48 Hours in Florence

In the heat of summer, the Renaissance splendour of Florence is overwhelmed by tourists. But at this time of year the city's streets are calm and its attractions mercifully empty. Rhiannon Batten explores the Tuscan masterpiece
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The Independent Travel

From now until March there are fewer crowds, shorter queues and the city takes a more relaxed attitude to life.

WHY GO NOW?

From now until March there are fewer crowds, shorter queues and the city takes a more relaxed attitude to life. Florence's elegant architecture and Tuscan surroundings are no less beautiful in winter, and residents and visitors alike are calmer without the sticky summer heat. In the four weeks running up to Christmas, Florence is particularly festive, with picturesque markets lining the streets and elaborate Nativity scenes adding to the atmosphere in the city's many churches.

TOUCH DOWN

Meridiana (020-7730 3454; www.meridiana.it) flies from Gatwick to Florence's small Vespucci airport, just five kilometres west of the city centre, from around £90 return. Shuttle buses for the city's main Santa Maria Novella train station depart from Vespucci roughly every 30 minutes. Many visitors fly to Pisa instead and catch the train from the airport direct to Santa Maria Novella. Trains leave hourly, take around 80 minutes and cost €10 (£7) return. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) runs scheduled services to Pisa from Manchester and Gatwick; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted and Thomsonfly (08701 900 737; www.thomsonfly.com) flies from Coventry.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Florence is so small that, at a push, you can walk across the city centre in an hour. The main sights, including the multi-coloured duomo (cathedral) and the Uffizi Gallery, are huddled just to the north of the river Arno. To the east is the bohemian Santa Croce district, named after the area's main church, while the similarly relaxed Oltrarno area spirals out from Santa Spirito church on the south side of the river. For tourist information and maps head to the helpful APT office at 1r Via Cavour (00 39 055 290 832, www.firenzeturismo.it), which is open from Monday-Saturday, 8.30am-6.30pm and on Sunday from 8.30am-1.30pm.

CHECK IN

The Grand Hotel at 1 Piazza Ognissanti (00 39 055 288 781; www.luxurycollection.com/grandflorence) is the ultimate in refinement with a Florentine twist. Its Renaissance-style rooms boast painted ceilings, elaborate velvet furnishings and private balconies overlooking the Arno. Doubles start at €375 (£268) including breakfast. Dedicated foodies should try the up-market B&B Le Stanze di Santa Croce at 6 Via delle Pinzochere (00 39 055 200 1366; www.viapinzochere6.it). Doubles start at €160 (£114), including a lavish continental breakfast. The guesthouse's cheerful owner, Mariangela Catalani, also runs cookery courses. If you're on a budget, Hostel Archi Rossi at 94r Via Faenza (00 39 055 290 804; www.hostelarchirossi.com) has beds in bright dorms from €20 (£14), including breakfast and internet access.

TAKE A HIKE

Wind your way through the city's historic centre, starting between the baptistry's Gates of Paradise and the elaborate marble bell-tower of the duomo. Then, slip gradually south down the Via del Studio, the Via del Corso and the Via Calimala until you see Via Vacchereccia running off to your left. Here, turn east and head straight towards the Palazzo Vecchio before turning south again through the Piazzale degli Uffizi to come out by the river. If you stop at all the sights along the way this will take you a couple of hours, but should you want to stretch your legs rather than your mind carry on east along the river and cross the Ponte alle Grazie to start the climb up to the Piazzale Michelangelo for a spectacular, leg-wobbling view of the city.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Dedicated fashionistas make for the Via Tornabuoni, home to the Armani, Prada and Pucci stores, among others. Everyone else heads east to the artisan-filled streets of Santa Croce. If you want a modern twist on traditional Florentine crafts, two of the best shops here include Paolo Carandini at 73r Via de' Macci (00 39 055 245 397) and Angela Salamone at 16r Piazza L Ghiberti (00 39 055 234 6811). The former specialises in sleek leather accessories in fiery colours while the latter sells elegant paper and linen stationery.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Follow local tradition by ordering a slug of wine and a plate of parsley-and-garlic-laced tripe from the neat little van on the corner of Via de' Macci and Borgo la Croce. Or, if that sounds unappetising, how about a quick trip to the nearby Sant'Ambrogio food market, where you can put together your own picnic hamper from the feast of fruits, cheeses, meats and breads on offer (both are open daily, except Sunday, from 7.30am-2pm).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Uffizi Gallery is the recognized home of Renaissance art (6 Piazzale degli Uffizi; 00 39 055 2388651; www.uffizi.firenze.it). Two of its most celebrated paintings are Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera, but it also houses works by Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael. It opens 8.15am-6.50pm daily except Monday and costs €9.50 (£6.80). To beat the queues, book a few days before you plan to visit by calling 00 39 055 294 883 (€3/£2.20 extra).

