A week in Florence is a fabulous way to test your dedication to your travel budget. Although hosting its share of tourist traps, overpriced dining and luxury shopping, the real threat to your bottom line is the tempting suite of wine bars, restaurants, boutiques and gelatarias in the historical centre of Italy’s Renaissance city.
I just couldn’t help but be engulfed by the loveliness of Florence, so I spent the week having long lunches with friends, indulging in three ice-creams a day, taking coffee breaks between window shopping and slowly walking the streets, admiring buildings of pink, green and creamy hues. I felt like a film character, wandering those pretty cobbled streets, gelato dripping down my wrist, wearing a floral dress and a sunny grin.
Admittedly, Florence wasn’t originally on my ‘Must-see in Italy’ list (and thinking back now, I can’t imagine why), but thanks to some very good friends urging our visit, Dave and I worked it into our itinerary from Perugia in Umbria, only a week before arriving there.
Here are a few of my favourite activities from a week of pleasures in Florence.
Wining, Dining & Gelato-ing
Perhaps the most time-consuming activity of the week was indulging in the full flavours served by the capital city of Tuscany. If you’ve seen my post about the food of Italy, you will know I’m naturally inclined to experience a culture via my belly, but the pretty streets of Florence seemed to inspire a particularly decadent diner in me, as did the lovely company of friends.
Some of my favourite wining, dining and gelato-ing experiences were at:
- Gelateria della Passera on Via Toscanella 15, which is tucked into a little courtyard that housed my favourite collection of eateries. This gelataria trades in elegant presentation and strong flavours. The small shop has only a freezer with round silver compartments that hide gelato away from non-purchasing eyes as if it is a secret. I insist you seek it out and then enjoy with all your senses.
- The Club House on Via de’ Ginori 6, which makes a mean gluten-free pizza. This was my first (and second) Italian gluten-free pizza experience, and let’s just say that eating that the Napoli pizza with capers and anchovies was a spiritual experience for my pizza-deprived soul. The Club House is a modern restaurant with long tables that are great for groups and a range of less traditional dishes to compliment the Italian style meals.
- Trattoria Bordino on Via Stracciatella 9r, down a little street a block back from the Ponte Vecchio, is a quiet and charming restaurant that serves wonderfully Italian Italian food, an incredible selection of desserts and, if you’re lucky, a shot of Limóncello after dinner. The checked table clothes, surrounding residential apartments and cobblestone street add to this very authentic and relaxing dining experience.
- Caffe Degli Artigiani on Via dello Sprone 16r is a cute cafe that wraps the corner of Piazza della Passera, opposite Gelateria della Passera. It happily offers simple Italian meals with wine, some jazz on the speakers, fairy lights on the inside and laneway charm on the outside. I ordered a Nevergesi salad (lettuce, salmon, capers and a boiled egg) for 6 Euros with a glass of house red for 2.50 Euros and thoroughly enjoyed the colourful atmosphere of this laid-back retreat.
Exploring the Historical Centre
The first thing I noticed in Florence was the elegant historical buildings that seem to be prettier and more frequent than those in other European cities. I soon found this is largely owing to the wealthy merchant history of the city and Florence’s Renaissance make-over.
Of all the sights in the historical centre, I think the Duomo is a must see! This glorious structure has an elaborate and colourful exterior, but wait until you see the multi-tone geometric internal floors and feel the candlelight echoing in the vast interior. The basilica was built on top of previous churches, which can still be explored under the floor of the current structure (for a little fee), can hold up to 30,000 people and is the most prominent building in the Florence cityscape.
It is free to visit the church, entering via the door on the same side as the little tower (the lovely baptistery) between 10am and 5pm. Ladies, be sure to cover your knees and shoulders (as per standard church etiquette). For a fee and a bit of queuing time at the side entrance, you can also climb the dome and enjoy panoramic views of Florence.
Other highlights in the historical centre include:
- The Ponte Vecchio, the most-known bridge in Florence, which drips with gold jewellers and buzzes with tourists.
- Plaza Della Signoria, the old political centre of Florence where, among fountains and statues and grand historical buildings, you can find the Loggia Dei Lanzi, a purpose-built political assembly point which now houses an emotive collection of sculptures for free public enjoyment (including a bronze Persus who has just slain Medusa and a taut Hercules killing a centaur). The week I visited there was also a remarkable mime working in the area (who was carrying women with roses in his mouth, stealing bicycles and drawing in a crowd of hundreds).
- Plazzo Pitti, the sparse space introducing Pitti Palace on Boboli Hill, from where you can access the palace, its gardens and the narrow streets that weave towards the River Arno from the plazzo edge.
There are scores of other historical sites wedged amongst the boutiques and cafes of Florence, but I found these to be the three sites most jam-packed with Florence delights.
Garden Gazing & Lazing
Combining the olive and terracotta tones of Tuscany, the merchant extravagance of landscaping, and Florence’s symbol, the iris, is a fantastic start to creating a memorable garden. But the gardens of Florence, which are known throughout the world for their loveliness, offer a lot more than that. My Florence experiences of garden lazing and gazing came complete with silver-green olive tones, manicured hedges, paths that latticed through flower beds and vine-covered arch ways reminiscent of a fairy tale scene.
I particularly enjoyed:
- The Boboli Garden in Pitti Palace, which, with an area of over 45,000 square metres, is an impressive example of grand scale renaissance gardening. The garden sports a number of fountains, an Egyptian obelisk, a 17th Century amphitheatre, a boulevard formed with Cyrus trees and panoramic views on the way up to the porcelain museum and terrace. Admission is bought with one of the multiple types of palace tickets, which are sold from an office accessed from Plazzo Pitti at 10 Euros per person. Also, take some water and a mini picnic as there is only an expensive cafe outside the garden gate.
- The Rose Garden on way to Piazzale Michaelangelo, which is much more humble than the Boboli Garden, but offers much more fragrance, some interesting sculptures and quiet benches from which to enjoy the view of Florence. Entry is free and the garden can be access by walking up the hill from the river, towards Piazzale Michaelangelo.
Unfortunately the famous iris garden near Piazzale Michaelangelo was not in full bloom when I visited in the heat of July, and the sprawling Le Cascine, which follows the river out of the city, was crisp and unkept while I was there. That said, there are many other little (and a few not so little) parks across the city to inspire the senses and host a picnic or two during your Florence adventures.
Sipping Wine in the Streets
Embracing the European summer with a social sip of wine after dinner was as much a part of my Florence experience as the Renaissance attractions. After the sun has slip behind the buildings and dinner plates have been cleared, informal gatherings of wine-sipping friends can be found in piazzas and parks across the city. Three spots that are particularly lively are:
- Piazza Santo Spirito, where you’ll find a church of the same name, busy little restaurants, a mini park and fountain in the centre and some sun-warmed steps that accommodate buskers and drinkers after dark. During the day this piazza also has a little market for produce, clothes and art.
- Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio, which is a cosy little court with a little church and a bar of the same name. The bar offers a slightly intimidating selection of wines, which can be ordered at the till, collected at the bar with a receipt and then sipped outdoors with a chilled-out mix of students, creative folk and professionals.
- The garden of Fortezza de Basso, which is a compact green space near the Santa Maria Novella train station. The park has a buzzing night scene of local films and general park merriness, revolving around a pond and a little bar. Although a little out of the historical centre, a local tip sent me exploring there after dark. I found quite a crowd, an Italian documentary about miners (from what I could gather) and some musicians on the grass. It is free to wander in and join the fun and you can bring your own drinks and food, or order from the bar which serves beer for 3 Euros and Spumante for 3.50.