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In few places do art and life intermingle so effortlessly than in Florence. Cradle of the Renais-sance and home to Machiavelli, Michelangelo and the Medici, Florence is laden with history and packed with enviable contemporary dining and shopping. Writer Paula Hardy uncovers the best of its food, fashion and art.
Begin with a coffee and breakfast at Caffè Gilli (Piazza della Repubblica 39R, 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 8.30am. 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.
Navigating the Uffizi’s (Piazzale degli Uffizi 6, 055 238 8651) chronologically ordered art collection is straightforward enough; knowing which of the 1,500-odd masterpieces to view is not. Armed with your pre-booked ticket and floor plan, head up the bust-lined staircase to the second floor for an early Renaissance introduction with Giotto in Room 1. Then skip through a slew of medieval art to Room 8 and Piero della Francesca, before hitting a Botticelli and Da Vinci high-point in rooms 10-15. Meander across the riverside corridor lapping up views of the Arno before hitting the rooftop café and a final hurrah with Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo in Room 35.
Piazza della Signoria has been the hub of Florentine life since the 13th century. Florentines still flock here to meet friends and take a coffee in the square’s historic cafés. Presiding over everything is the Palazzo Vecchio (Piazza della Signoria, 055 276 8224), Florence’s city hall, from where you can get an unforgettable rooftop view if you climb the Torre d’Arnolfo. Inside, Michelangelo’s Genio della Vittoria sculpture graces the magnificent painted hall, the Salone dei Cinquecento. Back out in the square swap old for new in the Gucci Museum (Piazza della Signoria 10, 055 7592 7010), which tells the story of the iconic fashion house.
It isn’t necessary to spend a fortune to enjoy gourmet flavours in Florence. Artisan sandwich bar ‘Ino (Via dei Georgofili 3r-7r) is a case in point. Created by passionate gourmet Alessandro Frassica, the bar offers a selection of locally sourced, farm-to-table ingredients and a select chocolate-tasting menu for dessert. More serious gourmands should head to Michelin-starred La Bottega del Buon Caffè (Lungarno Benvenuto Cellini 69r, 055 553 5677), where Antonello Sardi wows diners with his innovative dishes flavoured with herbs and nuts from the restaurant’s own farm in Borgo San Pietro.
After lunch, take a stroll south through the historic centre back to the River Arno for afternoon snaps of the Ponte Vecchio. Pre-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), shop for customised homewares and unusual souvenirs at And Company (Via Maggio 60r, 055 219 973) and stock up on beautiful stationary and marbled papers at Giulio Giannini e Figlio (Piazza Pitti 37R, 055 212 621).
The southern banks of the Arno aren’t just good for shopping. Medici princes used to escape here, too, to wander the terraces of the Bardini Gardens (Via de’ Bardi 1) and enjoy views over the city. Just a little further west still, and suddenly you’re in country lanes, wending 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 mosaics that glitter in the setting sun. Once the sun goes down, retire to Flò (Piazzale Michelangelo 84, 055 650 791), the hippest place to be seen on sultry summer nights.
In a city where dusty Chianti bottles typify much restaurant décor, find refuge at La Leggenda dei Frati (Costa di San Giorgio 6, 055 068 0545) in the historic garden house of Villa Bardini. Here on the city’s most beautiful terrace you can nibble on veggies plucked fresh from the kitchen garden tucked between the waterfalls of the Bardini garden. For something less formal, join the party crowd at Tamerò (Piazza Santa Spirito 11r, 055 282 596), where you can fill up on imaginative pasta dishes while weekend DJs spin sets from 10pm.
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. American-style bar Kitsch (Viale Antonio Gramsci 1/5R, 055 234 3890) is a favourite of cent-conscious Florentines and sports a theatrical, dark-red interior, while hybrid café-cum-gallery Volume (Piazza Santo Spirito 5R, 055 238 1460), located in an old hat-making factory, runs a round of music, art and DJ events. For something different, book an evening at Florence’s gorgeous, ultramodern opera house (Viale Fratelli Rosselli 1, 055 277 9309).