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Florence was the birthplace of the European Renaissance in the 14th Century. By the time it ended, an entire continent had been ushered through the Dark Ages and into a vibrant world full of indescribable artistic beauty. The achievements of the Renaissance have been preserved and lovingly cared for by the city, and today a visit to Italy is not complete without paying homage to Florence.

The Medici family was largely responsible for the flourishing of Florence (Firenze in Italian). Through its leadership and patronage, artists like Botticelli and Michelangelo were encouraged to produce masterpieces like the Birth of Venus and David. Advancements in architecture, the likes of which hadn't been seen before in Europe, led to the construction of the Duomo's dome and Grotto's bell tower.

But before you think that Florence is a city trapped in the past, know that it is a highly modernized Italian town, with most locals navigating the swamped city streets with cell phones in hand. They are sometimes exasperated by the influx of tourists, particularly in the summer, but they have come to accept tourism as a necessary evil that provides a healthy boom to the Florentine economy.

Florence has also emerged as one of the leading shopping and dining destinations in Italy, if not in all of Europe. While Milan and Rome best Florence in the sheer number of shops and restaurants, respectively, a case can be made for Florence's quality, especially when it comes to Florentine leather and jewelry and Tuscan wine.

A word about street addresses in Florence. Visitors are often confused because addresses seem to overlap. The city has designated that commercial enterprises be numbered in red, and all others in black. All addresses listed in this guide are in black unless otherwise noted. Be sure to purchase a map while in town to help you get around

Docking & Local Transportation
Cruise ships dock at the Port of Livorno, with transportation available at the dock to take you into the heart of Florence.

Although Florence is a large metropolitan city, the city's layout allows for a majority of attractions to be viewed on foot. There are many pedestrian-only zones in the area, and signs are posted everywhere to direct you to various attractions. Make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes, as you'll be covering lots of ground.

Taxis (055/4390 or 055/4242) are ubiquitous, especially in the vicinity of the larger tourist attractions. Buses are also everywhere, but routes change almost daily, and if you're not careful, you'll end up on the wrong route. Bicycles and scooters are available for rent, but only for people who are very confident in their riding abilities. The streets of Florence are difficult to maneuver, and sometimes it seems like traffic is coming at you from every direction.

Local Interests
The biggest problem facing travelers in Florence is how to fit all there is to see here into a single day. For that reason, the focus of this guide will be on the three biggest attractions in Florence, places that you simply cannot miss, just in case you never get the chance to come back.

Simply stated, the Uffizi Gallery (Piazzale degli Uffizi 6, 055/238-8651) is one of the best art galleries in the world. You could spend a month in this single museum and still not have the time to fully appreciate each piece of art. The collection was a gift from the Medici family to the people of Florence after the family had been collecting the pieces for over three hundred years. There are forty-five rooms bursting with paintings from some of the finest Renaissance artists, including Botticelli, da Vinci, Raphael, and Rembrandt. The Uffizi is always packed, and purchasing tickets in advance to avoid waiting in line is advised.

The Academy Gallery (Via Ricasoli 60, 055/238-8609) seems fairly unremarkable when compared to the Uffizi. But the Academy holds the trump card: Michelangelo's David. The statue once stood in Piazza della Signoria with common statues before being moved in 1873 to its own throne here. David is simply awe-inspiring, much bigger in real life than most people imagine. There are other Michelangelo sculptures at the gallery, but much as one goes to the Louvre in Paris to see the Mona Lisa, you will want to spend the majority of your time here marveling at Michelangelo's masterpiece.

The Duomo (Piazza del Duomo, 055/230-2885) is one of the crown jewels of Florentine architecture and one of the largest churches in the world. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, it took centuries to complete, with construction beginning in 1296 and the finishing touches applied in the 1800s. It takes time and effort to climb up to the top of the cathedral, but you'll be rewarded with a beautiful panoramic vista of the entire city.

Florence is world famous for fine leather and gold jewelry. As such, you will a find a wide selection in any of Florence's fine stores. Interestingly, similar shops seem to cluster around each other. The jewelry district is in Ponte Vecchio. Leather abounds around Via dei Tornabuoni, while Via Maggio is Florence's antique alley.

Souvenir shoppers will be satisfied at Balatresi Gift Shop (Lungarno Acciaiuoli 22 Red, 055/287-851). Handmade ceramics and Tuscan glass make this a one-stop souvenir shop. Leather accessories such as purses, wallets, and suitcases can be had at reasonable prices at Cellerini (Via del Sole 37 Red, 055/282-533). And for Gucci (Via Tornabuoni 37 Red, 055/264-011) devotees, you will find a wide selection of the name brand's products at much better prices than you'll find anywhere in the States.

Dining & Nightlife
In downtown Florence, try Oliviero (Via delle Terme 51 Red, 055/287-643). The sirloin steak in Chianti sauce is good enough to satisfy Hannibal Lecter's tastes! Near the Duomo, Vecchia Firenze (Borgo degli Albizi 18 Red, 055/234-0361) is a great place to enjoy the rich Florentine atmosphere at bargain rates. Grilled rabbit is excellent here, if you can stomach the thought. If you're looking for a more upscale meal, visit I Quattro Amici (Via degli Orti Oricellari 29, 055/215-413) near Santa Maria Novella. The name of the restaurant means The Four Friends, and is named for the four co-owners of the restaurant. The owners camaraderie extends to the patrons here, as the fine seafood flows as freely as the wine. If you happen to visit during the weekend, stick around for live music. Da Foffo (Via Ferroni 3, 055/876-029) has a wide selection of Italian favorites. Be sure not to miss the pizza with porcini mushrooms. Alle Murate (Via Ghibellina 52 Red, 055/240-618) has a Tuscan specific menu, with excellent Florentine steak, although truth be told, Florentine steak is good no matter which restaurant you visit.

Time must be taken to sample Florentine gelato. Once you try Italian ice cream, you will want to savor some after every meal, knowing that the chance to taste heaven on earth is rare. Although you will not go wrong at any gelateria (even the worst of them are better than the best American parlors), the cream of the ice cream crop is Gelateria Vivoli (Via Isola delle Stinche 7 Red, 055/292-334). There are so many flavors to choose from, ranging from chocolate mousse to fig to eggnog. Try a candied orange peel with chocolate ice cream piled on for a real treat!

Florence's nightlife is vibrant, with choices ranging from masterpiece theater to all-night dance clubs. Fans of the former can find their fill at the Teatro Comunale di Firenze/Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Corso Italia 16, 800/112-211). The theater runs all year except for August, with ballet, opera, theater, and concerts on the schedule. Call ahead for program and ticket information.

Meccano (Viale degli Olmi 1, 055/331-371) is a mecca for Florentine club-hoppers. The club is packed all night, especially during the busy summer months. Space Electronic (Via Palazzuolo 37, 055/293-082) is a little "out there", especially in terms of décor. For a quieter evening at a nice bar, try the Donatello Bar (Hotel Excelsior, Piazza Ognissanti 3, 055/264-201).

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