Florence: the perfect short trip

by ROBERT LANDON·
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For the discerning traveler, Florence asks the question: is this a living city or a glorified museum? The answer is 'yes' on both counts. A small city with virtually all its sights clustered in just a few square kilometers, Florence is a place that you can get to know well, if not intimately, in a relatively short time. Still, the combination of crowds and staggering number of options make planning a big plus.

Day One

Even those returning to Florence should consider joining the crowds plying their way from the Galleria dell’Accademia to the Duomo, onto Piazza della Signoria and the Uffizi, then over Ponte Vecchio to the Giardino di Boboli (Boboli Gardens).

Set on seeing Michelangelo's David and/or the Uffizi? Book in advance or head to a ticket outlet first thing. During summer as well as holiday weekends, the queues at choice Florentine museums – notably the Uffizi and Accademia – can involve hot, sticky, half-day waits. Slash your waiting time to zero by reserving tickets online at all of the 13 musei statali (state museums), including the Uffizi Gallery, Galleria dell’Accademia (where David lives), Palazzo Pitti, Museo del Bargello, Museo Archeologico and the Medici chapels (Cappelle Medicee). To get into the Uffizi or Accademia in high season, make reservations at least six weeks in advance.

If you’re already in Florence, head to the ticket office of any of the above museums to make your reservation. There is also an outlet on Via de’ Calzaiuoli in the rear of Orsanmichele – often you can find times not available on the internet. Still out of luck? Try joining a tour group. Most hotels and B&Bs can book tours.

To climb the Duomo, try after 4pm, after tour buses head off to Venice and Rome. If you need a break, escape into a hidden nook of the Boboli with a picnic lunch. For dinner try a classic Tuscan meal in the Oltrarno.

Day Two

Start out with cappuccino and croissant at your neighborhood caffè. If you’ve missed any big sights on Day One, now’s the time. Then head for one of the great monastic churches, such as Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce or San Marco. For lunch, try one of the city’s excellent pizzerias, such as Il Pizzaiuolo or I Tarocchi. In the afternoon, unwind and stretch your legs with a ramble up to San Miniato al Monte.

For a light dinner, indulge in another Florentine tradition – aperitivi buffet. It used to be that in Florence aperitivi meant a pricey before-dinner drink and a few bowls of free peanuts. However, now bars are battling for the after-work crowd with increasingly elaborate buffets that cost you only the price of one drink.

So far, the marketing ploy has been a screaming success. Drinking is costly in Florence and younger professionals used to go straight home most nights. But most can justify the expense when they can also make a meal of it. And in many places you can do just that, thanks to generous supplies of fresh breads, cheeses and prosciutto, cold and hot pastas, and some kind of fruit or sweet. Favorites include Il Rifrullo, Negroni and Rex Caffè. Aperitivi generally start at 7pm and shut down at 10pm; come early for the best eats. Expect to pay around €10 for that first drink (the second will cost you just the same).

Day Three

With the top sights under your belt, consider the Museo del Bargello and/or labyrinthine Palazzo Vecchio. Then lunch at one of the city’s hearty sandwich stops such as I Fratellini or Antico Noè. In the afternoon, head to one of the monastic churches you missed on Day Two. If you fancy the outdoors instead, consider a sunset ramble in Fiesole. Back in town, unwind with a glass of Chianti at an enoteca (wine bar) followed by a juicy bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine-style steak).

Rainy day tips

In Florence, rain is no damper. Any of the churches and museums is fair game. The smart shops along Via de' Tornabuoni and Borgo San Jacopo also provide free shelter. Cafes such as classic Gilli and bohemian Libreria Café de la Cité make great refuges until the end of the downpour.

Escape the crowds

The Bargello, San Marco and San Lorenzo are top-flight sights that generally attract lighter crowds. Even better are the one-off masterpieces such as those in Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia, Chiostro dello Scalzo and Basilica di Santa Trínita. The side streets of the Oltrarno are charming and uncrowded, as is the walk up to San Miniato al Monte.

Florence for free

In a city that lives on tourism, relatively little in Florence is free. Even some churches are ticketed. San Miniato is a fine exception, as is the beautiful walk up to it and the views back over the city. Or you can take a city bus to Fiesole for free walks and million-dollar views. Some of the most spectacular in situ art, such as Castagno's vivid Last Supper in Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia and the statuary in the Loggia dei Lanzi, is also free. And a bottle of wine and a beautiful piazza make a complete evening.