With sweeping views and Tuscan flavour, this city's charm could leave you breathless, writes Shaney Hudson.
Hotel Spagna (5 via Panzani, 239 9341, spagnahotelflorence.com) has clean, basic rooms with breakfast and friendly service for €59 ($77) a double a night. If you like them on Facebook, you'll also get a 10 per cent discount on your bill. Also try Florence (13-17 via di Santa Caterina d'Alessandria, 462 8934, plushostels.com), the pick of the hostels with a free Turkish bath, swimming pool and female-only dorms from a bargain €19, while private rooms including flat screen TV start from €55. Run by a local family, Hotel Locanda Orchidea Florence (11 Borgo degli Albizi, 248 0346, hotelorchideaflorence.it) is just two minutes' walk from the Duomo and offers single, double, triple and quad rooms from €30 in the low season to €120 in the peak season.
Hotel prices soar in the high season and flatline in the low season. The Hotel de la Ville (1 Piazza Antinori, 238 1805, hoteldelaville.it) has large classic rooms (similar in quality to the more expensive superior rooms they offer) from €152. Residence Hilda (40 via dei Servi, 288 021, residencehilda.it) has 12 serviced apartments and is a good option for those who like to self-cater, with rooms from €150. A good option for families, the Grand Hotel Adriatico (9 via Maso Finiguerra, 27 931, hoteladriatico.it) has spacious, modern rooms, attentive staff and fantastic spa showers in a good location from €214.
The Montebello Splendid (14 via Garibaldi, 27 471, preferredboutique.com) is a great boutique option in an old mansion close to the river with personable touches such as philosophical quotes left on the bed at night and free wi-fi, with junior suites from €314. Hotel Helvetia Bristol has rich, classically decorated rooms with elegant furnishings and warm, old-fashioned service from €390 (via de Pescioni 2, 26 651, helvetiabristol.warwickhotels.com). Just finishing up on a major renovation and refurbishment, the Brunelleschi Hotel (3 Piazza Santa Elisabetta, 27 370, brunelleschihotelflorence.com) moulds itself around the base of a mediaeval tower and church and offers stylish, modern rooms (some with views to the Duomo) from €254.
The Westin Excelsior (3 Piazza Ognissanti, 27 151, starwoodhotels.com) ticks every box: a former 12th-century palace on the river's edge, a gorgeous lobby, generously sized with big bathrooms and, for a little extra, a view over the Arno (from €400). A rooftop bar and restaurant will also be opening up on the roof very soon. Tucked away in the hills, Villa la Vedetta (via Michelangiolo, 78 681 631, villalavedettahotel.com) offers the most stunning hilltop view over Florence from the sunlit terrace (from €382). A Michelin-starred restaurant is located on-site and a shuttle ferries guests in and out of town until 7pm. However, its distance to the centre makes this a choice for daybirds, not nightowls.
The Mercato Centrale (via dell'Ariento, closed on Sundays) is a foodie's delight and the best place to see and sample traditional Tuscan foods, with things winding down around 2pm. Outside, a street market extends through a number of blocks to Piazza di San Firenze, selling mainly leather jackets, belts and bags as well as tourist trinkets (open daily). Under an open-air covered terrace built in the 16th century, the Mercato Nuovo or New Market (Piazza del Mercato Nuovo, open every day, closed Monday and Sunday during winter) used to sell silk and gold and now sells a mixture of souvenirs and crafts. Florence's biggest market is held every Tuesday from 7am to 2pm in Cascine Park and is aimed mainly at locals selling household goods, clothes, furniture and food.
