In few places do art and life intermingle so effortlessly than in Florence. Cradle of the Renaissance and home to Machiavelli, Michelangelo and the Medici, Florence is packed with attractions and laden with history. Discover the best of its food, fashion and art with Paula Hardy.
Begin with a coffee and breakfast at Caffè Gilli (Via Roma 1, 055 213 896). The most famous of the city’s historic cafés, Gilli has been serving delicious pastries and millefoglie (sheets of puff pastry layered with vanilla or chocolate cream) since 1733. Then hotfoot it north to the iconic Duomo (Piazza del Duomo) to beat the crowds when the dome opens at 8.15am. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the famous dome is reached via 463 steps but rewards the effort with memorable views of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Afterwards, descend to the Cathedral Museum (Piazza del Duomo 9, 055 230 2885) to view treasures that once adorned the cathedral, baptistery and campanile, including the show-stealing centrepiece, Ghiberti’s 15th-century bronze doors, the Porta del Paradiso (Gates of Paradise).
Much of Florence’s harmonious architecture was commissioned by the city’s leading Renaissance family, the Medici, in the 15th and 16th centuries. Pay homage to these great patrons at their stunning mausoleum, the Cappelle Medicee (Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini 6) – 49 members of the clan were laid to rest here in an interior sumptuously decorated in granite, marble and semi-precious stones. Head honcho, Lorenzo il Magnifico, is buried in the Sagrestia Nuova, Michelangelo’s first architectural work and a showcase for three of his most beautiful sculptures. When you’re done gawking, it’s a short walk north to the central market (Piazza del Mercato Centrale), Florence’s oldest and largest food market, where you can browse the produce and snack on Florentine delicacies like a boiled beef bun at Da Nerbone.
Now you’ve come this far north, you may as well join the queue outside the Galleria dell’Accademia (Via Ricasoli 60) for another peak at Michelangelo’s hottest nude, David. Carved from a single piece of marble, this naked boy-man warrior remains a powerful emblem of the city’s liberty and civic pride. By now you’ll probably be faint with hunger, and after the art high, where better to come down to earth than Trattoria Mario (Via Rosina 2, 055 218 550), a local legend serving traditional Tuscan food since 1953. For something more contemporary, try La Cucina del Garga (Via San Zanobi 33, 055 475 286), a modern reinvention of the culinary hotspot, Garga, headed up by New York chef Alessandro Gargani.
In a city as famous as Florence, it’s hard to get off the beaten track, and yet, for some inexplicable reason, the Museo di San Marco (Piazza San Marco 3) stays resolutely off the radar. Perhaps it’s the location, near the university, or perhaps resident firebrand Inquisition preacher Savonarola gave the place an enduringly bad rap. Whatever the case, don’t miss it. Encompassing the Dominican Church of San Marco and its adjoining 15th-century monastery, it is covered with wonderful frescoes by gifted Renaissance painter Fra Angelico (c 1395-1455). As well as his masterpiece, Annunciation (1440), he decorated many of the 44 monastic cells with deeply devotional frescoes to guide his fellow friars. Savonarola’s rooms, by contrast, are aggressively plain with only a few personal items on show.
After such a heady art fix, it’s time to take a stroll south through the historic centre back to the River Arno for afternoon snaps of the Ponte Vecchio. Before the 16th century, the bridge was lined with butchers’ shops, until Ferdinando de’ Medici ordered them off the bridge and replaced them with a twinkling row of artisanal jewellers. Continue south over the bridge into the Oltrarno neighbourhood, literally the area ‘beyond the Arno’. This funky neighbourhood is a favourite with artists and is a great place to window-shop. Get fitted for handmade shoes at Stefano Bemer (Via San Niccolò 2, 055 046 0476), buy high-quality leather goods at Monaco Metropolitano (Via dei Ramaglianti 6, 055 268 121) and stock up on the best Italian wines at Olio & Convivium (Via Santo Spirito 4, 055 265 8198)
The southern banks of the Arno aren’t just good for shopping. Medici princes used to escape here too, to wander the cypress-lined avenues of the Boboli Gardens (Piazza Pitti). Further west and more steeply pitched, the Bardini Gardens (Via de’Bardi 1) offer superb sunset views over the city with a foreground filled with garden fountains and classical statuary. Just a little further west still, and suddenly you’re in country lanes, winding past orchards as you wend your way uphill to the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte (Via delle Porte Sante, 055 234 2731). Your walk won’t be half as challenging as that of early Christian martyr Miniato, who allegedly walked up here with his head under his arm after he was beheaded in central Florence. The chapel built in his memory is a beautiful early Tuscan Romanesque structure with a geometric marble facade and mosaics that glitter in the setting sun.
After enjoying the panoramic views from San Miniato, return to the Oltrarno. Reserve ahead for a candlelit table at Il Santo Bevitore (Via Santo Spirito 66, 055 211 264), where you can sample prized Chianina beef and reinvented seasonal classics at democratic prices. Gourmands, on the other hand, should opt for the tasting menu at iO Osteria Personale (Borgo San Frediano 167, 055 933 1341), where you’ll encounter surprising flavour combinations such as pork fillets with artichokes and mint pesto or salt cod in a crust of roasted onion powder and pea cream.
Florence is a city of culture not clubbing so the late night scene is rather tame in comparison to London or Berlin. Still, with dinner stretching late into the evening, many places morph from dining to DJ sets and live music. Tamerò (Piazza Santo Spirito 11, 055 282 596) clears its pasta plates in favour of DJ spin sets after 10pm every weekend, while hybrid café-cum-gallery Volume (Piazza Santo Spirito 5, 055 238 1460), located in an old hat-making factory, runs a round of music, art and DJ events.
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