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Florence is the capital of the region of Tuscany in Italy, with a population of about 366,500. The city is considered a cultural, artistic and architectural.
Florence was the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Politically, economically, and culturally it was the most important city in Europe for around 250 years; from some time before 1300 until the early 1500s.
Florentines reinvented money in the form of the gold florin. This currency was the engine that drove Europe out of the "Dark Ages" a term invented by Petrarch, a Florentine whose family had been exiled to Arezzo. They financed the development of industry all over Europe, from Britain to Bruges, to Lyon, to Hungary. They financed the English kings during the Hundred Years War. They financed the papacy, including the construction of the papal palace in Avignon and the reconstruction of St. Peters and the Vatican when the papacy returned to Rome from the "Babylonian captivity".
Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio pioneered the use of the vernacular, the use of a language other than Latin. In their case, Tuscan, which, because of them, became Italian. Because Dante, et al., wrote in Tuscan, Geoffrey Chaucer, who spent a lot of time in Northern Italy and who borrowed heavily from Boccaccio's little stories, wrote in English. Others started writing in French and Spanish. This was the beginning of the end of Latin as a common language throughout Europe.
Best time to travel
Florence is always buzzing with tourists, you will find them in large groups surrounding attractions such as the Duomo di Firenze, even in the worst weather. If you are looking to visit and experience warm weather, head to Florence in early April before it becomes too hot and humid in the city. The restaurants and cafes will open up their outdoor seating when the warm weather rolls in. If you're looking to escape the crowds, January and February deter some tourists due to the cold. Try to avoid traveling to Florence in August because of the smoldering heat. Many Italians flee the city to go on holiday and because of this, most popular shops are closed for the month.
Florence's Amerigo Vespucci international airport (FLR) (known to locals as "Peretola") has good connections to the center of the city, which can be reached in about fifteen minutes by taxi or bus. The Ataf-Sita "Vola in Bus" ("Fly by bus") service costs €6.00 one way, and makes the circuit between the airport and the central train station every half an hour from 5:30AM to 8PM, then once an hour afterwards.
Note that 5:30AM bus leaves from the corner of Valfonda and Piazza Adua which is north of the train station instead of from the ATAF-SITA bus station which is on the west side of the train station. You can buy the ticket on the bus.
Modern, fast trains connect Florence with Italy's main cities, and local trains from other parts of Italy and express trains from around Europe arrive in Florence. The main station is Firenze Santa Maria Novella, on the edge of the historic old town. Other small stations are Firenze Campo Marte (near Florence Stadium) and Firenze Rifredi. If you take an Intercity train to Florence, you may need to change at Rifredi for another train to Firenze S.M.N. The transfer between stations via train is usually already covered by your train ticket (to check for this, your train ticket should not differentiate between the Florence train stations and will simply say "Firenze"). If you happen to have a long wait for the transferring train, it is also possible to take a bus to the city centre, but this is probably not covered by your train ticket.
Florence is connected by good highways to the rest of Italy. The easiest way to get in and out of the city from the A-1 Autostrada, which connects Florence to Bologna, Milan and the North, and to Rome and the South, is to use the "Firenze - Impruneta" exit. This is the same route for those leaving for or arriving from Siena on the "Fi-Si" highway. If you are arriving from or leaving for Pisa and the West on the A-11 Autostrada, it may be best to go by way of Firenze-Scandicci and use the A-1 to connect to and from the A-11.
Driving in the historic center - inside the wide "viale" where the old city walls were (and still are, on the southern side of the Arno)- is strictly prohibited, except for residents with permits. Enforcement is by camera, and is ferociously efficient. If you drive in the prohibited areas, you will be tracked down, and you will receive stiff fines in the mail.
The Firenze Card is a 72 hour pass for Florence allowing access to about 30 museums and free use of the public transport system. In some museums you can queue jump the reservations procedure with the pass but it is best to check with individual museums. The cost is €72 per person (as of April 2015).
Most of the major tourist sights in Florence are within easy walking distance of each other. It is possible to walk from one end of the historic center of Florence to the other - North-South or East-West in a half hour. Walking is not only an easy way to get around, it also offers the chance to 'take in' much more of the city life. Be warned though, that electric motor scooters are small enough to fit where cars cannot. They are silent but quick and in the summer they often travel into the plazas. Some of the streets in central Florence are closed to traffic. Many more are simply too narrow for buses to get through. Therefore, bus and car tours are not recommended. This is a very small, very compact city that really needs to be seen by foot. And, of course, if you need to, you can always buy a new pair of shoes in Florence.
There is a bike rental service organized by the city. Bikes can be hired at several points in the city (and returned to the same place). One of the most convenient for tourists is located at SMN station. There are other locations at many railway stations, but often with restricted opening hours.
