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Why go now?
Tuscany's elegant capital can be one giant crowd in summer, but the winter months offer easier access to its art treasures and glorious galleries – such as the Palazzo Strozzi (1), where a new exhibition, The Springtime of the Renaissance, will look at the grand sculptures of the city's 15th-century Golden Age, from 23 March onwards (€ 12.50).Touch down
Peretola Airport (aeroporto.firenze.it) is four miles north-west of the centre. Cityjet (0871 663 3777; cityjet.com) has the sole direct link from the UK – six flights per week from London City. The ATAF VolaInBus (www.ataf.net) takes 15 minutes to reach Santa Maria Novella (2) railway station, on Piazza della Stazione, at least once an hour from 6am to 11.30pm (€6). Taxis to central hotels are about €20.
Pisa's Galileo Galilei Airport (www.pisa-airport.com), 50 miles west of Florence, is well connected. Options include British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com) from Heathrow; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Bristol and Gatwick; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted. Trains from the airport station to Florence (with a quick change at Pisa Centrale) take about an hour – single fares €9.30 (00 39 0199 892 021; trenitalia.com). Alternatively, Terravision buses (terravision.eu) depart for Piazza della Stazione (2) 18 times per day (8.48am-12.10am) and take 70 minutes, at a cost of €4.99 one way.
Get your bearings
Pitched prettily amid the gentle hills of Tuscany, Florence lies midway across Italy's upper torso, equidistant between Milan and Rome.The River Arno cuts through it in lovely fashion, cleaving sight-laden northerly districts such as Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella from the leafy spaces of southerly Oltrarno.
The bus and tram network is run by ATAF (Azienda Trasporti Area Fiorentina). Single fares are a set €1.20 (24-hour pass €5) – although the compact centre is very pedestrian-friendly. Transport is covered by the Firenze Card (72 hours, €50, firenzecard.it), which allows access to 50 museums – and, crucially, lets you jump the queues. It can be bought at the tourist office (3) at Piazza della Stazione 4 (00 39 055 212 245; www.comune.fi.it; daily 8.30am-7pm, except Sunday, 8.30am-2pm). More information at firenzeturismo.it.
Palazzo Galletti (4), with its fresco-daubed rooms arranged around a courtyard at Via Sant'Egidio 12, is a hidden jewel. Doubles here start at €118, with breakfast included (00 39 055 218 046; msnhotels.com).
Torre Guelfa (5), housed in a 13th-century palace at Borgo Santi Apostoli 8 (00 39 055 239 6338; hoteltorreguelfa.com), has doubles from €107, room only.
Hotel Lungarno (6) is a river-view five-star at Borgo San Jacopo 14 in Oltrarno. Part of the Salvatore Ferragamo-founded Lungarno Hotel Collection, it has doubles from €287, room only (00 39 055 2726 4000; hotelungarno.it).
It makes sense to start early with Florence's museums, as queues build quickly. Ease your progress at the A-list Galleria degli Uffizi (7) on Piazzale degli Uffizi, by booking ahead (00 39 055 294 883; uffizi.firenze.it). The €4 fee, added to €6.50 entry, is worth it, because you just collect your tickets and stroll past the queues. The gallery (daily 8.15am to 6.50pm, closed Monday) – is a Renaissance hot spot, where Botticelli's The Birth of Venus is augmented by the brushstrokes of Da Vinci, Raphael and Titian. A pre-emptive approach is also best for the Gallerie dell'Accademia (8). This hallowed institution at Via Ricasoli 60 (00 39 055 294 883; www.polomuseale.firenze.it), contains the key symbol of the Renaissance – Michelangelo's David rearing 17ft, a marble marvel carved from 1501 to 1504. The gallery echoes the Uffizi's hours and ticket prices.
Palazzo Strozzi (1), deals in temporary shows (00 39 055 264 5155; palazzostrozzi.org). It has two spaces: the Piano Nobile (daily 9am-8pm, Thursdays 9am-11pm), and the modern focus at Centro di Cultura Contemporanea (daily 10am-8pm except Thursday, 10am-11pm. Shut Mondays). Entry varies according to exhibition.
Take a hike
Begin at the heart of Renaissance Florence, in the Piazza della Signoria (9). Admire the splendid façade of the 14th-century Palazzo Vecchio (10) – the town hall and traditional seat of power in the city of the Medici. A replica of Michelangelo's David waits outside. Exit the piazza at its south-west corner, and follow Via Vacchereccia, taking the first left into the shopping strip of Via Por Santa Maria. Head south to the junction with Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli – where the 1345-built Ponte Vecchio (11) bridge spans the Arno in photogenic manner, jewellery shops having long replaced the butchers who originally operated here.
