It seems as if the Gods themselves have spoken. Known as the ‘cradle of the Renaissance’ and a globally recognised city in which to experience art in many forms and Tuscan cuisine of every shape, Florence is a small city with an urban centre that has barely changed in over 500 years. Incredibly, the whole of the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so when you walk along its narrow cobbled streets you have chapels, palaces, basilicas, and artworks coming at you from every direction. Couple with heritage and art is the city’s food aesthetic, which marries local flavours with green nutritional values.
WHAT TO SEE/DO
One of the oldest and most celebrated art museums in the western world is Galleria degli Uffizi (Piazzale degli Uffizi; uffizi.it/en). Be advised that it takes a short while to arrive at the actual entrance to the museum (which is housed in a U-shaped Renaissance building that was never intended to be developed as an art gallery), but once you’re in there is a level of captivation difficult to entangle yourself from. Organised as a lengthy interconnecting series of rooms (each of which has incredible works of art displayed), the gallery’s must-sees included works by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Titian, and Leonardo da Vinci. Another word of advice: the gallery is among the most visited in Italy, so expect to queue.
There are few queues at Piazza della Signoria, one of the largest and most beautiful public squares in the city. Located in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (which is home to no end of bars and restaurants), the L-shaped piazza hosts some awe-inspiring statues, including the Fountain of Neptune. Better still, within the piazza is the Loggia dei Lanzi, effectively an outdoor sculpture gallery with many works of Renaissance art, including pieces by Benvenuto Cellini and Pio Fedi.
If you get tired of museums and galleries – be they indoor or al fresco, and let’s be honest, they can be sore on the feet – then make your way to the Oltrarno area of the city. A district located on the other side of the river from Piazza della Signoria, this compact area is not only full of art, history, monuments, parks and palaces, but also a raft of artisan workshops. If you want to pick up a gift to bring home then it’s all here: wood carvers, goldsmiths, mosaic shops, and many other handcraft experts carrying on the work of their forefathers. It helps, of course, that alongside the skill of craftspeople and the weight of architecture are many cafés, bars and restaurants. In particular, suss out the rather more intimate foodie places in Piazza della Passera. Tell them The Taste.ie sent you!
EAT AND DRINK
Unusually for such a compact city, Florence has over half-a-dozen Michelin-starred restaurants. Culinary matters have rapidly changed in the city over the past ten years – gone are the strict rules, in their place a much more vibrant and diverse set of guidelines thanks to a younger breed of globetrotting chefs and restaurateurs. Of course, it isn’t all fine-dining (and never should it be) as the city is always going to be full of the traditional ‘cheap-and-cheerful’ places that are, generally, a pleasure to visit.
One of these is Trattoria Cibreo (Via de Macci; cibreo.com/en), which is situated in the bustling market area of Sant Ambrogio. Delivering superbly cooked Tuscan and Florentine dishes at very reasonable prices means there are always queues, but the wait is worth it. Perhaps unusually, pasta isn’t on the menu, but this isn’t a problem. Savour instead the restaurant’s signature soups (fish, pepper, rural minestrone), its chicken-ricotta meatballs, and stuffed rabbit loin. We don’t usually highlight dessert options, but Cibreo’s flourless chocolate cake is borderline divine. As for those queues? Cibreo’s website spells it out: “We have always preferred to avoid reservations. Just come here and trust us.” You’d better believe it.
One of the best things about eating in Italy (and Spain) is its breadth of neighbourhood eateries. One such is Il Guscio (Via dell’Orto; ristorante-ilguscio.it), which can be found in the Oltrarno area. We previously mentioned younger chefs and restaurateurs, and Il Guscio is a prime example of this – a modern trattoria where younger members of the family have taken over the running of it and added the all-important elements of warmth and simplicity that is both sophisticated and honest. Out front is a tiny bar area that can buzz loudly like the best of them; inside is where the magic happens.
Further magic can be obtained, viewed and eaten at Trattoria da Ruggero (Via Senese). It’s a modest looking place located outside the city centre, but it is truly worth the walk (or a quick taxi) for its unadorned traditional fare. The food is hearty and homely (anyone for zuppa di ortiche – nettle soup?), and is perhaps given the best compliment any neighbourhood-based chef/restaurant can receive: as it’s outside the city centre, it is always rammed with locals coming back for more and more. Again and again.
Tucked neatly away in the centre of the Oltrarno district, and a very short distance from Pitti Palace and Ponte Vecchio, SoprArno Suites (Via Maggio; soprarnosuites.com) is a boutique hotel with 13 of the most individualistically designed rooms you’ll ever see and/or rest your head in. The owners (Betty Soldi and Matteo Perduca) have gone the whole hog in designer terms: salvaged furniture, bespoke artworks, antiques, original frescoes, oak flooring, free-standing baths. Across three floors with views of both an internal courtyard and the grand Via Maggio, the hotel is something of a home-from-home.
Canto degli Scali (Via del Terme; cantodegliscali.com) is another hotel wherein close attention to detail has been applied. A recently restored 14th century building, it comprises elegant B&B rooms and somewhat more fashionable apartments. The balance of traditional (an authentic Renaissance structure) and contemporary (warmth, comfort, all mod cons) is expertly realised.
For something truly historic and with a fairly obvious hint of Italian art mastery, try Hotel Monna Lisa (Borgo Pinti; monnalisa.it), a Renaissance-era establishment that is seeped with atmosphere. From antique art, statues and furniture to a design aesthetic of pietra serena (grey sandstone particular to Renaissance architecture) staircases and Florentina terracotta floors, this hotel has it all.
Fancy something modern for a change? Palazzo dei Conti Residenza d’Epoca (Via dei Conti; palazzodeiconti.com) might be a historic residence (aren’t they all in this wonderful city?) but its eight rooms and suites are as modern as they come. Flat-screen TVs, the usual nifty accessories, some rooms with a private terrace, Strozzi Palace 800 metres way, Santa Maria Novella 400 metres away – seriously, all you need for an enjoyable stay is here.
For further information about Florence, see visitflorence.com
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA