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Markets, Michelangelo and meandering in Italy

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Haggling in the leather market: Every day, the streets around the Mercato Centrale and San Lorenzo are filled with proprietors hawking marbleized paper, knockoff Gucci silk scarves, T-shirts emblazoned with Michelangelo's "David", and wallets, purses, jackets, and other leather products galore. All the stall keepers promise "the lowest prices in Florence." That so-called lowest price is usually far from it, and the best part of shopping here is using every bargaining trick in the book to drive the "lowest price" even lower.

Enjoying a three-hour dinner: A simple pleasure, but one that can make for a most memorable evening. Good friends, good conversation, and good wine can easily extend a meal for hours, and the Italian dinner is a perfect excuse and vehicle, what with four or five major courses, big pauses in between, and cheese, dessert, coffee, and "digestivo" liqueur all lined up at the end.

Hiking the hills of Florence: The walk from Florence up to Fiesole is famous enough to earn a scene in the movie adaptation of E. M. Forster's "A Room with a View" (even if they cheated and took carriages). But don't neglect the hills of San Miniato and Bellosguardo that rise south of the Arno; the views over the city here are closer at hand, and the land is less developed.

Staring up at the Gates of Paradise: In 1401, young Lorenzo Ghiberti won a sculpture competition to craft the doors of Florence's Baptistery. Fifty-one years later, he completed his second and final set, boosting the Gothic language of three dimensions into a Renaissance reality of invented space and narrative line. Art historians consider that 1401 competition to be the founding point of the Renaissance. Michelangelo looked at the doors and simply declared them "so beautiful they would grace the entrance to Paradise."

Celebrating the Festival of Gioco di Calcio: First, divide the city into its traditional neighborhoods, cover Piazza Santa Croce with dirt, and don Renaissance costumes. Next, combine two parts soccer, one part rugby, one part football, and a heaping helping of ice-hockey attitude. This game, in which a few dozen men forget all the rules as they do anything they can to score goals, makes regular soccer look like croquet on Quaaludes. Give the winners a whole calf to roast in the streets and write it all off in honor of St. John the Baptist.

Seeing the quintessential man, David: Michelangelo's "David" in the Galleria dell'Accademia is the perfect Renaissance nude, a masterpiece of sculpture, an icon of homosexual camp, and symbol of Italy itself.

Seeing masterpieces at the Gallerie degli Uffizi: The Uffizi is one of the world's great museums, and the single best introduction to Renaissance painting, with works by Giotto, Masaccio, Paolo Uccello, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Perugino, Michelangelo, Raphael Sanzio, Titian, Caravaggio, and the list goes on. The museum is deceptively small. What looks like a small stretch of gallery space can easily gobble up half a day — many rooms suffer the fate of containing nothing but masterpieces. Don't miss Sandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus". The goddess of love is born from the sea; a beauty drawn in the flowing lines and limpid grace of one of the most elegant masters of the early Renaissance.

Meandering around the Piazza del Duomo: The cathedral square is filled with tourists and caricature artists during the day, strolling crowds in the early evening, and knots of students strumming guitars on the Duomo's steps at night. Though it's always crowded, the piazza's vivacity and the glittering facades of the cathedral and the baptistery doors keep it an eternal Florentine sight.

Walking across the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge): The oldest and most famous bridge across the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio we know today was built in 1345 by Taddeo Gaddi to replace an earlier version. The characteristic overhanging shops have lined the bridge since at least the 12th century. In the 16th century, it was home to butchers until Cosimo I moved into the Palazzo Pitti across the river. He couldn't stand the stench as he crossed the bridge from on high in the Corridorio Vasariano every day, so he evicted the meat cutters and moved in the classier gold- and silversmiths, tradesmen who occupy the bridge to this day.

Strolling through the Piazza della Signoria: The monumental heart of Florence (and Tuscany's most famous square) is an open-air museum of sculpture, dominated by Michelangelo's David (a copy of the original, which used to stand here). The powerful mass of the Palazzo Vecchio dominates one end of the square; another is defined by the 14th-century Loggia della Signoria, filled with ancient and Renaissance statues (the most celebrated being Bevenuto Cellini's Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa).

For a complete listing of what to see and do in Florence, visit the online attractions index at

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