One of the most written about cities in Italy, Florence (Firenze) has a strange effect on visitors. Travellers who normally loathe art galleries queue for hours to get into them, and people with no interest in Renaissance architecture start raving about tiered facades and frescoed apses. But break the spell and you'll find that Florence can be disheartening. Much of the centre has been surrendered to tourism and in summer the heat, pollution and crowds can be stifling. That said, it remains a charismatic city you'd be sorry to miss. The list of its famous sons reads like a Renaissance Who's Who – under M alone you'll find Medici,Machiavelli and Michelangelo – and its celebrated cityscape lingers in the memory long after you've left town.
Many hold that Florentia was founded around 59 BC, but archaeological evidence suggests an earlier village, possibly established by the Etruscans around 200 BC. A rich merchant city by the 12th century, Florence grew into a powerful city-state under the Medici family, its cultural, artistic and political fecundity culminating in the 15th-century Renaissance.
The Medici were succeeded in the 18th century by the French House of Lorraine, which ruled until 1860 when the city was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy. From 1865 to 1870, Florence was, in fact, capital of the fledgling kingdom.
During WWII parts of the city were destroyed by bombing, including all of its bridges except for Ponte Vecchio. In 1966 a devastating flood destroyed or severely damaged many important works of art. More recently, in 1993, the Mafia exploded a massive car bomb, killing five people and destroying part of the Uffizi Gallery.
From Santa Maria Novella train station, it’s a 550m walk along Via de’ Panzani and Via de’ Cerretani to the Duomo. From there, Via Roma leads down to Piazza della Repubblica and Via de’ Calzaiuoli connects with Piazza della Signoria. Most major sights are within comfortable walking distance of the Duomo.
Feltrinelli International (Tel 055 21 95 24; Via Cavour 12r; h9am-7.30pm Mon-Sat) Great selection of books in English.
Police station (Questura; Tel 055 497 71; Via Zara 2)
Cyber Link (Via Del Giglio 29r; per hr €4, students €3); h9.30am-12.30am) Also offers a left-luggage service (€5 per 24 hours). Internet Train (per hr €4.30, students €3.20; h9.30am-midnight Mon-Sat, 10am-midnight Sun) Beneath Stazione di Santa Maria Novella; Borgo San Jacopo 30r; Via dell’Oriuolo 40r; Via Guelfa 24a; Via Porta Rossa 38 Opening times are for the Via Porta Rossa branch; others may vary.
Wash & Dry Lavarapido (Tel 800 23 11 72; 8kg wash/dry €3.50/3.50; h8am-10pm) Via de’ Serragli 87r; Via dei Servi 105r; Via del Sole 29r; Via della Scala 52-54r; Via Nazionale 129r
Farmacia Comunale (Tel 055 28 94 35; Stazione di Santa Maria Novella; h24hr) Misericordia di Firenze (Tel 055 21 22 22; Vicolo degli Adimari 1, Piazza del Duomo; h2-6pm Mon-Fri Mar-Oct) Fee-paying medical service. Tourist Medical Service (%055 47 54 11; Via Lorenzo il Magnifico 59; h24hr)
Post & telephone
Telecom office (Via Cavour 21r; h7am-11pm) Public payphones.
Tourist offices airport (Tel 055 31 58 74; h8.30am- 8.30pm); Borgo Santa Croce 29r (Tel 055 234 04 44; h9am-7pm Mon-Sat, to 2pm Sun Mar–mid-Nov, 9am-5pm Mon-Sat, to 2pm Sun mid-Nov–Feb); Piazza della Stazione 4 (Tel 055 21 22 45; http://en.comune.fi.it/; h8.30am-7pm Mon-Sat, to 2pm Sun); Via Cavour (Tel 055 29 08 32; http://www.firenzeturismo.it/; Via Cavour 1r; h8.30am-6.30pm Mon-Sat, to 1.30pm Sun) The Via Cavour branch is the main office.
