48 hours in . . . Florence, an insider guide to the cradle of the Renaissance

Nicky Swallow
Florence is one of Europe's greatest art cities and makes for a civilised long weekend

An architectural sensation with a modern heart

Firenze, the cradle of the Renaissance, is one of Europe’s great art cities. With frescoes by Giotto and Ghirlandaio, canvases by Botticelli and Bronzino, and sculptures by Michelangelo and Giambologna, there is so much exquisite art and architecture within its ancient walls that it’s easy to become overwhelmed.

But, there is more to handsome Florence than just museums and monuments. It is bursting with quirky shops and quality crafts; a living city with an eclectic cultural life that embraces opera, classical music and contemporary art. The restaurant and nightlife scene is also very much thriving. Escaping for some downtime is rather convenient, given the city's proximity to the vine-covered hills of Chianti, as well as other Tuscan art towns such as Arezzo, Siena and Lucca. Florence's diminutive size means everything is very accessible, with most of the main sights lying within walking distance of one another. All in all, this is one of Europe’s most civilised long weekend destinations.

Hot right now . . .

Nicky Swallow, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and stay this season.

Eat

Gucci Osteria (Piazza della Signoria 10; 00 39 055 7592 7038), the brand's first culinary venture, helmed by stellar chef Massimo Bottura, has been pulling in the crowds since its opening. The jewel box-like interior, all pea-green boiserie and velvet banquettes, is a soothing setting for the likes of steamed buns with pork belly, sausage burgers and Bottura’s signature tortellini.

Gucci Osteria is the first culinary venture by the storied Italian fashion house

Meat-centric Regina Bistecca (Via Ricasoli, 14R; 00 39 055 269 3772) is housed in an ex-antiquarian bookshop, and a very lovely space it is, too, with artworks, shelves of books and an open kitchen. Vast T-bone steaks are grilled to perfection and served a la Fiorentina (very rare) with white beans and rosemary-spiked roast potatoes.  

The best restaurants in Florence

Meat lovers should not miss Regina Bistecca, a dining hotspot serving authentic Florentine steak

Drink

Diminutive Oltrarno drinking den MAD - Souls & Spirits (Borgo S. Frediano, 36-38R; 00 39 055 627 1621) is one of the hottest cocktail addresses in town, hitting all the right notes. Punters pile in for wackily named mixes such as Donald is a Trump (bourbon and carrot jam).

The best bars in Florence

MAD - Souls & Spirits has achieved cult status since opening a couple of years ago

Stay

The new look, courtesy of interiors savante Olga Polizzi, at the extensively refurbished Hotel Savoy (Piazza Della Repubblica 7; 00 39 055 27351) is stylish and classy yet surprisingly homely. Dine on lobster linguine at the relaxed, bistro-style Irene, and work off the calories in the impressive basement gym. Doubles from €478 (£429).

The best hotels in Florence

Hotel Savoy's new look is the work of interiors savante Olga Polizzi

• The best things to do in Florence

48 hours in . . . Florence

Day One

MORNING

Get an early start on your first day to tick off some of the busier sights. To get a feel for the layout of the city, tackle the 414 steps to the top of Giotto’s Campanile (Piazza del Duomo). The bell tower offers magnificent views over the sea of terracotta rooftops in the centro storico, divided by the Arno River.

Back on street level, size up the set piece that is Piazza San Giovanni with the vast bulk of theDuomo, the Baptistery and the Campanile – Florence’s spiritual heart. The Duomo (Via della Canonica, 1; 00 39 055 230 2885) is worth visiting for the sheer size of the place and to climb inside Brunelleschi’s Dome (another 463 steps).

The enormous Duomo Cathedral is one of the most recognisable buildings in Florence Credit: efired/efired

At the southern end of Via Calzaiuoli lies Piazza della Signoria, Florence’s political power hub past and present, with its imposing town hall and monumental statuary. Highlights include Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus, shown brandishing the severed head of Medusa under the Loggia dei Lanzi.

