Europe: Italy - Florence | Michelangelo, Botticelli & Gelato

by Lori Seto

Florence's narrow, noisy streets and stony facades belie its claim to fame: This is the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to many of world's most famous paintings and statues. If Florence is your starting point for a tour of Tuscany, take a few days to explore this bustling city's mind-boggling collection of artistic genius and stunning cathedrals.

In A Word: Art

Masterpieces abound here in all their original glory: Michelangelo's statues of Bacchus and David, Cellini's statue of Perseus beheading Medusa, Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus," Titian's "The Venus of Urbino," and more. The world-renowned Uffizi Gallery is a must-see, but art is everywhere: in the chapels hidden inside the Santa Maria Novella and Santa Maria del Carmine churches, and in the statue garden outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where you'll find Ammannati's Neptune Fountain.

Why We'd Go: Six Features You'll Never Forget

  • Cathedrals: The immense and magnificently detailed Santa Maria del Fiore Duomo (cathedral) will literally take your breath away. Climb more than 460 steps past Vasari's rich "Last Judgment" frescoes for an excellent birds-eye view of the city. Don't miss the resplendent east doors -- called the "Gate of Paradise" -- of the nearby Baptistery: Lorenzo Ghiberti needed 28 years to complete them.
  • Tombs: Visit the Gothic church of Santa Croce to see the elaborate tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, and the great humanist Leonardo Bruni. Machiavelli was also buried here. Medici tombs by Michelangelo can be found at the lavish San Lorenzo church.
  • Palaces: Palazzos are everywhere in this concentrated treasure chest of a city, but some of the best include the Palazzo Vecchio (with its famous sculpture garden), the ornate Palazzo Rucellai, and the Medici's massive must-see Palazzo Pitti.
  • Gardens: The Vittolone, an avenue of cypress trees planted in 1637 that splits the sprawling, statue-filled Boboli Gardens near Palazzo Pitti, is the perfect spot to soak up peaceful green vistas. Have a snack at the outdoor Kaffeehaus to soothe your overstimulated intellects.
  • Gelato: You'll experience ice-cream ecstasy at Bar Vivoli Gelateria near the Santa Croce church. A week's worth of rich, creamy, intense flavors will keep you screaming for more.
  • Shopping: Cross the Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge, built in 1345 -- the only bridge to escape destruction during World War II -- to shop for new and antique jewelry. Troll for leather goods at the Mercato di San Lorenzo or nearby Mercato Centrale.

When To Go: Florence At Its Best

  • Best weather: April to June, September, and October. July and August are hottest and most humid. Tourism swells from May through September.
  • Best prices: Winter and August.
  • Festival highlights: Maggio Musicale, the city's major arts festival, takes place from May through early June; the Calcio in Costume -- Soccer in Costume -- is an annual competition held in June among four teams, each representing a medieval district of the city; a fireworks display marks midsummer and the feast of John the Baptist, Florence's patron saint, on June 24.

Photo: ENIT / Italian Tourism

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