You’ll never avoid queuing in Florence, but by prebooking museum tickets you’ll save time. For €4 extra per museum you can book tickets for the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria dell’Accademia and Cappelle Medicee through Firenze Musei (Tel 055 29 48 83; http://www.firenzemusei.it/; hbooking service 8.30am-7pm Tue-Sun). Buy or collect your tickets from the information desks at the Uffizi or Palazzo Pitti.
You won’t, however, need tickets to enjoy the city’s best views from Piazzale Michelangelo, a steep 600m walk from the southern bank of the Arno River.
Piazza del Duomo & Around
One of the world’s largest cathedrals, Florence’s Gothic Duomo (Tel 055 230 28 85; h10am-5pm Mon-Wed & Fri, 10am-3.30pm Thu, 10am-4.45pm Sat, 10am-3.30pm 1st Sat of month, 1.30-4.45pm Sun) is quite an eyeful. Officially the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, it was begun in 1294 by Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio and consecrated in 1436. Its most famous feature, the enormous cupola (dome; admission €6; h8.30am-7pm Mon- Fri, to 5.40pm Sat), was built by Brunelleschi after his design won a public competition in 1420. The interior is decorated with frescoes by Vasari and Zuccari, and the stained-glass windows are by Donatello, Paolo Uccello and Lorenzo Ghiberti. The characteristic red, green and white marble facade is actually a 19th-century replacement of the unfinished original, pulled down in the 16th century.
Beside the cathedral, the 82m Campanile (admission €6; h8.30am-6.50pm Nov-May, to 10.20pm Jun-Oct) was begun by Giotto in 1334 and completed after his death by Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti.
The Romanesque Battistero (baptistry; Piazza di San Giovanni; admission €3; h12.15-6.30pm Mon-Sat, 8.30am-1.30pm 1st Sat of month, 8.30am-1.30pm Sun) is one of the oldest buildings in Florence and it was here that Dante was baptised. Built between the 5th and 11th centuries on the site of a Roman temple, it’s famous for its gilded-bronze doors, particularly Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gate of Paradise. Andrea Pisano’s south door (1336) is the oldest.
Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery)
Home to the world’s greatest collection of Renaissance art, the Galleria degli Uffizi (Tel 055 238 86 51; http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/english/musei/uffizi/Default.asp; Piazza degli Uffizi 6; admission €10; h8.15am-6.35pm Tue-Sun) is one of Italy’s biggest and most popular galleries, so unless you’ve booked a ticket, expect to queue.
The gallery houses the Medici family collection, bequeathed to the city in 1743 on condition that it never leave the city. Highlights include La Nascita di Venere (Birth of Venus) and Allegoria della Primavera (Allegory of Spring) in the Botticelli Rooms (10 to 14); Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciazione (Annunciation; room 15); Michelangelo’s Tondo Doni (Holy Family; room 25); and Titian’s Venere d’Urbino (Venus of Urbino; room 28). Elsewhere you’ll find works by Giotto, Cimabue, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Paolo Uccello, Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Tintoretto and Caravaggio.
Piazza della Signoria
The traditional hub of Florence’s political life, Piazza della Signoria is dominated by Palazzo Vecchio (Tel 055 276 82 24; adult/concession €6/4.50; h9am-7pm Fri-Wed, to 2pm Thu), the historical seat of the Florentine government. Characterised by the 94m Torre d’Arnolfo, it was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and built between 1298 and 1340. Visit the Michelozzo courtyard and the lavish upstairs apartments.
To the south, the famous Loggia della Signori is a 14th-century sculpture showcase. The statue of David is a copy of Michelangelo’s original, which stood here until 1873 but is now in the Galleria dell’Accademia.
Lined with jewellery shops, the 14th-century Ponte Vecchio was originally flanked by butchers’ shops. But when the Medici built a corridor through the bridge to link Palazzo Pitti with Palazzo Vecchio, they ordered that the butchers be replaced with goldsmiths.
