If I were to pick one city as a definite must-see for the first time traveler to Italy, my choice would be Florence. Since the birth of the Renaissance, Florence has retained its standing as a center of art and culture. It has also become renowned for high fashion (excellent leather and silk goods), great cuisine, beautiful parks, tourism and, of course, friendly and warm people. Located in the heart of the central region of Tuscany, Florence is situated in a valley surrounded by rolling Tuscan hills. It is about a three-hour train ride north of Rome and 1 hour from Pisa.
Home to many great prominent figures (Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Dante Allighieri, Niccolo’ Machiavelli), their legacies can be seen all over town. In the Academy Art Gallery one can see Michaelangelo’s famous Statue of David, completed by the sculptor at age 26 after others had rejected the marble block because of its imperfections. According to the bible, David represents an Israelite shepherd boy who emerged victorious in an improbable battle against the mighty Goliath. In the Uffizzi Galleries, Europe’s third largest museum, one can see Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece “Birth of Venus”.
The city has an excellent bus system, and it is also very easy to get around on foot. A great place for a stroll is along the Ponte Vecchio, or the “Old Bridge.” This is the oldest of all the bridges in Florence and may even date back to Etruscan times. It has undergone many repairs through the centuries. It has even been the source of controversy. During one of the World Wars, a German general defied orders to bomb the bridge because he thought it was so beautiful. Previously, the bridge was aligned with butcher shops. Today, however, the only merchants allowed on the bridge are jewelers. It is one of the social points in town where you can window shop and watch artists as they sketch.
Another great place to shop is along Via Tornabuoni. Here you can find various boutiques and fashion giants as Armani, Versace, Fendi and Gucci. Florence also has many open markets where you can find some excellent leather and silk bargains. Some of the better markets include the market of San Lorenzo and the market in the Parco delle Cascine.
Florence is also noted for its excellent cuisine and sinfully delicious desserts and gelati (ice cream). Many fine restaurants can be found in town. You must not leave the city without trying some risotto, a Florentine specialty. Another specialty, believe it or not, is beefsteak. You can, of course, find excellent pasta dishes as you would in other parts of Italy. Because Tuscany is in the heart of the Chianti region, there is always an excellent selection of wines to savor.
Just South of the Arno River lies the Boboli Gardens, once an estate of a feudal king; it is one of the most beautiful parks in all of Europe. It is over 100 acres of beautifully manicured landscape and walking paths aligned with trees. There is even a Roman amphitheater, which in the summer is used for theatrical plays. Walking up to the top of the hill offers a great panoramic view of the city.
In summary, Florence has everything you are looking for in an Italian vacation: great food, great art and great people. It doesn’t take long for the city’s charm to capture your heart and spirit. With half a million inhabitants, it does not overwhelm you like a city such as Rome or Milan (each of which has approximately 4 million people).
I believe Charles Dickens said it best in the “Pictures of Italy” when he wrote “how much beauty is here, when, on a fair clear morning, we look, from the summit of a hill, on Florence! See where it lies before us in a sun-lighted valley, bright with the winding Arno, and shut in by swelling hills; its domes, and towers, and palaces, rising from the rich country in a glittering heap, and shining in the sun like gold!”