By Suzanne Bopp
See high art and savor homemade pasta — Florence and its surrounding towns and hills are a sensual feast.
From its rolling hills dotted with clusters of tall, narrow cypress trees, to its terraced olive groves growing on rustic farms to its small medieval towns surrounding charming, timeless piazzas — perfect for relaxing and sipping an afternoon limoncello — Tuscany is an Italian reverie. Its feels both vibrant and ancient, and it looks like a postcard at every turn.
The world flocks to Tuscany, in central Italy, alongside the Ligurian Sea, for its art and history, food, wine and landscape. Tuscany is home to famous attractions such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Siena’s medieval buildings, the walled city of Lucca and the Chianti wine region.
A visit to a vineyard is an essential Tuscan experience, as is dipping a toe into the sea at one of Tuscany’s many beaches and soaking up history at sites like Vie Cave, where the ancient Etruscans dug down into the earth to create roads; you can lose hours meandering between its high walls. Pedal a bicycle through green hills in the soft afternoon sunshine — some say the light is the secret of Tuscany’s ethereal ambiance. Florence, the jewel in Tuscany’s crown, is the perfect place to start exploring.
Florence’s city center — one of Tuscany’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites — is a monument to history. Stroll the medieval maze of streets and it’s not hard to imagine running into Galileo, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Machiavelli or Dante, just a few of the giants of art, science and literature who called Florence home.
The birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence was founded as a Roman military colony in the first century BC. After surviving various invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire, Florence became a center of culture and commerce during the 14th through 16th centuries. Museums, churches and monuments were built — works of art themselves, they soon housed more works of art.
The most famous building is the Duomo, which dominates the city skyline: a vast Gothic structure built over two centuries, filled with mosaics and frescoes. You can climb 463 steps to the top of its enormous red-tiled dome — still the biggest brick and mortar dome in the world. When construction began late in the 13th century, no one knew if it was possible to build a dome so large. Continue your exploration of the historical center from here; Dante’s House Museum is just around the corner as well as a labyrinth of classic, narrow Florence streets, lined with small shops.
Make your way to Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence’s historic center, and the only one not destroyed by the Germans in World War ll. It’s the perfect place to head as the sun sets. It’s lined with fine jewelry shops — in 1593, the Grand Duke of Tuscany proclaimed that only jewelers, goldsmiths and silversmiths could have shops on the bridge.
Florence is synonymous with art, home to the best Renaissance art in Europe. Medieval and Renaissance painters and sculptors created countless masterpieces in their time that now fill churches, museums, galleries, fountains and squares throughout the city.
One of the most famous attractions for art lovers is just a few minutes’ walk from the Ponte Vecchio: the Uffizi Gallery. It’s among the world’s oldest art galleries, housing the world’s finest collection of Italian Renaissance painting, including early Leonardo da Vinci paintings, Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and Caravaggio’s “Medusa.”
Another must is the Accademia Gallery, where you can stand in awed wonder and gaze up at Michelangelo’s David, glowing beneath a circular skylight.
Michelangelo himself was an admirer of the Gates of Paradise, panels created by Lorenzo Ghiberti in the mid-15th century. When Michelangelo first saw the doors, he reportedly said they were fit to adorn the gates of heaven itself. Made from bronze, standing over 16 feet tall, the 10 panels each display a different scene from the Bible. Today, replicas stand at the Duomo Baptistery; the originals are in the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo.
Not surprisingly, performing arts thrive here too. Crowds head to the opera house — opera was born in Florence, it’s said — and dance, music, cinema and theater fill venues, and sometimes even the city squares.
Food and wine indulgences
Start a day of exploring Florence like a real Italian: with a cappuccino and an Italian croissant. Florentines like them filled with jam, honey or chocolate.
Italians, famously, take their food seriously and spend a lot of time both discussing and consuming it. Local and seasonal food here are not mere slogans. The cuisine in Tuscany reflects the ethos of the region; you’ll find dishes that are rustic, simple and flavorful.
Because Tuscany is home to many small family farms and herds of livestock, it’s fitting that a signature offering is a steak: bistecca alla fiorentina. The meat comes from Chianina cattle, one of the oldest breeds in existence. They originated in Italy and were models for Roman sculptures. The steak is always on the bone, grilled over a fire, sprinkled with salt and pepper and traditionally served still pink inside. Sold by weight, these steaks are huge — consider sharing.
Tuscans are also enthusiastic hunters; you’ll see rabbit and venison on many menus. Pappardelle al cinghiale is a local favorite. Pappardelle is a wide, flat pasta that’s often matched with a heavy sauce. Cinghiale is wild boar; its meat boasts a rich flavor that makes for a hearty, satisfying ragu.
Pair your pappardelle with one of the many great wines Tuscany is justly famous for. This is home to the region of Chianti, which produces Italy’s most renowned red wine and claims to be the oldest defined wine region in the world. Anywhere in Tuscany, order the house wine and you likely won’t be disappointed.
Save room for dessert. Italy is famous for gelato, and Florence is said to have some of the country’s best (also to have been the site of its invention during the Renaissance). Seek out small batch proprietors with signs that say “Gelato Artigianale” — artisanal gelato. Load up a cone with creamy scoops of pistachio, salted caramel or ricotta with fig and savor it as you stroll into the Florentine night air.
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