WHAT TO DO
Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance and a town famous for its culture and world class cuisine. Few cities are so packed with extraordinary art and architectural masterpieces at every turn. Located on the banks of the Arno River in northeastern Tuscany - Florence (Firenze) has hardly changed since the Renaissance and its narrow cobbled streets are a cinematic feast of elegant 15th century palaces, medieval candle lit chapels, fresco decorated churches, marble basilicas and world famous art museums. Unsurprisingly, the historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Florence was home to the Medici, one of European history's most important noble families. Lorenzo de' Medici was considered a political and cultural mastermind of Italy in the late 15th century and had a major impact on the development of the city. Due to its artistic and architectural heritage, Florence has been ranked as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and is a must visit for any traveler.
Florence is best explored on foot and with some planning, you can see its most famous sights in a couple of days. Start off at the city's most magnificent architectural wonder - the Duomo (Cathedral). Florence's Duomo is the city's most iconic landmark. Capped by Filippo Brunelleschi's red tiled cupola (dome), it's an astonishing monument whose breathtaking pink, white and green marble facade and graceful campanile (bell tower) dominate the Renaissance cityscape. Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio began work on it in 1296, but construction took almost 150 years and it wasn't consecrated until 1436. The Duomo's neo Gothic facade was designed in the 19th century by architect Emilio de Fabris to replace the uncompleted original, torn down in the 16th century. The oldest and most clearly Gothic part of the cathedral is its south flank, pierced by Porta dei Canonici (Canons' Door), a mid 14th century High Gothic creation (you enter here to climb up inside the dome). Most of the artistic treasures within the cathedral's vast interior have been removed over the centuries and many are on display in the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The story of how the cathedral and its dome came to life is told in this well executed museum. Among its sacred and liturgical treasures are the baptistry's original doors: the gloriously golden, 50 foot tall gilded bronze Porta del Paradiso (Doors of Paradise; 1425–52) designed by Ghiberti for the eastern entrance; the northern doors (1402–24), also by Ghiberti; and the spectacular Porta Sud (South Door; 1330-36) by Andrea Pisano, illustrating the story of John the Baptist. The museum's spectacular main hall, the Sala del Paradiso, is dominated by a life size reconstruction of the original facade of Florence's Duomo, decorated with 14th and early 15th century statues carved for the facade by 14th century masters. Led by Arnolfo di Cambio, building work began in 1296 but it was never finished and in 1587 the facade was eventually dismantled. This is also where you will find Ghiberti's and Pisano's dazzling doors. Continuing up to the 1st floor, Rooms 14 and 15 explain in detail just how Brunelleschi constructed the groundbreaking cathedral dome. View 15th century tools, pulleys and hoisting wagons used to build the cupola, watch a film and admire Brunelleschi's death mask (1446). On the 2nd floor, look at a fascinating collection of models of different proposed facades for the cathedral. End on a high with big views of the red tiled cupola up close from the 3rd floor open air Terrazza Brunelleschiana. A Renaissance masterpiece, the Duomo's cupola - 300 feet high and 150 feet wide - was built between 1420 and 1436. Filippo Brunelleschi, taking inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome, designed a distinctive octagonal form of inner and outer concentric domes that rests on the drum of the cathedral rather than the roof itself. Four million bricks were used, laid in consecutive rings according to a vertical herringbone pattern. The cupola crowning the Duomo is a feat of engineering and one that cannot be fully appreciated without climbing its 463 interior stone steps. The final leg - a straight, somewhat hazardous flight up the curve of the inner dome - rewards with an unforgettable 360 degree panorama of one of Europe's most beautiful cities. Note: the climb up the spiral staircase is relatively steep and should not be attempted if you are claustrophobic. It is impossible to visit the cupola without an advance reservation, which can be made online or at self service machines located inside the Duomo ticket office, opposite the main entrance to the Baptistry at Piazza di San Giovanni 7.
