Florence, or Firenze, is one of the world’s great art repositories, but there’s more to the Renaissance City than monuments and museums. While art lovers could stay busy for weeks doing the rounds of the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Duomo, and many others, the city also offers plenty to inspire foodies, fashionistas, and fans of the good life. Florence’s historic center is very compact and walkable, and one of the great pleasures of a stay in this gem of a city is simply wandering its narrow, cobbled backstreets and quiet piazzas.
May, June, September, and October are the most pleasant months, but they are also the most crowded. The summer sizzles, with humidity levels soaring in July and August. Winters can be cold and damp, but there are dazzlingly sunny days, too, with fewer tourists.
Diminutive yet busy Amerigo Vespucci airport lies about three miles west of the city center. A taxi ride into town costs around 25 euros (US$35) and should take 20-30 minutes, while the Volainbus shuttle service costs 4.50 euros. Galileo Galilei airport near Pisa is also convenient, with regular train and bus services into central Florence.
The relatively small centro storico (historic center) is best accessed on foot, but when museum-weary legs give out, an efficient fleet of lilliputian electric bussini serves the city center. Tickets are available in tobacconists and at newsstands, cost 1.20 euros, and are valid for 90 minutes (you can take multiple journeys within that time). A 24-hour ticket costs 5 euros. Stamp your ticket in the onboard machine at the start of your first journey. Taxicabs cannot be flagged down in the street. Pick one up at a taxi stand, or call by phone (055-4798 and 055-4242).
The beautiful 12th-century church of San Miniato overlooks the city from a hilly vantage point just south of the Arno River. Besides gaining endless photo opportunities (climb up at sunset to see the river turned to molten gold), you can time your visit to catch the resident monks singing Gregorian chants during evening mass (4 p.m. in the winter and 5 p.m. in summer).
Traditional Florentine cuisine is earthy, unfussy, and satisfying. It relies on fresh, seasonal ingredients and the staples of bread, beans, and olive oil. At authentic trattorie, you can sample classics like ribollita (bread-based vegetable soup), arista al forno (roast pork spiked with garlic and rosemary), and of course the famous bistecca alla Fiorentina (a vast T-bone steak, served rare). Tuscany is one of Italy’s great wine-producing regions, so look for wines from Chianti, Bolgheri (home to the original Super Tuscan), Montalcino, and Montepulciano.
The concentration of artistic treasures in this relatively small city is extraordinary. Big Hitters include the Uffizi, housing such iconic images as Botticelli’s Primavera, and the Accademia with Michelangelo’s David, the world’s most famous nude statue. The churches of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella are famous for their fabulous frescoes, and the Pitti Palace is home to the vast Medici haul of paintings. But don’t ignore the lesser sights—Florence is full of hidden gems that few tourists bother with. Book tickets for the principal museums in advance (well in advance in high season): for a couple of euros, you will save hours of time in line.
Florence’s colorful traditional festivals include Easter Sunday's Scoppio del Carro, when a heavy wooden cart loaded with fireworks is pulled through the streets by two white oxen and escorted by flag throwers and musicians. June's Calcio Storico is a no-holes-barred cross between rugby and football with medieval origins that is played out in period costume in Piazza Santa Croce. Classical music fans should catch the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino festival of music, ballet, and opera (May-June), while the Estate Fiesolana hosts an eclectic program of dance, music, opera, and theater in Fiesole’s Roman amphitheater.
Don’t even think about using a car in the city. Distances are small, public transportation is efficient, and parking is a nightmare; so stash your car in a private garage until it’s time to leave. Culture mavens should look for the annual Settimana dei Beni Culturali in April when all the state museums throw their doors open and offer free admission for a week. And consider a visit in the off-season (November through February), when prices are lower, crowds disappear, and locals are more relaxed.