If you have any serious interest in good food and art, then Florence is somewhere you just have to go. This is the seat of the Renaissance and home to some of the world’s best art; the area of Italy that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo came from. You’ll also find some of Italy’s best food and famous Tuscan wines like Chianti. But Florence isn’t just about food and art, it is a beautiful city that is quite compact and easy to explore on foot so a perfect destination for a short break.
Getting there and where to stay
Florence has a small airport but few airlines go there so usually people fly to Pisa and get a train from there. I flew with British Airways but Ryanair and easyJet fly to Pisa too. From Pisa airport take the shuttle train Pisamover to the central Pisa station – Pisa Centrale – which takes only about 5 minutes. A ticket from the ticket office just outside Arrivals at the airport includes this and there are clear signs to take you to the shuttle. At Pisa Centrale I managed to get a fast train into Florence’s main station – Santa Maria Novella – which took just 48 minutes but some trains are slower (fare is €13).
I booked my hotel through British Airways. Hotel Cellai is very central, just 10 minutes walk from the railway station and easy walking distance to all the main sights. It was a lovely, friendly hotel. To read more about it click here.
For the art lover
There’s so much for the art lover to do it would be hard to fit it all in in five days. Perhaps the most important place to go though is the Uffizi Gallery, a Medici palazzo built in the 16th century, which is situated by the Arno river. It is home to some of the world’s greatest masterpieces by artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Raphael and Caravaggio. Right by the Uffizi in Piazza della Signoria you’ll see a copy of Michelangelo’s famous ‘David’. To see the original you need to go to Galleria dell’Accademia. To visit both these galleries it’s essential to book in advance (for more click here). A smaller place to go for more of Michelangelo’s work is Casa Buonarroti. This 17th century palazzo was built by the artist’s great nephew to house the family’s collection of Michelangelo’s work; mainly early works but wonderful to see. For more click here.
The city’s cathedral, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, known as the Duomo, is a magnificent sight, its dome and campanile reaching up to the sky and a frequent guide when wandering round and you need to orientate yourself. Admission is free. I didn’t actually go inside during my recent visit as it was so crowded and I’ve seen it before. But just seeing the outside is wonderful.
Any food lover likes to visit the local market and a trip to Mercato Centrale, a covered market in the centre of the city, is well worth a visit. Even if you’re staying in a hotel and don’t want to buy food to cook, just seeing the wonderful choice and displays of food is fantastic. Upstairs you’ll find lots of bars and cafes where you can eat too. (Click here for more.)
There are cafes everywhere, of course, from old grand cafes like Caffè Gilli in Piazza della Republicca (photo above) and Caffè Rivoire in Piazza della Signoria with its famous view over towards the Uffizi and ‘David’ copy. But you’ll find plenty of small cafes from the older traditional kind to more modern ones. Wherever you stop for a coffee the chances are it will be a good one. Your cappuccino will come in a small cup, without chocolate, though as an obvious tourist you may be asked if you want some. Italians drink small coffees, often frequently during the day. A coffee is a fast thing. You stop at the bar and order a cappuccino (not after 11am or a meal!) or espresso, drink it and move on. They drink it at the bar, standing up, and quite cheaply. You have to pay and get a ticket at a cash desk before going to the bar. But if you want to sit down and be served you’ll pay a premium, perhaps twice as much or more.
Places to eat
I prefer most of the time to eat in modest trattorias and cafes rather than smart restaurants. It’s not just a question of cost but because I like to enjoy the simple, straightforward local food. The places I enjoyed eating in on my last trip were Osteria Santo Spirito, Trattoria Cibrèo, Cibrèo Caffè and Simbiosi, an organic pizzeria.
What to eat and drink
Tuscan cuisine is so great with so many famous dishes, I can only give you an overview of what I sampled on my recent visit and hopefully offer just a small guide to what to look for. A typical Florentine breakfast is a coffee – usually macchiato, though I ordered cappuccino – and a little pastry called budino di riso, which is like a creamy rice pudding in a pastry case. It’s really delicious. I discovered it on a food tour and ordered one with my coffee a couple of mornings at Caffè Gilli.
Bread is a big thing in Tuscany, more so than pasta and rice, so a lot of dishes have a bread base. Most famous are panzanella – a salad based on bread with tomatoes and other vegetables, a soup called ribollita made with lots of seasonal vegetables, usually including cavolo nero, which is then ladled over some bread. Tomatoes are used a lot too, especially at their tastiest in the summer months, and I loved pappa al pomodoro, a warm bread soup with lots of tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and basil. I had a great one on my last evening in Osteria Santo Spirito.
The bread itself is unsalted, which can taste a bit strange, but then when put with the full, rich flavours of Tuscan cooking makes sense. It is anyway delicious and Osteria Santo Spirito served theirs with some lovely tapenade.
