This itinerary begins in the historic centre of the city and finishes up in the New Quarter, the centrepiece of the government’s urban regeneration programme. It’s a pleasant, easy 3–4-hour walk (longer if you choose to dally in the city museum, with its fine Renaissance frescoes) and is perfect for a sunny afternoon if you are only spending one day in the town. For longer stays, consider combining it with a boat trip to the river mouth or the excursion to St Hilbert’s castle (see p. 175).
The Great Square was completed in 1789, the product of the architect Brunelleschi’s grand vision to transform the mediaeval town, up to that point a great rambling knot of narrow lanes, into a city worthy of the presence of the recent Hohenzollern conquerors. Laid out along classical lines, it is bright, airy and solid – signalling precisely the enlightened outlook the Hohenzollern wanted to communicate to their vanquished peasant foe. On the north side is the Duke’s palace, open to visitors from 11 till 3 every day. Lavish outside, the palace is surprisingly modest inside and not really worth more than a quick walk around. On the south side of the square, pause to admire the stained glass windows of St Nikolai’s cathedral, designed by Erwin Wurm in 1952 to replace the original 16th-century windows destroyed during the firebombing that ravaged much of the city during the First World War.
Back on the Great Square, turn and face east down the broad prospect of Elysian Avenue. Built as the main thoroughfare of Brunelleschi’s re-visioned town, the avenue is a postcard-perfect expression of rigidly geometric neo-Classical composition, affording unhindered views out across the valley beneath the town.
Today Elysian Avenue houses the top-end jewellery and couture houses you would expect to find in any international metropolis. Favourable tax rates, however, mean that prices may be more affordable here than elsewhere; do stop in at Cartier, whose premises, a mediaeval weavers’ guild house, have been beautifully restored. Continuing down the avenue, you will pass on your left a small alleyway leading to the town’s oldest tavern, which has been serving wines from the surrounding vineyards, according to a plaque on the wall, for the last 720 years. The Barolo Classico had an excellent year in 2009 and is particularly worth sampling. Just after the tavern, Elysian Avenue starts to bend to the right; follow the curve round to find yourself looking up on both sides at the city’s twin skyscrapers, designed by I M Pei in 1992. Both towers are glass and at first glance you would be forgiven for thinking you can see straight through them. After a moment it becomes clear, though, that the glass is completely opaque and what you are seeing is the reflection of the sky in the other tower. Typical of Pei’s experiments in Supermodern architecture, the towers today house the ministries for Defence and for the Interior.
Follow the grand staircase down from the twin towers, with its Art Nouveau ornamentation, and you will come to a fork in the avenue. The left fork takes you to the city’s bar and nightlife district with its burgeoning gay scene, still enjoying a period of experimentation after homosexuality’s legalisation in the late ’90s. The right fork takes you up the hill to the city’s prime residential neighbourhoods of Seaview and St Hilda’s. The weather is often noticeably cooler here in summer, providing respite from the sweltering streets below. If you decide to go out into the outskirts of the city to visit the vineyards and the Belvedere vodka distillery at North Point, be sure to stop at the chapel of San Antonio, where the composer Rimsky-Korsakov is buried in the graveyard. If you decide to visit the catacombs beneath the city, guided tours leave from the Great Square at 10am every day except Mondays. Coaches to the surrounding villages and to the ski resort of Kittsbühel depart from the central train station, notable for the fretwork on its iron roof. If you have your own car, don’t forget that it is obligatory to carry a reflective jacket and a warning triangle in the boot in case you break down.