Take a cappuccino break on the terrace of historic Café Rivoire (Piazza della Signoria, 5/R; 00 39 055 214 412) and brace yourself for what is arguably the world’s greatest haul of Renaissance art at Galleria degli Uffizi (Piazzale degli Uffizi, 6; 00 39 055 294 883). To view the entire collection at leisure, you need at least four hours. Must-sees include the three great Maestàs by Giotto, Cimabue and Duccio, Gentile da Fabbriano’s Adoration of the Magi, the Botticellis and Caravaggio’s Medusa. Advance booking is essential. 

The best of Italian Renaissance art can be viewed at Galleria degli Uffizi Credit: Getty

AFTERNOON

The lunch-only Trattoria Sergio Gozzi (Piazza di San Lorenzo, 8R; 00 39 055 2819 4100) lies in the heart of the San Lorenzo market area. The pasta with ragù, ribollita (a bean and bread soup), stuffed rabbit and Florentine tripe are cheap and authentic.

Skip dessert and opt for a gelato at Mercato Centrale (Via dell’Ariento; 00 39 055 239 9798), housed in a 19th-century iron and glass building. The ground floor is filled with traditional produce stalls, but the first floor has been transformed into a food hall laid out with stalls selling a staggering array of top-notch produce from all over Italy, including lip-smacking gelato and artisanal chocolates from Cristian Beduschi. The stalls set up outside around the market building sell leather goods and other knick-knacks; prices are cheap, but don’t expect the quality to be the highest and do be prepared to bargain. 

Travellers flock to Mercato Centrale for high-quality produce, gourmet souvenirs and the massive food hall Credit: John Freeman/John Freeman

One of Florence’s best kept secrets is just around corner in Palazzo Medici-Riccardi; the tiny Cappella dei Magi (Via Cavour, 3) is decorated with top-to-toe frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli. A gentleboat tour along the Arno in a traditional wood barchetta – with wine aperitivo – is a relaxing way to end a busy day and offers an unusual perspective on the city. The tour starts with a guided walk from Piazza della Repubblica to the waterfront. Advance booking recommended.

For a very different perspective on Florence, you can sign up for a trip on one of the traditional wooden barchetti that used to ply the Arno as transport for building materials Credit: © 2011 Pablo Charlón/Pablo Charlón

LATE

For a treat, book a table at Michelin-starred La Bottega del Buon Café (Lungarno Benvenuto Cellini, 69/R; 00 39 055 553 5677) where the cosy ambience and assured cooking will soothe sore feet and art fatigue. The Capelletti, stuffed with pigeon, and the venison with apple and Sangiovese wine, are warming choices.

Wind up the evening with a nightcap in Santa Croce. The neighbourhood comes alive after dark with studenty drinking dens and small clubs, but Locale (Via delle Seggiole, 12/R; 00 39 055 906 7188), with its mod-Renaissance décor, craft cocktails, late-night tunes and smartly dressed clientele, offers something altogether more sophisticated.

Most of what appears on the plate at La Bottega del Buon Café is produced on the owner’s organic farm

The best bars in Florence


Day Two

MORNING

Start the day by the statue of master jeweller Benvenuto Cellini in the middle of Ponte Vecchio. This ancient bridge may feel like tourist central in high season, but it has been a hub for small jewellery shops since the 14th century. Lovers of bling will be dazzled by the treasures on offer and competitive gold prices. Avoid the mass-produced stuff and seek out Fratelli Picciniat no. 21/23R where the jewellery is still made on site, and Dante Cardini, established in 1988, at no. 34.

Head south across the bridge to Oltrarno (literally ‘beyond the Arno’), a beguiling area of grand palazzi, cobbled streets, quirky boutiques, artisan workshops and trendy cafés and restaurants. Pop into Madova (Via de' Guicciardini, 1/R; 00 39 055 2396526) to stock up on exquisitely made gloves. Art hounds should check out Pontormo’s masterful Mannerist Visitation in the tiny church of Santa Felicità (Piazza Santa Felicità, 3) before heading up the steep and winding Costa San Giorgio.