While there are hills north and south of the center of town, almost all of the historic center of Florence is easy for bikers, because it is as flat as a hat - flatter than that. But there is a problem: Traffic is terrible with buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians are fighting for almost no space. So pay attention.
What to see
In the old town center:
Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo di Firenze is the city's beautiful cathedral, the symbol of the city. Brunelleschi's huge dome was an engineering feat of the rennaissance. A statue of Brunelleschi is sited in the piazza, with his figure looking upwards towards his dome. It is possible to climb the Dome (entrance on the side of the church), which has 464 steps curving at the top of the dome. It usually has a long lineup. Recently the city has switched to a combination ticket for the Dome, Campanile, Opera del Duomo museum, Baptistery and archaeological excavation under the cathedral, which costs €15 and allows a visit to each of the sights. The cathedral itself is free to enter.
Giotto's Tower- adjacent to the Duomo, you can climb the tower for a magnificent 360-degree view of the Duomo, Florence, and the surrounding area, and requires some tenacity to climb 414 steps. Included in Intero ticket (see Duomo).
Baptistery famous for bronze doors by Andrea Pisano (14th century) and Lorenzo Ghiberti (15th century) and a beautiful interior the vault of which is decorated with 13th century mosaics (the only medieval set of mosaics in the city. Included in Intero ticket (see Duomo).
Palazzo Vecchio - old city palace/city hall, adorned with fine art. The replica of Michelangelo's "David" is placed outside the main door in the original location of the statue, which is a symbol of the Comune of Florence. The site displays an important collection of Renaissance sculptures and paintings, including the Putto, by Verrochio, and the series of murals by Giorgio Vasari at the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Houndreds) - the hall which used to display the now lost Renaissance masterpiece, that is, the so-called Battaglia di Anghiari, by Leonardo da Vinci.
Mercato del Porcellino On your way to the Ponte Vecchio, you will encounter to your right, a market (Loggia del Mercato Nuovo) which hosts this peculiar boar made of bronze. Legend has it that your wish will be granted (or you'll one day return to Firenze, or receive fortune and good luck, amongst others) if you rub its polished snout while placing a coin in its mouth which must slide and fall into the underlying grating. Your best chance for a photo will be at night when the market closes and the vendors have completely cleared the market area; otherwise, you'll photos will have merchandise and tourists as background. While at this market, do peruse through the vendors and look down at the floor for a large marble circle which is known as the "Stone of Shame" as it was the place where insolvent merchants were publicly shamed before heading to prison or exile.
Ponte Vecchio the oldest and most famous bridge over the Arno; the only Florentine bridge to survive WW2. The Ponte Vecchio (literally "old bridge") is lined with shops, traditionally mostly jewellers since the days of the Medici. Vasari's elevated walkway crosses the Arno over the Ponte Vecchio, connecting the Uffizi to the old Medici palace.
Santa Croce church contains the monumental tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante, and many other notables in addition to artistic decorations. There is also great artwork in the church. And when you're done seeing that, a separate charge will gain you admission to the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Croce, where you can see a flood-damaged but still beautiful Crucifix by Cimabue (Giotto's teacher), which has become both the symbol of the flooding of Firenze in 1966 and of its recovery from that disaster. The Pazzi Chapel, a perfectly symmetrical example of sublime neo-Classic Renaissance architecture is also worth visiting.
Santa Maria Novella, near the train station, is a beautiful church and contains great artwork, including a recently restored Trinity by Masaccio. Also, the Chiostro Verde, to your left when facing the front entrance of the church, contains frescoes by Paolo Uccello which are quite unusual in style and well worth seeing, if the separate entrance is open. Off of the church's cloister is the wonderful Spanish Chapel which is covered in early Renaissance frescoes.
Orsanmichele a beautiful old church from the 14th century, which once functioned as a grain market
San Lorenzo the facade of this church was never completed, giving it a striking, rustic appearance. Inside the church is pure Renaissance neo-classical splendor. If you go around the back of the church, there is a separate entrance to the Medici chapels. Be sure to check out the stunning burial chapel of the princes and the sacristy down the corridor. The small sacristy is blessed with the presence of nine Michelangelo sculptures.
San Marco Convent (1436) houses frescoes by Fra Angelico and his workshop. Fra Angelico painted a series of frescoes for the cells in which the Dominican monks lived.
Piazza Signoria: Home to the “Fake David”, Piazza Signoria is definitely a sight to see. Shops and cafes surround the plaza, but what makes Piazza Signoria special is the abundance of statues within the plaza. The statues represent antique renaissance art including a copy of Michaelangelo’s David. In this square you can also visit the Florence Town Hall, also known as, Palazzo Vecchio. This Romanesque Fortress is one of most significant public places in Italy. In front of the Palazzo Vecchio is a plaque marking the site of the execution of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who ruled Florence with a theological iron fist until his excommunication and condemnation by the Vatican.