Lunch on the run
Il Ristoro dei Perditempo (12) at Borgo San Jacopo 48R, does a thick beef stew for €9 and views of the bridge from its windows (00 39 055 264 5569; ilristorodeiperditempo.it).
Florence's flair for fashion comes out in the chic outlets dotted along the stylish Via de' Tornabuoni – such as Bulgari (13), at number 56 (00 39 055 239 6786; bulgari.com) – and in boutiques such as Adrimar (14), which has luxury leather goods at Via San Giuseppe 12 (00 39 055 234 5162; adrimar.it). Italian wines and olive oils are sold at L'Antica Cantina del Chianti (15) at Piazza del Duomo 23R (00 39 055 282 489) – and at the Mercato Centrale (16), the vast 19th-century market hall that dominates Piazza del Mercato Centrale (daily 7am-2pm, Saturday until 5pm and closed Sunday).
Peruse the long list of vodka cocktails – from €8 – at Oibo (17), a colourful bar at Borgo dei Greci 1 where the walls are adorned with old vinyl LPs (00 39 055 263 8611; oibo.net).
Dining with the locals
Unobtrusively sited at Via Sant'Egidio 13R, Cantina Barbagianni (18) is a delight, with beef fillet for €19 (00 39 055 248 0508; cantinabarbagianni.it). Il Guscio (19) at Via dell'Orto 49A in Oltrarno, serves seabass with mushrooms for €25 (00 39 055 224 421; il-guscio.it). And Osteria Cocotrippone (20), east of the centre at Via Gioberti 140R (00 39 055 234 7527), is a family eatery with tripe dish lampredotto for €10.
Sunday morning: go to church
Florence is awash with grandstanding churches but two are unmissable. The Basilica di Santa Croce (21) at Piazza Santa Croce 16, houses the tombs of some of Italy's most notable figures – Galileo, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Rossini – and is also home to significant artworks, including frescos by Giotto. It is open for visits daily 9.30am-5.30pm (except Sunday, 2-5.30pm). Sunday services are held at 9.30am, 11am, noon and 6pm (00 39 055 246 6105; santacroceopera.it; €6).
At Piazza del Duomo 17, there's the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore – better known as The Duomo (22) –the world's third biggest cathedral (after St Peter's in Rome and St Paul's in London). This 13th-century marble feast with a 91m dome is open for visits daily 10am-5pm, except Thursday (10am-4.30pm), Saturday (10am-4.45pm) and Sunday (1.30-4.45pm). Sunday services are at 7.30am, 9am, 10am, 10.30am, noon, 5.15pm, 6pm (00 39 055 215 380; duomofirenze.it; free).
Take a view
The Duomo's astonishing dome (built between 1420 and 1436) is closed to the public on Sundays (open Monday to Friday 8.30am-7pm; Saturday 8.30am-5.40pm; €8). But the adjacent Campanile di Giotto – an ornate 85m bell tower – is accessible daily, 8.30am-7.30pm (€6).
Out to brunch
The semi-concealed Piazza San Pier Maggiore is thronged with unpretentious eateries for a quick bite. Mastro Ciliegia (23) at number 4/5R, has classic pizzas from €8 (00 39 055 248 0444; ristorantepizzeriamastrociliegia.com).
Walk in the park
If you still have an appetite for art, the Palazzo Pitti (24) shelters further treasures on the Arno's south bank. The 15th-century stronghold of the Medicis at Piazza Pitti 1 hosts galleries such as the Galleria Palatina (00 39 055 238 8614; polomuseale.firenze.it; €8.50; Tuesday to Sunday 8.15am-6.50pm, Monday closed). Here, the Medici collection includes works by Caravaggio, Rubens and Raphael. If you have art fatigue, step into the 16th-century palace gardens, the Giardino di Boboli (25) – a manicured expanse of fountains and paths, with epic views.
Icing on the cake
If flying home from Pisa, leave an hour early and see the Leaning Tower (00 39 050 835011; www.opapisa.it; €18) . If lingering in Florence, seek out La Bottega del Gelato (26) at Via Por Santa Maria 33 (00 39 055 239 6550) – where superb fruit ice lollies in melon and kiwi flavours cost €2.50.