Spring sunshine and annual processions make this a particularly alluring time to visit the Tuscan capital
Why go now?
Springtime in Florence. What could be better? Though there’s a never a bad time to visit Tuscany’s cultured and compact capital, it’s particularly alluring at this time of year, before the crowds and high temperatures of summer arrive.
Later this month, the city holds one of its most poignant annual events. Liberation Day, a national holiday commemorating the end of Nazi occupation, takes place on 25 April and includes a procession of people dressed in period costumes from the days of the Florentine Republic as well as an open air concert in Piazza Signoria (1).
Peretola airport, located 4km to the north-west of the city, is the most convenient hub, served from Gatwick by Vueling (0905 078 1000; vueling.com), and from London City by both British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) and CityJet (0871 405 2020; cityjet.com).
The airport shuttle bus departs roughly every 30-60 minutes between 5.30am and 12.30am and terminates at Via Santa Caterian da Siena near Santa Maria Novella rail station (2). The journey takes 25 minutes and a one-way tickets costs €6. A taxi will take 15 minutes and cost around €22.
A wider range of flights from the UK land at Pisa’s Galileo Galilei airport, 80km west of Florence. BA flies from Heathrow, easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Manchester, Jet2 (0800 408 1350; jet2.com) from Manchester, while Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) offers services from Stansted, Liverpool and Edinburgh.
From Pisa airport, catch the Terravision bus (terravision.eu), which offers one-way tickets from €5. The journey time to Santa Maria Novella station (2) is 70 minutes.
Get your bearings
Florence has, over the centuries, been an arena for some of Europe’s greatest minds and visionaries, most notably Michelangelo and Dante. But its origins are shrouded in uncertainty. Many believe Julius Caesar laid the first foundations but some historians disagree, believing that Etruscans settlers preceded him by a century.
Whoever is responsible, they set about creating one of Europe’s finest cities. The city is bisected by the River Arno, its historic heart on north bank – while it may be small, it’s big on history. You’ll spend the majority of your time on this side of the river, home to most of the attractions but other side – Oltrarno, formerly a poor district known for its sandstone quarries – is also worthy of exploration.
The tourist information centre (3) is at Via Cavour 1 (00 39 055 212245; firenzeturismo.it; 9am-7pm Monday-Saturday, to 2pm Sundays).
For centrally located luxury, book a room at the Relais Santa Croce (4) at Via Ghibellina 87 (00 39 055 234 2230; baglionihotels.com), an 18th-century building-turned-five-star hotel that’s walking distance from all the main points of interest. The Guelfi & Ghibellini restaurant serves a mean Florentine steak. Doubles from €280, including breakfast.
Hotel La Scaletta (5) at Via de Guicciardini 13 (00 39 055 283028; hotellascaletta.it) is a charming and well-maintained three-star hotel with a rooftop terrace overlooking the city. Doubles from €119, including breakfast.
Budget travellers can expect clean, comfortable rooms and value for money at Hotel Orcagna (6) at Via Orcagna 57 (00 39 055 669959; hotelorcagnaflorence.com). Doubles from €48, including breakfast.
Take a view
The city’s best vantage point is from hilltop Piazzale Michelangelo (7). Dating back to 1869, it was designed by local architect Giuseppe Poggi and offers soul-stirring views across the city’s rooftops, belltowers and domes and beyond to the Tuscan hills and distant mountains. Taking pride of place in the square below is a replica statue of David, Michelangelo’s most celebrated sculpture. The real thing can be seen in the Accademia Gallery (8) at Via Ricasoli 58/60 (00 39 055 238 8609; accademia.org; 8.15am-6.50pm Tuesday to Sunday; €8).
Take a hike
From Piazzale Michelangelo (7), take the winding walking trail that leads down towards the river. You’ll eventually emerge at the foot of the Porta San Niccolo watchtower, once part of the city’s defence walls. Stroll west along Lungorno Serristori, admiring the handsome buildings, former palaces and small squares.
Turn right and cross Ponte alle Grazie. It’s not one of the city’s more beautiful bridges but it does offer good views of its most famous one: Ponte Vecchio to the west. Erected in 1345, this Roman arched bridge, lined with shops, was the only crossing not to be destroyed be fleeing Germans in the Second World War.
Turn left on Jungarno delle Grazie until you reach the ancient columns of Piazza di Giudici. Finish at the Uffizi (9) (00 39 055 238 8651; uffizi.org; 8.15am-6.50pm Tuesday to Sunday; €8, advance booking recommended), the finest gallery in the city with works by Leonardo Da Vinci and The Birth of Venus by Botticelli.