Situated on Piazza di Santa Croce is the beautiful Basilica di Santa Croce. Most visitors come to this Franciscan basilica to see the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Ghiberti, but frescoes by Giotto in the chapels to the right of the altar are the real highlights. From Piazza di Santa Croce, take a short stroll to Piazza della Signoria - the hub of Florentine life since the 13th century. Presiding over everything is Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's city hall, and the 14th century Loggia dei Lanzi, an open air gallery showcasing Renaissance sculptures, including Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women (1583), Benvenuto Cellini's bronze Perseus (1554) and Agnolo Gaddi's Seven Virtues (1389). Also in the square is Ammannati's Fontana di Nettuno, the equestrian statue of Cosimo I by Giambologna and the much photographed copy of Michelangelo's David guarding the western entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio since 1910 (the original stood here until 1873). The Palazzo Vecchio, with its 300 foot high tower, was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio between 1298 and 1314 for the signoria (city government). From the top of the Torre d'Arnolfo (tower), you can revel in commanding views. Inside, Michelangelo's Genio della Vittoria (Genius of Victory) sculpture graces the Salone dei Cinquecento, a magnificent painted hall created for the city's 15th century ruling Consiglio dei Cinquecento (Council of 500). In 1540 Cosimo I made the palace his ducal residence and center of government, commissioning Vasari to renovate and decorate the interior. Upstairs on the 2nd floor, the Sala delle Carte Geografiche (Map Room) houses Cosimo I's fascinating collection of 16th century maps charting everywhere in the known world at the time. The Sala dei Gigli, named after its frieze of fleur de lis, representing the Florentine Republic, is home to Donatello's original Judith and Holofernes.
Adjacent to Palazzo Vecchio is one of the top art museums on the planet. Home to the world's greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art, the Galleria degli Uffizi occupies the vast U shaped Palazzo degli Uffizi (1560-80), built as government offices. The collection, bequeathed to the city by the Medici family in 1743 on condition that it never leave Florence, contains some of Italy's best known paintings, including a room full of Botticelli masterpieces. You could spend an entire day taking in the works or simply enjoy the gallery's main highlights on the 2nd floor. The spectacular Sala del Botticelli, numbered as rooms 10 to 14 but are in fact two light and graceful halls, is always packed. Of the many Botticelli works displayed in the Uffizi, the iconic La Nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus; c 1485), Primavera (Spring; c 1482) and Madonna del Magnificat (Madonna of the Magnificat; 1483) are the best known by the Renaissance master known for his ethereal figures. Take time to study the lesser known Annunciazione (Annunciation), a 20 foot wide fresco painted by Botticelli in 1481 for the Ospedale di San Martino alla Scala, a hospital in Florence that took in orphans. Michelangelo, dazzles with the Doni Tondo, a depiction of the Holy Family that steals the High Renaissance show further down the corridor in room 41. It was painted for wealthy Florentine merchant Agnolo Doni (who hung it above his bed) and bought by the Medicis for Palazzo Pitti in 1594. The other masterpiece in room 41 is Raphael's Madonna col Bambino e San Giovanni (Madonna with Child & St John); 1505), otherwise known as Madonna del Cardellino (Madonna of the Goldfinch) after the red feathered goldfinch cradled in the chubby hands of a baby John the Baptist. Raphael painted it during his four year sojourn in Florence and it has hung in the Uffizi since 1704. Three magnificent early Florentine works by Leonardo da Vinci are brilliantly displayed in beautifully appointed room 35. His Annunciazione (Annunciation; 1472-75) was deliberately painted to be admired, not face on (from where Mary's arm appears too long, her face too light, the angle of buildings not quite right), but rather from the lower right hand side of the painting. Adoration of the Magi (1481-82), originally commissioned for the altar of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto near Florence and never finished, is typical of Florentine figurative painting in the 15th century. Battesimo di Cristo (Baptism of Christ; 1475) depicts John the Baptist baptizing a very naturalistic Christ on the riverbanks of the Jordan. Works by Caravaggio in rooms 96 and 97 were deemed vulgar at the time for his direct interpretation of reality. The Head of Medusa (1598-99), commissioned for a ceremonial shield, is supposedly a self portrait of the young artist who died at the age of 39. The biblical drama of an angel steadying the hand of Abraham as he holds a knife to his son Isaac's throat in Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac (1601-02) is glorious in its intensity. Should you still have any energy for art appreciation remaining, room 99 provides a glimpse at the Uffizi's collection of 16th to 18th century works by foreign artists - namely Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck. Note: the museum is open from 8a-7p and is closed on Monday. Be sure to arrive early and collect a ticket for a timed entry.
