Scarcely changed since the Renaissance, Florence's architectural and artistic treasures have been luring culture lovers for centuries, says Aoife O'Riordain

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Florence holds its annual Calcio Storico – 15th-century-style football matches (think fights and dirty tackles) – in Piazza Santa Croce on the next three Sundays: 9, 16 and 24 June. Players from the four quarters of the city – San Giovanni, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito and Santa Croce – dress in medieval costume to compete against each other. The victors are rewarded with bistecca fiorentina – huge, mouth-watering steaks. The feast day of the city's patron saint, San Giovanni Battista, also falls on 24 June, and the day's activities culminate in a firework display over the city.

DOWN PAYMENT

Amerigo Vespucci airport, just three miles from the city centre, is so constricted that only small, regional planes are able to land and take off from it. The only direct flights from the UK are operated by Meridiana from Gatwick on behalf of Alitalia (0870 544 8259, www.alitalia.co.uk). The lowest fare available for travel this weekend is £252. Alternatively, you could fly to Pisa from Stansted with Ryanair (0870 156 9569, www.ryanair.com) or from Gatwick with British Airways (0845 773 3377, www.ba.com). The lowest return fares available for this weekend are £201 on Ryanair and £213 on BA. Pisa airport has its own railway station, with direct trains to Florence. The link costs around €4.70 (£3) one-way, takes just under one hour and transports you to the heart of the city.

INSTANT BRIEFING

Florence is unquestionably one of Italy's most beautiful cities. Oozing atmosphere, its almost perfectly preserved historic centre has seen only a handful of additions since the Renaissance. The city is sliced in two by the murky Arno, which separates the Centro Storico from the Oltarno section of the city. Brunelleschi's magnificent cantilevered dome, which caps the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (or the Duomo), can be seen from all over the city. Beautiful churches, hidden piazzas and graceful loggias are scattered all around. There are several tourist offices, but two of the most convenient are on Via Cavour in the heart of the old city (00 39 055 290 8323; 8.15am-7.15pm, Mon-Sat) and next to the train station in Piazza Stazione (00 39 055 212 245; 8.30am-1.45pm, Mon-Sat). Unless you are planning to explore further afield, Florence is small enough to get around on foot.

REST ASSURED

There are many options for accommodation in Florence. By and large you will pay handsomely for a room with a view. Most of the better hotels get booked up in advance, so it's wise to plan ahead if possible. The elegant Hotel Savoy (00 39 055 27 351, www.roccofortehotels.com), which overlooks the grand Piazza della Repubblica, was reopened two years ago after an extensive refurbishment. Doubles start from €420 (£270). The sleek new designer option is the Gallery Hotel Art. Morandi alla Crocetta (00 39 055 234 4747, www.hotelmorandi.it) is a 10-bedroom family-run hotel in a former convent, slightly off the beaten track on Via Laura 50, behind the archaeological museum. Doubles cost from €160 (£100). Budget options proliferate around the trendy Piazza Santa Spirito area, such as Instituto Gould (00 39 055 212 576), Via dei Serragli, a 17th-century palazzo that has double rooms with bathrooms from €47 (£30).

MUST SEE

Resign yourself to the fact that in a weekend there just isn't enough time to see everything. Better to wander the labyrinth of medieval streets, stop in a few cafés or wine bars and get a feel for the place. Almost all year round there are long queues for the most famous sites, notably Michelangelo's celebrated David at the Accedemia (00 39 055 238 8609), Via Ricasoli 58-60, and the Uffizi Gallery (00 39 055 294 883, www.uffizi.firenze.it). You could spend your entire weekend in the Uffizi, viewing its vast collection of works by the stars of the Florentine Renaissance – Rubens, Botticelli, Giotto, Da Vinci and Raphael, to name but a few. Visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon, or bypass the queues altogether by booking your ticket ahead of time. Admission costs €8.60 (£5.50) and advance bookings can be made for an extra €1.55 (£1). While climbing the inside of the Duomo, you can marvel at Vasari's fresco of The Last Judgement. Stroll up to Piazzale Michelangiolo, set on a hill on the other side of the Arno, for panoramic views of the city. Rather than joining the shuffle over the Ponte Vecchio, cross the river via the nearby Ponte Santa Trinita and get a proper view of the more famous bridge instead. Then visit the enormous church of Santa Croce, which is home to the tombs of Michelangelo and Giotto.

MUST BUY

Via Tornabuoni and the surrounding streets of via della Vigna Nuova and Via Roma are the first stops for label junkies, lined with stores such as Gucci and Prada. Browse the stalls of the San Lorenzo Market (Piazza di Mercato Centrale), which is open from 7am-2pm, Monday to Saturday. Another, smaller market, the Mercato di Sant' Ambrogio held in Piazza Ghiberti, is where independent vendors and farmers gather to sell their produce, grown or raised in the surrounding Tuscan hills. Florence is also a great place to buy leather. Choose a pair of gloves from the vast selection at Madova (00 39 055 239 6526), via Guicciardini 1r, one of the oldest glove shops in Florence.

MUST EAT

Florentines are among the most gastronomically minded citizens of Italy. While some of the local specialities such as tripe and chitterlings (intestines) are best described as robust, there are many more tempting alternatives on offer. Il Latini (00 39 055 210 916), via dei Palchetti 6R, is a typical Florentine trattoria, bursting with energy. Hams hang from the ceiling, tables are communal and you eat what's put in front of you – even if it's lardo di collonata (melted pork fat on toast). You do, however, get a choice for your main course. Il Cibreo (00 39 055 234 1100), Via del Verrocchio, near the Sant'Ambrogio food market, is a local legend serving more refined fare; it has a cheaper sister, Trattoria Cibreo (Via de' Macci) around the corner. For the pescatorially inclined, try Kitchen (00 39 055 651 0556, via del Padule, Bagno a Ripoli). Beccofino (00 39 055 290 076) on Piazza degli Scarlatti serves modern Tuscan cuisine.

INTO THE NIGHT

The city is dotted with tiny wine bars, known as fiaschetterie or enoteche, but many close by 9pm; Florence doesn't exactly pulsate to a thumping beat in the small hours. You could try the fashionable Café Gilli (00 39 055 213 896) on Piazza della Repubblica, which is excellent for a nightcap coupled with a spot of people-watching. Alternatively, head to the Piazza Santo Spirito, a popular night time hangout, or Caffe' La Torre (00 39 055 680 643), Lungarno Cellini – this is a cocktail bar and restaurant on the banks of the Arno that stays open until 5am at the weekend. The Fusion Bar at the Gallery Hotel Art also holds a fashionable nightclub known as New York Lounge every Sunday night.

Comments