Florence holiday guide
Written by Donald Strachan, Italy specialist and Travel Writer for The Guardian.
Art & architecture
Florence practically invented the Renaissance. And not only in art and architecture: Dante and Boccaccio were the first to write for the masses in what's now the Italian language. Macchiavelli's philosophy of ruthless Realpolitik was influential in the conduct of statesmanship
But it is the painters and the sculptors and the architects that draw millions to the city every year. The Galleria degli Uffizi houses the world's best collection of Renaissance art: Giotto, Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and many, many others are all here. The place is very popular: it is essential to book tickets ahead of time (call tel. 055/294883 and book a timed slot), or enter with Florence's almost-all-inclusive entrance ticket, the Firenze Card.
The city's most famous artwork isn't in the Uffizi, however. Michelangelo's David—'Il Gigante'—was originally on show outside the Palazzo Vecchio. In 1872 he was moved, on a specially commissioned trolley-tram, to a room at the Galleria dell'Accademia that was built to show him off. A replica stands in his place in Piazza della Signoria, where there is no admission fee to enjoy the open-air art spectacle that is the rest of the piazza. Standing in the morning shadow of the Palazzo Vecchio—where key scenes from Dan Brown's novel Inferno played out—you can see how David measures up to Baccio Bandinelli's Hercules, Bartolomeo Ammanati's Neptune, and Giambologna's Equestrian Statue of Cosimo I.
Under the Loggia dei Lanzi, copies of Roman statues are joined by Mannerist originals, including Cellini's studied bronze, Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa (1545). The city's many churches also exhibit fine painting and sculpture, as well as being architectural feats in themselves.
The monuments of Piazza del Duomo are icons of the city. The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore was begun by Gothic architect Arnolfo di Cambio, and was always intended to have a domed roof. Trouble was, neither the Florentines, nor anyone else, had any idea how to make one across such a wide span. Then Filippo Brunelleschi came along in the 1440s with a solution. His revolutionary double-skinned dome (or cupola) stands as the crowning achievement of Florentine architecture. Climb to the lantern for some of the best views over the city. (Beware: it's a trip that's definitely not for claustrophobes or anyone with a fear of heights.) The city's octagonal Battistero (Baptistery) has even more ancient roots—no one is sure exactly when it was built, but it was definitely before the 8th century. Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise—its bronze east doors, facing the cathedral—show scenes from the Old Testament, cast in low-relief. They took a couple of decades to make, and were unveiled in 1452.
Almost equally significant in art and architectural history is Santa Maria Novella. Its polychrome façade fuses Romanesque styling—begun when the church was built in the 1246—with geometrical Renaissance classicism in the upper orders, added harmoniously by Renaissance theorist L. B. Alberti in the 1460s. Inside, Masaccio's Trinity was the first painting to realistically depict linear perspective on a flat surface. When it was unveiled in 1428, amazed Florentines were convinced Masaccio had punched a hole in the wall. The entire Santa Maria Novella complex—complete with frescoed cloisters and chapels—needs at least an hour to view.
Monumental tombs of famous Florentines line the nave at Santa Croce: Michelangelo (he died in Rome but his body was smuggled back home); Macchiavelli; Dante (not a tomb, as he died in exile, in Ravenna). Two transept chapels were frescoed by Giotto di Bondone, an early 14th-century painter sometimes called the 'Father of the Renaissance'. (You might recognize the Peruzzi Chapel from A Room with a View.) There is a still more ancient feel to San Miniato al Monte. Perched high on a hill south of the River Arno, the church steps also have one of the best panoramas over the Florence skyline. On a knoll at the furthest southern reaches of suburban Florence stands the Certosa del Galluzzo. Founded in 1342, the vast monastery has been expanded and altered over the centuries. It's best known for a cycle of frescoes by Mannerist painter Pontormo (1522). Florentine architecture is not all about the distant past, either. Santa Maria Novella station is a masterpiece of 1930s Fascist architecture. Opening during 2014, the Nuovo Teatro dell'Opera is the city's most daring contemporary art project, a wild mishmash of modernism and abstract sculpture.