From the Uffizi, cross the Arno River on the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) to the Oltrarno (Other Side) neighborhood. Dating from 1345, the iconic Ponte Vecchio was the only Florentine bridge to survive destruction at the hands of retreating German forces in 1944. Above jewelry shops on the eastern side, the Corridoio Vasariano is a 16th century passageway between the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti that runs around, rather than through, the medieval Torre dei Mannelli at the bridge's southern end. The first documentation of a stone bridge here, at the narrowest crossing point along the entire length of the Arno, dates from 972. Floods in 1177 and 1333 destroyed the bridge and in 1966 it came close to being destroyed again. Many of the jewelers with shops on the bridge were convinced the floodwaters would sweep away their livelihoods - fortunately the bridge held. The Ponte Vecchio has twinkled with the glittering wares of jewelers, their trade often passed down from generation to generation, ever since the 16th century, when Ferdinando I de' Medici ordered them here to replace the often malodorous presence of the town butchers, who used to toss unwanted leftovers into the river. The Oltrarno is Florence's hippest neighborhood and I would like to share a few sights that are not to be missed. Begin at the enormous Palazzo Pitti - commissioned by banker Luca Pitta in 1458, this Renaissance palace was later bought by the Medici family. Over the centuries, it was a residence of the city's rulers until the Savoys donated it to the state in 1919. Nowadays it houses an impressive collection of silver and jewelry, a couple of art museums and a series of rooms recreating life in the palace during House of Savoy times. Comprised of three floors, I'd recommend focusing on the 1st floor. Raphaels and Rubens vie for center stage in the enviable collection of 16th to 18th century art amassed by the Medici and Lorraine dukes in the Galleria Palatina. This gallery has retained the original display arrangement of paintings - squeezed in and often on top of each other. Highlights in the Sala di Prometeo include Fra' Filippo Lippi's Madonna and Child and the Birth of Virgin Mary (1452) and Botticelli's Portrait of a Woman (c 1475), thought to be a portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, lover of Giuliano de' Medici, and one of the gallery's oldest portraits. Admire Raphael's Madonna of the Window (1513-14) in the Sala di Ulisse; and Caravaggio's brutally realistic Sleeping Cupid (1608) in the Sala dell'Educazione di Giove. Don't miss the Sala di Saturno - full of magnificent works by Raphael, including the Madonna of the Chair (1513-14), Madonna and Child (c 1505) and Madonna and Child enthroned with Saints (1507-08). Next door, in the Sala di Giove, the same artist's Lady with a Veil (La Velata; c 1516) holds court alongside Giorgione's Three Ages of Man (c 1500). Note: the palace is open from 8a-7p and is closed on Monday. Behind Palazzo Pitti, do not miss the fountain and sculpture adorned Boboli Gardens - laid out in the mid 16th century by Niccolo Pericoli.
Nearby at Piazza del Carmine 14 is the beautiful Cappella Brancacci. Fire in the 18th century practically destroyed the 13th century Basilica di Santa Maria del Carmine, but it spared its magnificent chapel frescoes - a treasure of paintings by Masolino da Panicale, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi commissioned by rich merchant Felice Brancacci upon his return from Egypt in 1423. Masaccio's fresco cycle illustrating the life of St Peter is considered among his greatest works, representing a definitive break with Gothic art and a plunge into new worlds of expression in the early stages of the Renaissance. The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and The Tribute Money, both on the left side of the chapel, are his best known works. Masaccio painted these frescoes in his early 20s, taking over from Masolino, and interrupted the task to go to Rome, where he died at the age of 27. The cycle was completed some 60 years later by Filippino Lippi. Masaccio himself features in his St Peter Enthroned; he's the one standing beside the Apostle, staring out at the viewer. The figures around him have been identified as Brunelleschi, Masolino and Alberti. Filippino Lippi also painted himself into the scene of St Peter's Crucifixion, along with his teacher, Botticelli. Note: the chapel entrance is to the right of the main church entrance and only 30 people can visit at a time. My favorite church in Oltrarno is the Basilica di Santo Spirito. Found on Piazza Santo Spirito, this Brunelleschi church holds some incredible works of art. Be on the lookout for Domenico di Zanobi's Madonna of the Relief (1485) in the Cappella Velutti, in which the Madonna wards off a little red devil with a club and Filippino Lippi's poorly lit Madonna with Child and Saints (1494) which is in the Cappella Nerli in the right transept. Don't miss the door next to Capella Segni in the left aisle leading to the sacristy, where you'll find a poignant wooden crucifix attributed by some experts to Michelangelo - he used to visit the hospital inside the neighboring monastery at night to study the anatomy of corpses yet to be buried, hence his donation of the exquisitely sculptured Christ, or so the story goes. End your other side of the Arno excursion at Piazzale Michelangelo. It's a ten minute uphill walk along the serpentine road, paths and steps that scale the hillside from the Arno and Piazza Giuseppe Poggi - from Piazza San Niccolo walk uphill and bear left up the long flight of steps signposted Viale Michelangelo. When you arrive to the top at this vast square you will be rewarded with spectacular city panoramas.