Florence is not just known for its artists, it's also renowned for its incredible artisans, who are based mainly in the Oltrarno district. Check out the workshop of silversmith Donato Zaccaro (12-14 Sdrucciolo de' Pitti, 212 243, www.donatozaccaro.com) and be sure to ask to see his silver ice cubes. Ditta Carlo Cecchi di Giuliano Ricchi (12 Piazza San Spirito, 214 942) creates enamel wear and jewellery for companies throughout the world including Christian Dior. Push the buzzer to browse a small selection of their wares for sale in their workshop. Created on-site, etchings of Florence are available at the beautiful workshop L'Ippogrifo (5r via Santo Spirito, 213 255, stampeippogrifo.com). They can also etch personal invitations and stationery for you.
Sei Divino (42r Borgo Ognissanti, 217 791) has a great aperitivo buffet from 7pm, a huge selection of Italian wines and some great rock tunes in their backroom in a quiet location 10 minutes from the centre. Jazz Club Firenze, pictured, has jam sessions midweek and a mixed music line-up for those after a low-key night (3 via Nuova de' Caccini, 247 9700, www.jazzclubfirenze.com, closed Sundays and Mondays). Libreria Cafe La Cite (20r Borgo San Frediano, 210 387, lacitelibreria.info) is a combined bookstore, bar and performance space that has an eclectic program of live music, spoken word poetry nights and dance lessons in a relaxed setting.
With Roberto Cavelli's trendy club now closed, Florence's clubbing scene is notorious for being dominated by American exchange students (see the latest season of Jersey Shore for inspiration). The centrally located Club TwentyOne (13 via dei Cimatori, 3802487579) and Yab (You Are Beautiful) nightclub (5 via Sassetti, 215 160, yab.it) are popular with students. Central Park (2 via Fosso Macinante, 353 505), in Cascine Park in Santa Maria, is the biggest club with the best reputation, with outdoor and indoor dance floors playing different styles of music from 11pm on Saturdays and Fridays.
SEE + DO
Michelangelo's famous sculpture, David, holds centre court under a glass dome in Galleria dell'Accademia (via Ricasoli, 238 8609, www.polomuseale.firenze.it), although you'll want to book ahead to avoid the crowds. Brunelleschi's iconic red-roof Duomo (Piazza del Duomo, 230 2885), completed in the 1400s, is the dominant feature of Florence's skyline. The 463-step climb to the top is an adventure but the view is well worth the effort (€8). The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge on the Arno not bombed during World War II. Now lined with stores that sell gold and jewellery, the bridge once linked the Medici family's home with the then administrative offices of the Uffizi building via an overground walkway.
Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance. The Uffizi Gallery, 294 883, www.firenzemusei.it) has works by Michelangelo, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci and is one of the most important galleries in the world. The Pitti Palace (Piazza di Pitti, 238 8616, www.firenzemusei.it), home to the Medici family, has six fine-art museums and apartments and is the gateway to the magnificent Boboli Gardens (Piazza di Pitti, 23 885, www.polomuseale.firenze.it), which stretch up into the Tuscan hills. Lines are long and little is free in Florence; however, great Renaissance works can be found in the crowded Piazza della Signoria at the Loggia dei Lanzi.
Florence is a compact city you can easily explore on foot but be sure to make an extra effort to stroll around at night once the crowds have died down. Climb to the top of the Duomo to orientate yourself before heading down via dei Calzaiuoli to the Piazza della Signoria and across the Ponte Vecchio, pictured, to the Pitti Palace. Head right down Sor de' Pitti, exploring the artisan workshops of the Oltrarno district before having a late lunch at the Piazza Santo Spirito. After exploring the Basilica (featuring works by Michelangelo), head back towards the river and turn right. Follow the road until you see the well-marked signs pointing to the Piazzale Michelangelo, a concrete car park that offers one of Florence's most beautiful aspects as the sun sets across the city.