The Bardini Gardens offer fabulous views over Florence Credit: sansa55

Almost at the top is the Bardini Gardens (Costa San Giorgio, 2; 00 39 055 2006 6233), which offers fabulous views over the city. A little further lies the Forte di Belvedere(Via San Leonardo, 1), the fortress built by Ferdinando dei Medici, now a temporary exhibition space and popular hangout for young locals. Here, the view stretches beyond the cityscape into the rural Tuscan idyll of villas, walled gardens and olive groves.

Refuel at Le Volpi e L’Uva (Piazza dei Rossi, 1/R; 00 39 055 2398132), a wine bar known for showcasing small, under-the-radar producers from all over Italy. It’s the perfect spot for a cheese and pancetta-topped crostone (toasted sandwich) and a glass of something interesting.

The best things to do in Florence

AFTERNOON

En route to the eastern reaches of the Oltrarno, you can take in the bucolic Boboli Gardens (Piazza Pitti, 1; 00 39 055 2298732), central Florence’s largest green space with fountains, grottoes, quiet walkways and lichen-covered statues. Be sure to use the quieter Annalena entrance on Via Romana.

The pretty Piazza della Passera lies at the heart of what is known as Florence’s artisan quarter, and is home to hole-in-the-wall Gelateria della Passera (Via Toscanella, 15/R; 00 39 055 291882) where the delectable seasonal flavours include chestnut and fig.

Boboli Gardens is home to an impressive sculpture collection Credit: This content is subject to copyright./Atlantide Phototravel

The narrow, cobbled streets around the square are lined with the workshops of skilled craftsmen, dating back to the mid-16th century when the Medicis moved into nearby Palazzo Pitti. With them came the cabinet makers, seamstresses, bookbinders, gilders and furniture restorers. You can visit many of the botteghes (workshops) to see today’s artisans in action during shop hours (Mon-Fri 8.30am-12.30pm and 3-6pm, but hours can vary) as long as you don’t get in the way.

Nearby Piazza Santo Spirito, which hosts a small daily market, is the centre of the boho-chic Oltrarno; the eponymous church, with its blank facade, was Brunelleschi’s final, unfinished work and has a serene, beautifully proportioned interior.  

Locals love gathering at Piazza Santo Spirito in the boho-chic area of Oltrarno Credit: Maremagnum/Maremagnum

LATE

Il Santo Bevitore (Via di Santo Spirito, 64/66R; 00 39 055 211264) is a vaulted, wood-panelled restaurant hugely popular with both local foodies and clued-up tourists, so booking is essential in order to taste the mod-Tuscan cuisine: mushroom risotto with guinea fowl and blackcurrants and roast suckling pig are musts.  

Piazza Santo Spirito is also a popular year-round hangout for late-night drinks and music. Linger in the square to catch an al fresco gig in the summer; when the temperature drops, go for a drink at Volume (Piazza Santo Spirito, 5/R; 00 39 055 2381460) an inviting café-bar with vaulted ceilings and plenty of books.

The best restaurants in Florence

Where to stay . . .

Luxury Living

Hotel Lungarno offers an unbeatable location right on the Arno, steps away from Ponte Vecchio with in-your-face river and bridge views from the public areas and the best of the bedrooms. Expect five-star service, nautical-chic décor and gourmet dining.

Doubles from €400 (£353). Borgo San Jacopo 14; 00 39 055 27261

Hotel Lungarno has an unbeatable location

Boutique Beauty

The AdAstra enjoys a privileged setting in one of the city’s great private gardens. The classy, comfortable and highly original hotel has the feel of an aristocratic private apartment, replete with vast chandeliers, fine stucco work, antique furniture and fresco paintings. Each room carries a different theme but all are quite lovely.

