Plumb the beauty of Florence for inspiration

My Kind of Place It's a city that has inspired artists, sculptors and writers since its glory days in the Renaissance. Author Jasper Rees explains why he fell in love with Florence.

Why Florence

Some things never change. Florence will always be the first place to visit for anyone with an abiding love of art and sculpture. This is where the modern world took shape in the form of the Florentine Renaissance. Put reductively, in the 1400s a group of brilliant and broad-minded Florentines under the patronage of the Medici family collectively decided that for all its profanity and godlessness, the classical age had something to teach them about architectural and human forms. The result is before you, most famously, in the sculptures of Michelangelo, the architecture of Brunelleschi and the paintings of Botticelli. Looking at the city will never tire even the most jaded palate.

A comfortable bed

For top of the range, the place to go is up the hill on the southern side of the river Arno to Torre di Bellosguardo, a classic old palazzo villa with a wonderful view of the city, so near and yet far enough to be a haven of peace. Each room is different and wonderfully comfortable. A double room costs from €290 (Dh1,540) per night, including taxes (; 00 39 55 2298145).

At the other end of the scale, a delightful place to stay in the centre of Florence is the Pensione Canto De' Nelli, run by an Iranian Florentine lady who supplies the personal touch and creature comforts at a modest price. The rooms at the front have wonderful views of the dome of San Lorenzo. A double room costs from €90 (Dh480) per night, including breakfast and taxes (; 00 39 55 215309).

Find your feet

Florence is relatively small and easily traversed on foot, though it's worth finding out how the buses work if you want to get from Porta Romana to San Marco (about 25 minutes on foot). Stray no farther than the two big churches at the east and west end of the city - Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella. The best orientation is achieved by climbing to the top of the Duomo or its neighbouring bell tower, Giotto's Campanile. It's best to divide the city up into sections or, if staying for several days, take a more intuitive approach and vary your diet as much as possible. Do a church a day, for example. See paintings in the morning, sculpture in the afternoon. Be very careful to check opening times in an up-to-date guidebook before going anywhere. It's annoying to schlep in the heat to some distant location to be greeted by the legend "chiuso" (closed). Sundays and Mondays are the days with most closures, though Florence is slowly joining the 21st century in this regard.

Book a table

Tuscan cooking is best experienced in a trattoria, of which there are many and various all over the city. If you spend more, you don't necessarily get better - or more authentic - local cooking. A good, simple Florentine meal can cost as little as €15 (Dh80) up to €35 (Dh186) a head. On the south side of the river, I Quattro Leoni on Piazza della Passera is highly recommended: try the tortelli in pear, asparagus and taleggio sauce. For a bustling trattoria in the centre of town, try Trattoria Mario on Via Rossini near Mercato Centrale, where they do an excellent thick ribollita soup, as well as a great peposo di manzo (beef stew). Pasta everywhere is simple, fresh and excellent. Tryfagioli bianchi (white beans) at least once.

Meet the locals

The best place to find real Florentines is the Mercato Centrale, a huge modern atrium where many Florentines go to buy their meat and cheese. The grander sort of Florentine also congregates at the cafe Procacci in Via Tornabuoni - look out for the excellent truffle panini.

Shopper's paradise

Depending on how much money you want to spend, you can either make straight for Via Tornabuoni, the high fashion street, at the head of which is the main branch of Salvatore Ferragamo, housed in a historic palazzo. The shops tend to cluster in the area between the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria. Shoes and bags are a Florentine speciality, as is the beautiful marbled paper you can find in Il Torchio along the dark and winding Via dei Bardi on the other side of the Arno. For something rather more affordable, the market near the church of San Lorenzo supplies a lively shopping experience where traditional Florentine leather is available in abundance alongside less attractive tat. Make sure to barter.

What to avoid

August. The heat in Florence, which sits in a basin, does not make for a pleasurable visit. Air conditioning is not a Florentine forte. Also queues. It's a shrewd idea to make for the really major museums - the Uffizi gallery and the Accademmia where Michelangelo's Statue of David is housed - either right at the very start of the day, or towards the end. You should give a wide berth to the main drag from the Duomo to the Ponte Vecchio. It's all modern, built in the 19th century when Florence was briefly the capital, and very crowded. There are plenty of narrow medieval lanes via which you can circumnavigate the crowded streets. Also, be sure to steer clear of all baroque church interiors. Florentine Baroque sucks.

Don't miss

There is a rare pleasure to be gained from seeing paintings in the places for which they were originally created. Thus, try not to miss at least some of the following: Giotto's frescoes of St Francis in Santa Maria Novella, Masaccio's Adam and Eve in Santa Maria del Carmine, Fra Angelico's museum in San Marco, Ghirlandaio's fresco cycle in Santa Maria Novella, Benozzo Gozzoli's Journey of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, and Pontormo's Deposition in Santa Felicita. There are more famous museums, but try to make it to the Bargello which heaves with remarkable sculpture. But it's not all about paintings and sculpture. It's important to wander slowly around the city at dusk, perhaps take a stroll in the afternoon heat around the Bobobi Gardens. Finally, don't forget to put a coin in the mouth of the bronze porcellino in Mercato Nuovo and rub its well-worn snout. It means that you'll be coming back to Florence.

This article has been amended to reflect that Ghirlandaio's fresco cycle is located in Santa Maria Novella, not Santa Croce.

Published: September 5, 2011 04:00 AM


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