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04 October 2023

Florence, where the well-heeled travel to get their art fix

Piazza della Repubblica Savoy. Florence's real beauty lies among its cobbled streets and huge squares. (SUPPLIED)

By Staff Writer

Since the early 19th century, Florence or Firenze in Italian, has been celebrated as the epitome of beauty. Lauded for its innumerable works of art and architecture, this small city and the surrounding region of Tuscany was the powerhouse of what has become known as the Renaissance.

Today, that history lives on and it is evident that not much has changed in hundreds of years. Because of the vast number of things to see it can be quite overwhelming, which is why it is best to plan your visit and prioritise what you want to see, ensuring there is still time to stroll the city's backstreets and watch people over a frothy cappuccino.

The best time of year to go is from November to March when the crowds are minimal and the temperatures, although cold, are pleasant enough to walk and explore. August is often packed with tourists, mostly art students. However, for Middle East visitors the summer months offer a respite from the heat and humidity of this region and can be ideal for exploring the Tuscan countryside – dotted with cypress-topped hills, terracotta-coloured villas and poppy-dappled fields.

Florentines and their city never fail to impress. Even on the short transfer from Florence Peretola airport located just 15 minutes from the centre of the city, visitors are bombarded with historical piazzas, sculptors and churches and if that wasn't enough, the Florentines are a good-looking people, so don your most stylish clothing and ensure you hide any jet-lagged eyes behind must-have designer sunglasses. The phrase "well-heeled" seems appropriate here. With Italy being the home of leather as well as international designers Gucci and Ferragamo, Florence means one thing: style, both past and present.

Situated in the historical centre of the city is the Piazza della Repubblica – home to the famous Cafe Gilli – a pit stop for a hot chocolate and a delicious pastry is a must. To the square's right is the majestic Hotel Savoy. Surrounded by the magnificent 15th-century beautifully patterned Duomo, a fleet of world-famous galleries and an array of major fashion houses, this treasure-filled location is a great place to stay.

Although this is one of the finest hotels in Florence, it is not showy or ostentatious, much like Florence itself. Acquired by the Rocco Forte Collection in 1997, it is sleek and sophisticated with works of modern art (mostly with an association of shoes) dotted around the building illustrating the city's links with the fashion industry. Once inside, the bedroom shutters give way to an incredible view across the city. You almost expect to hear Puccini as you look over the rooftops towards the Tuscan hills.

For a river view check into the Grand Hotel, located in the Piazza Ognisanti overlooking the river Arno. With its rich colours, custom frescoes and sparkling crystal chandeliers, the antique décor pays homage to the city's artistic heritage and offers travellers a great location in which to explore the south of Florence.

But this isn't a city in which to stay inside. Outside among the cobbled streets and huge squares is where the real beauty lies. Florence's Piazza del Duomo, Baptistery and Campanile is one of Italy's most impressive public spaces.

Built in 1418 to be the "largest church in the Roman Catholic world", its spectacular dome is both a work of art and an engineering genius. A great way to see the incredible Last Judgement fresco painted by Vasari is to climb the dome itself. After an initial ascent, you emerge onto a narrow gallery that runs around the interior of the dome, giving a dizzying view of the church floor. A further ascent (be warned there are 436 steps in total) brings you to the top of the building with amazing views of Florence. Allow time to get your breath back and take photos.

Once back on the ground, head to the nearby sixth century Baptistery to see the famous gilded bronze doors. The extraordinary east doors known as the "Gates of Paradise" took Ghiberti 27 years to complete.

The memory of the Medici, who for centuries commanded the city's fortunes and were, as generous patrons, instrumental in unleashing the Renaissance, lives on. The city's artists and sculptors Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Giotto, the Lippis, Masaccio, Botticelli, Pontormo and a host of others left their mark, and wonderful galleries such as the Uffizi, Pitti and Accademia today house many of their work. Ensure a day is spent exploring these and linger on Michelangelo's David.

Few regions in Europe are as rich in food as Tuscany and the main draw is the fresh ingredients. Whether it's a bowl of pumpkin ravioli, a traditional lasagne or a bowl of Tuscan bean soup, foodies won't be disappointed. Allow time to sit back and relax in one of the many cafes or restaurants offering simple, good quality cuisine. With the euro being particularly strong at the moment Italy does not seem as cheap as it once was but if you hunt around there are very reasonably priced places outside the main tourist haunts. A good area to head to is Oltrarno on the south of the Arno where prices are cheaper and visitors can enjoy the Biblio gardens before finishing the day with a famous aperitifo in cafe Dolce Vita.

The basics

How to get there:

Emirates flies direct to Rome where connecting flights are available to Florence. Check out www.emirates.com

Where to stay:

- Hotel Savoy, Piazza della Repubblica (pictured). Tel: +39 055 27351 or log on to www.roccofortecollection.com 

- Grand Hotel, Piazza Ognissanti

Tel: +39 055 27161 or log on to www.starwoodhotels.com/luxury
Must do

- Climb the steps of the magnificent Duomo for panoramic city views 

- Tuck into a 900g T-bone steak dressed with rocket. Explore famous Italian fashion houses


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