View from Piazzale Michelangelo looking out across the Arno river © /Flickr

Seven million visitors a year arrive at this Tuscan city expecting to find classical Italy. But the initial impression can be disappointing. Whatever time you visit, you’ll all cram into Florence’s narrow streets as lorries, cars, mopeds and scooters squeeze past. Some visitors try to hire cars but driving in the city itself is pretty stressful.

There are all the usual Italian treats of shopping, eating and people-watching to enjoy but sight-seers will find the drab outer walls of tall square Renaissance palaces can be dark and austere. Most of Florence lacks the flamboyance of Rome, the cuteness of Sienna or the romance of Venice. In this city, the treasures of the Italian Renaissance are discreetly hidden inside galleries, churches and palaces.

Once you get within those big dark doors, and you may have to queue for a while first, you’ll find buildings stuffed with the finest paintings and sculptures. After all, this really is the cradle of the Renaissance.

As you wander , the ancient grid of narrow streets opens out occasionally to squares. The well-known dark and brooding Piazza della Signoria is at the heart of the city and the magnet for most day-trippers – but the wider and prettier Piazza del Duomo is the more spectacular.

The view of the Duomo © Antonio Cinotti/Flickr

Florence’s big galleries are all a short stroll from these two squares. The best-known and most popular are the Uffizi, Bargello and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. There are dozens more to explore, including the Accademia which houses Michelangelo’s David and the huge painting collection at the Palazzo Pitti.

Equally impressive are the Florentine churches – and there are scores of them, ranging from the dramatic Duomo Cathedral down to tiny backstreet chapels. Whatever size they are, there’s always some fantastic piece of art somewhere inside. The best is Santa Croce, with its delicate Giotto frescoes and the tomb of Michelangelo.

You’ll have to queue to enter the main museums, palaces and galleries. You can minimize the wait to get inside the big three art houses by booking on-line before you leave home.

But when the tourist trail all gets too much and you’re fed up with paying to see everything, it’s still completely free to stroll across the River Arno on the famous Ponte Vecchio – the bridge lined with touristy jewellery shops. And it costs nothing to stand and gaze at the soaring dome of Florence’s Duomo or sit amid the statues and greenery of Piazzale Michelangelo admiring the city’s medieval rooftops from a hazy distance.

The River Arno and the Ponte Santa Trinita from the Ponte Vecchio © John Cook/Flickr

The view from the top of the Duomo is recommended too – as long as the long climb up stairs that seem to dangle precariously beneath the dome doesn’t put you off.

Shopping in Florence

There are those who are less interested in the past, more in the present. And they’ll be more excited about Florence’s shops than a few old crumbling statues.

Gucci was founded in Florence and that’s a hint about the standard shopping here. You’ll find plenty of credit-card threatening luxury designer stores and clothing boutiques, including the big Italian names like Gucci, Armani and Cartier. Leather goods are a speciality although there’s much tourist tat among the quality. The same goes for the gold and jewellery draped from street stalls. There are good markets though, especially for food and clothes. Look also at speciality shops for antiques, marbled paper, wines and liqueurs.

Bargains in brands like Yves Saint Laurent, Fendi and Dolce and Gabbana are to be found in out-of-town discount malls and factory shops. Most shops shut for long lunches but stay open till at least 7pm.

Time to Eat

Whether you opt for shopping or sight-seeing, you’ll end up looking for a good restaurant eventually. In Florence there are all the Italian favourites of pasta, pizza and ice-cream plus Florence’s Tuscan specialities.

Crostini spread ©Nate BW/Flickr

Unlike the clothes and shoes, these are surprisingly simple rural dishes. Look out for beef steak grilled over an open fire, hearty bean soup and wild boar. Locals love to nibble crostini – pieces of toast spread with tomato, garlic and olive oil – as a starter or small bar snack.

Florence has plenty of eating places aimed at tourists. You’ll find prices slightly higher than the rest of the country and eating happens slightly earlier. There are cheaper places near the station and pricier ones on the main streets but some of the most memorable meals will be found in small bars and tucked-away trattoria used by locals.

Later you’ll find much of the evening is spent strolling in your finery, window shopping and perusing menus, just like the locals. There may be some stops at bars and ice-cream parlours afterward dinner too. Later nightlife is tucked away. The later the bars and clubs, the more exclusive, difficult to find and expensive they become.

Try to Visit Off Season

Florence is wonderful to visit out of season – the long queues, oppressive heat and crowds of tourists spoil it for many visitors in spring and summer. The city is compact so you can get to see much of it in a weekend and the temperature is always several degrees warmer than in the UK. Wander through the Pitti gardens opposite and climb to a beautiful view of the city, visit the local trattoria and eat with the locals, peer at the works of art in the Uffizi and walk over the Ponte Vecchio, minus the hordes.