Renaissance art, Gothic architecture, slow food and high fashion; Florence is Italy's living museum, and while it's a beacon for tourists, it still holds its secrets close to its chest, with a warren of backstreet workshops, hidden galleries and the best gelato in Europe.
City break guide: Florence
City guide: Florence
Renaissance men (and women) will fall in love with the delightful Casa Howard Guesthouse which refuses to be labelled a hotel, and instead wants to be your stylish, Italian home from home.
With 10 rooms, 1 small apartment and 2 suites Casa Howard is a boutique without the over styled formality, as owner Jenifer Howard Forneris is passionate about creating a unique, and genuine Florentine experience which can include anything from arranging cooking classes to complimentary samples of their homemade olive oil.
Florence conceals a labyrinth of backstreet workshops worth exploring for fine handmade leather products, typical Florentine marbled paper and olive oil merchants. Giulio Giannini e Figlio is a famed paper merchant on the Palazzo Pitti side of the Arno river, where his team still produces handmade marbled paper to 16th century methods. Another historical landmark, is the renowned Pharmacia Santa Maria Novella, which, like visiting Michelangelo's David, is something of a Florence pilgrimage these days. Beautifully packaged products sold in the absolutely decedent surrounding of the 16th century frescoed monastery, quite frankly puts Superdrug to shame. For something a little more contemporary, Via Luisa Roma is Florence's landmark designer concept store, where you can shop all the big Italian names, along with smaller European labels, art books and cult jewellery designers. As your in his hometown, it would be rude not to pay a visit to the Sergio Ferragamo store to buy the shoes worn by every self-effacing Florentine style maven. For leather - best to avoid the unpredictable quality at San Lorenzo market and make a bee line for Modova, a genuine artisanal workshop run by the Donnini family since 1919; every colour, every cut, in every kind of leather - you won't ever want to take them off.
Its all about the gelato; an ice-cream a day doesn't do you any harm when you're on holiday time, and with temptation on every corner, how can you resist? Vivoli (Via Isola delle Stinche 7) is the place everyone will tell you about - locals, tourists, students Vivoli change their flavours almost daily, basing them on the freshest ingredients they have in that day. Simple - no gimmicks, just really good gelato. The parlour itself is tiny, crammed and surprisingly unfussy; the owners would rather sell it on the quality of their ice-cream than gimmicky extras - which include wafer cones, by the way.
Il Cibero is one of the city's most renowned fine dining restaurants - the high concept menu is based on traditional Etruscan food, but is a refreshingly paste-free zone. Chef and owner Fabio Picchi has a growing empire of Osteria in Florence - including the novel Teatro del Sale where diners get a bit of a theatrical performance thrown in with their aperitivo; sounds tacky, but tastes delicious. Enoteca Pinchiorri is another push-the-boat-out affair; thoroughly Italian, Tuscan dishes prevail in the opulent Renaissance setting in the shadows of the Santa Croce. At the other end of the spectrum, Trattoria Sostanza (Via della Porcellana, 25), better known as 'the trough' to locals, is a properly bustling, unpretentious restaurant where you pull up a chair at one of the overflowing communal tables, sit elbow to elbow and get stuck into bowls of steaming hot white bean soup and gutsy pasta dishes.
For cocktails with a view, the aptly named Noir (12-14/r Lungarno Corsini) is situated on the banks of the Arno river, and come the summer the stylish crowd - expect dark glasses, big hair and plenty of Dolce Vita posturing - take their drinks outside to clink glasses looking out over the bridge. Colle Bereto is smack bang in Florence's designer district on Piazza degli Strozzi and is arguably Florence's most stylish and contemporary wine bars, with great aperitivo.
Florence is a living, breathing time capsule; marvel at the Palazzo Duomo and Michelangelo's David, star gaze the Botticelis in the Uffizi Gallery, walk the Ponte Vecchio, and pay your respects at the Santa Croce - the final resting places of Michelangelo, Galileo and Macchiavell. But for pure Italian flamboyance, you don't have to be a fashion fan to get a kick out of Roman designer Roberto Capucci's archive on Costa San Giorgio. Capucci - rather fond of a pleat - created outrageously colourful couture, which can only really be appreciated in 3-d.
Boboli Gardens in the grounds of the Palazzo Pitti are often an overlooked aspect of Florence, being on the other side of the river in the Oltarno district (meaning, literally 'over the Arno'). But this area is full of fin de siecle antique showrooms, fine art galleries, vintage boutiques and great little restaurants. Palazzo Pitti, the former seat of the Medici, and the Boboli Gardens are a step back to 16th century formality, with their symmetrical lines, elegant sculptures and atmospheric little grottoes.
Tucked away in the Tuscan hills is the secluded luxury of the Castello del Nero boutique hotel, spa and restaurant. The building dates back to 1825 and looks out over the Chianti wine region and century-old Cyprus trees - as far away from madding crowd as you can get. Book in for one of their luxurious ESPA day treatments which involves a three-course lunch at the La Torre restaurant - although with all the homemade bread, pasta and pastries on the menu, it's probably best to check back in for a detox.
Second guess the crowds and take a bus up to the small Renaissance village of Fiesol in the Tuscan hills, where you can watch outdoor performances in the Roman amphitheatre and on clear days, enjoy amazing views overlooking Florence, sprawled out below.
A vision of terracotta rooftops and crumbling churches, Medieval Siena is only an hour and a half's drive away from Florence. Safe, civilised and dripping with history, Siena is a sight for sore eyes. The Duomo is perhaps even more spectacular than that of Florence; dating back to the 13th century. With renovations and restorations throughout the ages, the cathedral is a stunning collision of gothic architecture, Italian marble, intricate mosaic and stained glass windows. Pitch up at one of the many pavement cafes on Piazza del Campo, and if the only price you have to pay is that of a vastly-inflated cappuccino - the view will be more than worth it.