The most beautiful city in Italy? Perhaps. For more than 2000 years Florence (or Firenze) has been an important centre in this part of Italy, not just a capital of Tuscany, but briefly (from 1865 to 1870) also capital of the infant Kingdom of Italy. And it was in the 19th century that foreigners first began to rhapsodise its charms. For English poets and writers, such as the Brownings and EM Forster, Florence was a refreshing counter to the stolidity of Anglo-Saxon life.
This was the city of Dante Alighieri, Boccaccio and Michelangelo, of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Donatello, and also of Galileo, Machiavelli and the Medicis. An extraordinary fusion of artistic creativity, political sophistication and scientific progress, this was in short the cradle of the Renaissance ... most of what we now value as European high culture was born here.
And the fruits of that Renaissance are extant in Florence today, in superb museums and galleries such as the Bargello and the Uffizi, the Accademia and Santa Croce. In beautiful structures such as Brunelleschi's towering Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti. History, culture and art is everywhere in Florence.
Must sees include the Uffizi of course. One of the world's great art galleries and museums, it was begun for Cosimo I de Medici in 1560. The 'U' shaped structure was once the offices (or 'uffizi') of the Medici administration. Each generation of Medici added to the family's extraordinary personal art collection, which was then housed in the Uffizi. The collection was bequeathed to the people of Florence - the condition being that it could never leave the city. In the 19th century, much of the statuary was transferred to the Bargello and other pieces to the Museo Archeologico.
The remaining collection is a stunning set of paintings and sculpture ... too much to see in one visit. There are 45 rooms, with entire rooms devoted to Rembrandt, to Veronese, to Tintoretto and to Leonardo. Botticelli alone has five rooms. There is a room devoted to Flemish and German painting, one to the Siena school of the 14th century. The delights go on and on.
Equally essential during your time in Florence is a visit to the Accademia (Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze), if only because this is the home to Michelangelo's David - perhaps the most famous single statue in world art. There is of course much more. There is a small collection of works by Michelangelo, and some important pieces of Renaissance art. The focus here is on major Florentine painters from the 15th and 16th centuries, among them Andrea del Sarto, Sandro Botticelli, Paolo Uccello and Domenico Ghirlandaio. We have Giambologna's cast for 'Rape of the Sabine Women', some good Florentine Gothic pieces and (a rather pleasant surprise) some Russian ikons.
With so much to see, of course, there is much to be missed. Here's where an expert guide comes in, and there are some very good art tours of Florence, taking in the major works, led by qualified bilingual guides. Having suffered gallery fatigue (intense concentration on the first two rooms, then drift off for a cappuccino) we cannot recommend these highly enough. There is also a good selection of walking tours around Florence - much of the art and history is outside the museums after all, in the fabric of the streets and buildings. Grab a stout pair of walking shoes and check out the Michelangelo tour, which takes in Buonarotti's House, the Bargello, the Church of San Lorenzo, the Accademia and more.
And there is 'the religious heart of Florence tour', a trip to the three crucial churches in Florentine history, and seen as symbols of Wealth and Faith. You'll start at the Franciscan Basilica of the Holy Cross, thence to the Duomo and finally on to the Dominican Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. Other fascinating tours include 'Florence, Religion and Politics', 'Technique, Art and Science in Florence in the 1600s' and 'Life and amusement in the Royal Palace'.