We have a lovely student called Sarah who just completed the Beginner 2 course at Italia 500 and we discovered that she is learning Italian because she runs an art retreat in Tuscany with 2 friends (www.artescapeitaly.com). This means that she is a regular visitor to Florence, and has lots of truly excellent tips for the best things to do and the best places to eat and drink. If you are visiting Florence this year, this is your insider’s guide to the best of the city:
Galleries and Museums
Every guidebook will tell you to visit the Accademia and the Uffizi, and – while it is hard to justify visiting Florence and failing to see Michelangelo’s David and Boticelli’s Birth of Venus – the crowds can be hard to deal with.
The Bargello sculpture museum, by comparison, is almost entirely overlooked by tourists, and yet it also contains masterpieces by Michelangelo, Donatello, Giambologna and many more important works from the 14th-16th centuries. The building alone is worth visiting for its historical importance. Dating back to 1255, it is the oldest public building in Florence, and was at the centre of Florentine civic history through the Medieval period to the early Renaissance.
Palazzo Pitti is also often less crowded. You can choose between 6 different museums housed at the palace and rotating special exhibitions. The Gallery of Modern Art contains works by important Tuscan artists of the 19th century, such as Giovanni Fattori and Telemaco Signorini of the Macchiaioli movement. The Royal Apartments and Costume Gallery give you a glimpse into the lives of 18th Century Royalty, and the Boboli Garden is an oasis to get lost in for hours.
National Museum of Bargello
Via del Proconsolo 4
Open Tuesday-Saturday 8:15-17:00, Tickets 4 euro
Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Garden
Open Monday-Friday 8:15-18:50, combined ticket to Pitti Palace museum and gardens 12 euro
Cool places to eat and drink
Via de’ Ginori 8/r
Open every day from 7am to 2am
La Ménagère (lamenagere.it) is a café, wine bar, florist, restaurant, homewares shop and nightclub in San Lorenzo. It opened in June 2015 in an old warehouse, and it’s interior is a stylish mix of polished concrete floors, exposed brickwork, artworks and orchids suspected from the ceiling. The tiny club is in the basement, and here they have live music several nights a week – usually jazz or world music. Their food – refreshingly modern interpretations of Italian classics - is on the more expensive side but is really good.
Ditta Artigianale Caffetteria, Food & Gin Bar
Via dei Neri 32r
Ditta Artigianale has really, really good coffee (even by Italian standards). They also do brunch (including pancakes and eggs and bacon – not so easy to find in Italy). At night they turn into a gin bar, with a selection of boutique gins from all over the world. Hipsters will feel at home.
Via Sant’Antonino 64r
If you get tired of good wine and negronis, try Cuban cocktail bar Sabor Cubano. It’s located in San Lorenzo, opposite Mercato Central, and it opens up when the street vendors go home for the day.
Via Panicale 7/9r
Newly opened Lo Sverso is another cool spot near Mercato Central doing craft beers and cocktails. The bartenders here pride themselves on making cocktails to order – just tell them what you’re in the mood for and they will make something especially for you.
Piazza del Mercato Centrale, Via dell’Ariento
Mercato Central is a vast produce market downstairs and a gourmet food court upstairs. The food court is open from 10am to 1am, 365 days a year. They also have a cooking school, live music and much more.
Restaurants for a special occasion
Via de’Velluntini 1r
Quattro Leoni is one of the most recommended restaurants in Florence by locals and visitors alike, and is a great choice for a special/romantic occasion. Its outdoor seating flows onto the quiet and beautiful Piazza della Passera.
