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Florence, or Firenze in Italian, is the capital city of the Tuscany region and lies on the banks of the Arno. The city has a population of almost 400,000 people and is the birthplace of the Renaissance. Florence is Italy in miniature: impatient types on scooters toot their way past tourists, magnificent buildings, century-old art and last but not least Italian cuisine.

Florence is also the home of the once powerful Medici family. It's partly due to this historically important family that the city has so many remarkable buildings and works of art by leading artists and musicians like Michelangelo, Brunnelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci. One by one they left their mark on Florence.

The good thing about Florence is that it's a very compact city. The old centre can easily be covered on foot. The most important sights like the Uffizi Gallery, the Dome and Palazzo Vecchio are all located on the north bank of the Arno, which dissects Florence in two. The south bank of the city is linked to the north by the magnificent, world-famous Ponte Vecchio. The beautiful Boboli Gardens, Pitti Palace and San Miniato al Montekerk lie here.

As well as a surfeit of culture, Florence has something else to offer. Excellent shopping. You'll find all the leading Italian fashion labels in Via Tornabuoni: Prada, Armani, Versace and lots of other leading international names. You'll find more craft-type shops at Santa Croce square, along with all sorts of street artists and painters, who offer their work for sale.

All these impressions will probably leave you feeling hungry, and that's a good thing! Florence lies in Italy's culinary centre, Tuscany. You'll find plenty of good restaurants in all price classes throughout the city. The classic Florentine speciality is grilled T-bone steak with lemon. But, as everyone knows, Italian cuisine has lots more tasty delicacies up its sleeve.

History

Florence was founded in 59 AD by Roman soldiers, who named the settlement Florentia, Latin for flowering. By the 3rd century, the city had already become an important trading centre. Barbarian conquerors captured all of Tuscany in 570, and Florence with it. In 774, Charlemagne seized the city and Florence then became part of the Kingdom of France.

Around the 14th century, Florence had become one of the richest cities of the Christian empire. For centuries it was governed by the powerful Medici banking family. The Medici dynasty retained power from the 15th century until 1737. At that time, the Medicis ranked among the most influential of Florence's families and the majority had a deep interest painting, sculpture, architecture and literature. Thanks partly to this, Florence developed into the cultural and intellectual heart of Europe. The city produced many famous artists like Botticelli, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi. Florence's currency, the Golden Florin, was used throughout Europe.

The Medici's power came to an end in 1737, and Austria's Hapsburgs took over. From 1799 to 1814, Tuscany was occupied by Napoleon's troops. Around 1860, Florence became part of the Kingdom of Italy and was temporarily even Italy's capital until 1871.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Florence was hit by both World Wars and suffered greatly at the hands of the fascist leader Mussolini. On August 4 1944 all of Florence's bridges were bombed and only the famous Ponte Vecchio was left unscathed.

During the years that followed WWII, Florence developed increasingly into a modern centre. These days Florence is the centre of the Italian Renaissance, and one of the most impressive cultural centres in the world.