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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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