THE birthplace of Michelangelo, da Vinci and the Renaissance, UNESCO-listed Florence is the cultural hub of central Italy. Framed by Italy’s major mountain chains, “the cradle of the Renaissance” is the capital of Tuscany and ticks the boxes as an international tourist hotspot.

Visitors are widely attracted to Florence’s numerous art museums, monuments and galleries, its stylish fashions, and extensive menu of Italian cuisine. The city is within comfortable travel distance of some of Italy’s most dramatic countryside, with the province spanning across the Italian Alps and Tuscany’s famed vineyards.

Florence has an artistic and architectural heritage envied across the globe. Combined with its subtropical Mediterranean climate, it is easy to see why Forbes named it one of the world’s most beautiful cities in 2010.

Art and culture
Many of Florence’s most noted sites were built during a period of “cultural rebirth” (the Renaissance) between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. Best explored on foot, the city’s oldest sites – including the domed Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) and the Piazza della Signoria, with the Fountain of Neptune marble sculpture and its still-functioning Roman aqueduct – are enclosed within Medieval walls, built as the city’s defence.

The Duomo, constructed by engineer Filippo Brunelleschi, is one of the world’s most coveted examples of gothic architecture. Built across 140 years – from 1296 to 1436 – the Duomo is comprised of a basilica and cathedral complex, and its red-roofed cupola is still the world’s largest brick dome some 600 years after it was built.

The building’s exterior façade is decorated with white, green and pink marble panels, while the vast, empty interior features noted artworks and sculptures such as di Michelino’s Dante Before the City of Florence, Uccello’s Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood and del Castagno’s
Equestrian statue of Niccolò da Tolentino.

The interior also has 44 stained glass windows and a crypt dedicated to Florentine bishops within its underground vaults. A winding staircase to the top of the dome provides visitors with 360 degree views of Florence’s rooftops.

The Galleria degli Uffizi (the Uffizi Museum) and Galleria dell’Accademia (Gallery of the Academy of Florence) are similarly popular, evidenced by famously long queues. The museums hold some of the oldest and most famous art pieces in Europe. Accademia’s drawcard is Michelangelo’s masterpiece The Statue of David. Uffizi is a palace of hallways and internal courtyards, displaying some of the world’s greatest Renaissance art including Botticelli’s Primavera and The Birth of Venus; da Vinci’s The Annunciation; Rembrandt’s self portraits; and Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch and Portrait of Leo X.

Florence’s famed Ponte Vecchio, a segmented stone bridge arching the River Arno, is a merchant bridge used since Medieval times to sell goods. Although originally occupied by butchers, Ponte Vecchio is now prime real estate for high-end European fashion and couture. Florence is also popular for its fine leather wares, with tourists frequenting the city’s many tanneries for reasonably priced, genuine leather furniture, jackets, boots and accessories.

Food and wine
Food and wine have long been important staples of the Florentine economy, and are characterised by simple but high quality ingredients. Grilled meat and legumes, mild cheeses, breads, fruit and extra virgin olive oil form the basis of most dishes.
Affettati Misti, a traditional cold meat antipasto, is often served for an appetiser or light meal, with meats arranged with crisp salad leaves. Baskets of crusty bread and a deep dish of olive oil usually accompany the meal.

Steak Florentine is also typical to the city, including many versions of roasted beef or wine-braised game such as boar, deer or rabbit. As the capital of Tuscany – one of the great wine-growing regions in the world – Florentine meals have a heavy emphasis on wine, particularly the celebrated Chianti
Classico from the Chianti Rufina district in the province’s south. The city is also famed for its premium gelatos. While this creamy dessert is native to Sicily, gelatarias can be found on almost every street corner in Florence.
A delicious and creative range of flavours are available for sampling – from the basic lemon, coconut, Nutella or pistachio, to the exotic hot-cross bun, banoffee pie, cinnamon donut or profiterole.

Getting there
Florence is very easy to access from almost any major hub in Europe, with direct flights available from 28 cities as well as an extensive intercontinental rail network. Australian nationals can enter Italy without a visa for a period of up to 90 days, provided commercial accommodation is used.

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