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Florence, Italy: 6 Must-Dos for a Vacation

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I have been visiting Florence on and off for 30 years, working on assignments, visiting friends and writing portions of a book on Tuscany. Over the years, I've developed a check-list of favorite things to do (the usual) -- and the best places to do them, which might offer some discoveries. Andiamo...

1. Take in the View

It's great to be in the midst of the city enjoying all its offerings. But it's a must to step outside and see it from afar. One wonderful new place to do so is the rooftop of the Westin Excelsior on the Piazza Ognissanti. The Sesto Bar and Restaurant takes in a 360-degree sweep of the city, from the Bellosquardo Hill past the Pitti Palace up to San Miniato, down to the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno across to the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio and the hills of Fiesole behind. It's breathtaking. You can sit outside on the terrace or inside next to floor-to-ceiling windows and nurse a cocktail or cup of tea and take it all in. At 6:30 or so, the staff brings out a nice buffet of cheese and the like to nibble on.

Other places to enjoy a lovely view -- though not as grand in scope as at the Excelsior -- are the wine bar on the loggia of the newly opened, yet from the 1500s, Hotel Palazzo Guadagni on the Piazza Santo Spirito or the two-level rooftop bar of Hotel la Scaletta and restaurant near the Pitti Palace. For a view without libations, hop on the number 12 bus to the Piazza Sant'Angelo and let your jaw drop.

2. Have Some Gelato

I live in New York, so I'm used to the debate over the best pizza, bagel, lobster roll, whatever. In Florence, everyone has an opinion about the best gelato, and gelato shops have sprung up on every corner, kind of like Starbucks in the States. Vivoli, near Santa Croce, was a pioneer decades ago when I first started coming to Florence, and its famous riso, or rice pudding, gelato doesn't disappoint. Reknowned chef, food writer and gelato expert Faith Willinger cautions against gelato shops that have mounds of the fluffy stuff in their vitrines. The serious gelato makers, she says, keep the gelato hidden in containers under lids -- like the tiny Gelateria della Passera tucked away near the Pitti Palace. Even more reasons to stop by: the cute guys behind the counter and the piazza out front with benches where you can sit down and enjoy your cioccolato arancia.

3. Indulge in Ancient Beauty Remedies

The wonderful creams and potions made from the recipes of monks and sold from old wooden vitrines under the vaulted ceiling at the Officina Profumeria di Santa Maria Novella have gained international acclaim -- and soaring price tags. But, they have competition. The limited line of scents for the home and products for the body created by local Dr. Paolo Vranjes are gaining a buzz with their glorious scents -- lily of the valley and tuberose, ginger and lime. The ultra-stylish Il Salviatino hotel uses them, and Vranjes is increasing the size of his shop near Santa Croce. There's also a Dr. Vranjes boutique near the Piazza Signoria, where you'll also find the Spezierie Palazzo Vecchio with its full range of natural creams and scents. And, when shopping on the via Tornabuoni, the Madison Avenue of Florence, check out the Officina de Tornabuoni; it's been dispensing natural therapeutic products since 1843 (a newcomer in these parts.)

4. Go to a Market

The farmers' markets of Europe are what every farmers' market in the States dreams it could be. One of the most famous is the Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo. There are smaller, more insider markets in the city; friends of mine swear by the Mercato di Sant'ambrogio on the far side of Santa Croce. But for proximity, scope, grandeur and variety, the Mercato Centrale remains worth a stop. You can't take a lamb carcass home, but you can pick up a pack of dried porcini and tuck it in your suitcase. Plus, who can resist the leather handbags in the stalls outside with prices that drop in half the minute you start walking away?

5. Sip a Negroni

This potent mix of Campari, gin and vermouth was invented in Florence and named after the Count Negroni who first requested the knock-your-socks-off combination. The Caffé Giacosa claims to have first created the cocktail for the count, and today they celebrate their invention with an entire Negroni menu of a dozen variations. The Caffé Giacosa is also known as the Roberto Cavalli café, as it is owned by the designer whose boutique surrounds the store. It's a convenient place to stop for a panini and glass of red wine from Cavalli's estate in Panzano while shopping the via Tornabuoni.

6. Visit a Museum

On a first trip to Florence, the must-see museums would be the Uffizi and the Accademia to ogle the towering sculpture of David. But, right around the corner from the long lines waiting to see Michelangelo's masterpiece is the remarkable Convent of San Marco. Inside, you will find a cloister encircled by dozens of monk's cells, each frescoed by Fra Angelico with scenes from Christ's life, from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion. Walk down the corridors, peak inside each room and see the delicate paintings that provided each monk with something to contemplate and pray to. Savonarola cultists can also see the infamous abbot's cell, cloak, desk and chair.

Another sometimes overlooked wonder is Benozzo Gozzoli's magnificent Adoration of the Magi in the small confines of a chapel at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, just steps from the stalls of the San Lorenzo market. This jewel box of painting is a delight, with a castle on every hillside, blonde curls on every person, and gold woven into every cloak. Dazzling.

Another small yet remarkable work of art is on the Oltrarno, in the plain-faced Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmine. Step inside the Brancacci Chapel and you'll be virtually assaulted with the blaze of colors in the frescos depicting the life of Jesus by Fra Filippo Lippi, Masolino and the great Massacio.

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