A special birthday demands a special destination, so I had just one city in mind when I was planning a January celebration for my husband. We’ve visited several Italian cities together but although I’ve been three times to Florence over a period of many years, this magical city had eluded him.
It’s easy to travel independently to Florence, booking a low cost airline to Pisa and catching the coach or train for the hour’s journey to the city, but I wanted something extra, so plumped for city break specialists Kirker Holidays who offer quality hotels with transport by scheduled airline and with chauffeur-drive transfers. Even better, the free Kirker concierge service will book restaurants, concert tickets and museum entrances before you travel.
Kirker offer several tempting hotels in Florence and we opted for the Santa Maria Novella which overlooks the square and church of the same name. Close to the station, it’s a good choice for anyone planning a day trip to Siena or Pisa, and within a short walk of all the main attractions. Recently refurbished, this small hotel combines antique furniture and draped curtains with polished wooden floors, marble bathrooms, and friendly staff with an enviable level of English.
Our room looked directly over the gleaming marble façade of Santa Maria Novella church – home to my favourite frescoes that portray biblical scenes with characters in Renaissance dress. When I last visited the city, the façade was under wraps but the restoration is now finished and the once busy square has been pedestrianised.
Travel in January and there are 3-nights-for-2 offers at many hotels, and of course fewer tourists. We encountered groups from the Far East but otherwise it was pretty much us and the Florentines, which made for an authentic, more intimate experience.
You do take a gamble with the weather though. Our forecast was uninterrupted rain, but we drew back the curtains on The Big Day to find brilliant blue skies, so headed straight for the city’s iconic viewpoints.
Florence is compact with all the main museums and sites within easy, level walking distance. I’d recommend spare walking shoes though in low season as rain soon collects in the pavements. Streets are largely on a grid system following the plan of the old Roman city and we loved discovering tiny independent shops in the side streets, stocked with everything from buttons and bows to marble statues.
There are two iconic views of Florence … well three, but two will probably be enough. The fabulous cathedral in pink, white and green marble is topped with Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome and you can climb to the top for a pigeon’s eye view across the rooftops to the Florentine hills.
My tip though would be to climb Giotto’s belltower which rises beside the front façade in matching marble tones. That way you get the full-on effect of the dome. It’s not a climb for the faint-hearted with 416 steps, via mezzanines for a welcome breather, and the same way down as up, but the view is stupendous. One 10-euro ticket covers both sites as well as the baptistery with its wonderful ornate ceiling and is valid for 24 hours. The cathedral itself is free.
The other great viewpoint is Piazza Michelangelo, where you can look back across the Arno to the cathedral, bell tower and Ponte Vecchio in one unforgettable panorama. If you don’t want to climb the hill, take a cab and maybe walk down.
In low season, Florence’s main museums like the Bargello, Accademia and Pitti Palace aren’t particularly busy, but even in January a timed ticket for the Uffizi is a must to avoid the tour bus queues. Even if Botticelli and friends are not your kind of art, the building itself is fabulous and offers great views over the Ponte Vecchio.
We also enjoyed the ‘Secret Passages of the Palazzo Vecchio’ tour, a small group tour in English through the lives and collections of the Medicis in the spectacular medieval palace which is now the town hall.
Kirker include a timed Uffizi ticket in the package and their free concierge service will also prebook other museums if required, as well as restaurants. The free Kirker information booklet offers a number of tried-and-tested suggestions and we particularly enjoyed dinner at Buca Mario, a traditional cellar restaurant dating from the 19th century and just a short walk from our hotel.
Walking through Florence is like wandering through a Renaissance film set. There are dozens of good guide books on the market to help you plan your stay, but I’d recommend visiting all the major churches which offer fabulous art work, peaceful cloisters and – in Santa Croce – the ornate tombs of luminaries such as Michelangelo and Machiavelli. And without the crowds of the big name museums.
As for gifts to bring home, if the designer shops of Via Tornabuoni are beyond the budget, head to the Mercato Nuovo near the Uffizi and the market around San Lorenzo church for leather bags, belts, scarves and silk ties at great prices. Great for birthday presents … special number or otherwise!
For city breaks Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays.