Last Updated on December 21, 2023

From the port of Livornio, a western Italian city on the Ligurian Sea, our train awaits. Surrounded by the beautiful landscapes of Tuscany, Florence is a one-hour ride away. With 160,000 people passing through the Santa Maria Novella Train Station daily, it is one of Italy’s busiest. Look past the buzzing hordes of people to the 1930s Italian modernism.

Just outside the station, major hubs for bus lines pause for day-trippers heading for nearby destinations.

Florence (Firenze) is perhaps the most walkable city in the world. The nearby rolling hills are covered with villas, farms, vineyards, and orchards. History is all around this city filled with art and stunning medieval architecture.

It’s the frescoes on the walls; it’s etched into the cobbled narrow streets and rich culture living through fresh, delicious food. Most importantly, you will find it on the faces of the vibrant people who call this place home.

A Quick History of Florence

Florence was established and founded as a military colony by Julius Caesar in 59 BC. He selected the city for the pleasantness of the area and its ease to defend. Originally, it was named Fluentia due to its location between the Arno and Mugnone rivers.

The name was later changed to Florentia, meaning flowering in Latin, perhaps due to the ordinary process of mispronunciation or maybe because of the successful flowering of the city.

From the 14th to the 16th century, Florence was politically, economically, and culturally one of the most important cities in Europe. After a long period as a Roman city, Florence flourished into a trading and medieval banking community.

It was one of the wealthiest cities of that era as the center of medieval European trade and finance. The city’s primary resource was the nearby Arno River, which provided power and access to the Mediterranean Sea for international trade.

From 1865 to 1871, the city replaced Turin as the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. The first Italian Parliament meeting occurred in Florence.

When Italy was officially unified in 1871, Rome became the capital city and has remained so ever since. Today, Florence is the capital of the Tuscany region and the most populous city with over 380,000 inhabitants.

The Many Cultural Faces of Florence

Amazing architectural buildings of various styles and periods surrounded me with every step I took. Because of its monuments, churches, and building architectures, it has been referred to as “the Athens of the Middle Ages.” Additionally, Forbes magazine ranked it as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Large numbers of Renaissance art-filled churches are situated here. It’s no wonder that Florence is considered the birthplace of Renaissance art. 

Hundreds of famous artists and thinkers have worked and resided here. Most notable were Galileo, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and writers like Dante, Machiavelli, and Ugo Foscolo. Renaissance style art flourished chiefly due to the patronage and financial support of wealthy citizens and the church.

During the Middle Ages, Florence grew into a musical center.

In the mid-16th century, Florentine Camerata, a group of musicians, poets, and intellectuals, experimented with setting music to Greek mythology tales on stage. Thus, the first operas were set into motion.

Later, these developed into separate classical forms, giving birth to the beginnings of the symphony. Today, music and performing arts remain an important part of Florence’s culture.

The lives of musical groups at that time were very comfortable. The government provided them with housing, meals, and clothing. In addition, they were given the right to name their successor and the opportunity to supplement their wages. These positions were considered highly respected and very desirable.

Lorenzo de’ Medici was a gold collector. He was credited with influencing goldsmiths and creating work for them in the 1400s. The quality of work was strictly controlled during that time, creating a long working tradition of quality gold crafting.  A label “Made in Florence” has become one of the most exclusive labels when it comes to fine gold and jewelry.

For thousands of years, Italians have been working with leather and Florence has been  associated with beautifully crafted leather production. One of the city’s most visited churches, the Basilica of Santa Croce, holds leather history helping sustain orphans of war.

After WWII, Franciscan Friars of Santa Croce Monastery and some famous leather crafting families came together. Their mission was to provide WWII orphans the means to learn a practical trade to help them earn a living. This school was called Scoular Del Cuoio.

Amongst the first students were orphans from the town of Pisa.  These students learned to differentiate between various types of leather and methods to cut the leather by hand. They began to create a variety of leather items ranging from handbags and briefcases to other small leather goods.

You can’t go wrong with the food in Florence. It is located in the Tuscany region after all. Orchards of olive trees and grape vines are abundant here. That’s probably why Caesar sent his generals to retire here, to keep them happy, well fed with good wine, and from creating problems in Rome.

10 Things to Do in Florence

The Piazza Del Duomo

Known as the Cathedral Square and located in the historic center of one of the most visited places in Europe, this plaza contains the Florence Cathedral or Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, an elaborate gothic style architecture building. Construction began in 1296 and completed in 1436. It’s a 15-minute walk from the train station

The basilica exterior has marbled panels in various shades of pink and green, bordered with white.