Lunch on the run
Far more than just a food court, the first floor of the Mercato Centrale (10) at Via del Ariento (00 39 055 239 9798; mercatocentrale.it; 10am-midnight, closed Sundays) is a treasure trove for foodies. Under its wrought iron roof are 26 splendid stalls serving everything from delicious pizzas topped with Italian sausage and turnip greens (€11) to hearty bowls of tagliatelle drizzled with truffle oil (€4). Make your selection and wash down with a glass of Tuscan red wine (€4).
Prepare to splash some serious cash. Florence is filled with top-quality independent retailers, and the sidestreets around Palazzo Pitti have some of the most interesting. Stroll down Oltrarno’s Sdrucciolo dei Pitti (11) for a mix of fashion and antiques. On the other side of the Arno, Via di Parione (12) is known for high-end designers while the souk-like San Lorenzo Market (13) at Piazza San Lorenzo specialises in leather goods. Typical opening hours are 10am-7pm, and most stores are closed on Sundays.
Order a glass of prosecco (€5) at Ricchi (14), Piazza di Santo Spirito 8 (00 39 055 280830; ristorantericchi.com; open 7am-10pm daily) and savour the views of the 15th-century Basilica di Santo Spirito (15) from an outdoor table.
Mounted on the walls inside, meanwhile, are dozens of framed entries from a recent competition to redesign the façade of the landmark church. The creative efforts include a starry night sky and a bold rainbow motif.
Dine with the locals
Typical Tuscan fare awaits at blink-and-miss-it Ristorante Il Pennello (16) at Via Dante Alighieri 4 (00 39 055 294848; ristoranteilpennello.it; 7-10pm daily). Dishes include wild boar with polenta and peposo – beef cooked for three hours in red wine. Mains from €9.
Dating from 1869, Trattoria Sostanza (17) at Via della Porcellana 25 (00 39 055 212691; 7.30pm-10.30pm daily) is a rustic spot popular for its Florentine steak.
Save room for a scoop of tiramisu gelato from Grom (18), at Via del Campanile 2 (00 39 055 216158; grom.it; 10.30am-11pm daily). From €2.50.
Sunday morning: go to church.
It’s got to be the Duomo (19) at Piazza del Duomo (00 39 055 215380; duomofirenze.it; 1.30pm-4.45pm Sunday, 10am-4pm other days; free). Built on the site of a 7th-century church and dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral is a masterpiece of Italian gothic architecture that was completed in the 1400s after 200 years of work.
Stand under Brunelleschi’s dome or climb the 436 steps to the top for a closer look at Vasari’s fresco of the Last Judgement. Visitors are welcome to attend Sunday mass, which takes place at 9am and noon.
Out to brunch
Be prepared to queue at All’ Antico Vinaio (20) at Via dei Nevi 76 (00 39 055 238 2723; allanticovinaio.com; 11am-10.30pm daily), but the sandwiches are well worth the wait. This no-frills eatery feeds a steady stream of hungry locals throughout the day, as it has for a century. Expect Tuscan treats on steaming focaccia straight out the oven; the most popular is La Favolosa (The Fabulous One) with salami, pecorino cheese, aubergine and artichoke cream. Sandwiches from €5.
In addition to the Uffizi (9) and the Accademia (8), there are a number of lesser-known cultural spots that are well worth a look. Get a taste of the early Renaissance period at the Cappella Brancacci inside the church of Santa Maria del Carmine (21) at Piazza del Carmine (00 39 55 276 8224; museiciviciflorentini.comune.fi.it; 1-5pm Sunday, 10am-5pm other days; €6). The walls of this tiny chapel are decorated with accomplished frescos by Masolino da Panicale and Filippino Lippi that depict the life of St Peter and were sketched throughout the 1400s.
A walk in the park
Dotted with Roman statues and sculptures from the 16th and 17th centuries, the sublime Boboli Gardens form part of the Pitti Palace (22)(00 39 055 229 8732; 8.15am-4.30pm daily; €7). This was once the private escape of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. These days, its landscaped lawns and fanciful fountains are open to all.
Icing on the cake
Once home to the wealthy Davizzi family in the mid-14th century, the Palazzo Davanzati (23) at Via Porta Rossa 13 (00 39 055 238 8610; 8.15am-13.50pm daily; €2) has been meticulously restored. It offers a wonderful insight into a grand old Florentine home. Inside the medieval tower are opulent reception rooms and bedrooms filled with furniture and art from the period.