Most visitors are overwhelmed by the artistic opulence of Florence and spend their visit dashing from one masterpiece to the next, dazzled by an excess of genius. It's understandable: the cradle of the Renaissance and home of the Medici family (Italy's most progressive art patrons) houses some of the world's greatest treasures.
Above all, Florence is incredibly beautiful. A cluster of russet roofs and Renaissance splendours, the Tuscan city is set amongst the wine-growing hills of Chianti. Gawp at ancient palaces, curvaceous domes, beautiful basilicas stuffed with fine art and world-class art galleries like the Uffizi.
With its historic centre classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, there's plenty to see. The only flip side to this stupendous coin are hoards of tourists and attendant touts, buzzing like bees around the cultural honeypot, if you visit during the summer.
Although the city’s history dates back to the Roman era, when it was designed as a garrison settlement, the majority of Florence was built during the Renaissance. Despite this, traces of medieval, baroque, neoclassical and modern architecture can be found.
Dominating the historical centre of the city is the Duomo, or the city's Cathedral, a landmark of elegance and beauty. The River Arno, which cuts through the oldest part of the city, is crowned with the Ponte Vecchio bridge lined with shops and held up by stilts. Dating back to the 14th century, it is the only bridge that survived attacks during WWII. Standing by the river at night, when the city is illuminated with a myriad twinkling lights, is unforgettable.
If you want to get away from the crowds and the millions who descend on the city in the summer, head south where there are hills, gardens and churches. Walk up San Miniato hill topped with a Romanesque church but more importantly offering superb views of Florence and the glistening Arno.
To view the Tuscan capital through the mere prism of history however is to do it a great disservice as Florence is also an eminently dynamic and cosmopolitan city, with gastronomic experiences that include everything from quaint cafes to highly acclaimed restaurants. Eating a gelato – a Florentine institution elevated almost to an art form – is also seriously worth indulging in.
Another measure of its charms is its fashion houses. Gucci, Robert Cavalli, Prada and Chanel are among the leading designers who are either headquartered in the city, or who have large offices and stores in or near Florence. Many fashionistas head for Via de’ Tornabuoni for upmarket labels. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the city’s abundance of markets are also worth exploring for their riot of colours and smells. In particular, the San Lorenzo Market, stretching from Piazza San Lorenzo to Via dell’Ariento, in the historical centre of the city, is fun to meander through.
Whilst there is much in Florence to occupy first-time visitors for several days, those wishing to venture further afield have plenty of choice – from medieval Siena to the lush olive groves of Fiesole.