Next, head back over the Arno to the home of the Renaissance's most iconic masterpiece - Michelangelo's David. The Galleria dell'Accademia is located at via Ricasoli 60, the long lines will let you know you've arrived. The world's most famous statue is definitely worth the wait. Carved from a single block of marble, David is Michelangelo's most famous work. When the statue of the nude boy warrior assumed its pedestal in front of Palazzo Vecchio on Piazza della Signoria in 1504, Florentines immediately adopted it as a powerful emblem of Florentine power, liberty and civic pride. In 1873, David was removed from the piazza, to protect it from damage, and displayed in the gallery. The subtle detail - the veins in his powerful arms, the leg muscles, the change in expression as you move around the statue - is quite impressive. Michelangelo was also the master behind the unfinished San Matteo (St Matthew; 1504-08) and four Prigioni ('Prisoners' or 'Slaves'; 1521-30), also displayed in the gallery. Note: the museum is open from 8a-7p and is closed on Monday. Around the corner at Piazza San Marco 3, in the heart of the city's university area, is the Museo di San Marco. This former church and 15th century Dominican monastery showcases the work of Fra' Angelico. After centuries of being known as 'Il Beato Angelico' (literally 'The Blessed Angelic One') or simply 'Il Beato' (The Blessed), the Renaissance's most blessed religious painter was made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1984. Fra' Angelico's huge Crucifixion and Saints fresco (1441-42), featuring all the patron saints of the convent and city, plus the Medici family who commissioned the fresco, decorates the former Capitolo (Chapterhouse). But it is the 44 monastic cells on the 1st floor that are the most haunting - at the top of the stairs, Fra' Angelico's most famous work, Annunciation (c 1440), commands all eyes. A stroll around each of the cells reveals snippets of many more religious reliefs by the Tuscan born friar, who decorated the cells between 1440 and 1441 with deeply devotional frescoes to guide the meditation of his fellow friars. From there, make your way to Museo delle Cappelle Medicee at Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini 6. Nowhere is Medici conceit expressed so explicitly as in the Medici Chapels. Adorned with granite, marble, semi precious stones and some of Michelangelo's most beautiful sculptures, it is the burial place of 49 dynasty members. Francesco I lies in the dark, imposing Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of Princes) alongside Ferdinando I and II and Cosimo I, II and III. Lorenzo il Magnifico is buried in the graceful Sagrestia Nuova (New Sacristy), which was Michelangelo's first architectural work. It is also in the sacristy that you can swoon over three of Michelangelo's most haunting sculptures: Dawn and Dusk on the sarcophagus of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino; Night and Day on the sarcophagus of Lorenzo's son Giuliano (note the unfinished face of 'Day' and the youth of the sleeping woman drenched in light aka 'Night'); and Madonna and Child, which adorns Lorenzo's tomb. Since early 2019 clever new lighting recreates the soft, indirect sunlight Michelangelo originally intended to illuminate his work. Next door at Piazza San Lorenzo is the Basilica di San Lorenzo. Considered one of Florence's most harmonious examples of Renaissance architecture, this unfinished basilica was the Medici parish church and mausoleum. It was designed by Brunelleschi in 1425 for Cosimo the Elder and built over a 4th century church. In the solemn interior, look for Brunelleschi's austerely beautiful Sagrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy) with its sculptural decoration by Donatello. Michelangelo was commissioned to design the facade in 1518, but his design in white Carrara marble was never executed, hence the building's rough, unfinished appearance.