Cibrèo ristorante and Caffè Cibrèo
Via del Verrocchio 8r and 5r
Chef Fabio Picchi takes local, fresh, seasonal ingredients and then basically goes with whatever his inspiration tells him on the day. The food is deceptively simple and delicious, and a great deal of thought has gone into every ingredient. Expensive, but it will be a memorable dining experience. Picchi will often stop by your table to talk about the origins of that day’s produce, and possibly interrogate you about what you thought of the food. If you want a more relaxed and less expensive version of the menu you can try Il Cibreo Trattoria across the street. OR, if you want a LESS relaxing atmosphere, try Cibreo Teatro del Sale – the theatre restaurant nearby (Via dei Macci 111r)
In Fabbrica Ristorante
Via del Gelsomino 99
In Fabbrica Ristorante (restaurant.pampaloni.com) achieves a level of weirdness that David Lynch would be proud of. It is located in the factory lunch-room of the Pampaloni silver factory, which makes sterling silver ornaments, cutlery, collectables and Judaica. On arrival, you will be greeted with a glass of prosecco and have a chance to browse the factory show room. You are then led upstairs to the restaurant, which is decorated in the style of “French and Soviet imperialism”. Everything is silver (naturally) – the plates, the cutlery, the wine carafe, the candelabras – you’ll even drink from silver goblets. Located 10 minutes by car outside of the centre of Florence.
Via Isole delle Stinche 7/r
Vivoli is the gelataria that all the guidebooks and Tripadvisor will tell you about. It’s a beautiful, old-world shop in a somewhat hard-to-find piazza, so even though everybody knows about this place, you’ll still feel like you have made a discovery when you eventually find it yourself. Try the cioccolato e arancio.
Gelato Santa Trinita
Piazza Frescobaldi, 11-12/r (Ponte Santa Trinita)
The gelato at Gelato Santa Trinita is so good that the queue often winds down the street. Once you finally get your gelato, you can go and enjoy it while sitting on the Ponte Santa Trinita with a view of the Ponte Vecchio.
Gelateria Della Passera
Via Toscanella 15/r
A tiny little artisanal gelataria tucked away behind the Palazzo Pitti that creates small batches of seasonal flavours.
Piazza Santo Spirito 5r
Volume is arguably the best live music venue in Florence. It is small and intimate, but you can always manage to squeeze in to see who is playing that night. Every night the music is completely different, and the bands are amazing every time.
Borgo S. Frediano 20
La Cité is a café/library/workspace by day, and a packed live music venue by night. You’ll know that you have found the right place by the crowd of people on the street out the front.
Via Villani 15, Piazza Tasso
Tasso is a hostel located in the oltrarno, about 1km from the centre of Florence. They have private rooms and dorms, and a theatre and bar that is popular with tourists and locals. The theatre has open mic nights and Lindy hop once a week, and DJs and bands on the other nights. For a listing of their upcoming events, visit http://www.tassohostelflorence.com/articles
Piazzas to pass the time in
Piazza Santo Spirito
You haven’t been to Florence until you have been to Piazza Santo Spirito and hung out here for at least a few hours. Come for the markets in the morning, and stay for lunch (see Gusta Pizza, Gustopanino and Osteria Santo Spirito), aperitivo (Tamerò) dinner (Trattoria Casalinga), cocktails (Pitta M’Ingolli) and live music (Volume).
Piazza della Passera
Piazza della Passera is one of the most peaceful and charming places in all of Florence. You can simply sit on a bench and people watch, or you can have a wine or aperitivo at the delightful Caffè degli Artigiani, or a gelato at Gelateria Della Passera.
Piazzale Michelangelo is the best place in the city to watch the sunset over Florence…and everyone knows it. To escape the tour groups and teenagers, once you get to Piazzale Michelangelo, keep walking up the road (Viale Galileo) until you reach the Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte. The view of the city from the steps of Abby is even better!
Do something creative
Florence has been a city of artisans since medieval times, and the variety of crafts practiced in the city have been passed from maestri to apprendisti over centuries. Even though these days there isn’t the same sort of market for handmade items, Florence is still full of craftspeople who are keeping skills alive in bookbinding, gilding, iron work, marble sculpture, furniture restoration, violin making, cobbling and more.