Built for the Pitti family, the vast 15thcentury Palazzo Pitti was bought by the Medici in 1549 and became their family residence. Today it houses four museums, of which the Galleria Palatina (Palatine Gallery; 055 238 86 14; adult/concession€12/6; h8.15am-6.50pm Tue-Sun) is the most important. Works by Raphael, Filippo Lippi, Titian and Rubens adorn lavishly decorated rooms. Three other museums – the Museo degli Argenti (Silver Museum), the Museo delle Porcellane (Porcelain Museum) and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna & del Costume (Modern Art & Costume Gallery) – are also here. A group ticket (adult/EU citizen 18-25yr €10/5) gets you in to all three as well as the Renaissance Giardino di Boboli (Boboli Gardens) and Giardino Bardini (Bardini Gardens). All sights covered by the ticket are open from 8.15am to 7.30pm between June and August, to 6.30pm from March to May and in September, to 5.30pm in October, and to 4.30pm in November and February.
The Galleria dell’Accademia (Tel 055 238 86 09; Via Ricasoli 60; adult/concession €6.50/3.25; h8.15am- 6.50pm Tue-Sun) is where you’ll find David, arguably the Western world’s most famous sculpture. Michelangelo carved the giant figure from a single block of marble, finishing it in 1504 when he was just 29.
Basilica di San Lorenzo & Cappelle Medicee
One of the city’s finest examples of Renaissance architecture, the Basilica di San Lorenzo (Tel 055 264 51 84; Piazza San Lorenzo; admission €2.50; h10am-5pm Mon-Sat, 1.30-5pm Sun) was built by Brunelleschi in the 15th century and includes his Sagrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy), with sculptural decoration by Donatello.
The sumptuous Cappelle Medicee (Medici Chapels; Tel 055 238 86 02; Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini; adult/concession €6/4; h8.15am-5.50pm Tue- Sat, 2nd & 4th Mon & 1st, 3rd & 5th Sun of month) are around the corner. Highlights are the extravagant Cappella dei Principi, the principal burial place of the Medici grand dukes, and the incomplete Sagrestia Nuova, Michelangelo’s first architectural effort.
Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart) A cart full of fireworks is exploded in front of the Duomo on Easter Sunday.
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (http://www.maggiofiorentino.com/?q=en/node) Italy’s longest-running music festival; April to June.
Festa di San Giovanni (Feast of St John) Florence’s patron saint is celebrated on 24 June with costumed soccer matches on Piazza di Santa Croce.
Florence caters well to all budgets. There are hole-in-the-wall sandwich bars, earthy trattorias and some of Italy’s top restaurants. Classic Tuscan dishes include ribollita, a heavy vegetable soup, canellini (white beans) and bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine steak). Chianti is the local tipple.
Quick Eats & self-catering
Gelateria Vivoli (Tel 055 29 23 34; Via Isola delle Stinche 7; hclosed Mon & mid Aug) Ice-cream aficionados rate the gelati here the city’s best. No cones, just a fabulous array of fresh flavours served in cups. I Fratellini (Tel 055 239 60 96; Via dei Cimatori 38r; panini €2-3; h8am-8pm, closed Sat & Sun Jul & Aug) Although no more than a hole-in-the-wall panino bar, I Fratellini is a city institution. Locals flock to its tiny counter for freshfilled panini chased down with a glass of robust red wine.
I Fratellini (Tel 055 239 60 96; Via dei Cimatori 38r; panini €2-3; h8am-8pm, closed Sat & Sun Jul & Aug) Although no more than a hole-in-the-wall panino bar, I Fratellini is a city institution. Locals flock to its tiny counter for freshfilled panini chased down with a glass of robust red wine.
Fresh produce is available at the central food market (Piazza San Lorenzo; h7am-2pm Mon-Sat). Alternatively, there’s a supermarket (Stazione di Santa Maria Novella) at the train station, and a Standa (Via Pietrapiana 94) east of Piazza del Duomo.
Borgo Antico (Tel 055 21 04 37; Piazza Santo Spirito 6r; pizzas €7-10, meals €25) On a vibrant piazza, this trendy eatery is great for whiling away a summer evening over a pizza and glass of something cool. Select from the menu of leafy salads, wood-fired pizzas and Tuscan specialities.
