On any Western Mediterranean itinerary, Florence is an absolute highlight -- the gem of the early Italian Renaissance. In the 15th century, when great artists like Giotto, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo worked there, they created magnificent examples of painting and sculpture that today still fill Florentine churches, civic buildings, grand palazzi and world-class museums like the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia. Architecture prospered in Florence, too. The city's signature work of art is the masterful Brunelleschi-designed dome of its cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, known as the Duomo.
No question, Florence is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. However, for cruise travelers with just one precious day on a six-hour port of call, it's impossible to see it all.
We should note that, as lovely as Florence's famous River Arno is, it's nowhere near big enough (and its bridges are far too low) to allow any kind of ship inside the heart of the city -- and here we include low-slung river vessels along with more traditional cruise ships. As such, it can be confusing to see a cruise itinerary that calls on Florence when ships actually dock at the huge commercial port of Livorno, a good hour-plus drive from the Renaissance City.
However, the charmless city of Livorno (it was badly bombed during World War II) serves as a jumping-off point for daytrips elsewhere. And while Florence is no doubt the richest destination of all, Livorno's north Tuscan locale means that other cities -- Pisa, with its famous leaning tower; the walled city of Lucca; and San Gimignano, with 14 of its medieval towers still intact -- are also options.
There's absolutely no reason to. It's a working cargo port with no services.
Renaissance Art: Florence is home to many Renaissance masterpieces. One of the world's best-known statues, Michelangelo's David, is the stunning (and colossal) high point of a visit to the Accademia (Via Ricasoli 60; open daily, except Mondays, 8:15 a.m. to 6:50 p.m.), where art-lovers will find much else to admire. A short walk away, a spectacular collection of paintings and murals by the early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico can be found at the museum (and former convent) next to the church of San Marco.
El Duomo: Florence's Gothic-era Duomo (open Monday through Wednesday and Friday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and Sunday from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.), also known as the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, is one of the world's largest. Entrance to the church is free (expect a long line), but visitors with limited time can buy tickets at the Museo del Duomo behind the church to ascend the dome's 463 steps for a fantastic view of the city and the neighboring countryside. Views from the terrace of the dome, about halfway up the climb, are equally dramatic. Less energetic tourists can see much of the same view from the rooftop bar and coffee shop of the fashionable department store La Rinascente. (2 Piazza della Republica)
Church of San Lorenzo: The Church of San Lorenzo, in Florence's main market district, houses tombs of the Medici family, as well as the tomb of Donatello. The church is part of a complex that includes Michelangelo's magnificent Laurentian Library and the stunning stairs leading up to it.
Uffizi Gallery: This Florentine gallery houses one of the greatest collections of (mostly Italian) paintings in the world, including Botticelli's famous "Birth of Venus" and exquisite 13th- and 14th-century paintings, as well as works by Rubens and Rembrandt. Flights of stairs lead to the galleries, but if climbing them is a problem, ask for directions to the elevator. Because the museum limits the number of visitors, it's a good idea to secure reservations in advance.
Ponte Vecchio: You've also got to see Ponte Vecchio, the most famous bridge in Florence. It's lined with tourist-oriented shops selling mostly jewelry. It's also a great way to head over to Florence's "Left Bank," otherwise known as the Oltrano. There you'll find Pitti Palace (Piazza Pitti), home to multiple attractions that include: the Galleria Palatina (open Tuesday to Sunday, 8:15 a.m. to 6:50 p.m.), known for its collection of Raphaels; and Boboli Gardens (Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.), which is a gorgeous landscaped park/garden. There's a cafe on the grounds.
Shopping: For designer shoppers, the relatively new Firenze Outlet, about 30 minutes south of Florence, is absolutely fabulous. The sleek, outdoor shopping area, incongruously located in the heart of the Chianti wine region, features shops like La Perla, Salvatore Ferragamo, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Emanuel Ungaro, Fendi, Burberry, Gucci, Frette and Tod's, among others. The whole facility is much more elegant than those in the U.S. (There's a swanky wine bar and cafe on site.) Discounts can be as much as 50 percent. There's shuttle service available from Florence; call the Information Centre at 011-39-055-865-7775 for details. We recommend renting a car. Take the A1 motorway toward Florence, pass the city, and take the exit marked Incisa. Then follow the signs. The main area of exclusive boutique shops in Florence can be found on and around Via de' Tornabuoni (with shops like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, among others) and Via della Vigna Nuova. For antiques and funky artisan crafts, head to Borgo Ognissanti and the Via Maggio in the Oltrarno neighborhood (the other side of Ponte Vecchio, toward Palazzo Pitti). And, of course, jewelry options abound on the famous Ponte Vecchio. For serious Prada fans, the Prada Outlet is as famous for being hard to find as it is for the great deals you can discover. It's located in Montevarchi (also south of Florence); call 011-39-055-91-901 for directions.
