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WHY GO NOW?
The greatest concentration of art in the world: that is a fair contention for the Tuscan capital. Late summer is an excellent time to see Italy's most attractive city at her best; by the second half of August the tourist crowds have started to dwindle.
The city's Amerigo Vespucci airport is served only by Meridiana (0845 355 5588; www.meridiana.it) from Gatwick. A much wider and cheaper range of flights is available to Pisa, 90km to the west. British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) flies there from Gatwick; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) has flights from Gatwick, Luton and Bristol; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow Prestwick and Liverpool, and Jet2.com (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) from Belfast, Edinburgh, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle.
Terravision shuttle buses leave from a stand to the right of the arrivals exit every hour or two. The return fare is €16 (£13.30) for the 70-minute ride. Alternatively, six train services depart to Florence each day from Pisa airport's railway station. The train is cheaper (€11/£9.20 return), but about 20 minutes slower. See www.trenitalia.com for timetables.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Both the train and the coach drop you off at Santa Maria Novella station (1), about 1km north-west of the city centre. The nearest tourist office (2), directly across the large, always-busy Piazza della Stazione (00 39 055 212 245; www.firenze.turismo.toscana.it), provides free maps and useful literature; open 8.30am-7pm daily (Sundays to 2pm). The main tourist office (3), at Via Cavour 1 (00 39 055 290 832), opens 8.30am-6.30pm daily (Sundays to 1.30pm).
Most of the important sites, notably the Duomo (4), lie within a square kilometre immediately north of the River Arno. The river is spanned by six bridges, of which the Ponte Vecchio (5) is arguably the world's loveliest river crossing. The Oltrarno district on the south bank contains better vantage points, but demands less of your time.
The most striking luxury option is the Bernini Palace (6), in the heart of the action at Piazza San Firenze 29 (00 39 055 288 621; www.baglionihotels.com). This former 15th-century palazzo served as Italy's parliament when Florence briefly became capital of the new republic in the 1860s. Spacious and opulently furnished double rooms start at €250 (£208), including breakfast.
Classical and modern design are stylishly combined at the four-star Borghese Palace Art Hotel (7), a few minutes' walk from the Duomo, at Via Ghibellina 174 (00 39 055 284 363; www.borghesepalace.it). A glass lift ascends from the internal courtyard to the upper floors. Double rooms, with breakfast, start at €260 (£217).
On the left bank, Hotel Silla (8) at Via de Renai 5 (00 39 055 234 2888; www.hotelsilla.it) is a well-refurbished 17th-century house with a riverside terrace that's a perfect spot for breakfast. Double rooms, with breakfast, start at €150 (£125).
TAKE A VIEW
You have a choice. Climb the 466 steps to the top of the Duomo (4) or the 414 steps to the panoramic terrace of the adjacent Giotto's Bell Tower, part of the astonishing Renaissance religious complex designed to show off Florence's wealth and ambition. The drawback of the first ascent is that the cathedral itself is missing from the view. The Duomo's cupola is open Mon-Fri, 8.30am-6.20pm; Sat 8.30am-5pm. The Bell Tower opens 8.30am-6.50pm daily. Admission to either is €6 (£5).
TAKE A HIKE
It is easy to tick off most major civic and religious sites, at least from the outside, because of the compactness of the old town. Start at the Duomo (4). Head towards the river along Via Del Proconsolo to the Bargello Museum (9), one of the city's oldest public buildings; it now houses a vast collection of sculptures. Cross Piazza San Firenze (6) past the stately, crenellated Palazzo Vecchio (10) and one of the world's great art galleries, the Uffizi (11). When you reach the river, turn right to marvel at, and then cross, the Ponte Vecchio (5), crammed with gold and silversmiths' shops.
Once on the south bank, follow Via de Giucciardini to the intimidating Palazzo Pitti (12), the city's largest, which was once the base of the Medicis. Inside the palace and its garden pavilions are no fewer than eight galleries, the most important of which – the Galleria Palatina – features paintings by Caravaggio, Titian and Rubens among others. The admission charge of €8.50 (£7) gives access to all its museums, and is valid for three days. It opens 8.15am-6.50pm daily except Monday.