Conclude your tour of Florence at the lovely Basilica di Santa Maria Novella and its close by pharmacy. The striking green and white marble facade of the 13th to 15th century Basilica di Santa Maria Novella fronts an entire monastical complex, comprising romantic church cloisters and a frescoed chapel. The basilica itself is a treasure chest of artistic masterpieces, climaxing with frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio. The lower section of the basilica's striped marbled facade is transitional from Romanesque to Gothic; the upper section and the main doorway (1456-70) were designed by Leon Battista Alberti. As you enter, look straight ahead to see Masaccio's superb fresco Trinita (Holy Trinity; 1424-25), one of the first artworks to use the then newly discovered techniques of perspective and proportion. Hanging in the central nave is a luminous painted Crucifix by Giotto (c 1290). The monumental main altar, Altare Maggiore (1858-61), sits within the Cappella Maggiore, which is decorated with frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Those on the right depict the life of John the Baptist; those on the left illustrate scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. The frescoes were painted between 1485 and 1490, and are notable for their depiction of Florentine life during the Renaissance. The tranquil cloister takes its name from the green earth base used for the frescoes on three of the cloister's four walls. On its north side is the spectacular Cappellone degli Spagnoli (Spanish Chapel), originally the friars' chapter house and named as such in 1566 when it was given to the Spanish colony in Florence. The chapel is covered in extraordinary frescoes (c 1365-67) by Andrea di Bonaiuto. The vault features depictions of the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost, and on the altar wall are scenes of the Via Dolorosa, Crucifixion and Descent into Limbo. On the right wall is a huge fresco of The Militant and Triumphant Church - look in the foreground for a portrait of Cimabue, Giotto, Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante. Other frescoes in the chapels depict the Triumph of Christian Doctrine, 14 figures symbolizing the Arts and Sciences, and the Life of St Peter. By the side of the chapel, a passage leads into the Chiostro dei Morti (Cloister of the Dead), an atmospheric vaulted cloister cemetery that existed well before the arrival of the Dominicans to Santa Maria Novella. The tombstones embedded in the walls and floor date to the 13th and 14th centuries, a period when wealthy Florentine families assumed patronage of the series of tiny chapels here. Note: there are two entrances to the Santa Maria Novella complex: the main entrance to the basilica or through the tourist office opposite the train station on Piazza della Stazione. Around the corner from the basilica on via della Scala 16 is the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. In business since 1612, this exquisite perfumery pharmacy began life when Santa Maria Novella's Dominican friars began to concoct cures and sweet smelling ointments using medicinal herbs cultivated in the monastery garden. The shop, with an interior from 1848, sells fragrances, skincare products, ancient herbal remedies and preparations for everything from relief of heavy legs to improving skin elasticity, memory and mental energy. It also sells teas, herbal infusions, liqueurs and scented candles. A real treasure, the shop has touchscreen catalogues and a state of the art payment system - yet still manages to ooze vintage charm. After a day battling crowds at the Uffizi or Accademia, you just might want to come here for a cup of carefully prepared tea in its Tisaneria (Tearoom) or to buy a bottle of Aqua di Santa Maria Novella, one of the pharmacy's oldest herbal concoctions, taken to cure hysterics since 1614. Note: the pharmacy is open every day from 9a-8p.
WHERE TO EAT
Florence has many great places to eat and have a drink. Start your day at Ditta Artigianale, located at via de Neri 32. With an industrial decor and laid back vibe, this ingenious coffee roastery is famed for its first class coffee and outstanding gin cocktails. Enjoy a cold brew tonic or cappuccino made with almond milk along with dynamite pancakes and French toast. A classic Florentine spot is Caffe Gilli, found at Piazza della Repubblica 39. Popular with locals who sip coffee standing up at the long marble bar, this is the most famous of the historic cafes on the city's old Roman forum. Gilli has been serving delectable cakes, chocolates, fruit tartlets and millefoglie (vanilla or custard slice) since 1733. It moved to this square in 1910 and has a beautifully preserved art nouveau interior. Another splendid site is Caffe Rivoire at Piazza della Signoria 4. This golden oldie with an unbeatable people watching terrace has produced some of the city's most exquisite chocolate since 1872. Caffe Cibreo is at via Andrea del Verrocchio 5 and is the cafe arm of Florentine superstar chef Fabio Picchi (more to come). This charming old world cafe is an idyllic spot for a mid morning coffee and sugar dusted ciambella (doughnut ring). Across the street at Piazza Sant'Ambrogio 7 is Caffe Sant'Ambrogio. One of Santa Croce's original hang outs, this cafe doubles as a bar.
