City Guide - Florence
For art-lovers, foodies and shoppers alike, the Tuscan capital has it all
DANTE, da Vinci, Galileo – the world's greatest artists and thinkers made their homes in Florence, and it still attracts artistic types by the million. Visitors throng Piazza della Signoria to see the enormous copy of Michaelangelo's David that dominates the square, and the stunning Tuscan city boasts the greatest collection of renaissance art in the world. But there are modern references too: this is where A Room With a View and Portrait of a Lady were shot, along with the slightly more prosaic Hannibal.
Before you go Time Out's guide Florence and the Best of Tuscany is an invaluable treasure-trove of insider tips, along with lots of background information on the city's colourful past.
Planes, trains, automobiles Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Pisa from Edinburgh, with fares from around 60, including taxes. Transfers from the airport into the centre of Florence take around an hour by bus (www.terravision.eu) or train.
Getting around If you don't mind looking faintly ridiculous, you could always hire a Segway (www.italyguides.it) – a two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle. It isn't cheap – it costs from around 60 per person for three hours, including an audio tour – but it certainly is different.
Better still, put on your comfiest shoes and get walking. It's the best way to discover what is, after all, a very compact city. Narrow cobbled streets conceal artisans' workshops where sculptors create their works, painters produce yet more Tuscan landscapes and craftsmen carve ornate pieces of furniture in their doorways.
Tourist trail Of course, there's the Duomo (the marble-clad cathedral that dominates the city), the Uffizi gallery (home to Botticelli's Birth of Venus and da Vinci's The Baptism of Christ) and the Ponte Vecchio (the narrow bridge crossing the River Arno, lined with sparkling jewellers' shops). But you'll be tripping over hordes of tourist parties every step of the way.
Instead, take yourself across the river to the hip, bohemian Santo Spirito district. Sit outside at Ricchi (Piazza Santo Spirito) with a coffee and watch the world go by (we couldn't help but be mesmerised by an ancient transvestite changing from day clothes to evening wear right in front of us).
Wander around the Boboli gardens, behind Palazzo Pitti, complete with its fountains and statues (you'll have to pay an entrance fee, but it's worth it – this is one of Florence's few green spaces), then escape the noise of car horns and raised Italian voices for a moment's contemplation in the deserted church of San Felice, on the Piazza.
Go native Live dangerously and hire a bike or scooter (www.ibikeflorence.com) – you can take a cycling tour of the city from 23 per person. The traffic is mind-blowingly chaotic, but surprisingly bike-friendly.
Where to stay It's classy, it's luxurious yet unstuffy, and it has a great cocktail list (order the signature negroni at the L'Incontro bar, located at street level). The Savoy (www.hotelsavoy.it), on Piazza della Repubblica, is ideally situated, slap-bang in the centre of the action and just a stone's throw from the Ponte Vecchio. Double rooms start from 420.
But if your credit-crunched wallet won't stretch to that, try the cheap and cheerful Hotel Perseo (www.hotelperseo.it). Not far from the Duomo, it is clean and simply stylish – a bonus is the complimentary aperitif and nibbles served each evening. Rooms cost from around 110.
Then shake the city dust from your feet and repair to the healing waters of Grotta Giusti (www.grottagiustispa.com). A luxury hotel just half an hour's drive from Florence, it is filled with antique paintings and furniture. But the main attraction is the spa, with its mineral-rich pool that is naturally heated to 35C. After a relaxing soak, head for the grotta, spectacular caves beneath the hotel that act as a natural steam room (Verdi described it as the eighth wonder of the world when he paid a visit). Rooms cost from 145 a night (half board), while day visitors are also welcome.
Where to eat For lunch, join the queues of Florentines at the tiny I Due Fratellini (www.iduefratellini.com), in Via dei Cimatori. Select your sandwich – there are more than 20 to choose from – and wash it down with a glass of chianti while standing in the street.
It's difficult to imagine anything more civilised (but don't forget to leave your glass on the little wooden shelf on the wall before you leave). Then pick up a monstrous ice-cream from one of the many gelaterias and eat it on the hoof.
For dinner, head across the Arno to the Oltrarno district. In the shadow of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Napoleone (www.trattorianapoleone.com) is a little gem of a restaurant, all fairy lights outside and moody chic inside. The cave-like interior is divided into intimate spaces, and the enormous steak in balsamic gravy could feed two.
What to buy Know anyone who would appreciate a pair of boxer shorts displaying David's crown jewels? Michaelangelo's vision of perfect manhood also adorns a selection of pinnies, making it the almost-perfect gift for the barbie guy in your life.
Alternatively, there are countless stalls of leather goods and jewellery, and – although the police have recently clamped down on counterfeit goods – fakes are still around by the bag-load.
Foodies, meanwhile, will love the delicious olive oils, pastas and jars of antipasti, and big-spenders should make a beeline for Via de' Tornabuoni, with outlets for all the top Italian designer names, from Versace and Pucci to Bulgari and Sergio Rossi.
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