For many, Florence ranks as the art center of the universe – it’s certainly filled with some of the greatest murals, paintings, and sculpture in Western Civilization – and no trip to Italy, or Europe, for that matter, can be deemed comprehensive unless you've spent at least a few days exploring the streets, art museums, gardens, and villas of this Northern Italian city. 

The center of the Italian Renaissance art movement, Michelangelo's adopted hometown, the birthplace of modern politics, the source of modern-day credit . . . . Florence is all of these and more. Even the city’s appearance is unique: Deep scarlets and brilliant crimsons cover the walls, ceilings, and roofs, so that, from the air, and nearby hill towns, the city resembles a vast, dazzling, red-and-gold mosaic.

What’s more, few places can claim to be as unchanged as Florence since the 15th century. 21st-century visitors can still experience a swath of history, art, and culture in one afternoon here that’s unmatched elsewhere in the world. The effect can be overwhelming – and transforming. Just witness the impact the city had on the fictional characters of E.M. Forester and Henry James; in the shadows of the Duomo, in the beauty of the narrow streets and the grand, formal Piazza della Signoria, they discovered passion, violence, art, ecstasy, romance – and sometimes, even themselves.

Indeed, Firenze, as its known in Italian (for “Flowery One”), tends to enlighten just about any traveler. There are must-see museums like the Uffizi, spectacular art in churches like the Santa Croce and San Lorenzo, and even doorways, like those of the Baptistery, are considered major works of art. Architectural masterpieces also abound everywhere you turn, beginning with the huge and famous Duomo that dominates the city. And, to cap it all off, the city is renowned for producing some of the world’s finest leather, gold, and stationary goods.

Slideshow: A European tour A three-day visit will give you a solid grasp of Florence's art and architecture, a handful of its major attractions, and Tuscan cuisine. A week should get you outside Florence to the hill towns, where more art, superb valley views, and more good food abounds.

Florence is easy to explore on foot. Plan on spending most of your time exploring the city’s bounty of museums and galleries and superlative churches; you can take a break in one of Florence’s attractive piazzas or gardens. You can make it happen by plane or package tour; great hotels abound in the city, as do excellent restaurants in all price ranges. And if you’re staying for longer than three days, head out of town on fun day trips.

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