Finally, follow Via Maggio towards the river, crossing the graceful Ponte Santa Trinita (13) to the lovely piazza of the same name.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Explore the narrow streets set back from the obvious tourist traps, where cafés and snack bars are plentiful – though it's hard to resist an outdoor terrace table on one of the main piazzas, even if the prices are a jolt.
The world's finest collection of Renaissance art is the Uffizi Gallery (11) (00 39 055 294 883; www.firenzemusei.it). Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Rubens are among the luminaries at Italy's most popular tourist attraction. It opens 8.15am-6.50pm daily except Monday. Booking your visiting slot in advance guarantees entry, but there's a €3 (£2.50) surcharge on the admission charge of €6.50 (£5.40). The queues are almost as long outside the Galleria dell'Accademia (14) at Via Ricasoli, where the big attraction is Michelangelo's David. Opening hours and admission charges are the same as the Uffizi's.
As if there wasn't enough to do on the cultural beat, Florence offers rich pickings for shoppers, with an abundance of modern fashion stores alongside the leather manufacturers and jewellers. For leatherware and gloves, the Piazza Santa Croce (15) is filled with smallholders' stalls selling locally made products. Piazza San Lorenzo (16) has the best of the open-air markets, open 7am-2pm daily except Sundays.
Near the Duomo, La Congrega (17), at Via Dei Tosinghi 3-4 (00 39 055 264 027) is a stylish lounge bar serving snacks throughout the day and cocktails in the evening. Near the Ponte Vecchio, on the south bank, Ringo's wine bar (18) at Borgo San Jacopo 21 (00 39 055 219 100) decorates the pavement with zinc tables and champagne buckets in a street of great character and diversity. Both are a short walk from the frenzy of the nearby attractions.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
For a veritable Tuscan-style blow-out, the excellent Caffe Italiano (19) at Via Isola delle Stinche 11-13 (00 39 055 289 368) serves a sampler of Tuscan-dressed meats, followed by vegetable soup, ricotta and spinach ravioli and artichokes, beef braised in Chianti Classico with creamed potatoes, and tiramisu. This set menu is not cheap – €50 (£41.50) a head without wine – but the friendly staff and decor are delightful.
Il Pizzaiuolo (20) at Via dei Macci 113 (00 39 055 241 171) is an institution, reputed to turn out the finest pizzas in town. It's rustic, inexpensive and so popular that it's advisable to book.
SUNDAY MORNING: A WALK IN THE PARK
On the south side of the Palazzo Pitti, a quarry was transformed into the formal Boboli Gardens (21) by the Medici family. It opened in 1766, replete with sculptures, ornate pavilions and grottos. From June to August, the gardens open daily between 8.15am-7.30pm, closing an hour earlier in September and October. The entrance fee of €6 (£5) allows admission to some minor museums.
OUT TO BRUNCH
One of the few Florentine establishments that specialises in American-style brunch on Sundays is Noir (22), at Lungarno Corsini 12 (00 39 055 210 751; www.noirfirenze.com), which is open from noon until after midnight (except Mondays), and is also a fashionable cocktail venue.
GO TO CHURCH
Officially known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, but universally called the Duomo (4), this monumental structure was Europe's largest religious building in 1436. The colourful marble façade was added in the 19th century. Admission is free to the main church, which is surprisingly austere. On Sundays, tourists are allowed to tour the church between 1.30-4.45pm; for worshippers, Mass is said at 7.30am, 9am, 10.30am, noon and 6pm. There's a service in English on Saturday at 5pm.
WRITE A POSTCARD
The finest long-range view of the river, bridges, spires and great dome is from the Piazzale Michelangelo (23), south-east of the centre. Stone terracing is provided for the many thousands of tourists to enjoy the ever-changing scene and the hubbub of humanity around the souvenir stalls and cafés.