For lunch, make your way to the awesome Mercato Centrale at Piazza del Mercato Centrale 4. Wander the maze of stalls packed with fresh produce at the city's oldest and largest food market, on the ground floor of an iron and glass structure designed by architect Giuseppe Mengoni in 1874. Head to the 1st floor's buzzing, thoroughly contemporary food hall with dedicated cookery school and artisan stalls cooking steaks, burgers, pizza, gelato, pastries and pasta. Of all the stalls, do not miss Perini Gastronomia. Note: the market is open every day from 8a-12a. Nearby at via Rosina 2 is the very popular Trattoria Mario. Be sure to arrive by noon to ensure a spot at this noisy, busy, brilliant trattoria - a legend that retains its soul (and allure with locals) despite being in every guidebook. Charming Fabio, whose grandfather opened the place in 1953, is front of house while big brother Romeo and nephew Francesco cook with speed in the kitchen. Monday and Thursday are tripe days and Friday is fish. Whatever the day, local Florentines flock here for the famous bistecca alla Fiorentina (T bone steak charred on the outside raw on the inside). Note: the restaurant does not take reservations and it's cash only. Another locals favorite is Antica Trattoria da Tito, located at via San Gallo 112. In business since 1913, this iconic trattoria does everything right - tasty Tuscan dishes like onion soup and wild boar pasta, served with friendly gusto and hearty goodwill to a local crowd. Found at via dei Cerchi 15 near Piazza della Signoria is the wonderful Osteria Buongustai. It is always busy with locals and students who come here to fill up on tasty Tuscan home cooking at a fraction of other restaurant prices. Note: it is shared tables and cash only. An additional solid choice is Trattoria Sergio Gozzi at Piazza San Lorenzo 8, close to Mercato Centrale. Keep things simple with a traditional Tuscan lunch at this excellent trattoria - dining is at marble topped tables in a spartan vintage interior clearly unchanged since 1915 when it opened. Expect all the classics: plenty of pasta, roast meats, tripe and bollito misto (boiled beef, chicken and tongue) included. They also have one of the best pappa al pomodoro (bread and tomato) soups in town. Note: the restaurant is only open for lunch from 10a-4p and is closed on Sunday. Finish up at the Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio, located at Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti. There are two places that I particularly enjoyed. The first is Trattoria da Rocco - beat the crowds by going before 1p or join them in the small booths for dirt cheap plates of panzanella in summer, pappa al pomodoro in spring and everything else in between - like simple pastas, meat and potatoes, and hearty desserts of caramelized pears. The second can be found just outside the market at Piazza Ghiberti 44. Panini at Semel is a tiny hole in the wall joint that does some solid panini sandwiches. Fillings here break the usual meat and cheese mold, drawing from Tuscan inspired flavors and dishes: think stewed donkey, pear, pecorino, and truffle; wild boar sausage and broccoli rabe; and, at times, carb on carb taglierini pasta panino. Select your filling from the rotating chalkboard menu and wash down your sammie with a small glass of wine.
For some afternoon dolce vita, be sure to visit Dolci e Dolcezze at Piazza Cesare Beccaria 8. The decor is like being in a ballroom boutique, colored old school with teal and featuring classic ceramic and glassware. The attention to detail is immense, down to the hand written cursive signage. This tiny spot is loved for its dedication to artisanal raw ingredients, such as Valrhona cacao for its flourless chocolate cake, cherry picked figs and forest fragoline (wild strawberries) from the local markets, and for its mini seasonal fruit tartlets. In addition to sweet creativity, the cafe procures Florentine classics like puff pastry sfoglia and budino di riso (rice pudding in a shortbread crust). If you fancy gelato, run don't walk to My Sugar at via de Ginori 49. Run by a husband and wife duo, this shop meticulously churns out classic flavors like bittersweet chocolate and Bronte pistachio, seasonal fruit like strawberry and watermelon, and more worldly flavors including black sesame, green tea and dark chocolate spiked with local chianti. Another yummy place for the soft stuff is Gelateria La Carraia, located at Piazza Nazario Sauro 25 - next to Ponte alla Carraia in the Oltrarno neighborhood. One glance at the constant line out the door of this bright green and citrus shop with exciting flavors (ricotta and pear, strawberry cheesecake, walnut and fig, the best mint in town) and you'll know you're at a Florentine favorite. One more gelato joint is handy if you are waiting in line to see David at the Accademia. Carabe is at via Ricasoli 60 and does granita (crushed ice made with coffee, fresh fruit or locally grown pistachios and almonds) and brioche (ice cream sandwich), along with a fine selection of gelato.
