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December 16, 2017

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Florence's stunning architecture means you don't have to pay to see incredible sights

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Florence

Have your own personal Renaissance in Tuscany

In the Renaissance city known as the birthplace of individual expression, it might seem a little counterintuitive to use a tour guide. But if you want to understand the full breadth of Florence’s history and culture, not to mention skip the endless lines, swallowing your pride and enlisting a guide a good way to go.

Show up at the Church of Santa Maria Novella (Piazza Santa Maria Novella) any day at 11AM for the Renaissance Tour or 2PM for the Medici Tour, both run by Florence Free Tour (florencefreetour.com; free, tips recommended). If you’re hungry, loveable host Alina Ferroni’s Bites of Florence Tours (tel: 011-39-334-848-2191; €65) ushers you behind-the-scenes of the fabulous San Lorenzo Market, where you can taste aged balsamic vinegars, cheeses, mustards and cured meats. In the evening, try the Florence at Dusk Tour (freyasflorence.com; two people €170), a walk through hidden churches and Renaissance palaces on both sides of the Arno River.

For a truly unique experience, the Vasari Corridor Walk (tel: 800-691-6036; contexttravel.com; €100) takes you through an otherwise closed-to-the-public elevated passageway built in 1564 for the Medici family, connecting the Palazzo Vecchio with the Palazzo Pitti. Part of the corridor travels through the Uffizi and includes a self-portrait gallery with works by Velasquez, Rubens, Rembrandt and Chagall.

Florence on foot

The major Florentine sights are concentrated in a manageable area. Once you've climbed the bell tower of the Duomo (Piazza del Duomo; operaduomo.firenze.it; €6), savour the world's greatest Renaissance paintings at the Uffizi Gallery (6 Piazzale degli Uffizi; €6.50-11) and sculpture at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello (4 Via del Proconsol; €4). Then there’s the almost-obligatory visit to the Galleria dell'Accademia (58-60 Via Ricasoli; €6.50-11) to see Michelangelo's David and the unfinished stone "slaves." A great way to avoid hours-long lines for these museums is by reserving online through Firenze Musei (firenzemusei.it; €4 fee).

If you (and your wallet) want a change of pace, there’s entirely free ways to explore Florence. Many churches are a good source of free art viewing away from the crowds. From the Duomo, make your way to the famous Ponte Vecchio and cross the river, and head for the Santo Spirito Church (Piazza Santo Spirito). The church is packed with 41 art pieces, including a wooden crucifix recently gleefully identified as the work of an 18-year-old Michelangelo. The Church of Santa Felicita (Piazza di Santa Felicita), a short walk from the nearby Piazzale Michelangelo (which contains a bronze copy of the David statue), features a haunting masterpiece called The Deposition completed in 1528 by the painter and portraitist Pontormo. Above the painting is a private viewing gallery where the Grand Dukes of the Medici family used to attend mass in secret.

For a wonderful lookout, walk or taxi up the hill to the San Miniato al Monte (34 Via delle Porte Sante), a peaceful Romanesque basilica atop one of Florence's highest points. The resident monks conduct a 90-minute service every evening at around 5:30PM with Gregorian chanting in the candlelit crypt. After this sonic delight, relax with a wine-tasting at Enoteca Alessi (27R-31R Via delle Oche; tel: 011-39-055-214-966; alessiwine.com).

From Renaissance to antiquity

While you may never want to leave Florence, there’s plenty more to see nearby. Sorano is a quiet, atmospheric little town in a volcanic outcropping two-and-a-half hours south of Florence, a place not yet frequented by hordes of tourists. Stay at the Hotel della Fortezza (5 Piazza Cairoli; tel: 011-39-056-463-3549; fortezzahotel.it; doubles from €60), located inside the 11th-century Orsini Castle. Most rooms have great views, and you can even splurge for the tower suite for an even better perch. Be sure to take the tour of the rest of the castle (get a discount at the hotel’s front desk), and stop by the Middle Ages and Renaissance Museum (€2), also located inside the castle.

In the morning, you can visit the via cava San Rocco, just outside of town. The Etruscans, Tuscany’s namesake people, carved this open-air narrow passageway through the tufa, or volcanic rock, leading to an ancient underground Etruscan necropolis. To get there, you can walk (ask your hotel for directions), or book a horseback tour with Maneggio Belvedere (58010 Localita Filette; tel: 011-39-056-461-5465; maneggiobelvedere.it; half day €40).

If you have time, make the 40-minute drive west to the tiny resort village of Saturnia and soak in the famous Terme di Saturnia (58014 Localita Follonata; termedisaturnia.it; entrance €17-22 plus €22 for thermal springs) thermal springs just outside of town. Saturnia also plays host to a number of good restaurants, such as I Due Cippi da Michele (26A Piazza Vittorio Veneto; tel:011-39-056-460-1074 iduecippi.com).

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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