Florence, Italy, November 2012:
It’s the great Italian city of art and culture and it has a permanent place on every bucket list of places to see before you die.
But Florence is a daunting place to visit if you don’t know a Botticelli from a bolognese.
You can queue for ages to get into a gallery then find it’s so big and complicated you have no idea where to start.
Fear not… there is a better way. It’s called a guided walking tour and on a two-night city break this summer I went on three of them with girlfriend Florence (you’ve heard of taking coals to Newcastle… I took Florence to Florence).
The first and best was a two-hour trip around the huge Uffizi gallery, where the best-known work is Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (trust me, you know this picture).
The leader of our 12-strong group was a bundle of Anglo-Italian energy called Elizabeth who waltzed us around the 16th Century palace with wit and expertise. She got us past the queue in five minutes, knew all the shortcuts and whispered amusing stories about the artists into our radio headsets.
The tour was so much fun that we plunged straight into a second one, then a third the next morning… but more of that later. Here’s the full low-down on a city break in Florence.
FREE FOR ALL
It costs nothing to admire the beauty of all the ancient buildings and statues. Start in Piazza della Signoria where a full-size copy of Michaelangelo’s David stands outside the Palazzo Vecchio. He faces the open-air Loggia di Lanzi, which is full of huge and impressive sculptures.
Take a slow stroll over the Ponte Vecchi (old bridge – and they’re not kidding. It dates back to 1345). This is lined on both sides by gold and silver workshops but the prices seem eye-wateringly high. €15,995 for a nondescript gold chain, anyone?
Now turn back and make your way to the Piazza di San Giovanni, where the Duomo (officially, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore) towers over the Campanile (bell tower) and the round Baptistry. Walk all the way round to see them from all angles.
The cathedral dates back to 1296 and is free to enter, but the inside is underwhelming compared to the incredible green, pink and white marbled exterior.
WORTH THE MONEY
Celebrity tourists including Michael Palin, Lou Reed and Alex Rodriguez have all sung the praises of Walking Tours of Florence by Artviva. Book a tour online then meet in Via de Sassetti for an expert English-language introduction to your chosen speciality. After our two-hour Masterpieces of the Uffizi expedition (£19 adult, £15 child) we stuck with the same guide for an Original David Accademia tour, where you see the real Michaelangelo statue (one-hour, £28 and £14).
Next day we joined a perky young American guide for the Original Florence Walk (three hours, £20 and £16), which left us with a much better insight into this easily-walkable city. Tours include admission prices and are a guaranteed way to avoid long queues (www.italy.artviva.com).
With just one afternoon left to fill, we crossed the River Arno to the giant Pitti Palace. We’d had our fill of art and interiors by this stage so we walked straight through the building to the huge Boboli Gardens behind. This is a peaceful haven of clipped hedges, endless lawns, burbling fountains, with picturesque steps to a commanding view. Entrance costs £5.60, half-price for children (www.tinyurl.com/boboliflorence)
Grab a lunchtime bite at the Forno Sartoni cafe at 34 Via Del Cerchi, opposite a side entrances to Coin, the city’s main department store. Slices of hot pizza or panini or cakes cost two or three euros and it makes an ideal place for a rendezvous if you split up. While I climbed 463 steps to see the sublime view from the top of Duomo, for example, my other half spent 90 minutes shopping.
Or have a glass of wine and a £2 panini on the pavement at a traditional hole-in-wall sandwich bar, such as I Due Fratelli in Via dei Cimatori. The wine starts at just 80p a glass, but pay a little more for something drinkable (www.iduefratellini.it)
There’s a good self-service cafe at the main Santa Maria Novello station too. It looks like a takeaway from the front but opens out to a huge air-conditioned hall inside.
For an authentic Florentine meal, Ristorante Da Lino is the real deal. Lino, the owner, even shuts down for a holiday at the height of the tourist season because most of his local clients are away. Delicious specialities include pappardelle all’anatra (fresh pasta with a rich sauce of hare). Or there are two set menus offering three courses, a salad and glass of wine for £16 or £18 (www.ristorantedalino.it)
A 10-minute stroll on Via Ghibelina brings you to Boccanegra, which is three restaurants in one. On the main road is the upmarket Boccanegra itself. Around the corner is the Osteria, more basic but just as authentic. Between the two is the house pizzeria, and all three are linked inside. To see the the proprietors beam with pride ask to see the ancient fresco in their wine cellar. Their signature dish is Bistecca Florentina (steak the Florence way) and a meal for two in the Osteria will cost around £60 plus drinks (www.boccanegra.com).
If you happen to notice diners on a grassy riverbank right below the Ponte Vecchi, it’s no use searching for a restaurant entrance. We did, and discovered that this none-more-scenic location belongs to the rowing club and only its members or guests can eat there.
Finally, you have to try a gelato (ice cream). Guide Elizabeth told us the best is always in shops that keep it under cover. This includes the Grom gelateria in Via del Campanile near the cathedral, where a permanent queue tells you how good it tastes (www.grom.it/en)
WHERE TO STAY
The receptionist at Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni suggested a drink on the roof terrace, then our room would be ready in half an hour.
So we took the lift to the top of this 13th Century stone tower, walked outside and… wow! There’s not one heart-stopping view but two. On one side the city skyline dominated by the huge orange Duomo, on the other the River Arno and its elegant bridges.
Half an hour turned into 90 minutes as we drank in our fill of the panorama and a bottle of wine. Rooms here have large beds, marble bathrooms and free wifi. There’s no restaurant but snacks are served on the terrace until 10pm. After that you’re trusted to pour your own drinks and write out an honesty slip. Which was refreshing in every sense of the word.
Two-night B&B stays for two at Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni from £290 (www.tornabuoni1.com/en).
Flights to Florence start from £49 one way with BA, Air France, BMI and others. But it’s usually cheaper (from £28) to fly to Pisa with Ryanair from one of eight UK and Irish airports (www.ryanair.com). A 70-minute coach transfer costs £4 each way (www.terravision.eu) or the 57-minute train is just £1 more (www.tinyurl.com/pisaflorence).
An edited version of this article was published in the Sunday Mirror on November 25, 2012.