How to spend a winter weekend in Florence

 (Shutterstock / Catarina Belova)
(Shutterstock / Catarina Belova)

Florence in January? Or February? Fabulous! I say out of season – from October to Easter – is the only time to go the cultural hotspots of Italy,  places where you can’t move for visitors in peak season. No one in their right mind would go in August; in fact the entire school holiday season is a no-no. September is still fairly busy. But when we get to October-November, it’s another story.

The weather is still temperate – it was quite warm when I was there in November – with occasional rain. January and February are colder but still better than here. For me this is way preferable to the heat even of May. But it’s the absence of the great mass of visitors which makes the city so very inviting.

Normally Florentines are grossly outnumbered by visitors. That old trope about tourists destroying what they come to seek is nowhere more true than here and Venice. But the numbers are less disproportionate at this time of year. The queue for the Uffizi gallery, one of the most beautiful collections in Europe, winds right round the block at peak season; this time, it’s about five minutes’ wait.

The Accademia, where Michaelangelo’s David stands, still has a long queue – book ahead – just much less long than normal. As for the Bargello, the beautiful and atmospheric old prison-fort where you can find Donatello’s pensive David and is full of exceptional pieces, well, that was practically empty by summer standards; it was me and a couple of dozen other people, max. The other thing to bear in mind is that ticket prices for some attractions are cheaper at this time of year; the Uffizi charges €12 out of season rather than €20.

Bargello in Florence (Kent DuFault/Pixabay)
Bargello in Florence (Kent DuFault/Pixabay)

Florentines themselves seem even nicer than usual. Restaurants which are mentioned in guidebooks are less frenetic, more likely to be up for people just dropping in. The Santa Trinita ice cream parlour (ever tried black sesame icecream?) just by the Santa Trinity bridge which is normally crammed with tourists is a breeze right now. And yes, it is still gelato season (when is it not?).

Cibreo, a cluster of restaurants near the lovely San Ambrogio church, gave me a table in the trattoria on a Saturday evening without a booking. And if you’re in a caffe-bar, have your cappuccino and breakfast pastry (make mine a custard bun) standing up at the bar, rather than sitting down; it’s cheaper. That holds true even at Gilli, the elegant tea rooms with lovely pastries, just on the Via Roma.

Below is a list of the best Florentine restaurants, as compiled by my friend who lives in Florence, the discerning Peter Kennealy. Take it with you.

the Uffizi gallery (Shutterstock / T photography)
the Uffizi gallery (Shutterstock / T photography)

Getting to Florence is obviously cheaper at this time of year. I travelled by plane one way, by train on the return. And I think if we can afford it, we should all be trying to do at least some of our journey by train. I booked with Trainline, which does the entire route for you. Bear in mind though that Italian trains can run late, so give yourself the maximum change time, probably at Turin. And although the journey to Florence by air is easy, you lose something by simply landing at your destination. On the train, you can see the route, the progression southwards from Paris and across to Italy, with the Alps in the distance. I amused myself googling the names of the stations on the way, and found we were following the Roman route from Italy to France.

On the downside, the one creature in Florence that doesn’t seem to have got the memo about off peak season is mosquitos. You’d think in the colder months they’d all have gone into hibernation, or whatever the horrid things do? Nope, once the lights were out, I heard the distinctive whine and was eaten alive. Bring industrial strength mosquito repellent, or buy it in a pharmacy.

Prices one way from London to Florence start at £106; Trainline.com.

Best restaurants in Florence

Cantinetta di Antinori

 Elegant old world sort of place.  Excellent traditional Tuscan fare well executed, great for lunch.   Rather expensive, so go for a treat. cantinetta-antinori.com

 (Cantinetta Antinori)
(Cantinetta Antinori)

Vecchia Bettola

Very Florentine. Charming neighbourhood spot, popular with locals. tripadvisor.co.uk

I Raddi

Via Ardiglione, just off Via Serragli in the Oltrarno (Santo Spirito side of town).  Good daily changing lunch menu. trattoriairaddi.it

Trattoria del Carmine

In the piazza of the same name.  Traditional Tuscan cooking. Starters as cheap as €4. divento.com

Il Guscio

On via dell’Orto.  Slightly upmarket. tripadvisor.co.uk

Tramvai

On Piazza Tasso.  Traditional good food, authentic and wonderfully friendly. tripadvisor.co.uk

Santo Bevitore

Very bustly. Excellent food. ilsantobevitore.com

Tamero

Another interesting restaurant is in Piazza S Spirito.  Urban and edgy. Sit out in the square. tamero.it

Cantinetta Antinori

Elegant and historic. cantinetta-antinori.com

Fuor d Acqua

The freshest and most expensive fish in Florence and possibly anywhere. fuordacqua.it

Mercato Centrale (Shutterstock / ColorMaker)
Mercato Centrale (Shutterstock / ColorMaker)

Shopping in Florence

For food, make for a market. The large covered central market, the Mercato Centrale (mercatocentrale.com), not only has a remarkable range of stalls; upstairs on the first floor, there’s a lots of foodie outlets where you can get excellent, seasonal dishes – a big roll with porchetta, roast pork, costs about €6; a portion of Florentine tripe (the favourite local dish), about €7.

That market is big and busy, but near the historic church of St Ambrogio, there’s a much smaller version, the Mercato Sant‘Ambrogio (mercatosantambrogio.it), which has stalls both inside the covered market and outside. It has wonderful produce – fruit, veg, flowers, pasta and cheese outside and inside excellent meat and cheese stalls. And – top tip – inside there’s also a sit down trattoria area.

For food, check out too local supermarkets like Carrefour; they’re less expensive than specialist retailers.

Florentine paper is famous. For expensive but lovely hand made paper, like Il Papiro (ilpapirofirenze.com)near the cathedral, you can expect to pay €12 for a sheet of marbled or hand printed paper, and upwards of about €35 for a diary. For cheaper printed paper with distinctive Florentine designs, you can buy covered notebooks for €5 or sheets for about €6. Look out for photocopier outlets that sell stationery; they’re cheaper than specialist shops.

The famous pharmacy near the lovely Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella used to be run by friars; no longer, but it has a terrific range of soaps and scents. There are outlets around the city and  they’ve also got a branch in… Piccadilly.

For leather, ignore the street stalls. If you can afford it, make for the Scuola Cuoio (scuoladelcuoio.it), school of leather, in the converted friary down the street next to Santa Croce (an outstanding church) for beautiful pieces and excellent workmanship.