Those delicious little biscuits called cantuccini that are often served with coffee in Italian cafes even in London, come from Florence. I saw some being made on the food tour but they were everywhere in bakers, cafes and the market.
The Florentines like meat a lot, especially beef and their most famous dish is perhaps bistecca alla Fiorentina – a T-bone steak served in most restaurants. Usually it’s a dish for two so I didn’t order it, but had instead another famous Tuscan dish – Tagliata di Manzo. The steak is served rare, cut into slices, with rocket and thin slivers of Parmesan cheese. I had a fabulous one on my last night at Osteria Santo Spirito.
You’ll find delicious Tuscan prosciutto, a bit drier than from Parma with a deeper flavour, and wonderful salami spiced with fennel. Cheeses include Pecorino and Tuscany’s olive oil is thought by some to be the best in the world; it can be quite green with a peppery flavour.
You’ll find the most amazing wine in Florence for this is Chianti country. A good restaurant or trattoria will guide you when choosing what to go with your food.
Ice cream has to have its own section here! Italy may be famous for its ice cream but there’s nowhere like Florence for eating it for Florence is where it was born, back in the time of the Medicis in the 16th century. Florence is where I had my first real Italian gelato experience and I had to go back to where it all happened – at Vivoli, Florence’s oldest gelateria, which was once said to be the best in the world. Perhaps it can’t claim that now, but it’s certainly one of the best you’ll find and I think on my recent trip my favourite (click here). Also serving fabulous gelato is Gelateria della Passera, which again I was introduced to on my food tour. I discovered another good gelateria which won a prize at Florence’s gelato festival last year – My Sugar in Via de’Ginori. Two chains which are good are Grom and Venchi. But you’ll find gelaterias everywhere you go and I’m sure there are many more good ones to discover.
What to buy to take home
There are obvious things to buy to take home like the wine and olive oil from the region, but if you’re travelling with just hand luggage as I did, that’s not possible. It doesn’t bother me much as nowadays I can buy excellent Italian food and wine back home. I considered buying some cantuccini for gifts but then considered how they might get crushed in my small case. What I hadn’t intended to buy but did is some artwork and leather. You see artists setting up stalls all over Florence, especially near the Uffizi, but also in the piazzas. One evening in the Piazza della Republicca there were a few stalls and I took a look as I wandered round. I was attracted to the work of Sandra Bencistà (photo above) who was making beautiful watercolours as I watched. I talked to her and ended up buying a couple of small paintings which I thought a really lovely thing to bring home.
It was while walking to Trattoria Cibrèo on Wednesday evening that I passed a leather shop – Cuor di Pelle, in Via dei Pilastri. This is in the Santa Croce area of Florence, which is a bit away from the tourist area and more obviously a place where locals live. Leather is one of the most famous things to buy in Florence and you’ll see leather shops everywhere; indeed, sometimes just walking down streets you smell the leather and around Mercato Centrale there are lots of leather stalls. I have to confess to being a bit suspicious. It’s a bit like buying glass in Venice – much of it isn’t really from Murano, just as I suspect much of the leather sold in Florence isn’t really from Tuscany. However, I could see a man working at a table inside and it looked to have some nice things, so I went in.
I got talking to the owner who told me he designed the goods and some were really creative. He said local people made them up; two women living just outside Florence made the purses. He showed me how to find out if your leather was genuine too. I ended up buying some little gifts and loved that this was clearly an authentic place.
Escaping the crowds and finding some peace
Much as I love cities and as much as I was really happy to be in Florence again, having not been there for many years, I did crave a little peace and tranquillity away from the crowds for a bit of the time. There are two wonderful places to go: Fiesole and the Boboli Gardens. I went to both. Fiesole is up in the hills outside Florence and just a 20-minute bus ride from the centre (click here for more info). I’ve been before and it has to be said that in peak season you’ll find coach loads of people heading there for the famous view across Florence. But as you can see from the photo above, by going early in the morning outside peak season I had the famous view all to myself!
I spent about 3 hours wandering around and having some lunch. It was a really nice thing to do.
The Boboli Gardens are fairly central and a short walk from Ponte Vecchio, behind the Pitti Palace. It costs €7 to get in. The views across the city are magnificent.
Oltrarno – literally, on the other side of the Arno – is known as the ‘Left Bank’ or ‘Soho’ of Florence. This is where you’ll find artisan workshops, cafes and food shops. It’s also where my favourite restaurant of the trip, Osteria Santo Spirito is, in Piazza Santo Spirito. When I went there on my first evening there were lots of artisan craft and food stalls set up. The next day I explored the area more with the food tour. Again, if you’re looking for a quieter place to escape the crowds for a while, then cross Ponte Santa Trinita (one down from Ponte Vecchio) and enter a different world in Oltrarno.
The food tour I did was with Eating Italy – click here.
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