Florence has changed
You can still find Renaissance piazzas filled with rustling pigeons, romantic Italian men wooing ladies, and Michelangelo sculptures. But today’s Florence, as the locals know it, is a fashionable, modern city, home to Ferragamo, Gucci, and Roberto Cavalli, and offering vibrant nightlife, great restaurants, and for the visitor, stylish boutique hotels. But Florence isn’t the easiest place to visit. Many complain that it’s overrun with tourists, and that the bread is flavorless. All true—Florence has the most American student programs in the world and admittedly unseasoned bread. But go where the locals go, and you’ll get an entirely different picture. You may encounter the cold shoulder at first (Florentines are known for being snobs, or “the Parisians of Italy”). But even more than Parisians, they’ll warm up if you’re willing to break the ice with a little respectful conversation.
Florence’s cobblestone streets are best navigated in relation to two landmarks: the Arno River, which splits the city in half from west to east, and the old city doors, or porte, the remains of which demarcate the center of Florence, or centro storico. North of the Arno is where you’ll find the majority of the famous sights and most of the tourists. And, though you haven’t seen Florence until you explore that area, you should also check out the south side of the Arno, called the Oltrarno. Similar to Paris’s Left Bank, the Oltrarno is Florence’s bohemian quarter, made up of art schools, artists’ studios, and more casual cafés.
However much time you’ve got will do, but it takes at least four days to really get a sense of the city. Florence is also a great base from which to take day trips into surrounding Tuscany or even nearby Emilia-Romagna, Liguria, and Umbria. The best time to visit is late spring, early summer, or early fall, when the streets are filled with locals and the weather is pleasant.