WRITE A POSTCARD

The stalls that line the 14th-century Ponte Vecchio have been home to the city's gold and silversmiths for half a millennium. Stop where the shops peter out half way along to seek inspiration from the fine views of the river.

AN APERITIF

Before the advent of wine bars, Florentines would stop at little hole-in-the-wall vinaii. One of the oldest remaining is I Fratellini at 38r Via dei Cimatori (00 39 055 239 6096), where you can get a small glass of wine and bite-size pecorino crostini for a bargain €1.50 (£1), until around 8pm. If you'd rather sit and gaze out across an open square, head to lively Boccadama at 25-26r Piazza Santa Croce (00 39 055 243 640; www.boccadama.it).

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Cibreino at 122r Via dei Macci (00 39 055 234 1100) is the bistro version of the posher Cibreo restaurant a few doors down. Here you have to share the simple wooden tables with whoever else turns up but you get the same food (Tuscan specialities such as stuffed chicken neck or yellow pepper soup) for much less - around €25 (£18) per head for three courses. Even better, though the decor is a bit jaded, is Pane e Vino, at 70r Via di San Niccolo (00 39 055 247 6956). The tasting menu here is good value at €30 (£21).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Santa Croce is the most attractive of the city's main churches. Its glittering stained glass windows, leafy cloisters and the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo make it well worth a visit. The main Sunday service is at 11am but the church is also open 9.30am-5.30pm Monday-Saturday and 1-5.30pm on Sundays. Admission costs €4 (£3).

A WALK IN THE PARK

The Boboli Gardens, set directly behind the Pitti Palace (tickets compulsorily cover both), were laid out for Eleonora di Toledo and Cosimo I in the 16th century. The most notable feature is the Viottolone, a long avenue lined with cypress trees. The quietest entrance is on the Via Romana. The gardens are open from 8.15am-4.30pm daily but are closed on the first and last Monday of each month. Admission costs €6 (£4.30).

OUT TO BRUNCH

The Osteria Santo Spirito at 16r Piazza Santo Spirito (00 39 055 238 2383) is a relaxed place with a cosy terracotta-coloured interior and a raft of umbrella-covered tables outside. It opens daily from 12.45pm-11.30pm. You can get everything from a plate of swordfish carpaccio (€7/£5) to simple grilled chicken with vegetables (€12/£8.60). Order a coffee and it will be served with a sugared jelly and a chunk of dark chocolate.

TAKE A RIDE

The pretty hill town of Fiesole boasts an 11th-century duomo, a Roman amphitheatre and an archaeological museum. Getting there is half the fun. Buy a €1 (£0.70) ticket from the ATAF kiosk outside the station, hop on bus number seven from the neighbouring stop (they run every 15 minutes for €1 each way) and sit back for a 35-minute journey up past villas and gardens, as the city shrinks behind you.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

The Medici-Riccardi Palace is currently undergoing restoration but don't let the scaffolding put you off (3 Via Cavour, 00 39 055 276 0340). Tucked away on the first floor is the tiny Magi chapel, home to some of the city's best frescoes, the work of 15th-century artist Benozzo Gozzoli. It opens 9am-7pm daily except Wednesdays, and admission costs €4 (£2.85).

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