48 hours in Florence

If you're planning a visit to Italy's artistic capital go now, while the Vasariano Corridor is open.


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

The crowds are thinning out, prices are coming down and although the sun's still shining it's not nearly as sticky. As the tourist season starts to wind down, Florence in September is a pleasant place to be. And if you go now you can also visit the Vasariano Corridor. Only open to the public for a limited time (until 30 October), the Vasariano Corridor in the Uffizi Gallery is the Medici's old escape route. Lined with paintings, it runs from the Palazzo Vecchio across the River Arno via the Ponte Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti. For reservations call 00 39 055 26 54 321 between 8.30am-1pm.

BEAM DOWN

Florence airport is small and few airlines fly there direct. Hamilton Travel Europe (0171-344 3333) is currently offering flights from London on Lufthansa via Frankfurt for around £165, or on Alitalia via Milan for £180. Both of these are trickier than a flight on Ryanair (0541 569569) from Stansted to Pisa from around £90, with a direct connection from the airport to Florence station.

CHECK IN

There is no shortage of centrally located hotels in Florence even at the height of the season. For a taste of luxury stay at the Grand Hotel Baglioni, situated in a 19th-century palace close to the Duomo. The roof-top restaurant and garden with flowering pergolas offer panoramic views over the city, (Piazza Unita Italiana 6; tel 00 39 055 23 580; a double room costs 460,000 lire, about £160). The three-star Hotel Porta Rossa, an old coaching inn with frescoed ceilings, is a favourite with British guests (Via Porta Rossa, 19; tel 00 39 055 28 75 51). A double room costs 240,000 lire (about £80). For those on a tighter budget, try the Nuova Italia, with wrought-iron banisters and a stone-flagged stairway. Rooms start from 140,000 lire, around £50 (Via Faenza 26; tel 00 39 055 26 84 30).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

A city of artists and artisans, Florence is easy to negotiate on foot. Clustered around the famous Duomo on the north bank of the River Arno, cobbled streets and squares retain their Renaissance charm. The main tourist office is at Via Cavour 1, just north of the Duomo and is open from Monday to Saturday 8.15am to 7.15pm and Sunday from 8.45am to 1.45pm. Pick up a map, hotel information and friendly advice. Their main tip for the first- time visitor who wants to "see" Florence is not to spend all day in the museums, just walk around - and look up.

BRACING BRUNCH

An American breakfast (eggs, coffee, tea or orange juice and toast or brioche for 22,000 lire) is advertised outside the French-style Caffe Giubbe Rosse in the Piazza della Repubblica, originally a Roman forum and now lined with fashionable cafes. Eat outside under a large awning or in the roomy interior with marble-topped tables, ceiling fans, and artists' sketches and posters covering the walls.

TAKE A RIDE

Horse-drawn carriage rides start from Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria. The smart green-jerkined drivers provide interesting commentary as you trot towards the Arno passing the church of Orsanmichele, originally a grain market, and the Mercato Nuovo, a loggia built in the 16th century for the gold and silver trade. The square market is now bursting with stalls selling leather bags and belts, lace and linen, and silk ties. Rub the wild boar's nose as you drop in a coin and you'll return to Florence. Another right along the Borgo SS Apostoli to the Piazza Santa Trinita and then down to the river and along the bank of the Arno until you reach the Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge to survive the Nazi's bombing. Back up towards the Piazza della Signoria and diagonally across the square to head down the little back streets towards Dante's house just off the Via del Corso, finishing back at the Duomo. Cost 100,000 lire for half an hour.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

For authentic Italian food try the little restaurants around the San Lorenzo area. At Giannino in S Lorenzo, 35/37 Borgo San Lorenzo, you can sample a traditional Florentine menu for 30,000 lire (about £10) including ribollita alla florentina (a filling bread and vegetable soup), Florentine tripe, Tuscan peasant beef chops and Tuscan sausages with white beans in oil. A rustic restaurant with painted ceiling, shelves of salami and cheeses, tiled floor and exposed brickwork.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Alice Atelier in Via Faenza, a tiny back street near San Lorenzo market, is an Aladdin's cave filled with amazing papier mache masks. Like a character from Hans Christian Anderson, Professor Agostino Dessi uses 17th-century techniques to create intricate masks for Italian theatre and cinema, and the famed Venice Carnival. Open Monday-Saturday, 9.30am- 1pm, 3.30-7.30pm. Entrance is free.