Follow the leader
I Bike Florence runs twice-daily cycling tours of the main historical spots on both sides of the river from €29 and will even throw in gelato at the end (10am and 3pm, 012 3994, ibikeflorence.com). Hop on a Vespa to explore Tuscany on a full-day tour with Tuscany by Vespa (from €120, 012 3994, www.tuscanybyvespa.com) with lunch, wine tastings and minivan support for those unsure whether they can handle a 50cc scooter. The Vasari Corridor connects the Pitti Palace and the Uffizi Gallery via a private overground and above-river corridor and is home to one of the most important collections of self-portraits in the world. The gallery opens and shuts sporadically, so book an exclusive visit through Context tours (from €100, +39 06 976 25 204, contexttravel.com).
Da Nerbone (closed Sundays, 7am-2pm, 219 949), in the corner of the San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale is one of the cheapest and tastiest Tuscan meals you'll have — a glass of vino and a plate of pasta come in at under €5 ($6.50). You shouldn't just eat any old gelato in Firenze; seek out Perche' no!... (19 via dei Tavolini, 239 8969, percheno.firenze.it) a 70-year-old artisanal gelato shop that is just off via Calzaiuoli between the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria, which has a tub of tiramisu you can mix in with your gelato. For a quick grocery run, go to Piazza san Lorenzo.
Near the chaos of the centre, La Boulangerie Il Rifrullo (24 via de Rondinelli, 281 658) is a quiet little oasis of calm. A panini and espresso bar focused on slow food, it serves great salads for under €10. Service is quick and the food divine at Zoe (13 via dei Renai, 243 111), serving amazing modern Italian cafe fare to a mainly local crowd. Along the marked path to the Piazza Michelangelo, it's a perfect lunch or aperitivo choice. Ino (3 via dei Georgofili, 219 208, ino-firenze.com) smells of truffles and serves fantastic panini and glasses of wine in an unassuming little spot near the Uffizi Gallery.
Top of the town
Ora D'Aria (11 via dei Georgofili, 200 1699, www. oradariaristorante.com) is marked by a oversized bird cage and has a great seasonal Tuscan tasting menu from €60. Over the other side of the river at Osteria Personale (167 Borgo S Frediano, 933 1341, io-osteriapersonale.it) the 23-year-old head chef is serving up modern Italian cuisine, like the brilliant raw squid ribbons with chickpea-cream flavoured with sage — with one rule: no pasta on the menu. Drop by to secure a table in the maze of rooms at Il Santo Bevitore, pictured, (66 via Santo Spirito, 211 264, ilsantobevitore.com) and trust the waiters when it comes to ordering from their comprehensive menu.
By the glass
Open from April to October, the Sky Lounge Continentale (6 Vicolo dell'Oro, 27 262, lungarnocollection.com) perches on the roof of the mediaeval Consorti Tower, with sweeping views over the Arno and Ponte Vecchio to the Tuscan hills. Over the Arno, Il Rifrullo (55 via San Niccolo, ilrifrullo.com) is a popular option for its generous aperitivo (a "happy hour" free buffet accompanying slightly increased drinks prices) in a garden setting. Dolce Vita Wine Bar (Piazza del Carmine, 284 595; dolcevitaflorence.com) is another popular option with the aperitivo served from 7.30pm to 9.30pm.
Queues are bad enough to ruin a trip to Florence. Skip the queue with the just-launched Firenze Card, which is valid for 72 hours and includes admission to more than 30 museums, villas and gardens in the city including the Uffizi, Academia and Pitti Palace — just remember that it includes one-time entry only to each museum. Cards cost €50 ($65) and are activated at the first museum of use. A bonus of the card is that it is also valid for public transport (firenzecard.it).
Qantas flies daily from Sydney to Rome (via London Heathrow) from $2200 (qantas.com, 13 13 13). Trains connect Rome with Florence hourly and take around 90 minutes (raileurope.com.au).
Visas and currency
The currency is the euro (€1=$1.31). A 90-day visa is available on arrival.
Calling ItalyThe international dialling code for Italy is +39 and +055 for Florence. To call Florence from overseas, add +39 055 to the numbers listed.
The writer travelled with the assistance of Firenze Turismo and Preferred Boutique.