Sud Caffè Italiano (Tel 055 28 93 68; Via della Vigna Vecchia; pizza €9.50, pasta €8-10.50; hclosed Sun & Mon) An ode to southern Italian casual chic, this place is perfect for a simple meal of pasta or pizza washed down by your choice from an impressive wine list.
Trattoria Casalinga (Tel 055 21 86 24; Via de’ Michelozzi 9r; meals €15; hclosed Sun) If you’re after a filling meal at rock-bottom prices, look no further. Family-run and refreshingly unpretentious, it’s always full of locals.
Trattoria Mario (Via Rosina 2r; meals €18; hlunch Mon-Sat) Lunch at Mario’s is fun, filling and frenetic. A noisy, cheerful place full of market workers and tourists, it serves hearty pastas and meaty main courses at keen prices.
La Canova do Gustavino (Tel 055 239 98 06; Via della Condotta 29r; meals €20) There aren’t too many opportunities to enjoy a delicious cheap meal in stylish surrounds in Florence, which is why this friendly enoteca is such a find. Crunchy bruschetta, hearty soups and excellent pasta dishes are constant features on the small menu.
Trattoria Coco Lezzone (Tel 055 28 71 78; Vai Parioncino 26r; meals €25; hclosed Sun) The name means ‘the slovenly chef’, but there’s nothing slovenly about this Florentine institution. Classic Tuscan fare such as ribollita, arista di maiale (roasted pork loin) and papa al pomodoro (tomato and bread soup) take centre stage. No credit cards and no coffee.
Colle Bereto (Tel 055 28 31 56; Piazza degli Strozzi 5r) Slip into something Dolce & Gabbana and join the fashionistas at this glam bar. It’s known for excellent cocktails and a lavish aperitivo spread.
Caffè Gilli (Tel 055 21 38 96; Piazza della Repubblica 39r; hclosed Mon & Tue) Save yourself an arm and a leg by standing at the art nouveau bar at this, Florence’s grandest cafe.
JJ Cathedral (Tel 055 265 68 92; Piazza di San Giovanni 4r) JJ’s is a magnet for vacationing foreign students, who come here to swill beer and admire the views of the Duomo. Try to snaffle the upstairs balcony table.
Moyo (Tel 055 247 97 38; Via de’ Benci 23r) A mixed crowd of young locals and foreign students drink at this funky modern bar. It’s good for coffee and free wi-fi during the day, drinks and upbeat music at night.
Negroni (Tel 055 24 36 47; Via dei Renai 17r) The famous Florentine cocktail gives its name to this popular bar in the trendy San Nicolò district. It’s known for its art exhibitions, excellent aperitivo spread and cheap lunch buffet.
Florence’s definitive monthly listings guide Firenze Spettacolo is sold at newsstands (€1.80).
Concerts, opera and dance are performed year-round at the Teatro Comunale (Tel 800 11 22 11; Corso Italia 16), which is also the venue for events organised by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (opposite).
English-language films are screened at the Odeon Cinehall (Tel 055 21 40 68; http://www.cinehall.it/pagine/, in Italian; Via Sassetti 1; tickets €7.50).
Shopping is concentrated between the Duomo and the Arno. Just north of the Duomo, Mercato di San Lorenzo (Piazza San Lorenzo; hTue-Sun) is the place for leather goods, clothing and jewellery, although quality and prices vary.
ATAF (Tel 800 42 45 00; http://www.ataf.net/en/ataf.aspx?idC=2&LN=en-US) buses service the city centre. The most useful terminal is just outside the train station’s eastern exit. Take bus 12 or 13 for Piazzale Michelangelo. Tickets (70 minute/24 hour €1.20/5) are sold at tobacconists and newsstands; you can also buy a 70-minute ticket on board the bus (€2).
Alinari (Tel 055 28 05 00; http://www.alinarirental.com/eng/chi.htm; Via San Zanobi 38r; h9.30am-1pm & 2.45-6pm Mon-Sat, 10am-1pm Sun) rents out bikes for €7/12/24 per five hours/day/weekend and scooters for €35/55/125.