Maybe you've always wanted to visit Florence, or perhaps you saw "Tea With Mussolini" and fell in love with this enchanting city, cradle of the Renaissance.
Consider the fall. September and October (even early November) are wonderful times to visit Tuscany, which, for artistic, culinary and other reasons, many people consider quintessential Italy. The weather's delightfully mild; the summer crowds have faded; and restaurant tables, hotel rooms and tickets to the Uffizi Gallery are easier to come by.
On top of this, much of the allure of the city's old quarter is enjoyable at the best rates--that is, for free. From the bustling Gothic Mercato San Lorenzo to the little shops of the picturesque Ponte Vecchio. From the Renaissance architecture and statue gallery on the Piazza della Signoria to jewels of churches like the Duomo, Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce.
Everyone goes to Santa Croce, by the way, to see the frescoes and altarpieces by Giotto and Fra Angelico, as well as the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, Macchiavelli and Rossini. But few know that off to the right of the nave, in a corner, a group of leather artisans work calf, reptile and even ostrich skins into decorated desk sets, jewelry cases, jackets, handbags and a hundred other items, then sell them for prices well below what local leather shops charge.
Finally, don't forget to take a stroll up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo for a panoramic look at one of Europe's most fabled cityscapes.
Beyond a slice of pizza (often sold by the gram), a focaccia sandwich or some other "fast food," many of the restaurants catering to tourists in the historic quarter are not particularly cheap. But try the Trattoria Za Za (25r Piazza del Mercato Comune), in business since the 14th century (but closed Sundays). Their "spaghettata," a double order of pasta with bread and red wine, goes for about $8. Usually crowded, it's typically Florentine, with wooden benches and tables, chairs with straw seats and wine bottles lining the walls.
To really get down with the locals, sit down to a three-course abbondanza for $8.25 at the Mensa DLF (also known as the Ristofer) at 4 Via Alemanni, alongside the Santa Maria Novella railroad station. It's a 200-seat cafeteria run by the railway labor union, and it dishes up hearty fare at bargain prices.
When it comes time to lay your head down, there are numerous pensions to choose from. One example: On the third floor of a renovated apartment building is the eight-room Pensione Sole (8 Via del Sole, telephone/fax 011- 390-55-239-6094). It has doubles for about $45 without private bath ($57 with bath), and doesn't take credit cards.
If you prefer to go the "independent package" route (hotel, air fare and transfers included, but you're essentially left to your own devices), check out Italiatour, tel. (800) 237-0517, Internet http://www.italiatour.com, the tour-operator arm of Alitalia airlines. It has some good five-night deals to Florence, including one running from November through March (Christmas to New Year's excepted) starting at just $699 from San Francisco or Los Angeles.
For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles, CA 90025; tel. (310) 820- 0098, fax (310) 820-6357. Internet http://www.italiantourism.com.
Two other helpful Web sites: http://www.italiantourism.com and http://www.piuitalia2000.it.