Lucca: Lucca is one of the most beguiling, undiscovered treasures of Tuscany. This medieval walled city dates back to the time of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, as well as the Renaissance era. Major sights to see include the Romanesque-style Duomo, built in the 13th century; the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi; and the San Michele in Foro, with its bustling, fabulously atmospheric piazza. We have to admit, though, that our favorite activities in Lucca include simply poking around the narrow streets, investigating gorgeous gardens, and shopping with locals and tourists alike. Active types can rent bikes and cycle atop the Passeggiata della Mura, the ring of ramparts that enclose the walled city. For a more relaxing option, sip Lucchesian wine at a sidewalk cafe while grabbing lunch.
Pisa: Home of the infamous Leaning Tower, Pisa is a delightful Tuscan city on the Arno River. It's also the closest tourist spot to Livorno.
Forte dei Marmi and Pietrasanta: Beach aficionados should head to Forte dei Marmi, the area's most elite summer resort town. It offers designer shopping and a whole raft of restaurants along the beachfront. While there, visit the nearby town of Pietrasanta, a lovely, small town that's a hub for artists and sculptors. Note that these villages lie between the Mediterranean Sea and the Apuan Alps, and the white expanse you see near some craggy peaks is not snow -- it's marble. These mountains are the source of much of the marble gracing some of Italy's greatest monuments; Michelangelo sourced his from nearby Carrara.
By Taxi: If traffic isn't a huge factor, it takes about an hour and 15 minutes to drive to Florence from Livorno. Taxis line up outside the ship; one-way prices can push 200 euros, but if you decide to splurge on the ride, your best bet is to negotiate a round-trip fare so the driver will wait around for you. Taxi drivers will also happily offer daylong tours of Florence and Pisa. However, Florence is a small city, and the traffic can get clogged. With a map, though, it's not difficult to find your way around.
By Train: Ships typically provide shuttles to Livorno's Piazza Grande; the train station is then a 15-minute cab ride away. Getting to Florence by train takes about 90 minutes, and there are several "early morning" departures. Trains return to Livorno from Florence's Santa Maria Novella Station. Check the train schedule just prior to your cruise.
By Motorcoach Shuttle: Most cruise ships offer "shuttle service" (a motorcoach to and from Florence) for those who want to travel independently. Because of the distance and the likelihood of traffic problems, we've found these to be a good deal. Plus, guides sometimes accompany the motorcoach and can offer recommendations for things to do and see, as well as places to eat.
By Rental Car: Hertz and Avis set up tables at the dock in Livorno. One warning: Driving can be challenging, and even though they advertise that it's easy to park in Florence, that's simply not true. Unless you're planning to visit other Tuscan spots, such as Lucca or San Gimignano, we'd recommend using your ship's motorcoach transportation.
People generally go to Florence for the art and architecture, rather than the food, but fans of meat (especially bistecca Fiorentina, a thick and delicious cut of beef from local cattle) and authentic pizza will find something to enjoy almost anywhere that's not in a major tourist area. Italy is also a major producer of wine and limoncello, which serve as memorable complements to just about any meal.
La Posta: Try veal, Florentine steak, tortellini, minestrone soup, salad, seafood, liver pate and other dishes at this eatery near the Post Office. (Via De'Lamberti, 20/r; 055 212701)
Osteria del Caffe Italiano: Located near Santa Croce in Florence, this place specializes in real Italian pizza. Don't expect the plasticky variety you're used to getting in the States. It won't be oozing with cheese, and it will likely include leaves of real basil, but once you try it, you'll never want to order from Domino's again. If pizza isn't your thing, try the meatballs, burgers or bistecca Fiorentina. (Via Isola delle Stinche, 11/13r; 055 289080; open 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. for dinner)
Trattoria Ponte Vecchio: Right near Ponte Vecchio in Florence, this eatery is delightful and a great value, offering pasta, steak, seafood, white truffles, chicken Marsala and even wild boar stew. (Lungarno degli Archibusieri 8r; 055 292289; open daily, noon to 3:30 p.m. for lunch and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner)
Cammillo Trattoria: We also love Cammillo Trattoria in Florence. On its menu, you'll find porcini mushrooms, pasta, seafood and tiramisu, among other options. It's convenient after a visit to the Boboli Gardens or the Palazzo Pitti. (57R Borgo Sant Jacopo; 055 212427; open daily, except Wednesdays, noon to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. for dinner)
Cruise ships dock in the commercial port in the city of Livorno.
Just as you would in any town heavily populated by tourists, beware of pickpocketing and petty theft, as well as Vespa-snatching thieves. Depending on the time of year, shops tend to close from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. for lunch. Beware of traffic -- particularly motor scooters, which often are driven at high speeds and are careless of pedestrians. Before booking your cruise, make sure the ship's call at Florence is not on a Monday, when major museums and galleries are closed.
The currency is the euro. There are plenty of ATM machines and exchange bureaus in town.
The local language is Italian, but at least basic English is spoken in most tourist spots; phrase books can come in handy.
Leather goods -- jackets, belts, wallets, and even key fobs and wastebaskets -- are all over the city, with a particularly good selection at the "leather school," which is tucked behind the Church of Santa Croce. Prices can vary, with the highest prices in the area around the Duomo. Caution: Leather jackets purchased there might be beautiful, but stick with classic styles. What's appealing in the Mediterranean sunlight can sometimes look a little "off" back home. High-end Italian designer fashions are also available, though at high prices. But the most uniquely Florentine options are the many varieties of hand-marbled paper.