one) to build the most ornate and impressive buildings ever conceived by man. It often took lifetimes to create an entire cathedral. The resulting masterpiece ushered in a new era of art and engineering. Today the Duomo stops even the most jaded tourists in their tracks with its sheer volume and ornate mosaic ceiling.
Visitors can climb to the top of the Duomo and make the slow, circular stroll around its outside terrace, although be aware the ascent is not for the faint at heart. It spirals 463 steps up through narrow, darkened and unfinished corridors. If you can stomach it — there is no elevator — the trek is worth the effort for an up-close look at Giorgio Vasari’s frescoes of The Last Judgement before you spill out onto the rooftop to view the bustling piazza below.
Florence Info to Go
The surprisingly small Florence Airport Peretola, also know as Amerigo Vespucci Airport, could use a fresh coat of paint and an update, but it houses a small eatery, currency exchange and sundries station. It’s also conveniently situated close to the city center. Travelers usually make a layover in Frankfurt, Paris, Munich or other European hub before landing in Florence on its lone runway. The easiest way to get into the city is to grab a fixed-rate taxi from the airport for a 10- to 15-minute ride. Rates fluctuate depending on the day of the week and time but usually run about $22, with an additional fee for baggage.
Where to Stay in Florence
FIRENZE NUMBER NINE HOTEL AND SPA Stay in a multi-bedroom apartment within walking distance of shops, sights and the Duomo. An on-site workout facility and spa pamper guests. Via dei Conti 9 $$$
PORTRAIT FIRENZE HOTEL Take in breathtaking water views of Florence from the well-appointed luxury suites and enjoy outstanding, customized service and attention to detail. Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli 4 $$$$
THE ST. REGIS FLORENCE Situated in the historic center of Florence, The St. Regis blends all the contemporary amenities with Old World charm. Ask for butler service and water views of the Arno River. Piazza Ognissanti 1 $$$$
Restaurants in Florence
ENOTECA PITTI GOLA E CANTINA Known for a passion for food and wine making, Enoteca features small-production, high-end wines selected and paired with handmade pasta, local cheese and charcuterie. Piazza Pitti 16 $$$$
KONNUBIO Savor authentic Tuscan cooking along with international cuisine in a rustic-style restaurant. Vegetarian and vegan dishes available. Via dei Conti 8/R, Corso dei Tintori 10/R $$$
RISTORANTE FRANCESCO VINI Located in one of the oldest buildings in Florence, Francesco Vini was a specialty wine seller before expanding to a family restaurant. Sit outside for people-watching or downstairs for a cozy wine dinner for two. Borgo dei Greci 7/R, Piazza dei Peruzzi 8/R $$
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