48 hours in: Florence

New flights make a midwinter visit to the cradle of the Renaissance even easier – and the city is now at its crowd-free finest. By Aoife O'Riordain



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Why go now?



The Tuscan capital is the latest addition to the schedules from London City airport – and provides a beguiling backdrop for a festive visit, sprinkled with Christmas markets and elaborately decorated shops. In winter, the historic sites and museums of this Unesco World Heritage treasure are also significantly less crowded than at other times of the year – making it an ideal time for a cultural fix in the cradle of the Renaissance.



Touch down



From Wednesday 22 December, CityJet (0871 666 5050; cityjet.com) will fly from London City to Florence's Amerigo Vespucci airport, in competition with Meridiana (0871 423 3711; meridiana.it) from Gatwick. A shuttle bus runs every half-hour to Santa Maria Novella station (1) for €4.50, in around 15 minutes. A taxi costs around €20.



Pisa airport, nearby, has a much wider range of links from the UK, including Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), Jet2.com (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). From Pisa airport, the Terravision bus service takes around 70 minutes (terravision.eu; €10) to Santa Maria Novella station (1). A cheaper option (from 57 minutes, €5.80 one way; ferroviedellostato.it) to the same destination is the train from Pisa airport, although some journeys require a change at Pisa Centrale.



Check in



Part hotel, part museum, the fresco-adorned Four Seasons (2), set in the grandiose Renaissance Palazzo Gherardesca at Borgo Pinti 99 (00 39 055 26261; fourseasons.com/ florence), is the city's most opulent place to stay. Guests have Florence's largest private garden at their disposal. In winter, doubles start at around €295, room only.



The NH Porta Rossa (3) in Via Porta Rossa (00 39 055 271 0911; nh-hotels.com) opened in March in a restored 12th-century building. Its interior is a fusion of historic grandeur and contemporary chic. Doubles start at €150, room only.



Floroom (00 39 055 21 6674; floroom.com) is a diminutive, up-market B&B with two properties in very different locations in the city – one in Oltrarno at Piazza della Passera (4), the other at the Via del Sole (5) near Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Décor is simple but stylish, akin to staying in your own apartment. Doubles start at €140, including breakfast.



Get your bearings



Florence is dominated by Brunelleschi's spectacular dome of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore – the Duomo (6). It is clustered, along with most of the city's principal galleries and churches, on the northern bank of the river Arno. The quieter streets of the more bohemian Oltrarno lie to the south. The most notable crossing is the Ponte Vecchio (7).



The main tourist office (8) is at Via Cavour 1 (00 39 055 212 245; firenzeturismo.it); open 8.30am-6.30pm daily (Sundays to 1.30pm). A smaller branch (00 39 055 23320) is located across the Piazza della Stazione from Santa Maria Novella station (1); open 8.30am-7pm daily (Sundays to 2pm).



Day one - Take a hike



Start with a brief amble amid the hustle and bustle of the Sant' Ambrogio Market on Piazza Ghiberti (9). Particularly busy on Saturday mornings before it closes at 2pm, this lively food market's stalls spill into the surrounding streets. Continue your stroll down the Via de Macci, bearing right at the Via San Giuseppe. Here you will emerge onto the piazza outside the Basilica of Santa Croce (10), one of Italy's most magnificent churches – on which construction began in the 13th century. Its imposing interior contains works by Giotto as well as the Brunelleschi-designed Cappella dei Pazzi. Cross the piazza and continue along the Borgo dei Greci followed by the Via Gondi until you arrive on to Piazza della Signoria (11), the city's political centre. Admire the towering Palazzo Vecchio (12) and the Fountain of Neptune then turn up the Via Vacchereccia and bear left on to the Via por Santa Maria – straight ahead is the Ponte Vecchio (7). Cross the bridge, which is lined with goldsmiths and jewellers. Finish with a wander of the streets of Oltrarno, scattered with quiet piazzas and artisans' workshops and finish at the Piazza Santo Spirito (13).



Lunch on the run



Stop by the reassuringly old-fashioned Procacci (14) at Via Tornabuoni (00 39 055 211 656; antinori.it, 10am-8pm daily except Sundays). Its doors have been open since 1885; it is now owned by the wine-producing Antinori clan. The panini tartufati – delicate little sandwiches containing truffle butter (€1.80) and other combinations – are a Florentine institution. Or visit the bustling Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo (15) before it closes at 7pm to snack – and pick up some edible souvenirs – at Baroni Alimentari (baronialimentari.it), which sells an array of wines, grappa, oils, vinegars and cheeses from Tuscany and beyond.



Take a ride



Mille e Una Bici, which translates as "1,001 bicycles" (00 39 055 650 5295; cooperativaulisse.it; closed Sundays in winter) offers rentals by the hour from stations at Santa Maria Novella (1) and four other points around the city. One hour costs €1.50, five hours €4, a full day €8.



