Florence in seven hours

A complete walking tour and guide

Florence can really only be explored on foot: the historic centre is a compact maze of one-way and pedestrian streets, and driving is restricted to pass holders. Take the train into town or park in the covered lot at the main railway station, Santa Maria Novella. Our walking tour is intended to give you a sense of the living city, not just its art treasures, and allows plenty of time for dawdling, dining and window-shopping. If you have the time and patience for one gallery only, make it the Uffizi. Book your visit ahead online or by telephone to skip the inevitable queues. Avoid Mondays, when many venues are shut. Florence's Mercato Centrale, the mother of all food markets, closes at 2pm; if it's on your list of must-sees, consider beginning your tour earlier and ending it there with lunch at a counter or in a restaurant nearby.

florence walking tour

10:00 am

Begin at Piazza della Stazione. Cross the square towards the tourist office and enter Via degli Avelli to the left of the large church (Santa Maria Novella). Turn right at the end of the church to its front door. Santa Maria Novella is a convent that includes a church and cloisters decorated by Renaissance masters Ghirlandaio, Masaccio, Lippi, Uccello and Alberti. See page 93 Next door in Via della Scala no. 16r is the church's magnificent medieval 'pharmacy'. for the church's medieval 'pharmacy'. Continue in the same direction to enter Via delle Belle Donne. Turn left into Via degli Antinori, then right onto Via de' Tornabuoni. Fast-forward to the 20C in an area that showcases Florence's modern success stories. The Antinoris referred to in the Via, the Piazza and the Cantinetta of the same name are one of Tuscany's great wine-making dynasties. Wander southwards past the glossy Gucci, Pucci and Cavalli shops (Florentines, all of them). If you're ready for a coffee stop at the chic Caffè Giacosa. See what's on display at the Palazzo Strozzi, which hosts changing art exhibitions, or visit the museum dedicated to Italy's famous shoemaker, Salvatore Ferragamo, off the Piazza Santa Trinità. The palazzi on this square are considered masterpieces of their time: the Ferragamos' 14C Palazzo Spini, the 15C Palazzo Buondelmonti (with a loggia on the top floor) and the 16C Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni.

11:00 am

From Piazza Santa Trinita turn left into Via Porta Rossa, lined with 14C mansions. Continue to the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo. 'Cashmere' and 'leather' are loosely interpreted here but the merchandise is fun and colourful. Find the Porcellino ('Piglet') Fountain on the south side of the Mercato and touch its nose for good luck. With Porcellino on your right, walk along Via Por Santa Maria to Ponte Vecchio. Until 1218, the wooden bridge at the site of today's Ponte Vecchio ('old bridge') was the only means for Florence's population of 30,000 to cross the river; a flood in 1345 prompted its reconstruction in stone. In 1944, the retreating Germans destroyed all Florence's bridges save this, apparently thanks to an express order from Hitler. The shops on the bridge were traditionally occupied by butchers and fishmongers who dumped their waste into the river, and by tanners who soaked their hides in it. Their Medici landlords eventually evicted them in favour of jewellers and goldsmiths (who paid twice the rent). The word 'bankrupt' originated here: when a merchant was unable to pay his debts, the table he used to display his wares (banco) was broken (rotta) by soldiers.

12:00 am

Walk back up Via Por Santa Maria and turn right into Via Vacchereccia. Continue into Piazza della Signoria to visit Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi. This is arguably the most important square in Florence: the city's governing council (La Signoria) met in the Palazzo Vecchio and used the sculpture-filled Loggia dei Lanzi to address the citizenry. In 1497 the mesmerized Florentines threw their collections of art, books and musical instruments into a great bonfire here at the urging of the mad but charismatic monk Girolamo Savonarola. A year later Savonarola himself burned at stake in the same spot. The events are recorded on a plaque at the enormous Neptune Fountain, which Michelangelo ridiculed as 'a ruined piece of marble.' A copy of his iconic David stands nearby. Pop into the Palazzo Vecchio to see the glorious frescoes in the first courtyard (free entry), then spend two hours wandering through the Uffizi Gallery next door. Here you'll find one of the world's greatest collections of paintings, comfortably arranged in chronological order on one U-shaped floor.