A topic of discussion and concern among local Florentine artists and artisans, however, is that tourists aren’t buying handmade products or original artworks anymore – or at least, not at much as they used to. Perhaps it is the economic climate of the past few years, or perhaps it’s because you can buy everything on the internet now. But I would encourage you, if you are visiting Florence (and Italy in general), to consider buying at least one hand-made souvenir in support of those who are keeping these skills alive. In Florence, the majority of the artisan workshops are located in the oltarno (the other side of the Arno). To find them, cross the Ponte Vecchio and head into the maze of medieval streets in between Palazzo Pitti and Piazza Santo Spirito.
Or, if you prefer to spend your money on experiences rather than things, why not do a workshop?
Giulio Gianni & Figlio are one of the oldest book-binding and paper shops in Florence, and their family-owned business has been in operation for six generations. Their charming shop is located directly opposite Palazzo Pitti, and they run workshops on paper marbling. You can simply create a sheet of marbled paper, or you can do a longer workshop and create your own hand-bound book covered in paper of your own design. Workshops are scheduled on request, so email Maria in advance.
Giulio Giannini & Figlio (www.giuliogiannini.it)
Piazza Pitti 37r
Private painting lessons
Florence is full of small private ateliers where you can receive one-on-one painting instruction, or join a small group workshop. Most of the ateliers advertise on the noticeboards of the two major art supplies stores in Florence: Zecchi (via dello Studio 19r) and Rigacci (Via dei Servi 71r). Or, Google
Or, if you have more time to spend, why not consider staying at Art Escape Italy for a week-long painting workshop and retreat? (www.artescapeitaly.com)
Other useful things to know
LAMPREDOTTO! When you are in Italy, you are always supposed to try the regional specialties, and the quintessential Florentine dish is Panini di lampredotto, which is….a tripe sandwich. You will see the "lampredottai" food trucks all around the city and this is where you get your authentic panini di lampredotto – this is meant to be street food, not a gourmet restaurant experience.
There is a great English language bookshop near the Duomo called The Paperback Exchange (Via delle Oche 4r). They have a fantastic selection of titles, and one of the best things about them is that you can exchange or re-sell your book when you have finished it. Perfect if you are travelling around the country and don’t want to be weighed down by books (but still aren’t a Kindle-convert).
A top tip about street addresses in Florence: when looking for any of the specific address above, a street number that ends in “r”, e.g. 75/r, means that you need to look for the street numbers that are painted RED. Commercial addresses have red numbers, and private addresses have black numbers. Well, most of the time. Sometimes a red number is written 75r and painted black. But if you are walking down the street looking for number 75r, and the street numbers go 67, 5r, 69, 7r, 71, 73, 9r, 75, 10r, 77…keep going!!
A proposito di lampredotto, here are three videos which talk about this re-appreciated culinary delight. The first, 36 Hours Florence, is a lovely video by The New York Times which introduces the panino al lampredotto at 01:45; the second video is an excellent episode of the series Bizarre Foods Delicious Destinations, by Andrew Zimmern dedicated to Florence, in which il panino al lampredotto is discussed at 08:20, but do watch the whole video as the program also introduces us to la bistecca alla fiorentina, la ribollita, il gelato, and la schiacciata alla fiorentina, all of which are presented by a cast of truly colourful and slightly mad fiorentini; the third video, in Italian, is from the YouTube channel Street Food Italia and features an interview with a wonderful "trippaia", or "lampredottaia", Lucia Beltrami.
A proposito del Museo del Bargello (official name: Museo Nazionale del Bargello) which, as Sarah rightly points out, is often overlooked by visitors to Florence, here is a documentary produced by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) in 2004 which we hope will encourage you pay a visit to this truly delightful museum.
At Italia 500 we've been offering Italian courses, in Sydney, since 1995 and one of the most beautiful aspects of learning Italian is that it opens the door to a culture of unrivalled richness and diversity. In this blog we'll be sharing some of our favourite books, movies, places in Italy to visit, music, links to podcasts, information about local and international Italian themed events, and the odd "personal" view, in the hope that it will encourage you to delve further into a culture which continues to inspire us and millions of people all over the world.