Whether you arrive in Florence by bus or train, your disembarkation point is Santa Maria Novella station. (The train timetables and departure boards say “Firenze SMN”.) The station is large and ugly and the locality a little seedy, but don’t worry. The historic part of the city is a short walk away.
The church which the station is named after is visible from the station steps, and makes an easy target, although the rear view is not too impressive. But if you walk down the pedestrian Via degli Avelli, which runs down the side of the church, you catch a sight of the black and white marble arches which hint at the fine façade you’ll see when you come to the front. There are market stalls along Via degli Avelli — mostly clothes and leather goods.
There are famous paintings and frescos in the church, its chapels and cloisters. The green cloister is open only in the mornings and there is an admission fee. Look out for the genuine Egyptian obelisks in the piazza outside.
There are two other important churches in the vicinity. The Via dei Banchi, from the East side of Piazza Santa Maria Novella, runs directly to the Cathedral, or Duomo (passing the medieval church of Santa Maria Maggiore on your right). To get into the Duomo, you need first to go to the ticket office near the rear of the left side (left if you face the front). At peak times, there are long queues both to buy tickets and then to get inside. On my last visit, the Baptistery could be visited without a ticket and there were no queues. It’s also possible to get a ticket only for the bell tower. The queue for entry to that seems always to be shorter.
Apart from the cathedral itself, there is a museum, “Opera del Duomo” (“opera” means “works”) with tools and displays about the building of the Duomo, and a number of “spare” statues which either were on the church or never made it there.
If you take the road which runs North from the back of the Baptistry (now might be a good time for a gelato), Borgo San Lorenzo, you soon arrive at the third church of the group, San Lorenzo, which has at least four features of interest: the church itself, the Medici mausoleum, the library designed by Michelangelo, and the cloisters with orange tree. On my last visit, the cloister was still free to enter, and still blissfully peaceful.
If you return down Borgo San Lorenzo to the Baptistry but carry directly on, you go down Via Roma to the Piazza della Repubblica. Big square. Fancy restaurants. Artists selling their wares.
Carry on in a straight line and you’re on Via Calimala, which passes the Mercato Nuovo and its bronze boar, or “Il Porcellino” – “the Piglet”. Keep going and it becomes Via Porta Santa Maria, which leads directly to the Ponte Vecchio. After having seen it, and taken your photographs, you have a choice. You can either cross the river Arno to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, or save that for later and go to the historic hub of the Piazza della Signoria.
If you’re doing the latter, follow the river by going through the arched arcade. You’ll soon see the long, thin courtyard between the wings of the Uffizi. (If you really want to visit the Uffizi, you should book tickets in advance, or you’ll be queuing all day.)
At the end of that courtyard, the town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio is on your right, and the Loggia dei Lanzi on your left. The Loggia is a good place for a sit down, but remember that eating is forbidden, along with a number of other activities. Look at the statues instead. And in front of the Palazzo Vecchio is a copy of Michelangelo’s David, in the position the original was comissioned for. You can see the inside of the town hall for a fee, or their courtyard gratis.
Depart the piazza by taking a right turn at the Neptune fountain, down the left side of the town hall. This is Via dei Gondi, which becomes Borgo Dei Greci, leading you directly to Piazza Santa Croce. Santa Croce is the church with all the dead famous people in it, but don’t miss the Pazzi’s chapel, designed by Brunelleschi (who did the dome on the Duomo). The chapel is a perfect cube, with a perfect hemisphere on top. Renaissance notions.
You can reach the Ponte alle Grazie, known for its coypus, by exiting the Piazza Santa Croce at the opposite end to the church, rightwards if facing it, down Via de’ Benci. Once across the Arno, there are two ways to get up to Piazzale Michelangelo for some great views. The easier one to follow is to walk down the riverside to the square tower of Porta San Niccolo, and then up the steps and hairpin road.
The other route is harder to find, but I think it’s nicer to walk, because it uses the shady steps of the Via San Salvatore al Monte. But to find the steps from the riverside, you turn right after the small park of Piazza Demidoff, down towards Hotel Silla. At the hotel, turn left, then first right (Via dell’Olmo). At the end of it, go right, down Via San Niccolo until you see the arch on your right. Via San Miniato goes through the arch and becomes Via del Monte alle Croci (phew). A short distance along it you’ll see the start of the steps up to Piazzale Michelangelo.
You can even go a little higher than Piazzale Michelangelo to visit the church of San Miniato. If you haven’t yet been to the Pitti Palace, it’s a matter of going back down to the river bank and turning left until you reach the end of the Ponte Vecchio. That gets you back to the centre as well, of course.
My only favourite bit of Florence which I haven’t yet mentioned is Piazza Santissima Annunziata, with the church and the foundling hospital, which still has the wooden turntable where unwanted babies were “posted” anonymously through the catflap. To get there, you need to go back past the Duomo and find the narrow road that runs diagonally out from the dome end. It’s the Via dei Servi and it runs direct to Piazza Santissima Annunziata. There’s a bronze chap on a horse. I think it’s Frederick the Great.
Return down Via dei Servi to the first junction, with Via degli Alfani, and turn right along Alfani, which then becomes Via Guelfa. When you come to the junction with Via Nazionale, turn left along it and you will arrive back at the train station.