Window shopping



Florence's retail heart is concentrated between the Duomo (6) and the Piazza della Signoria (11), with a plethora of up-market Italian brands clustered along the Via de Tornabuoni, Via Roma and Via degli Strozzi. Keep the winter chill at bay with a pair of hand-made leather gloves from Madova (16) at Via Guicciardini 1R (00 39 055 210 204; madova.com), which has been producing gloves for almost a century.



An aperitif



If it's warm enough, sit outside under the awning of the historic Caffè Gilli (17) at Via Roma 1R (00 39 055 213 3896; gilli.it). Order a glass of chianti or better still, a Negroni (€12) – a cocktail of campari, vermouth and gin, invented in Florence by Count Camillo Negroni.



Le Volpi e L'Uva (18) at Piazza de'Rossi 1R (00 39 055 239 8132; levolpieluva. com) has a fabulous selection of wines by the glass, predominately from smaller vineyards.



Dining with the locals



Locals still far outnumber tourists at Trattoria Cammillo (19) at Borgo San Jacopo 57R (00 39 055 212 427). Everyone crams into its three dining rooms for flawless renderings of classic Tuscan and Italian fare. Beef carpaccio with shaved artichokes and parmesan, homemade pasta and perfectly cooked tagliata of beef are just a few of the menu's delicious highlights. Around €40 including wine.



Day two

Sunday morning: go to church



Florence is blessed with many beautiful churches; the 13th-century Dominican Basilica of Santa Maria Novella (20) in the piazza of the same name (00 39 055 219 257; chiesasantamarianovella.it) is a prime example. It also contains some outstanding Renaissance art – admire Giotto's wooden crucifix in the main church, and another by Brunelleschi in its newly restored Gondi Chapel. Sunday Mass is held at 10.30am and 6pm.



Take a view



Ascend the left bank of the Arno along the Viale dei Colli up to the green and white marble façade of the Romanesque Basilica of San Miniato al Monte (21). Continue along the Via del Monte until you reach the Piazzale Michelangelo (22), where Florence and the surrounding Tuscan countryside will unfold before you. Afterwards, take the stairs down to Piazza Giuseppe Poggi (23) below.



You can also reach the Basilica on bus 13 from Santa Maria Novella (1). Tickets cost €1.20 when bought from a kiosk or €2 on board.



Out to brunch



For most Italians the main Sunday event is lunch and most make do with a quick coffee and a pastry to start the day. Rivoire (24) on the Piazza della Signoria (00 39 055 214 412; rivoire.it), has been churning out delectable pastries and chocolates for over two centuries. Order a cappuccino and a cornetto con crema either at the bar or at a table on the square and watch the world go by.



A walk in the park



The Boboli Gardens may be the largest in the city, but the adjacent Bardini Gardens (25) at Costa San Giorgio 2/4 (00 39 055 200 66206; bardinipeyron.it, Italian only; 8.15am-4.30pm Nov-Feb), sandwiched between the Arno and the Montecuccoli Hill, are arguably prettier. The gardens also afford panoramas of the city. The admission price of €10 includes entry to the Boboli Gardens and several other museums.



Cultural afternoon



A highlight of the Florentine cultural calendar this year has been "Caravaggio e Caravaggeschi a Firenze" – an exhibition staged in the Uffizi Gallery (26), the Palazzo Pitti (27) and the Villa Bardini (28) to mark the 400th anniversary of the artist's death (unannoadarte.it). It has just been extended to 9 January – another reason, if one were needed, to visit the Uffizi Gallery (00 39 055 238 8651; firenzemusei.it; 8.15am-7pm daily except Mondays; until 11pm on 28 December). Admission to the museum and the exhibition is €10, but pay the additional €4 to book in advance on 00 39 055 294 883 and cut down on queuing.



The Palazzo Strozzi (29) (00 39 055 277 6461; palazzostrozzi.org), one of the city's most impressive Renaissance palaces, also houses a rare contemporary space: the Strozzina. "Portraits and Power: People, Politics and Structures" is an exhibition of photography by the likes of Martin Parr and Hiroshi Sugimoto, on show until 23 January; 10am-8pm daily except Mondays, and Thursdays to 11pm; €5 (free 6-11pm on Thursdays).



The icing on the cake



With its striking green and white exterior, the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore (6) (00 39 055 230 2885; www.operaduomo. firenze.it), looms large over the city and is Florence's spiritual heart.



Admire the doors of its Baptistry – the glittering, bronze Gates of Paradise – and then enter the vast echoing interior of the cathedral, illuminated by 48 stained glass windows.



It opens 1.30-4.45pm on Sundays, 10am-4.45pm on Saturdays, 10am-4.30pm on Thursdays, and 10am-5pm on other days.

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