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City life: Florence

Florence, the heart of the Renaissance and former capital of Italy, is rich in history, art and culture, yet continues to evolve its enduring appeal

City life: Florence
Florence. Image: Getty

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It’s 150 years since Florence became Italy’s capital. The limelight lasted just five years, until Rome took over in 1871, but Tuscany’s best-loved city has rarely felt so relevant.Since the Grand Tour, visitors have come to walk the same flagstones as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Dante and Galileo. Here, a ragged medieval lane; there, a rusticated Renaissance palazzo gazes out over the church where Medici rulers worshipped. Snapshots are everywhere.

But Florence doesn’t just live in the past. The city has a daring new modernist concert hall, the Teatro dell’Opera, on the fringe of the Cascine, its long-neglected and mid-revamp riverside park. Its former mayor, Matteo Renzi, is now Italy’s youngest prime minister. (Or at least, he was at the time of writing… Italy once changed PM eight times in a decade.)

There are new restaurant openings on every return visit. Not just for traditional Tuscan food, such as the seared T-bone bistecca fiorentina, but Florentine tapas, sushi bars, vegetarian and vegan restaurants, you name it. Nightlife in the centre is still largely tourist-oriented, but you only need to cross the Arno to mix it with the locals. San Niccolò and San Frediano are buzzing from aperitivo hour until late. The city’s tightly packed, so nowhere’s far from anywhere.

Old stalwarts have received a makeover, too. At the Uffizi, new rooms showcase the art of Velázquez, Goya, Caravaggio and Dutch Old Masters. And 2015 is set to end with the November re-opening of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo or cathedral museum. It has been expanded to showcase the restored Gates of Paradise, Michelangelo’s Pietà sculpture, and a whole lot more. Florence is blooming.

So far so frantic. It’s not a city in which to waste time, such are its cultural check boxes. But there’s also something to be said for allowing yourself to just ‘be’ in this open-air museum: explore its woodsmoke-scented backstreets and smaller, atmospheric squares. Give yourself the time, for example, to amble around the tight, residential lanes of the Oltrarno district (the ‘other side of the Arno River’) that form around the pretty little Santo Spirito basilica. Stop to peer into tiny artisans’ workshops, where intricate leatherwork, gold leaf and icon painting goes painstakingly on, as it always has.

And if you really want to get the lowdown on what’s happening, from local politics to the latest bar opening, hang out with the lampredotto street vendors whose food trucks are a locals-only landmark outside the Mercato Centrale. You may not take to their medieval ‘poor food’ panini, packed with slices of tripe, but for a true Florentine experience, it beats queuing for hours to see Botticelli’s Birth of Venus at the Ufizzi.

What to see & do

Uffizi Gallery: There’s nowhere better on Earth to see Renaissance painting. All the big hitters are here, from Giotto through Lippi and Leonardo to Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and beyond. Allow three hours to do it justice. Pre-booking is essential.

Duomo: The giant ochre dome of Florence’s cathedral is one of Europe’s most iconic sights, an architectural marvel designed and built by Filippo Brunelleschi between 1418 and 1434. You’ll need a head for heights to climb it, and a stomach for the queues.

Museo del Novecento: This new museum is set around a 1300s cloister — so far, so Florentine. But the collection inside is a welcome 20th-century breeze. Exhibits are arranged backwards, from the 1990s through Futurism
to the turn of the century, plus a top-floor screening room.

Gucci Museo: Guccio Gucci, the founder of a fashion empire, was originally inspired by his time working as a lift attendant in London’s Savoy Hotel. His larger-than-life designs, though, scream Florence — like the 1979 Gucci Cadillac Seville on the ground floor.

Ponte Vecchio: This iconic 12th-century bridge was once the sole crossing point over the River Arno, and the only bridge not destroyed during the Second World War. See the bust of goldsmith Cellini, and be warned: gelato’s pricey near here.

Palazzo Vecchio: Take the Secret Passages tour and see first hand the paranoia of living through the tumultuous 14th to 18th centuries. Step into the private alchemy room of Francesco de Medici’s Studiolo via a painting in a wall that turns to open into a rectangular room with a vaulted gold ceiling. Behind another painting is a secret stairway.

Santo Spirito: Labelled the boring church for being so ‘plain’ in comparison to the rest of Florence’s architecture, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Santo Spirito, in the Oltrarno quarter, is famed for housing a 1493 Michaelangelo wooden crucifix.

Dante’s tour: The famous poet lived, loved and breathed in medieval Florence. Visit the so-called Casa di Dante (Dante’s house), a small museum filled with copies of The Divine Comedy, or the Church of Santa Margherita dei Cerchi where he fell in love with Beatrice.

Painting the Ponte Vecchio and Arno River, Florence. Image: Alamy

Painting the Ponte Vecchio and Arno River, Florence. Image: Alamy

Shopping

Via de’ Tornabuoni: Alongside Milan, Florence is Italy’s fashion capital. Gucci, Pucci, and Ferragamo all call the city home. Their flagship boutiques are ranged along this one medieval street, plus Armani, Prada and Max Mara.

Mercato delle Pulci: Don’t miss this little flea market in eastern Florence’s trendiest quarter. It’s impossible to say what you’ll find: perhaps old postcards, or a vintage silver bracelet, or Murano glass beads, or… well, you get the idea. Open daily in Piazza dei Ciompi.

