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Florence (Firenze) is the capital and principal city of Italy’s Tuscany region. The city of Florence covers almost 40 square miles, and is divided into five main “districts”: Centro storico / the historic center; Campo de Marte; Gavinana-Galluzzo; Isolotto-Legnaia; and Rifredi.
The historic central district is where most of the tourist-related action happens in Florence. In fact, UNESCO designated the Historic Centre of Florence as a “World Heritage Site” in 1982. Between the 14th and the 17th centuries, this area was filled with prestigious buildings built by bankers and princes. Many of those buildings still stand today.
The Duomo or Basilica of St. Mary of the Flowers is the centerpiece of this historic district. The area is saturated with tourist hotels, which is convenient because it’s also halfway between the much-visited Uffizi Galleries and the Ponte Vecchio across the Arno, home to jewelry shops and art galleries; a short distance away is the Accademia Gallery, where the world-famous statue of Michelangelo’s David stands.
Piazza della Signoria, where the Uffizi Galleries are located, is full of cultural activity, and a good starting destination for touring the many museums nearby – the Pitti Palace is also nearby.
Food markets fill the “Mercato Centrale,” between the train station (Santa Maria Novella) and the Duomo, in the area called “San Lorenzo,” based again on a significant church in the area, dating back to the Medicis and Renaissance Florence. There’s much shopping here, from food to souvenirs.
On the western edge of the historic district, Santa Maria Novella has two characters: the gritty look and feel around the city’s main train station and the nicer section, between it and the Arno river. There are some fancy hotels in the area with good reputations, and nightlife in and around the Piazza of the same name; but consider your options carefully – not all of them are nice.
To the eastern edge of the historic district is the Piazza Santa Croce. The church for which it is named has lots of famous art; and there’s a true neighborhood around it, much of it circa World War II, though the roots of this neighborhood go back to an ancient Roman amphitheater built in the area. If you want to feel like a resident, not a tourist – spend time here. The area is also known for its good restaurants.
The “Oltrarno” – the area “across the Arno” – though physically separated, was included within the 14th century walls built to enclose the city. Its background is artisans, craftspeople and aristocrats. It’s also where the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens are located. Its central Piazza Santo Spirito is filled with restaurants and nightlife of varying degrees of quality.
Moving on to the other four regions in the city, Campo di Marte was built in the early 1800s for training the Tuscan army, after the Napoleonic occupation. In the 1930s, major sports facilities were built in this area, including several important stadiums (including for soccer), a large municipal pool and the Nelson Mandela forum, an indoor sports arena.
Gavinana/Galluzzo, on the left bank of the Arno and bordering on the city of Bagno a Ripoli, has earlier historic roots, going back to the 10th century. There’s some significant Renaissance art here as well. The Church of Santa Maria in Ricorboli, from the 14th century, has an altarpiece attributed to Giotto; and there’s an important foundation for the study of art history (the Longhi foundation) here too. The area was strongly affected by the Florentine flood in 1966.
Isolotto/Legnaia, to the southwest of the city, is filled with planned homes for the working class from the 20th century, in an area previously used for industry in the 19th century, and before that, for agriculture.
Rifredi, on the northwest border of the city, is a fairly large district, with Roman roots, and a parish church dating back to the 11th century. It’s often overlooked by tourists because there are no particularly famous monuments, churches or museums, but there are some cultural attractions, including outdoor theater.