Another notable building there is Opera Del Duomo Museum or Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo. This building is committed to the conservation of the Duomo and other art works. Here, you can find great masterpieces of Michelangelo, Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia, and many others.

Cupola Duomo

If you are afraid of heights and dark narrow places, this one is not for you. Climbing to the top of Santa Maria Del Fiore dome, aka Cupola Duomo, is physically challenging, but worth it.

In 1418, Filippo Brunelleschi built one of the most significant architectural achievements of the entire Renaissance.

The stairs will bring you up close to admire Giorgio Vasari’s Last Judgement frescoes. After ascending 463 steep steps, you will be rewarded with an extraordinary view of Florence.

Piazza Della Signoria

Piazza Della Signoria is an L-shaped plaza. This impressive 14th century plaza holds the town hall, Palazzo Vecchio, built in Romanesque style. A replica of the David statue stands at this plaza along with surrounding old medieval buildings and other countless statues. 

After the exile of the last of the Medici rule, a Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola became famous for his penitential sermons. He attacked what he viewed as widespread immorality and attachment to material riches. He celebrated the exile of Medici indicating that it was the right for God to punish them for their decadence.

After publicly accusing Pope Alexander VI of corruption, he was banned from public speaking. The friar was excommunicated when he broke this ban. Florentines grew tired of his extreme teachings, turned on him, and had him arrested.

Savonarola was then convicted as a heretic and on May 23, 1498, was burned at the stake at the Piazza Della Signoria.

Piazza Santa Croce

Piazza Santa Croce is another main plaza located in Florence’s central neighborhood. Named after one of the most beautiful churches located there, the Basilica of Santa Croce and its 16 chapels.

Many illustrious Italians such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Ugo Foscolo, and more are buried there. Thus, it is known as the Temple of the Italian Glories.

As you continue through the church you will find desk-like work stations set up along one side of a long hallway. Without recognizing it, you just stumbled into Santa Croce’s Leather School.

After WWII, a partnership was forged between the Santa Croce’s Franciscan monks and two of Florence’s most respected leather-working families. Their goal was to assist war orphans and give them opportunities to learn the trade that would also sustain them.

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio (translation: Old Bridge), believed to be built in Roman times, was the only bridge in the area that was not destroyed during WWII.

As part of the Italian Social Republic, Florence was under German occupation between 1943 and 1944. In July 1944, as British 8th Army troops closed in, retreating Germans demolished all the bridges along the Arno river.

The Ponte Vecchio was spared, according to locals and tour guides, because of an express order from Hitler himself. Apparently, he liked it. It had always hosted shops and merchants who displayed their goods on tables in front of their premises built along the bridge.

Today you will find most shops are either jewelry or leather craft works for sale there.

The Oltrarno Quarter

The Oltrarno Quarter is across the River Arno and away from the busy downtown area. The name means “beyond the Arno.”

This neighborhood possesses a more authentic and calmer scene. Full of locals, restaurants, cafes, and bars, it is a good place to escape the crowds of tourists.

Piazza Santo Spirito

Piazza Santo Spirito, an iconic plaza, holds a big market on weekends. During the evenings, approximately 1,000 (mostly young) people gather in the square with wine and food to socialize.

In the nearby church, Basilica di Santo Spirito, an original wooden crucifix is placed over the high altar. This was considered one of the earliest works sculpted by Michelangelo.

Stroll Along the River

Stroll beside the river and see Firenze from a different perspective. Gorgeous palace facades on both sides as the river leads you toward Piazzale Michelangelo.

Providing the best view of the Ponte Vecchio, this was the only bridge over Arno in Florence until 1218. Since the 13th century, shops have been positioned on this bridge. Initially those were butchers, fishmongers and later, tanners until 1593.

That was when King Ferdinand I issued that only goldsmiths and jewelers were permitted to have shops on the bridge. A decision based on ridding industrial waste on the river and for the well-being of all who walk the bridge.

Piazzale Michelangelo

Up on the hill is the Piazzale Michelangelo where stunning panoramic views capture the heart of Florence. A bronze replica of the statue David can be found here, thus the name of the plaza.

This plaza can be accessed by car along a tree-lined Viale Michelangelo, or by walking stairs.

The Boboli Gardens

The Boboli Gardens are located near the Piazzale Michelangelo. This giant open-air garden/museum complex with walkways meandering through statues of various styles from several periods. One of which is the Fountain of Neptune, built between 1565-1568 by Stoldo Lorenzi.  Featured inside a large basin of water, the bronze statue of Neptune symbolizes Florence’s command of the Mediterranean.

Providing the inspiration for many European courts, the Boboli Gardens is one of the first and most crucial examples of the “Italian Garden” style.

Special to by Marilou Trias.

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