Eating and drinking
Florentine flavours are bold and straightforward, and the city's trademark cooking style is no-nonsense. However, alongside the spezzatino (veal stew), ribollita (twice-cooked soup-stew of seasonal vegetables), roast meats like pork or guinea fowl, and trippa alla fiorentina (tripe cooked with tomatoes), a new generation of chefs offer a lighter interpretation of Florentine cooking.
At the top end, head chef Marco Stabile's Ora d'Aria has the hottest tables in town. He typically serves the likes of scallops with onion cream and bitters, followed by crispy piglet with vin santo custard. Tasting menus cost around €70 per person, but this is a culinary event. Booking ahead for dinner is essential.
A new breed of deli-with-dining also offers a chance to taste stripped-back, modern Tuscan cooking. Two of the best are south of the Arno: in Oltrarno, Olio e Convivium; and in San Niccolò, Zeb. As you'd expect, cooking is largely unfussy, with ingredients allowed to sing for themselves.
For old-fashioned trattoria food in the heart of the centro storico, try Le Mossacce or Vini e Vecchi Sapori. Yes, the clientele is almost entirely made up of tourists these days. But both have clung on to the Florentine culinary traditions, and offer good value, considering the location.
It is wise to book ahead for eating pretty much anywhere in the centre. And, note, many of Florence's best places to eat close for much of August.
Florence also fights it out with Sicily for the claim to have invented gelato, an ice-cream-like dessert made by churning fresh milk, not cream, and therefore lower in fat. Definitely indisputable is that the city's gelaterie are some of the best in Italy.
Follow a few simple rules to find good gelato. Most importantly, the cold stuff should be kept cold, in frozen containers, and not piled high in a pretty mountain. Colours should be natural, not day-glo. In general, you will find the best gelato on side-streets slightly away from the main tourist drags.
Carapina is among the best in the centre; the fruit gelato is strictly seasonal and intense in flavour. The range is bigger at Gelateria dei Neri. 'White' flavours like ricotta and fig (ricotta e fichi) are a winner.
Florence is also a wine city —the Chianti starts just south of town. Among a crop of fine Oltrarno wine bars, Le Volpi e L'Uva stands out for its pretty terrace, next to the church of Santa Felicità, and a well-chosen list.
But you really can't go wrong with a glass of red wine anywhere, as long as you stay away from the pricey bar-cafes on Florence's set-piece piazzas.
Local towns and cities
On the edge of the Chianti—and just 11km south of Florence's Porta Romana—Impruneta is a small town with a long-established reputation for the quality of its terracotta. The town has been a place of pilgrimage since, according to local legend, two cattle discovered a sacred image of the Madonna in the Medieval period.
Supposedly built in the 11th century, over the site of the livestock's miraculous discovery, the Basilica di Santa Maria dell'Impruneta dominates a sloping piazza in the centre. The church is a mix of architectural styles: a sturdy Romanesque bell tower and Renaissance arcading on the outside; inside, at the end of simple wide nave, is a Renaissance high altar flanked on either side by an elaborate tempietto (mini-temple) dating to the 1450s.
North of Florence, lying beyond a stretch of swanky hillside villas, Fiesole actually has a longer pedigree than its neighbour in the valley below. Fiesole was an Etruscan then a Roman settlement, only eclipsed when the Romans founded 'Florentia' downhill, in a strategic spot beside the River Arno.
The town's archaeological remains are preserved in a small walled park, the Area Archeologica. As well as a preserved (and partly rebuilt) Teatro Romano from the 1st century AD, roam among the rubble from a much older Etruscan temple (4th century BC) and Roman baths. Visitors can borrow a free tablet with a guide to the site pre-installed.
Fiesole is easy to reach from Florence: the number 7 bus from Piazza San Marco terminates in Fiesole's Piazza Mino da Fiesole, a twenty-minute ride away.
Prato, 20km north-west of Florence, is Tuscany's second city and a major producer of leather and textiles. It has long links with Wenzhou, in China. Italy's second- or third-largest Chinese community, after Milan and (maybe) Rome, calls Prato home.
Its main art treasure is inside the Duomo, the city's cathedral dedicated to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The hooped façade features an unusual pulpit, a joint venture between Michelozzo (architect) and Donatello (sculptor), dating to 1438. What's there right now is a copy; the original is in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, installed in part of the Bishop's palace next door.
