Florence is a breathtaking Renaissance city and an art-lover's paradise, says Harriet O'Brien

WHERE?

The city of Dante, Giotto, Galileo, Botticelli and more straddles the River Arno in northern Tuscany. Olive and cypress-clad hills rise up to the south and north, looking like background landscapes that Uccello or Gozzoli might have painted, while suburbs straggle out to the west and east. Of course, Florence contains a profusion of Renaissance glories, from Brunelleschi's great cathedral dome to Michelangelo's David in the Galleria dell'Accademia. Yet for all that it is surprisingly compact, its winding centro storico, or historic centre, best navigated on foot.

The most celebrated sights are on the north side of the river, in an area largely encompassed by broad roads, or viale, which replaced the medieval walls when they were pulled down in a giddy fit of late 19th-century planning. Across the city's four historic bridges, the Oltrarno (literally, the other side of the Arno) has traditionally been a poorer and quieter quarter although more recently it has acquired a gentle buzz and a chic image.

The best way to get an overview of Florence is to head up to the 11th-century church of San Miniato al Monte, set on a hill above the south bank. Buses 12 or 13 from Santa Maria Novella station will take you there for €1 (£0.70). The church is well worth visiting for its marble fittings and for the magnificently decorated ceiling in its Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal, but stand outside, turn your back on the stripy marble facade and you get a stunning panorama of the city's red rooftops, piazzas and bold palazzos on either side of the river.

It is in the Oltrarno that one of Florence's finest hotels lies: the Hotel Lungarno, on Borgo San Jacopo 14 (00 39 055 27261; www.lungarnohotels.com). It is set right on the river, just around the corner from the Ponte Vecchio - the 14th-century bridge still lined with goldsmiths' stalls. Its 73 bedrooms are spread over a 13th-century tower and a modern building fused on to it, and are furnished with antiques and 20th-century art. Doubles start at €385 (£275), excluding breakfast.

For a less costly option make for the Monna Lisa (sic) on the other side of the Arno at Borgo Pinti 27 (00 39 055 247 9751; www.monnalisa.it) where doubles range from €160 (£114) to €258 (£184), including breakfast. This charming hotel is housed in a palazzo dating back to 1300. It is owned by descendants of the sculptor Giovanni Dupre whose works number among the art treasures here. There are 45 bedrooms and a lovely, hidden courtyard but no restaurant, although this is hardly a problem given the setting near Sant'Ambrogio food market where there are several gourmet eating options.

Further north, just beyond Piazza San Marco, stylish good value is offered at Hotel de la Pace on Via L Lamarmora 28 (00 39 055 577 344; www.hoteldelapace.it); its 42 sleek rooms are equipped with flatscreen TVs. Doubles cost from €80 (£57) during low season and €150 (£107) in high season, including breakfast.

The city's central tourist office is near the cathedral at Via Cavour; it opens 8.30am-6.30pm daily except Sundays, when it opens 8.30am-1.30pm.

Most visitors arrive in the city from airports to the west. Florence's small Amerigo Vespucci airport is just 4km out of town but is closed until May due to maintenance work on the runway. On reopening it will be served direct from Gatwick by Meridiana (0845 355 5588; www.meridiana.it). Pisa airport, about an hour away by bus or train (one-way tickets, sold in the arrivals hall, €7.50/£5.36 and €5/£3.57 respectively) presents more options, with flights on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Manchester and Gatwick; on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Bristol; on Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted, Liverpool and Prestwick; and on Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com) from Coventry and Doncaster-Sheffield.

WHY?

Florence is the Western world's greatest work of art, both in terms of what it is and what it houses. This is where the Renaissance effectively began. The defining moment is taken as the commissioning in 1401 of the doors of the Bapistry beside the cathedral: Lorenzo Ghiberti's sculpted bronze masterpieces (for the North and East sides) revolutionised perceptions of art. His most radical East doors are now preserved in the cathedral's museum (open 10am-5pm daily except 1.30-4.45pm on Sundays, admission €3/£2.20) although you can still see replicas where they originally hung.

It was after Ghiberti's creations that those great oligarchs, the Medicis, commissioned stupendous buildings, sculpture and paintings by Vasari, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and many others. Following a city trail of the resulting great palaces, church embellishments and art works is like setting off on an amazing treasure hunt. In the process you almost inevitably get lost in the maze of Florence's medieval streets, which is half the fun of being there. As you take stock of where you are, stop for an espresso at the terrace of one of the city's many cafes and indulge in a favourite Florentine pastime of people watching.

All this, however, is somewhat dependent on when you visit. Since Florence sits in a river basin, winters tend to be wet and chilly while summers become unbearably hot. Perversely it is when the city is at its most oven-like, in July and August, that great hordes descend. Spring, right now, is by contrast an excellent time to visit: the weather is fine but not too warm and the streets and galleries are relatively empty.

WHAT?

At whatever time of year you visit, you'll hear the chatter of crowds outside the Uffizi long before you reach this tremendous art gallery (8.15am-6.35pm daily except Mondays; admission €6.50 (£4.60). To avoid a long wait you can book ahead on www.yourwaytoflorence.com/uffizi although you'll pay more than double for a ticket, at €15.20/£11).

They queue with good reason: the museum contains about 1,800 works, many of them jaw-dropping Renaissance masterpieces - Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Uccello's Rout of San Romano, Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch and more.

The real art joys of Florence, though, are its frescoes. Some of the finest are in the church of Santa Maria Novella (Mon-Thurs 9am-5pm; Fri, Sat and Sun 1-5pm; admission €2.50/£1.78). Masaccio's haunting Trinity is just off the nave while the many chapels contain stunning fresco cycles - those by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Filippino Lippi are particularly magnificent.

It would take years to explore all Florence's treasures, yet one quiet wonder not to be missed is the Monastery of San Marco. First, you need to sort out the tricky opening times: 8.15am-1.50pm from Monday to Friday, 8.15am-6.50pm on Saturdays, 8.15am-7pm on Sundays, but closed on the first, third and fifth Sunday of the month and the second and fourth Monday. Admission is €4 (£2.85). The devout artist Fra Angelico was resident between 1436 and 1447 and here he painted into the cells an ethereal series of frescoes to assist the monks' meditations. The monastery's hospice now also serves as a museum of Angelico's work, including a Last Judgement where angels play in a heavenly garden while, opposite, sinners are fed into cauldrons by monsters.

FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK

Nobilis on Via Pietrapiana 82 (00 39 055 234 5696) is a stylish establishment. Dishes include ricotta mousse with prosciutto at €14 (£10), and roasted monkfish with canellini beans at €34 (£24).

Cibreo at Via dei Macci 118 (00 39 055 234 1100 - closed Sundays) is just around the corner from the food market. Try Tuscan specialities such as pumpkin soup (€12/£8.60) and leg of lamb with artichokes (€34/£24).

Mamma Gina is a cheerful trattoria in the Oltrarno at Borgo San Jacopo 15 (00 39 055 239 6009 - closed on Sundays). Try the risotto alla marinara or the gnocchi with tomato and basil, both at €8.50 (£6).

Pitti Gola e Cantina at Piazza Pitti 16 (00 39 055 212 704) is a tiny wine bar opposite the Pitti Palace. It serves a good choice of Chianti by the glass and light dishes such as Tuscan vegetable soup (€6/£4.30) and local salamis (€9/£6.40).

Café Cabiria on Piazzo Santo Spirito (00 39 055 215 732) in the Oltrarno is where locals gather for a Campari. Buy a drink, help yourself to free bruschetta and enjoy them on the terrace.

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