Nightlife in Florence: how to have a good night out

by nicky.swallow

It may be small, but Florence has enough going on after dark to keep most visitors on the lookout for night-time entertainment happy: just don’t make comparisons with the club scene back home.

Aperitivo time

A typical Florentine night out will start with a cocktail; the aperitivo phenomenon has hit the city big time and there are dozens of bars that include a spread of ‘free’ nibbles in the price of a drink. These can range from a few stale peanuts, soft crisps and the sad-looking, cut-up remains of the day’s unsold sandwiches, to an impressive spread of serve-yourself hot and cold dishes that effectively constitutes dinner and works out a lot cheaper than a meal in a restaurant. Some of the bars that kick off the evening with aperitivi morph into a more clubby/dance scene as evening becomes night, allowing you to stay put for the duration.

Note that the price of a drink during ‘l’aperitivo’ (usually from around 7-9pm) will include a supplement for the food whether or not you eat and can be anything from 3-4 euros in a simple bar to 10 or even 12 euros in a more sophisticated venue.

Here’s a selection of my favourite aperitivo bars:

Some of the most popular aperitivo spots are situated in the Oltrarno, south of the river. At the heart of the San Niccolò neighbourhood, Il Rifrullo (Via San Niccolò 55r; 055 2342621; www.ilrifrullo.com) has been a favourite Florentine watering hole for years. The atmosphere is low-key during the day, but the crowds begin to arrive at aperitivo time and by late, the back rooms are packed. Cocktails and nibbles are especially pleasant in summer served on the roof terrace. Five minutes walk from here is lively Via de’Renai with its strip of bars facing the river. I particularly like Negroni (Via de’Renai 17r; 055 243647; www.negronibar.com), named after the lethal aperitivo (equal quantities of gin, Campari and Martini Rosso) that was invented on this site. Art and photography shows are hosted within the red and black interior, the music (including DJ sessions) is cool and there’s a great little terrace out front. Oh, and the generous buffet is way above average.

Keeping south of the river but moving back towards the centre of town, the Golden View Bar (Via de’Bardi 58r; 055 214502; www.goldenviewopenbar.com) may look like a tourist trap sort of place, but the setting - right on the river overlooking the Ponte Vecchio - is incomparable. The décor is modern and cool, there’s an excellent buffet and occasional live jazz.

Piazza Santo Spirito is the hub of the bar scene in the Oltrarno and you are spoilt for choice. I like new-kid-on-the-block Volume (Piazza Santo Spirito 5r), an ex-wood turner's workshop-turned-bar with Boho interior, cool background sounds and plentiful cocktail nibbles. Next door but one is Cabiria (Piazza Santo Spirito 4r; 055 2345853), one of Florence’s historic pre-club grunge bars which these days attracts a studenty crowd who pile into the rather cramped interior or spread out on the large (unheated) terrace for well-priced cocktails and the sort of buffet that does for dinner.

Five minutes walk west will bring you to Borgo San Frediano and Café La Cité, a laid-back café and bookshop where early evening wine tastings and cocktails are often accompanied by live jazz. Just around the corner in Piazza del Carmine is another Florentine classic, La Dolce Vita (055 284595; www.dolcevitaflorence.com), still holding its own after many years in business and popular with a slightly older crowd.

North of the river there’s plenty of choice too. Slowly (Via Porta Rossa 63r; 055 2645354; www.slowlycafe.com) is a softly-lit Boho-chic bar with mellow background sounds and a super-central location near Piazza Santa Trinità. Nearby Colle Bereto (Piazza Strozzi 5r; 055 283156; www.collebereto.com) attracts a chic, sleek, designer-clad crowd to its sophisticated interior and huge summer lounge terrace.

Moving back east towards Piazza Santa Croce, another prime area for bars and nightlife in general, hip Moyo (Via de’Benci 23r; 055 2479738; www.moyo.it) lays on a great buffet to go with your aperitivo and has the added advantage of free WiFi. Rex Café (Via Fiesolana 25r; 055 2480331; www.rexcafe.it) to the north has been around for a while but is still serving great cocktails and tapas in a sensual red and gold mosaic-clad interior; DJ sessions and dancing gives it more of a club vibe.