For dinner, head to the other side of the Arno and Essenziale, located at Piazza di Cestello 3. There's no finer showcase for modern Tuscan cuisine than this loft style restaurant in a 19th century warehouse. Preparing dishes at the kitchen bar is dazzling young chef Simone Cipriani. Order one of his tasting menus to sample the full range of his inventive, thoroughly modern cuisine inspired by classic Tuscan dishes. If you're lucky, it will be the chef himself who brings the dish to your table and treats you to a detailed explanation. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday, and reservations are essential. Another fantastic Oltrarno location is the family run Trattoria Pandemonio. Found at via del Leone 50, its house favorites include: sformatino di melanzane (a sort of souffle with creamy eggplant), maccheroncini with sugo della mamma (beef ragu) and the delicious polpettine di lesso (meatballs made of leftover boiled beef). Trattoria Cammillo can be found at Borgo S Jacopo 57. It's an old school trattoria serving straightforward Tuscan fare with white tablecloth service. The prices are above average for homestyle dining, but it’s worth the extra money for expertly prepared rustic classics like winter ribollita soup finished with proprietary olive oil, warm root vegetable salads and the bistecca alla Fiorentina. Note: the restaurant is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Staying in Oltrarno at Lungarno Benvenuto Cellini 69, La Bottega del Buon Caffe is a delightful experience. Farm to table is the philosophy of this Michelin starred restaurant where head chef Antonello Sardi mesmerizes diners from the stunning open kitchen. Vegetables and herbs arrive from the restaurant's own farm, Borgo Santo Pietro, in the Sienese hills. Breads and focaccia (the nut version is heavenly) are homemade and the olive oil used (special production from Vinci) is clearly only the best. From the complimentary amuse bouche (bite sized hors d'oeuvre) to the leafy pink radish dipped in salted butter that accompanies Sardi's creative take on traditional chicken liver pate - ingredients are overwhelmingly fresh, green and natural. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and reservations are recommended. For a more modest setting, try Trattoria Sabatino at via Pisana 2. Timeless restaurants like this make Florence special. Sabatino’s is a family run, blue collar joint that hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1956. Pasta dishes at this walk in only trattoria hover at a humble €5, while meaty mains like roast chicken clock in at a mere €6. Its simple homestyle cooking and bargain prices are a testament to Italy’s all inclusive food culture. Nearby at via dell Orto 49 is Ristorante Guscio. It has been around since 1986 and has a menu that takes homestyle Tuscan and Italian classics to gourmet status: gnudi dumplings made with scamorza and spinach pesto, Maldon salted sliced sirloin with julienned vegetables, paccheri pasta with spicy Calabrian ’nduja (pork salumi) and burrata, beet risotto. The wine list is also superb, heavy on Tuscan wines but also with an ample selection of crucial bottles from around the country. Be sure to save room for the divine desserts.
Ristorante Latini is a classic Florentine trattoria. Located at via dei Palchetti 6, this longtime favorite is know for its traditional crostini, Tuscan salami, fine pasta, Florentine tripe and roasted meats served at shared tables. Note: there are two dinner seatings (730p and 9p) and reservations are mandatory. Close by at via del Moro 22 is L'Osteria di Giovanni. Cuisine at this smart eatery is timelessly Tuscan. Imagine truffles, tender steaks and delicious pasta such as pici al sugo di salsicccia e cavolo nero (thick spaghetti with sausage and black cabbage). Throw in a complimentary glass of prosecco as an aperitif and sweet vin santo wine with a plate of almond studded cantuccini to end your meal, and you'll be hooked. Not far from the Uffizi Gallery at via dei Magazzini 3 is Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori. This tiny eatery serves traditional Tuscan food and is known for its pappardelle in duck ragu, ribollita soup, fragrant saffron pasta tossed with zucchini flowers and a touch of cream and meat based mains like tomato stewed cod and rolled stuffed pork. It's quite popular with locals and reservations are necessary. Another Florentine classic is Ristorante Del Fagioli, found at Corso dei Tintori 47. This staunchly traditional eatery near the Basilica di Santa Croce is the archetypal Tuscan trattoria. It opened in 1966 and has been serving out of this world soups and stews along with boiled meats to throngs of appreciative local workers and residents ever since. Note: the space is small and bustling and cash only. I'd like to wrap up with my favorite Florentine restaurant. Chef Fabio Picchi (previously mentioned) is the city's undisputed culinary icon and is responsible for a cluster of restaurants congregated at the gate of the city's most authentic food quarter Sant'Ambrogio. The food served at all five Cibreo outposts creatively celebrates the region's bounty and flavors while adhering to certain cornerstones of the Florentine and Tuscan repertoire. The offerings at Trattoria Cibreo (via dei Macci 122) include rib sticking soups, roasted game, obscure offal preparations like stuffed chicken neck, a cult status ricotta and potato sformatino souffle and some outside the box takes on Florentine staples - as in a budino (custard) made with turmeric and lemon Greek yogurt. It truly is a foodie Nirvana. Note: the restaurant does not take reservations so arrive early, it also does not accept credit cards.