Doubles from €180 (£149). Via del Campuccio, 53; 00 39 055 0750602

AdAstra is set in the largest private garden ‘intra moenia’ (between walls) in Europe

Budget Bolthole

Independent travellers will love Antica Dimora Johlea, a bijou guesthouse located just a 10-minute walk from the Duomo. The rooms all come with four-poster beds and thoughtful, period-meets-modern décor, while a roof terrace grants magnificent views of the city. The affordable rate includes a generous breakfast spread, plus free coffee and cakes throughout the day.

Doubles from €90 (£66). Via San Gallo, 80; 00 39 055 463 3292

There’s lots of attention to detail throughout the cosy rooms of Antica Dimora Johlea

• A complete guide to the best hotels in Florence

What to bring home . . .

Florentine artisan Angela Caputi’s trademark costume jewellery is inspired by vintage Hollywood; chunky necklaces, earrings and bracelets in resin, plastic and crystal are all on sale in her flagship studio-shop in the Oltrarno (Via Santo Spirito, 58/R; 00 39 055 212972).

Angela Caputi’s costume jewellery business is inspired by the glamour days of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood Credit: alessandro bencini/alessandro bencini

The very best Biscotti di Prato (hard almond biscuits) are made to an original recipe by Antonio Mattei (Via Porta Rossa 76/R; 00 39 055 0136203) and come in stylish, souvenir-ready blue bags.

Antonio Mattei has been manufacturing biscottis in a factory in Prato since 1858

The best shopping in Florence

When to go . . .

Florence is lovely from late spring through to early autumn, when balmy temperatures, al fresco eating and drinking and a busy open-air arts and concert season make this one of Italy’s most vibrant summer destinations. However, this is also the most popular period, when hotel rates are at their highest and the queues for the Uffizi Gallery are at their longest. If Florence often roasts in July and August, it can also get bitterly cold in winter – but if you don’t mind wrapping up, January and February are delightfully uncrowded months when you can often find serious accommodation bargains.

Music lovers should check out the schedule of Florence’s world-class classical music and opera venue, the Teatro del Maggio Musicale, before planning a trip; it’s also worth glancing at the exhibition calendar of dynamic arts centre Palazzo Strozzi, which puts on some top-flight shows.

Know before you go . . .

Essential information

British embassy in Rome: 00 39 06 4220 0001; gov.uk

Tourist office and information: The main tourist information office is at Via Cavour 1r (00 39 055 290 832, firenzeturismo.it). Open Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm. There are also branches at the train station and the airport. You can also visit city council-endorsed destinationflorence.com, a one-stop-shop where you can book hotels, museums, restaurants and tours of the city

Emergency services: Dial 112 (Carabinieri); 113 (state police)

Local laws and etiquette

Drivers are required to keep a reflective yellow/orange bib inside the car, to be worn if they break down or have an accident on a busy road and need to get out of the car (they come as standard with hire cars). When driving outside of built-up areas, you are legally required to keep your headlights on at all times, even during the day.

If you’re invited to dinner, flowers or chocolates for the hostess are a more usual gift than a bottle of wine. Don’t take chrysanthemums: they’re for graves.

The basics

Currency: Euro. Most cashpoint machines work with international cards, via the Cirrus circuit

Telephone codes: Dial 00 39 055 for Florence numbers from abroad, 055 from inside Italy

Time difference: +1 hour

Flight time: London to Florence or London to Pisa is around two hours

Addresses: Florence has a confusing dual numbering system consisting of red numbers for shops and business concerns, and blue (or black) ones for houses and hotels. The two systems are entirely independent; so number 27 blue might be next to number 8 red. The local convention (followed in this guide) is to put a small r (for rosso) after red numbers, and leave blue numbers alone: thus 27 is a blue number, while 27/R is red

Author bio

Nicky has lived in the city since 1981 and was an orchestral musician in her past life. After tasting bruschetta – drizzled with peppery, freshly pressed Tuscan olive oil – in Florence for the first time, she’s never looked back.

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