Nightlife in Florence: how to get a bit of culture

by nicky.swallow

Opera, ballet, symphonic concerts, theatre, film: if culture's your thing, you’ll find something stimulating in Florence.

Florence’s cultural claim to fame goes beyond the wealth of world class artworks to be found within her ancient walls. You wouldn’t think it judging by today’s rather staid classical music scene, but in the 15th century, the city stood on the cutting edge of musical culture when a group of intellectuals known as the Camerata started experimenting with the setting of words to music, an exercise that was to lead to the ‘invention’ of opera. In 1600, Pieri and Caccini’s ‘Euridice’ was performed in the Boboli gardens, an event widely recognised to have been the first operatic performance ever.

Teatro del Maggio

Florence is home to one of Italy’s leading opera houses, the 2,000-seater Teatro del Maggio. At present, it is housed in a bland building with iffy acoustics near the river in west Florence, but a brand new theatre is being built on the other side of Porta al Prato as I write this; the move to the new premises is expected to happen in late 2011... but don’t hold your breath. The most important season of the theatre’s year is the Maggio Musicale festival which runs between late April and late June/early July when the programme includes a mix of symphonic repertoire, opera, ballet and some chamber music featuring a line-up of internationally-known names. The main opera and ballet season takes place in autumn while orchestral concerts dominate the programme in the winter and early spring.

Teatro del Maggio: Corso Italia 16; 055 213535 (box office); www.maggiofiorentino.com.

Teatro della Pergola

The glorious, 17th century Teatro della Pergola, with its splendid red and gold livery, is used principally as a prose theatre, but also hosts a fine season of chamber music concerts promoted by the Amici della Musica (www.amicimusica.fi.it). Featuring top-notch chamber groups and recitalists, concerts run from September until early May and are usually held on weekends.

Teatro della Pergola: Via della Pergola 18-32; 055 2264316; www.pergola.firenze.it.

Teatro Verdi

This large theatre is home to the Orchestra della Toscana, an excellent chamber orchestra known for its performances of unusual 19th- and 20th-century repertoire. During the orchestral season (December-May), the orchestra performs several times a month at the Verdi; see www.orcafi.it for their programme. The theatre is also used for a wide variety of other performances from light opera and musicals to dance, jazz and the odd rock gig.

Teatro Verdi: Via Ghibellina 99; 055 212320; www.teatroverdifirenze.it.

Other venues

Other smaller venues that regularly host classical music concerts include the Accademia Bartolomeo Cristofori (Via di Camaldoli 7r; 055 221646; www.accademiacristofori.it). And for performance on period keyboard instruments, the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte is used by a variety of different concert organisations (ask in the tourist office for details). The Lutheran church (Lungarno Torrigiani 11) is where organ recitals and chamber music concerts are held throughout the year, usually free. Again, ask in the tourist office.

In summer, Piazza della Signoria is the setting for two annual free bashes (a dance gala and a symphonic concert) for the closing of the Maggio festival (www.maggiofiorentino.com) and the Boboli gardens hosts a season of opera and ballet performances (www.festivalopera.it).

Cinema

Most of the mainstream films shown in cinemas in Italy are dubbed into Italian, but the Odeon in central Florence shows regular films in their original language. This splendid Art Nouveau theatre fills up with ex-pats on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays for the programme of current releases, which are sometimes shown with Italian subtitles.

Odeon: Piazza Strozzi 2; 055 295051; www.cinehall.it.

More nightlife

Visit my overview on Florence nightlife or read my other guide: Nightlife in Florence: how to have a good night out.

Where to stay

For suggestions on where to stay in Florence, see my Florence Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Florence page.
 

nicky.swallow

I moved to Florence in 1981 to play the viola in the opera orchestra; the contract was for 3 months, but inevitably, I stayed much longer. It was the food that got to me first. On a sunny Sunday in December a couple of weeks after I arrived, a colleague took me for a walk in the Chianti hills. In his backpack he had some rustic sausages, a loaf of saltless Tuscan  bread, a head of garlic, a flask of rough red wine and a bottle of his family's grass-green, freshly-pressed olive oil. In the incomparable, timeless setting of the Tuscan countryside, surrounded by vines and olive groves, he lit a fire, grilled the sausages and toasted the bread: he scraped garlic over the toast before dousing it with olive oil. It was all very romanitic, but I was much more interested in the bruschetta than in my colleague; I'd never tasted anything like it and knew that I had to have more, lots more.

Almost 30 years (and many bruschette) down the line, I no longer play music professionally and now divide my time between freelance travel writing and, as a nod to my musical past, running a chamber music festival in southern Tuscany (www.itslafoce.com). Much of my writing has been based around various aspects of life in Florence and Tuscany, but I've also written (or made contributions to) travel guides to Naples, Milan, Venice, Turin and Cape Town for the AA, Frommer's, Time Out, Dorling Kindersley and Insideout. It's a great way to get to know the the heart and soul of a city providing a valid excuse for being very nosey and eating in as many restaurants as possible in a short space of time. I'm the Tuscany and Umbria editor for the Charming Small Hotel guides and the Italy editor of the Hotel Guru website (www.thehotelguru.com). Magazine work includes regular contributions to Condé Nast Traveller. 

Downtime is spent with my Florentine photographer partner in our olive grove just outside Florence where our 300 olive trees produce copious amounts of deliciously pungent olio extra vergine di oliva each year.

My Florence

Where I always grab a coffee: My local bar is Caffé Ricchi in Piazza Santo Spirito, one of the lovliest squares in the city. Daniele makes fantastic cappuccino and knows that I like mine steaming hot (not always a given in Italy) and not too milky. Bag a table on the terrace to watch the daily drama of life in the neighbourhood unfold. 

My favourite dining spot: family-run Da Ruggero, one of the few genuine old-style Florentine trattorie still in business.

Best for people watching: Florentine designer Roberto Cavalli's café (Via della Spada 10r), just off chic Via Tornabuoni, comes complete with  trademark faux animal skin pouffes and a never-ending procession of chattering, designer-clad Italians. 

My favourite stroll: The Oltrarno, which hugs the south bank of the river, is a lively, Bohemian neighbourhood characterised by grand palaces, quiet squares, narrow lanes lined with artisan workshops, a lively nightlife and a relative lack of tourists. Start at Porta San Niccolò to the east and work your way west sticking to the backstreets wherever possible.

The most breathtaking view: from the terrace in front of the church of San Miniato al Monte at sunset. You see the city laid out before you as, in the forground, the Arno turns to molten gold in the evening light.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: the nether reaches of the Boboli gardens best accessed through the Annalena entrance on Via Romana. 

Shopaholics beware!: the Tuesday morning market that is laid out along the north bank of the Arno in the Cascine park sells everything from plants and flowers, fresh produce, bargain-basement fashions, imitation Vuitton and Prada and, if you're lucky, the genuine article fresh off the back of a lorry. The Florentine signoras love it.  

Best new attraction: celebrated antiquarian Stefano Bardini bequeathed his extraordinary, eclectic collection of Renaissance and medieval paintings and sculpture, furniture, arms and armour, musical instruments and the decorative arts to the city of Florence on his death in 1922. After a torturously long restoration, grand Palazzo Bardini and its contents are once again open to the public (Piazza dei Mozzi 1). 

Don't leave without....seeing Domenico Ghirlandaio's sublime 1480 Last Supper housed in the refectory of the convent of Ognissanti (Borgo Ognissanti 42).