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Florence: Birthplace of the Renaissance

Created date

June 24th, 2015
Uffizi Gallery
Uffizi Gallery

Nestled in the hills of Tuscany, Florence, or Firenze, as it’s known to Italians, was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli all lived in Florence, as did literary greats like Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio.  

In the coming months, the city of Florence is sure to receive a lot of attention as Tom Hanks and Ron Howard roll out their next cinematic installment of author Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, Inferno. While Florence is already crowded with tourists, it will only grow more so once the film is released in 2016.

Why not beat the crowds and enjoy the favorable currency exchange rate by traveling to Florence now? A compact city that is easy to navigate, it holds many wonders to see and experience.

The Duomo

The most famous building in Florence is the Cathedral, more commonly known as the Duomo. Construction began in the year 1296 but was delayed by financial woes, shifting politics, and even the plague. In the early 1400s, wealthy Italian powerbroker Cosimo de’ Medici took charge, paying for its completion, which didn’t occur until 1436. What is most notable about the building is the large red dome. To this day, it remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. 

Inside the cathedral, you can marvel at Vasari’s The Last Judgement, the fresco decorating the inside of the dome. For another spectacular sight, climb to the top of the dome and look out on the beauty of the city. Be forewarned, however, the view from the top comes with a cost. The only way to reach the top is by climbing 463 very steep and narrow stairs. You can also climb the building’s bell tower, which is almost as tall—accessible by climbing 414 stairs.  

If stairs aren’t your thing, but you long for a beautiful view of Florence, consider crossing the Arno River and visiting Piazzale Michelangelo. Here you will find an interesting bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David looking out at a breathtaking view of the city—with the added bonus of no stairs to climb.

Uffizi Gallery

The hardest thing about the Uffizi Gallery is saying it. Pronounced “ew-feet-zi,” it is translated as “office” since the building originally held the offices of the Florentine magistrate. In time, it also became a repository for the Medici family’s vast collection of art treasures. 

Today, it is one of the most famous art museums in the world. Here, you will find Doni Tondo, one of only two finished panel paintings by Michelangelo known to exist. The Uffizi is also home to Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. It has a vast collection of classical sculpture as well. 

Galleria dell’Accademia

At the Galleria dell’Accademia, you can see the most famous sculpture in the world—Michelangelo’s David. What is most surprising about visiting the gallery is the layout. You pass through a number of small galleries displaying works by Renaissance artists. While they are all lovely, they are probably unknown to most people. Passing from one gallery to the next, you suddenly and unexpectedly come upon him—David, standing majestically in the building’s large atrium. 

The sculpture elicits any number of reactions from visitors. Some are taken by its immense size. Others are put off by the strange proportions of the work. David’s head and hands (the right one in particular), are exceptionally large. This may be due to the fact that the statue was originally intended to be seen from far below. It was commissioned to stand atop the Duomo, but lifting the six-ton statue to such a height proved too difficult. Instead, it was put outdoors in the Palazzo Vecchio, where it stood until 1873, when it was moved inside the Galleria.

Lines to purchase tickets at these two museums can be as long as five hours during the summer when tourism peaks. You can avoid those lines by purchasing tickets for these and other museums in Florence online at uffizi.com.  

Food

Florence has an abundance of wonderful restaurants and eateries. You will find flavorful wines from the Tuscan hills and locally produced olive oils. Food here is hearty, rich, and sometimes singularly focused on meat. Thick bean soups with pancetta, hearty wild boar ragus, tripe, goose, and rabbit are all popular dishes. 

A local specialty is bistecca alla fiorentina, or Florentine steak. Found on practically every menu in town, it is essentially a porterhouse made from the region’s Chianina cattle breed. The meat is cut, seasoned, and grilled in the restaurant to produce a succulent if rather basic dish. Sold by the kilo, Florentine steak is one of the more expensive menu options—averaging about €50. 

For dessert, try cantuccini—almond biscuits you dip into vin santo, a Tuscan dessert wine. 

Shopping

Known for its fine leather goods, Florence has many retailers selling high-end shoes, handbags, and luggage. There is also the San Lorenzo Market, where vendors sell small leather goods at very reasonable prices. Most of the offerings are of reasonably good quality. A small handbag can be had for as little as €15. This is a great place to stock up on small gifts like coin cases, billfolds, and leather-bound notebooks. 

A short walk from the market is Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (Via della Scala, 16), one of the world’s oldest pharmacies. Here you can purchase ancient preparations like fragrant Melissa Water, first made in 1690, or the original cologne designed for Catherine of Medici in 1612. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, the store has a small museum and is worth a visit.

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