Just 170 miles north of Rome, the city of Florence—a product of the Renaissance rediscovery of antiquity—willfully differs from its counterpart. Whereas Rome thrives on coarse, boundless disarray, Florence shines with refined, deliberate order. Rome is hustle. Florence is finesse.
Florence’s defining landmark is the Duomo. Located in the historic center, the immense cathedral, which dates to 1296, initially sat for over a century without a roof, because no one could figure out how to erect a large enough dome to top its 180-foot high walls. Rain poured in. At last, a design contest was held, and a pushy goldsmith with zero architectural experience won. Brunelleschi’s revolutionary engineering scheme used brick and stone in place of the traditional wooden framework. The cupola remains an enduring symbol of the faith in ideas and ingenuity that started here in the 14th century.
Tourism in the Tuscan capital has exploded in recent years. But Florence being Florence, the city has taken steps to mitigate the crush. Exploring the Uffizi Gallery used to mean surrendering three hours to an interminable line. Now you can buy tickets in advance to skip the wait by using a separate entrance.
“Florence can feel a little like Disneyland, with everyone swarming around the square and going to see the Duomo,” Parla says. “But just behind it is this spectacular museum, the Opera del Duomo, which contains the original art that used to be in the Duomo. What you see in the cathedral are just copies.” The originals on display include Donatello’s Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene sculpture and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, the gilded bronze doors that previously stood at the east entrance of the Baptistery of San Giovanni.