Originally published in SUITCASE Magazine, Volume 15
In a little wine bar in Chianti, we overheard a woman introducing her son-in-law to a couple they had just met. “He is from Milan.” She said. “No.” The man interrupted, loudly. “I live in Milan. I am from Florence.”
Florentines are deeply proud of their city. And for good reason. The Tuscan capital is drenched in history and high art, from the illustrious paintings that hang on the walls of its galleries and the domes that pierce the sky to the ancient bridges that stretch across the strange, still River Arno. Its lovably disheveled streets are narrow and shaded, the colour of a basket of fruit; faded peach, dusty grape green and lemon yellow. Tourists flock to gaze up at its most recognised sites – Vasari’s maddening Last Judgment on the ceiling of the Duomo, the ancient covered walkway of Ponte Vecchio, or the heaving torso of David. But it is not a place that rests on its laurels. The air is charged with change, and a youthful, creative flair mingles with all of this sumptuous history. Life happens outdoors, in bustling piazzas where groups of friends spill out of bars onto the street. A well of bohemian cafes, art galleries, live music venues and concept stores is unfolding across the city.Like most Italian cities, food and drink lie at the heart of everything here. Saltless bread, hearty meat dishes and lashings of red wine are the axis on which everyday life spins. Florence is perhaps the city that most encapsulates ‘Dolce Far Niente’, the inimitable Italian mentality of pleasure for pleasure’s sake – ‘The Sweetness of Nothing.’ The best way (perhaps the only way) to melt into Florentine life is to eat like a local, with the locals, enjoying the simple pleasures of good food, wine and the precious absence of time.
Ad Astra is Florence’s “first mansion” and one of its greatest hidden treasures. Occupying the main floor of the villa, the hotel is housed in a sixteenth-century palazzo on a quiet street lined with vespas. The building once acted as a luxurious hideout for aristocrats seeking escape in the city, and belongs to one of Florence’s most noble families. Some of its members are immortalized in the oil paintings that line the staircase. Ad Astra’s main living space is about as chic as it gets, with a frescoed ceiling, bookshelves, twinkling glass chandelier, tiled fireplace, jazz music and plush velvet sofas. Each unique room is awash with sumptuous textiles and colourful antique furniture, some with stand-alone roll top baths beneath walls of gold-framed artwork. A patio wraps around the edges, opening out onto the largest private garden in Europe, flecked with roses and graceful statues. Leaving the vicinity would be completely impossible if it weren’t for the surrounding area of Oltrarno, a bohemian Florentine district brimming with artist’s studios, boutique shops and independent cafés.
Via del Campuccio, 53
Alla Vecchia Bettola
It doesn’t get more Tuscan than this. Getting a seat in this raucous tavern, with its marble tables and tiled walls hung with copper pans, can be a challenge. Once in, pour yourself some red from the giant bottles on the tables, costing just 4euros for as much as you can handle. Try a hearty soup or pasta before Florence’s staple dish; enormous T-bone steak, rubbed with salt and served red.
Via Vasco Pratolini, 3
This elegant but relaxed spot on the corner of bustling Piazza della Passera is perennially packed. Locals love it for the family atmosphere, quality produce and classic Tuscan dishes, while visitors lap up its bold flavours, white tablecloths and long wine list. But the staff treat everyone like they have been coming for years. Be sure to try the pappa al pomodoro, a typical “peasant” dish of stale bread mixed with sweet tomatoes and cloves.
Inside this exquisite cocktail bar and restaurant, peacock blue walls are lined with antique film posters and nude sketches, while bronze lamps hang over cloud-patterned wallpaper and vases of fresh flowers sit beside flickering candles. With a kitchen headed by Albian chef Entiana Osmenzeza, the menu infuses traditional Tuscan flavours with Spanish and Balkan influences. The result is sophisticated, seasonal gourmet cooking.
Via delle Caldaie, 12
5 e Cinque
If you fancy a change from the meat-heavy dishes favoured by traditional trattorias, head for lunch at this elegant little place, adored by stylish locals for its creative vegetarian menu. The brainchild of an antique dealer, it is located on the pedestrian Piazza della Passera, surrounded by homely coffee bars and bustling gelaterias. Chalkboards announce the dishes of the day, while photographs of Florentine days gone by stare down at you and soft lighting fills the room.
Piazza della Passera, 1
Casa del Vino
In the folds of Florence’s leather market, you will find this tiny bar filled with locals leaning sipping wine from around 10am. Along with a wine list that reads like a map of the region, Casa del Vino serves typical little plates to accompany each glass; silvery anchovies, truffle crostini, pickled artichokes and strings of milky stracciatella cheese, serves with a trickle of olive oil and salt.
Via dell’Ariento, 16
This is the second, much larger, branch of this Scandi-style coffee roastery and gin bar, set over two floors in a 1950s building just around the corner from the Ponte Vecchio. There is Danish furniture, geometric wallpaper, solid wood paneling, a steely spiral staircase and artful light fixtures. But the real reason to visit is the coffee, which is about as close to perfect as it gets.
Via dello Sprone, 3
Is there any ritual more Italian than the aperitivo? Florentines adore nothing more than early evenings spent with friends around big goblets of red wine or fiery-red Aperol spritz, picking at piles of olives or hot pans of pane con pomodoro flecked with garlic. Just steps away from the lively Piazza Santo Spirito, cosy, brick-walled Il Santino offers top quality wines beside fine meats and crostini bubbling with crumbled sausage and melted pecorino.
Via di Santo Spirito, 60
Arguably Florence’s hottest spot at the moment, this giant former cleaning equipment store is now the site of a cocktail bar, lauded restaurant and florist. Arched ceilings and an industrial shell give way to walls of artwork, soft lanterns, long sharing tables and hanging plants. Downstairs in the bricky cellar, jazz musicians play to guests, who lounge on velvet sofas nibbling seasonal dishes and choose from the colourful list of cocktails.
Via de’Ginori, 8
You can spend an entire afternoon milling around Florence’s humming main food market, a theatre of local produce housed inside a giant vaulted space in the San Lorenzo area. Vendors sell tumbling piles of fruit and vegetables and stacks of local cheeses in one corner, tripe and cured meats in another and fresh fish in the next. Truffles come like mounds of rubble, with sellers offering little pieces of bread rubbed with olive oil or warm truffle cream to sample. Join the crowed seating areas at the edges for fresh pasta or hearty Tuscan stews with carafes of red wine on tables covered with brown paper.
Gelato on the Bridge
There are few activities more glorious than wandering up and down Florence’s many bridges, crossing the Arno from one quarter into another as buskers fill the air with music. Wandering them with an ice cream in hand? Heavenly. Our quest for the perfect gelato ended when we discovered Gelato Santa Trinita, the Wes Anderson-pink store selling seasonal flavours like grapefruit, kiwi, pure pistachio or the bullet grey sesame that we went back for the next morning. Yes, morning.
Piazza Frescobaldi, 11
Books and Spritz
Inside this hidden library, you can choose from the shelves of beautiful books on theatre, philosophy and photography. Take a spritz into the courtyard, which is strung with ribbons and flick through Italian art magazines, or settle into the airy little restaurant opposite for light, satiating vegetarian food.
Via dei Vagellai, 18r
Piazza Life in Santo Spirito
When the sun shines or the evening arrives, Florentines head to their nearest piazza. The square is the heart of any district, and Santo Spirito has gained a reputation as the city’s most vibrant. It is laced with Panini shops, laid-back bars and traditional osterias, with young locals tangled up on the steps of the Basilica di Santo Spirito. Head there on every second Sunday of the month to peruse the flea market for antiques.