Inside, the apse chapel frescoes were completed in 1465, by Filippo Lippi and his assistants. His Scenes from the Life of St. John the Baptist incorporates Prato's most famous image, of Salome dancing for King Herod.
Prato is also the home of biscotti di Prato—hard, oval, almond-flour cookies usually served with a glass of dessert wine for dunking, and more commonly known as cantuccini. Antonio Mattei is the best biscuit maker in the city; the shop's handsome royal blue packaging makes for a handsome gift to take home.
In Borgo San Lorenzo—the main town of the Mugello, and 32km north-east of Florence—the Romanesque Pieve di San Lorenzo houses a Madonna that is (probably) an early work by Giotto, a native of the area.
Borgo San Lorenzo was also the home of Chini ceramics and glasswares, one of the leading exponents of Art Nouveau decorative arts in Italy. There is a small museum dedicated to the former factory (destroyed in World War II), the Museo della Manifattura Chini.
One of Italy's grandest gardens lies within Florence's city limits. Behind the Palazzo Pitti (once a Medici residence), the Giardino di Boboli is laid out in the formal Renaissance style, with ordered walkways, carefully planned views of the palace and Florence's skyline, and hidden corners like the Isolotto (with its dancing fountains) and the Hemicycle, a faux-Roman garden.
The Boboli was the venue for the earliest opera performance to survive the centuries: Jacopo Pieri set Euridice to music, for the marriage of Maria de' Medici and Henri IV of France, in 1600.
Just outside the city, in Fiesole, a panoramic walk circumnavigates the archaeological area—ask the tourist office for a map. From back where you began, climb the steep Via San Francesco to the little church of San Francesco. Just before the top, there is a balcony with an unforgettable view of Florence, below, sheltering in the lee of the Chianti hills.
You can extend a Fiesole walk by heading downhill along the Via Vecchia Fiesolana, past villas built for Medici princes with gardens restored during the 20th century to their former lush grandeur (still, alas, private).
The Via Vecchia Fiesolana meets the main road again close to San Domenico, where you can jump on the number 7 bus back to Florence.
After Milan, Florence is Italy's best shopping city. And just like its northern rival, fashion is big business here. The main haute couture drag is Via de' Tornabuoni. Along here, and in other luxe side-streets like Via della Vigna Nuova, you'll find the big names in Florentine fashion (Gucci, Pucci, Ferragamo) as well as Milanese and global designer labels such as Prada and Armani.
Just north of the Duomo, Via dei Servi retains the vibe of old Florence. Window-browsing independent booksellers, a philately store, traditional stationers', and more is a glimpse of Florence before mass tourism arrived. Around Borgo degli Albizi, in the eastern part of the centre, fashions have a younger feel, with vintage shops, too.
To go with your new outfit, you want to smell nice, too. The Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is as grand as its name suggests. There has been a 'pharmacy' here since the 1600s, when it was founded by Dominican friars. The present incarnation sells top-end fragrances and skincare for everyone (even the family pet). If you don't love the smell of what's in stock, you can design your own to take away.
Florence also has a reputation for leather. Everything sold at the Scuola del Cuoio is made on the premises by students at the city's most prestigious leather-making school. Turn up during school hours (weekdays only) to watch the trainee artisans at work.
The city also has several markets. The Mercato di San Lorenzo is heaving with tourist trinkets; the Mercato Centrale is Florence's covered food market, selling everything from salami, cheeses, and Chianti wine to hot food for eating on the move.
There is a flea market, the Mercato delle Pulci, in Piazza dei Ciompi. On the last Sunday of the month the whole piazza turns into a giant fiera antiquario, dripping with antique books and objets, bags and accessories, trinkets, and other luggage-friendly collectables.
A short drive down the A1, south of Florence, units at The Mall sell last year's designer threads and one-offs at massive discounts.
You could spend a month in the city and still not see all its worthwhile museums—sightseeing in Florence is all about priorities.
The Museo Nazionale del Bargello is one of Europe's great sculpture collections. The building is austere and Medieval—a former palace and prison—but the sculptures on show are largely Renaissance and Mannerist in style. Michelangelo, Donatello, and Giambologna are all here.
