Notes on...

The first things you should do in Florence

Once you’ve been, you’ll be back. But everyone needs somewhere to start

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

The British have always been in love with Florence. First visits cannot disappoint. One friend recalls being herded around as a schoolgirl, unexpectedly coming face to face with the replica of Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria and fainting right there in the street. Return visits can be just as stunning.

You can fly in to Pisa or to Florence airport, which receives an increasing number of flights. And the high-speed train from Rome takes just an hour and a half. Weather-wise it can be tricky to pick the best season. Winters can be very cold, but like many Italian cities Florence develops a different charm as it empties of tourists. August can be a mess, but any time is better than never.

The hotels are pricey, but they include some of the world’s best. The Savoy is not only a historic classic, but perfectly situated in the Piazza della Repubblica. The Four Seasons is a resort within the city, with beautiful frescoes. JK Place and Porta Rossa are good if you like something more boutique.

One appeal of the city is that the historic centre is self-contained, with everything reachable on foot. Any visitor will have to visit the Duomo, Uffizi, Santa Maria Novella, Palazzo Pitti and basilicas of Santa Croce and San Miniato among much else. But Florence continually throws up new or restored treasures. I recently returned to the Chiesa di Ognissanti to see its magnificent and recently restored Giotto crucifix, which was worth the flight all on its own. Return visitors will also appreciate the temporary exhibitions like those in the Palazzo Strozzi.

Casa Guidi, once home to the Brownings, is a place of pilgrimage for literary visitors. Like everywhere else in Florence it is worth checking the opening times in advance: accept all listings as aspirations rather than rules. A fixture for non-Italian visitors on a Sunday morning is the English church in Florence. The first time I attended there was sherry after the service in the chaplain’s quarters and a congregation of expats who persuaded me that the spirits of E.M. Forster and Henry James were not quite dead.

When sustenance is required, All’Antico Ristoro di’ Cambi is a magnificent low-key trattoria-style venue, famous for its steak. Oliviero is a classic old-school Italian restaurant with a piano accompaniment. For a quick sandwich, the standing-only I Due Fratellini near the Palazzo Vecchio is perfect. Grom is perhaps the city’s best gelato, while fans of the negroni can pay homage at Caffè Giacosa, now run by Roberto Cavalli, where it was invented. On a summer evening, see if you can get an outside table at Borgo San Jacopo on the Arno. The river, city, and indeed world never looked so good.

There are the same high-end shops that every city now has. But the Florentine crafts continue. Go to Pineider for paper and engravings, the original Santa Maria Novella just to see the shop even if you don’t buy their soap and the wonderful Baccani is the place for traditional Florentine frames and prints. Though not written as a guide, David Leavitt’s short book on Florence is a perfect accompaniment and will fit into a jacket pocket. Or you can save it for when you next come back.

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  • Thorsted

    The German publisher Könemann makes a series called “Art & Architecture -Florence”. It is a series of books for all major tourist sites cites, museums in Europe. The 20 by and around 500.pages.

  • Gilbert White

    Have a drink at Harry’s Place.

    • Abi Tayn

      A little bit overrated and resting on its laurels, I thought, the last time I was there about a year ago. Maybe they’ve bucked their act up again! I hope so. It used to be fun. I gave the barman my recipe for my own cocktail. called an ‘Abini’ (as in Bellini). It’s Prosecco with a small tot each of Peach Schnaps and raspberry liqueur and 2 or 3 fresh raspberries (and/or peach) in the flute. It became a huge hit in the bar – not sure if it’s still on the cocktail list. This is not a drink for the designated driver! Try it – let me know what you think.

      • Jambo25

        I quite like peach pulp ‘diluted’ with Stock Brandy. A Zombie Bellini.

  • lurv & compassion

    The pollution in Florence on a hot summer’s day rather disappointed me.
    Clean Air Directive anyone?

    It is of course far better to stay in the surrounding hills.

  • rtj1211

    i’m sure there are hotels which aren’t pricey, but an advertorial such as this is duty-bound not to mention them.

    Why do you promote HSR in Italy but slag it off in the UK? Real hypocrisy, Murray, but typical British ‘faux elite’ – we have everything, the oiks must be slaves….

    • Jambo25

      Try the Hotel Aprile on Via della Scala. It was certainly OK last time I stayed there.

  • Jambo25

    Get up really early and go for a walk through the streets while still quiet and reasonably cool. Stop off at one of those little stands or cafes where early morning workers grab an espresso and Vecchia Romagna stiffener and have one yourself. Climb up to the top of the Piazzale Michelangelo and look back on the city before there’s time for a heat haze or traffic fumes to obscure it. Have a slow wander back to your hotel for a leisurely breakfast then plan the rest of your day.

  • AverageGuyInTheStreet

    I’d love Florence a lot more if they pedestrianised the centre, especially around the Duomo.

  • salieri

    A propos the English church, it’s worth noting that St. Mark’s, in via Maggio, was built on the site of Machiavelli’s stables. Not in the guide-books but so I was informed, when I was temporary organist there a very long time ago, by the chaplain, who rejoiced in the name Rev George Christian Church.

  • Harry Pond

    Christmas day there is good, quite a few bars open for a few shots of Grappa, then head to the Duomo for the religious stuff. Any other time of year you have to climb to the top of the dome obviously.

  • John

    I may a bit old fashioned, but the first thing you should do in Florence is thank her.