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.
Cruise ships dock in the commercial port in the city of Livorno.
There's absolutely no reason to. It's a working cargo port with no services.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.