Madova: For almost a century, and for 60 years in this spot by the Ponte Vecchio, family-run Madova has been selling leather gloves of the finest quality, lined with cashmere, silk or merino lambswool.

Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella: There’s been an apothecary here for over 400 years. This is a temple to scents, balms and perfumes, even for cats and dogs.

Madova glovemaker at work. Image: Madova

Madova glovemaker at work. Image: Madova

Where to stay

Plus Florence: Strictly speaking, this place just north of the centre is a hostel… but what a hostel. Some luxe hotels would kill for these amenities, which include an outdoor swimming pool and sundeck (in summer) and a Turkish bath, indoor pool and gym (winter only).  Best of the en suite rooms are in a new block, facing a rear courtyard, with plenty of space.

The St Regis Florence: Once a historic palace designed by Brunelleschi (who built the Duomo), it’s an easy five-minute walk from the Ponte Vecchio. Traditional Renaissance décor sits well with all the mod cons, while the high-ceilinged dining room and balcony restaurant for breakfast are divine.

Four Seasons Florence: This city resort hotel, minutes from Duomo, was once the residence of the Medici family. It’s actually two palaces (including its own chapel) separated by extensive gardens, within which sits an award-winning spa. Oh, and a rarity in the city: an outdoor pool and heated Jacuzzi, too. Decadent and indulgent to the extreme, it’s worth it for one night if you can.

Pool at Plus Florence youth hostel. Image: Plus Florence

Pool at Plus Florence youth hostel. Image: Plus Florence

Where to eat

Kitsch: If you want to eat well and cheap, make for apericena — a cross between aperitivo (early evening snacks) and cena (dinner). The usual drill is a cold and warm buffet stacked with salads, cured meats, simple pasta dishes and the occasional treat such as marinated anchovies. Buy a drink and help yourself. This place, just outside the tourist centre, piles it higher and better than anywhere in town for €10 (£7.40), including a beer or cocktail. 

The First Floor @ Mercato Centrale: Head upstairs in Florence’s covered produce market to sample street food, Italian style. The vast new hall opened in 2014, and is usually buzzing. Pretty much everything Italiano is on sale, including pizza, meat and cheese platters, handmade pasta, southern Italian-style fried treats, and top-notch Tuscan wine.

iO Osteria Personale: This place is the culinary highlight of trendy San Frediano, south of the Arno. There’s no pasta, just a modular menu of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes that you can combine anyhow, and in any order,
you like.

Exterior detail of Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore.

Exterior detail of Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore.

Nightlife

Beer House Club: Birra artigianale or craft beer has really hit Italy — Florence even has its own Brewdog (Scottish brewery). Beer House Club has the best range in town: 10 beers on tap, including brews made exclusively for them, including Punk IPA di Brew Dog and the classic ipa del Birrificio del Ducato. It’s open nightly until the early hours.

La Terrazza at the Continentale: The cocktails in this bar at the top of Hotel Continentale are traditional. The view, over the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno banks, is sublime. Dressing up is optional.

Il Santino: Only a few people can squeeze inside this tiny wine bar, but plenty of drinkers spill out onto the street anyway. The wine list is hot on niche labels, and they serve scrumptious Italian tapas if you’re still peckish — try bacalao (cod) whipped with potatoes. T: 055 2302820.

Lampredotto tripe van. Image: Alamy

Lampredotto tripe van. Image: Alamy

Like a local

Lampredotto: For a proper Florentine lunch, tuck into lampredotto, the lining of a cow’s fourth stomach, stewed with tomato and garlic and served in a roll. There’s a good, central tripe van in Piazza dei Cimatori.

Number check: Don’t be caught out by Florence’s eccentric addresses. Every street has two separate sets of numbers in black and red, and sometimes suffixed with an ‘R’. They trot up and down the street oblivious to each other, so you might walk past number 4 and 6, then number 2R, then back to number 8, and so on.

Walk it: Thanks to the extensive pedestrianisation of recent years, central Florence has a slightly convoluted one-way system. Cabs can seldom take the direct route, so you’ll save plenty of time and money if you simply pack a map and walk. It’s rarely very far to anywhere.

Essentials

Getting there
British Airways and CityJet fly from London City to Florence, while Vueling flies direct from Gatwick. BA, EasyJet, Jet2.com and Ryanair fly to nearby Pisa from all over the UK.
Average flight time: 2h15m.

 

Getting around
Florence is a walking city. You can get north–south or east–west across the centre in around half an hour. Most of the centre is pedestrianised. You’ll probably only need the bus if you’re heading uphill to the old Etruscan settlement of Fiesole (No 7) or to Piazzale Michelangelo for the iconic panorama (No 12 or 13).

 

When to go
Summers heat up like an oven, and winter winds whistle down from the Apennine mountains. Visit in spring (May and June are perfect) or autumn (September to early October) if you can, when al fresco eating and sipping are a pleasure and temperatures are around 20C. In August or mid-winter, occupancy is usually lower so don’t be afraid to haggle for deals.

 

Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.33.
International dial code: 00 39 55.
Time difference: GMT+1.

 

More info
firenzeturismo.it/en
Frommer’s Florence & Tuscany Day By Day. RRP: £10.
Secret Florence by Niccolo Rinaldi. RRP: £12.
The most useful city blog is Io Amo Firenze. However, it’s written in Italian, so you may need help from Google Translate. ioamofirenze.it

 

How to do it
Stay three nights’ B&B at the Hotel River, from £385 per person, including return EasyJet flights from Gatwick. citalia.com


Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)