TAKE A HIKE

Walking Tours of Florence (00 39 055 23 46 225) offers an alternative to the more traditional group walks. But, with map in hand, you could try the do-it-yourself route, plotted as easily around a tour of the ice-cream parlours as churches. Start at the Chiesa di Santa Croce, where you will find the tomb of Michelangelo, before heading west via the famous Gelateria Vivoli on Via dell Isola Delle Stinche - renowned as the best ice-cream parlour in Florence - to the Palazzo Vecchio. Cross the square littered with statues and head north to marvel at the green, pink and cream marble facade of the Duomo. Continue north through the market of San Lorenzo to the Medici Chapel, burial place of the Medicis, before bearing west to the church of Santa Maria Novella and the famous frescos of Filippino Lippi and Masaccio.

SUNDAY MORNING

Brunelleschi's famous dome dominates the city's skyline. On Sunday Mass is sung in the cathedral at 10.30am (as well as at 7.30am, 9am, 12noon and 6pm). For a more intimate atmosphere, cross the Arno where mass at Santo Spirito is at 9am, or to hear the mass in Latin make the trek up to the Piazzale Michelangelo and the church of San Miniato al Monte at 5.30pm. A full list of services is available at the tourist office.

DEMURE DINNER

Wander down to Alfredo sull' Arno on the south bank of the Arno where the open terrace overlooks the Ponte Vecchio. For the best Tuscan ham and melon at only 10,000 lire (approx £3.40) followed by mouthwatering wild boar stew or a famous Florentine steak.

AN APERITIF

Across the Arno in the Piazza Santo Spirito is the bohemian Cafe Cabiria. The square has an off-centre feel and the jazz floating out of the cafe adds to the atmosphere. Open until 1am, cocktails start at 10,000 lire (£3.50). Alternatively sip the aperitivo della casa, a delicious concoction of Campari, Martini, tonic and Punt & Mes at the classic Cafe Rivoire on the Piazza della Signoria, an open-air sculpture gallery with Ammannati's Fountain of Neptune, copies of Michelangelo's David and Donatello's Marzocco outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

A WALK IN THE PARK

For one of the best views of Florence, cross the Arno and walk up the leafy, cobbled footpath to the Piazza del Michelangelo. This large square, dotted with souvenir stalls, offers a panoramic view. The Renaissance Boboli Gardens at the Pitti Palace is another ideal escape from the city's heat and bustle. One of the most important examples of Italian Renaissance landscape - design by Niccolo Pericoli, aka "Il Tribolo" - it offers shaded pathways, wooded groves, and long avenues leading to fountains, with statues tucked away and unexpected vistas. Cost 4,000 lire.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The smell of leather assaults you as you meander through the Piazza San Lorenzo. Handbags, luggage, wallets, leather jackets and belts are piled high on every stall and there are some real bargains. In the courtyard outside the Uffizi, along the banks of the Arno and along the Via de' Calzaiuoli, street hawkers display seconds of Louis Vuitton and Prada bags from 150,000 lire, on pavement cloths laid out like a shopaholic's picnic. The Via de' Tornabuoni is the street for designer shopping, with Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci and Armani to name but a few. And for silver and gold you need look no further than the Ponte Vecchio. Originally this 14th-century bridge was the domain of butchers who threw the remains into the river until Cosimo de Medici had them evicted. Florence is also famous for its beautiful patterned paper - try Il Papiro behind the Duomo.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Uffizi Gallery is a must, of course, and if you only visit one museum during your stay this has to be it. Built in the second half of the 16th century for Cosimo de' Medici, the gallery houses what many consider to be the greatest collection of Italian and Florentine art in the world. A firm favourite is the Botticelli room including the famous Primavera and Birth of Venus. Complete the visit with a fresh lemonade in the roof- top cafe under the famous crenellations of the Torre d'Arnolfo, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. If you are going to the Uffizi Gallery you can book tickets in advance on 00 39 055 29 48 83. (Open weekdays 8.30am-9pm, Sunday 8.30am-10pm. Closed Mondays. Cost: 12,000 lire.)

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