Florence, Italy - What’s its history? Where to visit? Where do you stay?

Ponte Vecchio Picture: Fototeca ENIT; Vito Arcomano
Ponte Vecchio Picture: Fototeca ENIT; Vito Arcomano

Florence is considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance Rebecca Underwood finds out more.

Florence, the capital of the Italian province of Tuscany, was established by Julius Caesar in 59BC as a settlement for veteran soldiers. Considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance it attracts millions of visitors keen to admire its treasures and to explore the historic centre of the city, which was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

Artemisia kitchen

Artemisia kitchen

Crammed with architectural gems and astonishing masterpieces, this small city, located on the banks of the Arno River, features stunning palaces, dating back to the 15th century, beautiful and ornate churches, and a wide choice of museums exhibiting outstanding examples of undisputed talent.

The city’s most popular attractions are located on Piazza del Duomo and include the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, which is known as the Duomo.

Completed in 1436, its magnificent dome, which was built by Brunelleschi, without scaffolding, remains the largest brick and mortar built dome in the world. Hardy souls may choose to climb the 463 interior steps to view the inner case which provides a platform for the timbers supporting the outer shell.

The Baptistry, opposite the cathedral, was constructed between 1059 and 1128 in the Florentine Romanesque style and Lorenzo Ghiberti’s fabulous bronze doors, with relief sculptures, demonstrate the artistic flair that led to the Renaissance. Adjacent to both the Duomo and the Baptistry is the free standing campanile, designed by Giotto. The Gothic tower, which soars up to 85 metres, features elaborate sculptural decorations and marble facings.

Il Palagio

Il Palagio

During the 15th century, Florence was home to the influential Medici family, headed by Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici, a prominent banker and politician and the first member of the family to serve as a de facto ruler. Cosimo was noted for his patronage of culture and the arts and on his death, his son, Piero, followed by his son, Lorenzo, continued to support talents including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli.

To learn more about the Medici’s, visit San Lorenzo, the family’s parish church. The church was rebuilt by Brunelleschi in 1419 in the Renaissance Classical style. In 1520 Michelangelo began work on the Medici tombs and his enormous funerary figures are among his finest works. Michelangelo also designed the Biblioteca Mediceo-Laruenziana to house the family’s vast manuscript collection and the Mannerist peitra serena sandstone staircase is one of his most innovative designs.

To view more treasures, I wandered around the Uffizi gallery, on the Piazzale degli Uffizi. Florence’s most popular art museum contains the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art, bequeathed in 1737 by Anna Maria Lodovica, the last of the Medici family. A labyrinth of rooms displays works by Caravaggio, Raffaello, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Rubens.

Another outstanding masterpiece is housed in the Galleria dell’ Accademia on via Ricasoli. Michelangelo’s colossal Carrara marble sculpture of David, which stands at 17 feet was created between 1501 and 1504. This dazzling piece established Michelangelo’s status as a sculptor of extraordinary talent at the age of 29.

All this exploration takes its toll on the feet and visitors eager to take a break and in search of a true Tuscan dining experience should make haste for the Cibrèo restaurant, a family business, founded in 1979, which is located on Via Andrea del Verrocchio. I dined ‘al fresco’, and sampled the succulent Coniglio Arrosto Farcito (roasted rabbit, deboned, rolled with ground beef, sausage and prosciutto and served with caramelized onions) and the flavours, enhanced by a glass of Balze d’Istrice 2013, were simply sublime.

For those considering where to stay, location is paramount, and Florence provides an extensive choice of luxurious hotels all over the city. However, consider the advantages that renting an apartment offers; the freedom to live without restriction, and to truly relax and feel ‘at home’. I stayed in a spacious two bedroom / two bathroom apartment (measuring 80m2), and located right on the Piazza del Duomo opposite the main entrance to the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. Surprisingly peaceful, and airy and cool, the Artemis apartment is ideal for guests who wish to avoid hotel meal time restrictions and with a huge kitchen with every utensil to hand; it’s easy to whip up a late breakfast. Furnished in a contemporary style, the lounge features comfy sofas, an enormous dining table with a wonderful view of the cathedral through the shuttered windows and the master bedroom offers a stylish and comfortable four poster bed.

In this prime spot there are restaurants and cafés galore but for a very special dining experience Il Pallagio, a Michelin starred restaurant within the Four Seasons Hotel on Borgo Pinti, is perfect. Glittering chandeliers, tables swathed in crisp, white linens, windows dressed with rich elaborate fabrics, tapestries and frescos adorning the walls, this is indeed an exceptional venue. I sampled the chef’s delicious signature dish, Cacio e Pepe Cavatelli: pasta with marinated red prawns and baby squid, and accompanied by a sparkling glass of Cuvée Louise 2004, and all served with the utmost savoir faire, it was simply divine.

Appetite sated, I embarked on a leisurely stroll along the banks of the Arno River and there, spanning the river, the Ponte Vecchio, came into view, and the words of Charles Dickens came to mind…..

‘Among the four old bridges that span the river, the Ponte Vecchio, that bridge which is covered with the shops of jewelers and goldsmiths, is a most enchanting feature in the scene. The space of one house, in the centre, being left open, the view beyond, is shown as in a frame; and that precious glimpse of sky, and water, and rich buildings, shining so quietly among the huddled roofs and gables on the bridge, is exquisite’.

And mesmerised by the view and contemplating on my visit there was only one appropriate response ‘Firenze, Sei Fantastico!’

Accommodation

For more information on the featured apartment visit: halldis.com/florence-apartments/apartment/artemisia-woi

Flights

Take advantage of a punctual and reliable service from either London Heathrow or Gatwick direct to Florence. And for friendly staff, easy check-in procedures and very competitive rates visit britishairways.com

Florence tours

Isango.com is a specialist retailer of tours, experiences and attraction tickets and offers a reliable service with competitive rates for over 300 destinations including Florence. For more information visit localflorencetours.com

European train and coach travel

Download the Trainline Europe app to effortlessly discover and book the best prices on train and coach travel across 36 European countries.

Ground transfers

Book private transfers from and to Florence airport/railway station and take advantage of a reliable and punctual, first class service. Prices are all-inclusive and guaranteed in advance. Visit blacklane.com

Keeping in touch on the move

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