x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

My Kind of Place: Revel in Florence's revival

A dynamic facelift has made this Italian Renaissance city easier to navigate and enjoy.

Florence is a much more pleasant place to visit now that parts of the city centre are designated pedestrian-only zones. Getty Images
Florence is a much more pleasant place to visit now that parts of the city centre are designated pedestrian-only zones. Getty Images

Why Florence?

With its sumptuous palaces, immense churches and vast museums filled with priceless works of art, I have always thought of Florence as one of those eternal cities that never seems to change, not just over the many years I have been coming here, but for centuries, since it was one of Europe's wealthiest medieval capitals and then the birthplace of the Renaissance.

But the city now has a dynamic thirtysomething mayor, the charismatic Matteo Renzi, dubbed the "Italian Tony Blair", who is causing very positive tremors. Traffic congestion and pollution were always a nightmare here, and in one sweep, the mayor closed off large parts of the centre, transforming the major tourist attractions, including Piazza del Duomo, into pedestrian-only zones. To combat smog, he is introducing electric vehicles for public transport and encouraging residents to walk or use bicycles. The banks of the Arno have been cleaned up and there is no litter to be seen. The unique charms of Florence remain unaltered, but this is indisputably a much more pleasant place to visit.

A comfortable bed

There is a competitive "star wars" right now between the city's top hotels. The hottest address in town is still the Four Seasons Florence (www.fourseasons.com/florence; 00 39 055 26261), a plush 15th-century palazzo with a majestic garden and pool, plus a tempting spa (double rooms from €290 [Dh1,400)]. But the venerable Grand, the preferred address among discerning travellers for nearly 150 years, has had a multi-million-dollar facelift, reopening as the sparkling new St Regis Florence (www.stregisflorence.com; 00 39 055 27161; double rooms from €320 [Dh1,520]).

Find your feet

I always head straight for the Palazzo Pitti (www.palazopitti.it), the splendid home of the Medicis, and walk up to the highest point of its Boboli Gardens, which gives the perfect image of the splendour of Florence with a panoramic vista over the city. Rather than spend hours queuing to get into Brunelleschi's Duomo or the medieval Palazzo Vecchio, explore the city's lesser-known museums, which are quieter and equally fascinating.

Piazza Santissimi Annunziata boasts the beautiful Ospedale degli Innocenti, an orphanage designed by the same Brunelleschi in 1419, while the adjoining Basilica is a jewel of Renaissance architecture. A couple of minutes' walk away is the Museo di San Marco (www.museumsinflorence.com), an ancient monastery decorated with unparalleled frescoes by Fra Angelico. On a more contemporary note, Florence is famed for its fabulous shoes, and the private Museo Ferragamo (www.museoferragamo.it) is a haven for fashionistas, with designs that span the footwear of Rudolf Valentino, Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn. Walk across the historic Ponte Vecchio and get lost in the backstreets of Oltrarno, the other side of River Arno, where the crowds evaporate and the streets are lined with artisan ateliers of furniture makers, jewellers and sculptors.

Meet the locals

Stop off at the Mercato Centrale, Florence's grand food market for shopping, gossiping, sipping an espresso and snacking on Tuscan specialities at one of the numerous bars.

For lunch, walk over to the bohemian Sant'Ambrogio neighbourhood, where a colourful crowd gathers every day at the Teatro del Sale (118 Via de'Macci; 00 39 055 2001492), a venue that resembles an English Gentlemen's Club, serves the gourmet cuisine of flamboyant owner-chef, Fabio Picchi, and hosts concerts and cabaret in the evening. Membership is a nominal €5 (Dh24). Via de'Tornabuoni is Florence's chic shopping boulevard; after browsing Prada, Gucci and Valentino, join elegant shoppers for hot chocolate at local designer Roberto Cavalli's own Caffe Giacosa (10 Via della Spada).

Book a table

Florence is the birthplace of Italian gastronomy, with grand gourmet restaurants and wonderful trattorie specialising in Tuscan cuisine. The city's temple of gastronomy is Enoteca Pinchiorri (87 Via Ghibellina; 00 39 055 242757), where the Michelin-starred chef Annie Feolde creates sophisticated dishes such as handmade tagliolini with baby squids, sage and courgette flowers. Their signature nine-course tasting menu is priced at €250 (Dh1,200).

For the ultimate Tuscan experience, brave the long queues at Il Latini (6 Via dei Palchetti; 00 39 055 210916), sit down at a friendly communal table, and order the best "Bistecca Fiorentina" (a large T-bone steak) in town; a three-course meal will cost around €40 (Dh190). Down by the Mercato Centrale is Trattoria da Sergio, a cheap and cheerful Florentine institution serving delicious ribollita (vegetable soup) for €6 (Dh28), and peposo (beef stew) for €10 (Dh47).

Shopper's paradise

Every Italian couture designer of note has a sumptuous showroom on Via de 'Tornabuoni, but serious shoppers looking for more original buys should seek out Florence's unique luxury artisans.

Be sure to call first for an appointment at Antico Setificio Fiorentino (4 Via Lorenzo Bartolini; www.anticosetificiofiorentino.com), an exclusive 18th-century atelier producing dazzling silk and velvet damask and brocades using traditional renaissance motifs. Possibly the world's oldest perfume maker, housed in a frescoed, 13th-century chapel, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (www.smnovella.it) stocks an irresistible range of perfumes, herbal elixirs, soaps and the most fabulous eau de cologne.

Just opposite the Palazzo Pitti, the family of Giulio Giannini (www.giuliogiannini.it) have been making the finest handmade marbled paper and leather diaries since 1856, much copied across the city but never equalled.

What to avoid

Florence is famed for its leather products, but only buy in fashionable boutiques and avoid the seemingly tempting stalls of the San Lorenzo's leather market - the quality is poor and mostly everything is made in China.

Don't miss

The Uffizi Gallery (www.uffizi.firenze.it) boasts masterpieces by every great Italian artist - Leonardo, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio - and must be visited, but it is crucial to reserve your entrance in advance.