End your evening in Florence with a drink or two. Found at Borgo S Frediano 36 in the Oltrarno neighborhood is the super cool Mad Souls & Spirits. Owner Neri Fantechi has successfully designed a cocktail bar with a creative menu. Choose from among tongue in cheek daily and weekly specials, such as the Donald Sour (carrot jam, bourbon and egg white) and a menu divided into three parts: 'a fistful of dollars', 'soul warmers' and 'fabulous spirits'. The bar also hosts periodic mixology and spirit specific master classes and events, and it boasts a tempting selection of mezcal and Russian rye vodkas. Another rad spot in Oltrarno is Rasputin, located at Borgo Tegolaio 21. The 'secret' speakeasy everyone knows about, it has no sign outside and is disguised as a chapel of sorts - look for the tiny entrance with a two seat wooden pew, crucifix on the wall, vintage pics and tea lights flickering in the doorway. Inside, it's back to the 1930s with period furnishings, an exclusive vibe and bar staff mixing Prohibition era cocktails. Present are the Hanky Panky, Brandy Crusta, Lucien Gaudin and other obscure classics. Across the Arno at via Dante Alighieri 16 is Mayday. It is considered Florence's true mixology den for the respect it pays to the city’s historic pharmacies and apothecaries. A mix of moody theater lighting, risque velvet paintings and vintage radio technology relics make for a Dali esque space where bartenders create inventive cocktails with housemade infusions, liqueurs and all natural juices from local organic fruit producers. Think artichoke and thistle infused vermouth, pancetta whisky and porcini liqueur. Manifattura is at Piazza di S Pancrazio 1. Fabiano Buffolino, the bartender behind this brand new 1950s style cocktail lounge, has years of experience in the industry and a passion for reviving Italian traditions. Everything on the menu is made in Italy: aperitivi, vermouth, bitters, and more than 80 labels of amaro - from national classics to small batch varieties. You'll find nearly forgotten Italian sodas, vintage liqueurs and classic prosecco based cocktails from Bellini to Puccini. One more excellent 'era' spot is Bitter Bar, found at via di Mezzo 28. Cristian Guitti, one of Florence's most respected bartenders, opened this Sant'Ambrogio neighborhood bar in early 2017 with vintage 1920s decor and an elaborate menu premised on experimentation and fantasy. The menu is divided into twists on classics, like an aged Negroni and Guitti's own inventions. You'll find colorfully presented cocktails with unusual culinary accoutrements such as mint bitters, torched extractions, celery juice, chile jam and truffle honey. For all you wine enthusiasts, be sure to visit Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina at Piazza dei Pitti 16 in Oltrarno. You won't do better than this serious wine bar opposite Palazzo Pitti, run with passion and humor by charismatic trio Edoardo, Manuele and Zeno - don't be surprised if they share a glass with you over wine talk. Floor to ceiling shelves of expertly curated, small production Tuscan and Italian wines fill the tiny bar and casual dining (superb cured meats) is around a handful of marble topped tables.
WHERE TO STAY
Florence has several places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations that provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel Savoy, located at Piazza della Repubblica 7. Set on a beautiful square, this sophisticated hotel in a stone building from the 19th century is around the corner from the Duomo and a short walk from the Uffizi Gallery. Featuring marble bathrooms and chic decor, the stately quarters come with free WiFi, flat screen TVs, Nespresso machines and some rooms have views over the square. Upgraded accommodations feature sculptures and original artwork, separate living areas and balconies. Other amenities include the outstanding Irene restaurant and bar which has a terrace.
A second option is The Place, located at Piazza di Santa Maria Novella 7. Overlooking the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, this upscale hotel is a short stroll from the Ponte Vecchio and not far from the Galleria dell'Accademia. Elegant rooms come with complimentary minibars and WiFi - all have flat screen TVs and some feature four poster beds and fireplaces. Additional perks include breakfast on the house, a sophisticated restaurant with a champagne bar, a cozy lounge and a terrace.
Florence is full of culture, cuisine, art, architecture and history. It treated me well and I look forward to returning. Grazie Firenze.