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A walking tour of Florence

The birthplace of gelato and Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine, Florence’s small and charming historic centre is awash with Renaissance churches, crumbling Medici palaces and hidden courtyards flanking the Arno River. The narrow lanes within its old city walls are perfect for exploring on foot


View of the Duomo from Piazzale Michelangelo; Un Caffè is on one of Florence’s prettiest squares (Luigi Fiano)

Renaissance treasures

Approximately 1,100 steps: From whichever angle you approach Florence, you can’t miss the Duomo, properly known as Basilica Santa Maria del Fiore. Begin your walk here, looking up at Brunelleschi’s impossibly huge terracotta dome. To give an idea of scale, the seemingly tiny gold ball on the top of the cathedral has the circumference of five fully grown men standing with arms outstretched.

Walk a couple of blocks along Via Ricasoli to Galleria dell’Accademia (which houses Michelangelo’s famous statue of David) before swiftly veering into Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, which once housed the first orphanage in Europe. If you’re in need of a caffeine hit, you’ll find a tiny and adorable coffee shop, Un Caffè, built into the northern wall of the Renaissance square.

San Lorenzo street market; an artisanal frame-maker at work in via del Porcellana (Luigi Fiano)

Made in Italy

Approximately 2,200 steps: Magnificent architecture and proper Italian coffee ticked off, it’s time for a shopping fix. Venture into the hustle and bustle of San Lorenzo market, a colourful bazaar of Italian silks, leather, marbled paper and Azzurri football memorabilia. At its heart is Mercato Centrale, a covered food market where you can feast your eyes on bright green Tuscan olive oil, sundried tomatoes, peaches and freshly churned mozzarella.

The Duomo of Florence, aka the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore; students sketch the Journey of the Magi by Andrea del Sarto in Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (Luigi Fiano)

Mediaeval magic

Approximately 4,300 steps: Architecture enthusiasts will appreciate the sheer density of churches in Florence (there are more than 70), but they’re especially prevalent in this part of town. Head to the oldest and gaudiest, Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, a pinnacle of Gothic architecture that dates back to the 13th century. Turning your back on the church and going right along Via della Scala, you’ll find Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, an ancient and magical pharmacy older than the church. Ancient tinctures and apothecary bottles make way for deliciously scented bath salts, candles and beauty products – wonderful presents to take home and enjoy.

Double back on yourself and follow Via dei Fossi straight to the Arno. Rather than crossing the river here, turn left and follow the riverbank upstream to Ponte Santa Trinita. The bridge is flanked by two Romanesque babes holding bunches of grapes, and you’ll be rewarded with a full view of the colourful jewellery shops of the Ponte Vecchio as you cross.

Sbrino is said to serve the best gelato in Florence; Loggia Roof Bar at Hotel Palazzo Guadagni (Luigi Fiano)

Spritz and gelato

Approximately 4,900 steps: You’re now in the Oltrarno, the name for the trendy southern bank of the river, and more specifically in the ever-so-cool neighbourhood of Santo Spirito. Head to the main piazza, where locals and tourists sip spritzes and while away sunny afternoons on the steps to the old church. Try the best gelato in town at Sbrino (on Via dei Serragli just off the main square) or head up to the Loggia Roof Bar atop Palazzo Guadagni, which captures the golden hues of the rooftops in the late afternoon.

Piazzale Michelangelo delivers Florence’s finest sunsets; it’s also good for last-minute shopping (Luigi Fiano)

Sunset scenes

Approximately 7,500 steps: For sunset, however, there’s only one place you want to be: Piazzale Michelangelo. Head back to the Arno and follow the river past the Ponte Vecchio on your left and the Bardini Gardens on your right, arriving in the lively neighbourhood of San Niccolò: a prime spot for some fritti (fried snacks) and a glass of Chianti before the hike. That’s right – steep stone steps lead you through the arches of Porta San Niccolò, out of the city walls and up to Florence’s highest piazza. Passing the splendid Rose Garden on your left, huff and puff your way up in time for a celebratory sundowner overlooking the entire city. 

Ponte alle Grazie (Luigi Fiano)

Rebuilding bridges

Approximately 9,100 steps: Once you’ve caught your breath, mosey down the hill and back across the river, this time crossing at Ponte alle Grazie. Once said to be the most beautiful bridge in Florence, with little dwellings for nuns, this was destroyed as the Nazis retreated in WWII and later rebuilt as a less appealing version. Nevertheless, it delivers stunning views down river to the city, especially in the evening light, as well as showing off the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze in fine fashion.

The Abduction of Polyxena in Loggia dei Lanzi by Piazza della Signoria; Santa Croce is the venue for calcio storico – a hands-on sport originating in the 16th century (Luigi Fiano) 

Football and fizzy fountains

Approximately 10,000 steps: Over Ponte alle Grazie you’ll find yourself in Santa Croce, yet another marvellous piazza, and the venue for Florence’s historic calcio storico match (think football with fists) each June. It’s then a short walk along Via dei Neri to Piazza della Signoria. A lot has happened in this iconic square: beheadings, Formula 1 pageants and everything in between. Rehydrate with some sparkling water, dispensed from the ornate water fountain in the centre of the piazza. Finish your tour by the grand arches of the Uffizi Galleries, where statues of painters and poets look down on you from above, enticing you in.