The Museo di San Marco is located inside a former Dominican monastery, where monk and painter Fra' Angelico frescoed walls and painted panels in the International Gothic style, in the 1430s and 1440s. Upstairs are two corridors of cells, where the monks lived. Each is frescoed with a single, intimate image (some by Fra' Angelico himself) designed to aid spiritual contemplation.
But it's not all art and architecture and Renaissance, in every Florentine nook and cranny. The Medici were great patrons of science as well as the arts, especially the later members of the dynasty.
Medici patronage built the collection that is now the Museo Galileo. Dedicated to the famous scientist, who was given refuge in Florence after he fell out spectacularly with the Catholic Church, the museum exhibits scientific and astronomical instruments, ancient maps, and even a finger from Galileo's right hand, preserved in a glass jar.
Check out the website before visiting: there is an excellent virtual tour that will help you and any young visitors to pinpoint exhibits.
Things get even grislier at the Museo Zoologia 'La Specola'. The first part of the museum is a typical natural history collection from before the multimedia age, with hundreds of stuffed animals in glass cases—opened in 1775, this is Europe's oldest science museum.
Things get really interesting towards the end, with the Cere Anatomiche, a collection of lifelike waxworks showing human bodies in various states of flaying and dismemberment. They were used to teach anatomy to medical students in the 1700s and 1800s. The collection is not for the squeamish.
To get to grips with the city, it is worth considering a guided walk. Rather than a general introduction to the city sights (which you can easily manage on your own), go for one that digs deeper into one aspect of Florence.
Context Travel (www.contexttravel.com) walks are run by scholars, and often focus on one artist (Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, for example) or take an unusual angle on Florence, such as women artists or the artisan workshops of Oltrarno. They are not cheap—€70 or thereabouts per person—but always offer outstanding insight from a genuine expert.
ArtViva (www.italy.artviva.com) also offer a few engaging offbeat walks, such as their 'Sex, Drugs, and the Renaissance' adults-only tour, that takes in some of the seedier side of the city's history.
Florence has a few well-located tourist offices in the centre: at Via Cavour 1R (closed Sundays); opposite the station at Piazza della Stazione 4 (closed Sunday afternoons); and under the Loggia del Bigallo, Piazza San Giovanni 1 (also closed Sunday afternoons). For general city advice, see www.firenzeturismo.it, call tel. 055/290832, or email email@example.com.
Pisa (PSA - Galileo Galilei) is Tuscany´s international airport, located about 40 minutes´drive west of Florence. Florence (FRL - Peretola), north-west of the city, is a smaller airport receiving domestic and European flights.
If your villa is in southern or eastern Tuscany, one of Rome´s two airports may be a more practical option: Fiumicino (FCO) is the larger, for international flights; Ciampino (CIA) has a fewer facilities and caters to the discounters and smaller European airlines. Both are just off Rome´s ring road, the GRA, and convenient to all the motorways.
The little airport at Perugia (PEG - Sant´Egidio), in Umbria, is convenient fr eastern Tuscany and receives domestic italian flights and discout airlines from UK.
Insider tipDon't drive into Florence—city traffic is horrendous. Anyway, the historic centre is guarded by a residents-only permit zone. The best strategy for a day-trip is to find your nearest rail station or bus stop and take public transport. Florence's bus and railway stations are an easy walk from Piazza del Duomo and the main sights of the city.
Best & Finds
- For the appetite. La Menagere. Via de Ginori 8r - 50123 Firenze. Tel 055 0750600. It is the best food in Florence. Fabulous environment, delicious food and great service.
- For the appetite. Tulio, Montebene 'The best dining experience of our trip, which included Rome and Florence'. 2010.
- More for the palate. Marchesi de' Frescobaldi/Nipozzano, Pelago 'Excellent wine tour'. 2010.
- For the occasion.The Scoppio del Carro at Easter, Florence
- For the wardrobe. Via Roma, Florence or the outlet at Barberina di Mugello
- For kids. The Museo Leonardino (Leonardo's Museum), Vinci
- For self indulgence. The spas at Montecatini Terme 'Atripo to Montecatini Terme for a spa experience is well worth it'. 2010