Iconic art, architecture and history among the Tuscan hills
Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Leonardo’s Annunciation, and Caravaggio’s Medusa. In a day, a single day. In a city so crammed with beautifully crafted masterpieces, exquisite exhibits which would claim top billing practically anywhere else, hardly get a look-in in the Lonely Planet’s guide to Firenze (other guide books are available). In fact UNESCO recently asserted that almost a third of the entire world’s art treasures reside here in the Renaissance city of Florence. So while you should most definitely invest in perusing the renowned works at the Uffizi and Galleria Dell’Accademia, also take time to wander the winding cobbled lanes, smaller churches and glorious gardens where untold surprises, secret sculptures and unique carvings await.
As Florence hosts over 16 million tourists each year, Low Season Traveller recommends avoiding the hot and heaving peak summertime, instead making a journey during the colder, less popular November to April period. Easter sees numbers rising again, but avoid that and you can experience shorter queues and fewer crowds at those top locations. Temperatures can fluctuate from freezing to mid-teens °C but there’s no shortage of museums or fabulous eateries to head into if it’s chilly.
Piazza della Signoria is known as the heart of the city, conveniently sited between the stunning marble Duomo and the River Arno. Standing in this busy square you get a sense of the majesty and opulence of Florence. Fascinating statues, many paid for by the Medicis, portray the city’s long and convoluted past. Enter the 14th century Palazzo Vecchio with its castle like features, distinctive tower and spectacular Vasari ceiling oil paintings. Fill up on religious iconography at the Duomo, the Basilica Santa Maria Novella and the Basilica di Santa Croce before filling up on lunch at the Mercato Centrale market or on delicious gelato. Cross the Arno via Ponte Vecchio, the medieval stone bridge and explore Palazzo Pitti, Cappelle Medicee and the picturesque gardens on the south side.
Dig a Little Deeper
A full Florentine experience goes beyond the bucket list sights and museums. The city is compact enough to walk through the distinct neighbourhoods, each with its own charm, craftsmen and trattorias. It doesn’t take much to wander off the beaten track, and discover another side to the city that operates at a slower pace. Step away from the high-end fashion of Via Tornbuoni, and head into the funky side streets. Meet the back street artisans working in leather, gold, bookbinding, marbled paper, and jewellery, all trades that date from the Middle Ages and still very much alive today. Night-time is particularly beautiful with iconic sites lit up and narrow streets coming to life with the lively atmosphere of local bars and restaurants.
An hour from Florence by car, the one-time maritime capital is home to the famed leaning tower, and makes an excellent day trip. The scarily gravity-defying structure sits beside Italy’s largest baptistery, the 11th century cathedral, and the monumental cemetery of Camposanto. These Carrara marble beauties together make up the UNESCO Field of Miracles, or Campo dei Miracoli. Pisa is often a stop on the cruise ship schedule, so as these are less frequent during winter, you can avoid the hordes and achieve something more like an authentic experience of the architectural beauty of the place. Enjoy a low season walk on a nearly empty sandy beach along the Tuscan coast, then a delicious fish lunch near the marina with its luxury yachts. On a rainy day, check out the Museum of Ancient Ships in the old Medici shipyards.