2:30 pm

Leave Piazza della Signoria by the Via delle Farine, which becomes Via de' Cerchi, then turn left onto Via dei Tavolini, right onto Via Calimala and continue into the Piazza della Repubblica. The Cantinetta Verrazzano on Via dei Tavolini is an ideal spot for a late, light lunch. Straight ahead of you, the Via Dante Alighieri is named for the author of the Divine Comedy who lived in this area (although not in the building now associated with him). At the corner of Via dei Tavolini and Via Calzaiuoli stands the Orsanmichele, a 13C grain store later used as a chapel. Niches on its exterior walls contain statues of the patron saints of Florence's craft guilds; the altar inside was commissioned by survivors of the Black Death in 1349, a year after it had wiped out a third of the city's population. The Piazza della Repubblica dates back to Florence's brief tenure as the capital of Italy (1865-1871); its construction eradicated layers of history as the site had since Roman times been Florence's forum urbis (city centre), and its main market- and meeting-place. A meeting place it remains: the elegant Belle Epoque caffès lining the square have catered to Florence's gliteratti since the beginning of the 20C, and are still marvellous (if pricey) spots for a cappuccino in the sunshine.

3:30 pm

Continue up via Roma and into Piazza Duomo. In 1292 Florence's rulers, stung by the new cathedrals under way in Siena and Pisa, commissioned architect Arnolfo di Cambio to design the largest church in the Roman Catholic world (it's now the fourth largest in Europe). Construction began even though the dome in di Cambio's drawings was too big and too heavy to be supported by walls he had planned. Arnolfo's death and the Black Death deferred the issue but by 1419, with the walls almost complete, the impossible dome became an urgent problem. Watch-maker/goldsmith Filippo Brunelleschi saved the day by devising a system of hollow inner and outer shells, held in place by hidden stone beams, that would make the dome much lighter. The climb to the lantern on top (463 steps) takes you between the shells for a look at the structure and fantastic views over the city. The octagonal Baptistery in front of the Duomo is notable for its bronze doors decorated with bas-reliefs; the so-called Gates of Paradise on the north side were crafted by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Just south of the Duomo is a newer Florentine phenomenon: in a city where gelato is considered an art form, Grom, established in 2003, and now with shops in Tokyo, New York and Paris, reigns supreme.

5:00 pm

Our route back to the station loops around San Lorenzo, the city's oldest church and site of Michelangelo's Medici Chapels and the Medicea-Laurenziana library. It also winds through the San Lorenzo market, known for its T-shirts and leather goods. We've left two galleries off the tour as they involve a long-ish walk along busy roads (the dotted lines). But they're worth a visit: the Accademia houses Michelangelo's David and his unfinished Slaves; the Museo di San Marco is an ex-Dominican convent decorated by Fra'Angelico.

Restaurants & caffès

Florence's restaurants are packed at lunch in any season, book ahead!

Antico Fattore Inexpensive Tuscan. Via Lambertesca 1-3r 055 288 975. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner; closed August.

Caffè Gilli Famous for its hot chocolate. Light meals offered. Piazza della Repubblica 36-39r; open daily 8am-midnight except Tuesday.

Cantinetta Antinori Elegantly trendy, fairly expensive. Palazzo Antinori 055 292 234; open daily for lunch and dinner.

Cantinetta del Verrazzano Light meals and a long wine list with wood panelling and a bread oven. Bookings not accepted. Via dei Tavolini 18-20 055 268 590. Open Monday-Saturday non-stop 8am-9pm.

Giacosa Great coffee in a see/be-seen caffè. Via Tornabuoni 83r 055-239 6226.

Grom Florence's top-rated gelateria. Corner of Via del Campanile/Via delle Oche. Open 10:30am-11pm.

Nerbone Tuscan soup, lampredotto and sandwiches at a market food stand. Mercato Centrale. Open Monday-Saturday 7am-2pm.

Olio & Convivium Serious food in a pretty spot. Via Santo Spirito 4 055 2658198. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner; Monday lunch.

Quattro Leoni Modern art, medieval interior. Outdoor seating. Via dei Vellutini 1r 055 218562. Open daily for lunch (except Wednesday) and dinner.

Zaza Wonderful, accommodated all 12 of us (we did make reservations), and the food was excellent' 2007. Piazza del Mercato Centrale 26r 055 210 756. Open daily non-stop 11am-11pm; closed August.

Osteria Belle Donne Simple Tuscan specialities in a jolly spot. Via delle Belle Donne 16 055 2382609. Open daily for lunch and dinner.


Markets

Mercato Centrale Piazza Mercato Centrale; open Monday-Saturday 7am-2pm. Modern covered food market, the best of its kind. San Lorenzo Piazza San Lorenzo; open daily 8am-7pm. Leather jackets, T-shirts and a great deal of junk.


English bookshops

B1 Edison Piazza della Repubblica 27r; open Monday-Saturday 9am-midnight, Sunday 10am-midnight.

B2 Paperback Exchange Via delle Oche 4r; open Monday-Friday 9am-7:30pm, Saturday 10am-7:30pm.