Florence has a bit of everything: food, culture, art, beauty and nightlife. Read about some classic haunts as well as several hidden gems
On one side of a small, ancient piazza, where stone columns support a medieval leather market still in operation today, a bronze boar watches over the throngs of tourists by day and the occasional lone violinist by night. According to local superstition, a rub of its nose will guarantee a return to the city in the future. And believe me, you’ll want this particular wish to come true.
The city is Florence and it combines some of the best elements of other top European destinations. It has history and art to rival Rome; beauty to compete with Venice; and the museums and cuisine of Paris. Yet it is none of those cities and manages to stun visitors time and time again with its own unique brand of charm and personality. Some say it is the perfectly sized city; small enough to walk from end to end without any long-lasting effect on the thighs, large enough to feel that metropolitan buzz and prevent bumping into the ubiquitous person-to-be-avoided.
In terms of shopping, Florence has it all. The boutiques of Via Tornabuoni match those of Bond Street or the Champs-Elysées and the centre boasts many small, artisanal stores that sell everything from bespoke leather shoes to beautifully fine and unique writing paper to marble statuettes, and have done so for many generations. Borgo Albizi is littered with many examples.
The city is a food lover’s paradise, with shops, markets and restaurants to suit everyone’s taste and budget. Try some traditional Tuscan fare such as bruschetta di fegato (thick liver paté on grilled bread), ribollita (a thick soup of bread, beans and vegetables) or, for the adventurous, a panino al lampredotto (a sandwich filled with boiled intestines and herbs, which tastes much better than it sounds). Trattoria Zà Zà serves excellent Bistecca alla Fiorentina – a famously large cut of beef flash fried for a crispy outside but a very rare inside - or try Santo Bevitore on the Oltrarno (south side of the river) for excellent pasta, meat and atmosphere at extremely competitive prices. For pizza, it’s almost impossible to beat Pizzaiolo near the Synagogue, where thin bases, fluffy edges and delicious toppings compete strongly with Neapolitan opposition.
When the food has settled, head to Mayday bar, where the owner, Federico, will never cease to cheer you with his relentless and infectious smile. Each night has a theme, with certain categories of drink (for example, fruit martinis) offered at lower prices. The décor is fascinating, with the walls covered in 1930s media memorabilia and modern art, and little trinkets hanging from the ceiling. Slowly serves some of the city’s best cocktails and attracts a wealthier and more stylish species of customer. Come a little earlier, buy a drink, enjoy the complimentary food that comes with it and discover one of Italy’s best culinary bargains – the aperitivo. Most bars will offer this free, delicious buffet when you buy a drink, so take full advantage and don’t be scared to go back for seconds – the Italians certainly will. Other great aperitivi can be found at Caffè San Carlo on Borgo Ognissanti and at Moyo (Via dei Benci).
After one too many, head to either Loggiato dei Serviti in the beautiful Piazza Santissima Annunziata five minutes from the Duomo, or the interestingly designed Hotel Brunelleschi, located right in the heart of the medieval centre. If money is no object, the small but perfectly formed Relais Santa Croce has rooms overlooking Santa Croce Basilica or the Florence skyline. If money is every object, Hotel Bavaria offers surprisingly large, comfortable and well-priced rooms in a beautiful, ancient palazzo in the heart of the city.
Florence is a city designed to be walked around, where exquisite architecture or mouth-watering smells greet you at every turn; where great conversations between friends can be had over a drink and aperitivi at one of its many bars; where lovers can kiss at sunset at the Piazzale Michelangelo with a view over the river Arno and the city centre. It is certainly proof that sometimes great things come in smaller packages.
The bronze boar: Piazza del Mercato Nuovo (south side).
Trattoria Zà Zà: Piazza del Mercato Centrale 26r. Tel: +39055215411 (www.trattoriazaza.it).
Santo Bevitore: Via Santo Spirito 66r. Tel: +39055211264 (www.ilsantobevitore.com).
Pizzaiolo: Via Dei Macci 113r. Tel: +39055241171.
Mayday: Via Dante Alighieri 16r.
Slowly Cafè: Via Porta Rossa 63r.
Caffè San Carlo: Borgo Ognissanti 32-24r.
Moyo: Via dei Benci 23