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Florence

florence duomo cathedral night Florence is home to many Renaissance masterpieces. One of the world's best-known statues, Michelangelo's David, is the stunning (and colossal) high point of a visit to the Accademia, where art lovers will find much else to admire, as well. A short walk away, a spectacular collection of paintings and murals by the early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico can be found at the museum (and former convent) next to the church of San Marco.

The city's Gothic-era Duomo, also known as the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, is one of the world's largest. Entrance to the church is free (expect a long line), but visitors with limited time can buy tickets at the Museo del Duomo behind the church to ascend the dome's 463 steps for a fantastic view of the city and the neighboring countryside. Views from the terrace of the dome (about halfway up the climb) are equally dramatic. Less energetic tourists can see much of the same view from the rooftop bar and coffeeshop of the fashionable department store La Rinascente, located on Piazza della Republica.

The church of San Lorenzo, in the city's main market district, houses tombs of the Medici family, as well as the tomb of Donatello. The church is part of a complex that includes Michelangelo's magnificent Laurentian Library and the stunning stairs leading up to it.

The Uffizi Gallery houses one of the greatest collections of (mostly) Italian paintings in the world, including Botticelli's famous Birth of Venus, exquisite 13th- and 14th-century paintings, and works by Rubens and Rembrandt. Flights of stairs lead to the galleries, but if climbing them is a problem, ask for directions to the elevator. Because visitors are limited in number, it's a good idea to secure reservations in advance to avoid the lengthy queues -- a process that is easy to do online.

It may be touristy, but you've got to see Ponte Vecchio, the most famous bridge in Florence. It's lined with shops selling mostly jewelry. It's also a great way to head over to Florence's "Left Bank" -- otherwise known as the Oltrarno. Here you'll find Pitti Palace (Piazza Pitti), home to multiple attractions including the Palatine Gallery, known for its collection of Raphaels; the Gallery of Modern Art (where the collections, confusingly, date from the 18th through early 20th centuries); and Boboli Garden, which is a gorgeous landscaped park/garden.

Pisa, home of the infamous Leaning Tower, is a delightful Tuscan city that's also on the Arno River -- and a short train ride from Florence.

Lucca is one of the most beguiling undiscovered treasures of Tuscany. This medieval walled city dates back to the time of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, and later embraced the Renaissance era. Major sights to see include the Romanesque-styled Duomo; the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi, a collection of tapestries and other art in a historic palace; and the San Michele in Foro, a basilica located on a bustling, fabulously atmospheric piazza. We have to admit, though, that our favorite activities in Lucca include simply poking around the narrow streets, investigating gorgeous gardens, and shopping with locals and tourists alike. Active types can rent a bike and cycle atop the Passeggiata della Mura, the ring of ramparts that enclose the walled city. We also love sipping Lucchesian wine at a sidewalk cafe and lunching at Osteria del Neni.

Beach aficionados should head to the Ligurian resort town of Forte dei Marmi, the area's most elite summer resort town. It's also got designer shopping and a whole raft of restaurants along the beachfront. While there, visit the nearby town of Pietrasanta, a hub for artists and sculptors and a simply lovely small Italian town. These villages lie between the Mediterranean Sea and the Apuan Alps, and the white expanse you see near some craggy peaks is not snow -- it's marble. These mountains are the source of much of the marble gracing some of Italy's greatest monuments. Indeed, Michelangelo sourced some of his from nearby Carrara.
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