Where to go to hear live music

Big name music acts tend to bypass Florence in favour of cites such as Milan, Turin, Rome and even Bologna, so the opportunities to hear live music at a certain level are limited. But they are by no means absent.

The main live music venues of any significant size are the 7,000-capacity Palasport Mandela Forum (Viale Paoli 3; 055 678841; www.mandelaforum.it) and Saschall (Via Fabrizio de André; 055 6504112; www.saschall.it), a tent-like 4,000-capacity hall on the river out in the eastern suburbs. Very occasionally, the football stadium will be used for really big names such as Bruce Springsteen, but that’s rare these days.

Smaller venues include Auditorium FLOG (Via Mercati 24B; 055 487145; www.flog.it), which hosts an eclectic mix of events including film, a world music festival and live gigs followed by DJ sessions. Tenax (Via Pratese 46; 055 308160; www.tenax.org) has been hosting cultish line-ups since the 1980s and is still going strong; the club has a huge dance floor and various bars and chill spaces. Stazione Leopolda (Via Frattelli Rosselli 5; 055 89875; www.stazione-leopolda.com), a huge disused railway station and a great performance space near Porta al Prato, hosts music events during the Fabbrica Europa festival in May (www.fabbricaeuropa.net) and occasionally during the rest of the year.

Jazz fans should check out the Sala Vanni (Piazza del Carmine 19; 055 287347), regular venue for the series of mostly progressive and contemporary jazz concerts promoted by Musicus Concentus (www.musicusconcentus.com). Hard-to-find Jazz Club (Via Nuova de’ Caccini 3; 055 2479700; www.jazzclubfirenze.it) has live performances most nights (local combos with the odd more famous name) and a jam session on Mondays. On Friday and Saturday nights, Caruso Jazz Café (Via Lambertesca 14-16r; 055 281940; www.carusojazzcafe.com) attracts mostly Italian talent including some well-known names while Pinocchio Jazz (Viale Gianotti 13; 055 680362; www.pinocchiojazz.it) hosts the odd international star along with local artists on Saturday nights.

Fans of Latin sounds head out to the western boomies and Girasol (Via del Romito 1; 055 47498; www.girasol.it) - one of the most colourful bars in town where the mojitos are great, live bands play most nights and the punters pile in to strut their samba and salsa know-how.

Clubs

Clubbing in Florence has rather fallen from favour in recent years as more smaller (and cheaper) bar-come-dance venues open up. But there are a couple of places you can still find a good night out, although don’t expect anything too cutting edge.

Central Park (Via delle Fosse Macinate 2) is only open on Friday and Saturday nights these days, but it's the biggest clubbing venue within spitting distance of central Florence and is located in the Cascine Park. Choose between five dance floors and DJs who spin sounds that range from Latin, pop and house to drum ’n’ bass. From May until September, everything moves outdoors.

It may have been around since the 1970s, but YAB remains popular among both local night owls and visitors. This is helped, no doubt, by the fact that it’s bang in the centre of town (Via Sassetti 5r; 055 215160; www.yab.it). Saturdays are always packed out and the Monday hip-hop nights are a favourite of rowdy foreign students. Full-Up (Via della Vigna Vecchia 23r; 055 293006; www.fullupclub.com) is another centrally-located veteran and is also popular with foreign students who are given free entrance before 1am to the hip-hop Obsession nights on Wednesdays.

However, the hottest night out to be had in Florence is the regular Nobody’s Perfect spot at the warehouse-like Tenax (Via Pratese 46; 055 308160; www.tenax.org), the most international and influential of the city’s clubs, well-known also on the live music circuit.

More nightlife

Visit my overview on Florence nightlife or read my other guide: Nightlife in Florence: how to get a bit of culture.

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).