There’s something about Florence. Birthplace of the Renaissance, Dante’s hometown, font of the Italian language, and constant ranking in the top three places to visit on the Grand Tour, or better yet, the Bucket List. Florence has had it going on for centuries, and it relishes in its rep as the Cradle of Modern Culture for nurturing homegrown artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as earning the title as the fifth fashion capitol thanks to bi-annual Pitti Uomo and several pioneering tech meets fashion/luxury summits.
Maybe it’s the proud Roman in me, but for years, I’ve written off Florence as a “mausoleum” or “cute tourist town”, a necessary stop on your whirlwind Italy tour and a great place for a photo op, giving it only a bit of cred for its awesome art collection. Lately, however, I”m thinking otherwise- Florence is fabulous.
What changed my mind? Well, a little bit of handholding by local champions Georgette Jupe-Pradier, GirlInFlorence and Coral Sisk, CuriousAppetite, and here I am, celebrating the town the Medicis built because of its, here we go, 21st century incarnation.
To the visible eye, not much has changed in Florence but what is makes the city so invigorating is its community of artists, makers, creators and entrepreneurs who are putting a new perspective on a charming town. According to Jupe-Pradier, who dedicates her blog GirlInFlorence to the city’s contemporary stories and makers, there is a palpable city revival the “celebrates the past with a willingness to evolve and inspire especially in new contemporary spaces and artisans”. Is it a 21st century Renaissance? I don’t know but I’m liking the vibe.
It took me a while to learn that Florence is far more than Via Tornabuoni and the Ponte Vecchio. Jupe-Pradier’s favorite area of the city is her backyard- the Oltrarno, the river Arno’s left bank. Ever since she started her blog, she encouraged exploration of the literal “other side” and her Oltrarno love concentrates around San Frediano which she brought to the pages of Lonely Planet as one of the world’s coolest neighborhoods.
I tagged along as she made afternoon rounds, stopping in to personally talk with every shop owner and artisan in the area. Favorites include & Company a beautifully curated boutique for design lovers where you can find vintage furniture, hand-crafted stationery, Blackwing pencils and original creations by calligrapher and co-owner Betty Soldi.
Officine Nora, a working studio for a collective of jewelry makers where I picked up a handmade silver necklace by Valentina Carpini whose filigree work is divine, Il Torchio– bookbinder studio and shop filled with luscious handcrafted books, restorer Jane Harman’s eponymous boutique Jane H where she features her original wood designs , and Albrici, a decades-old antiques shop with wing devoted to vintage clothing and accessories.
Catherine de’ Medici, the woman who upgraded French cuisine by introducing Italian, in particular Florentine, recipes and the fork to France, would be proud of her native city. A collection of sturdy stalwarts, including Cibreo and the century-old Trattorio Sergio Gozzi, are stewed in Florentine tradition, as long as you can get a table. Perennially positive Jupe-Pradier loves the family Trattoria Sabatino in San Frediano, Oltrarno for its sixty-year-long dedication to serving seasonal, local dishes. .
Tradition aside, intrepid food writer and culinary guide Sisk says “the city is responding to a demand for a more dynamic food scene”. Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo ranks high on her list of Florentine eateries for its strong ethos on ingredient sourcing and traditions. And she loves modern bistrot-bar Zeb Gastronomia for its daily home made pastas and cool modern design, while her contemporary/creative dining picks are Michelin starred Ora d’Aria and Cibleo, Cibreo’s Asian-Tuscan fusion.
Personally, I love Gucci Osteria, Massimo Bottura’s fabulous collaboration at Gucci Garden. Housed in the in the Palazzo della Mercanzia, a historic palace in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, chef Karime Lopez makes magic with her own creations as well as some Osteria Francescana hits.
For a taste of Florentine luxury, Il Locale is the spot- a restaurant and bar in a Renaissance palazzo designed as a modern Medici court with decoupage walls and velvet damask, sandstone columns in sandstone, vintage design pieces and contemporary sculptures. (Note: I had great drinks but service was delayed, so I opted out of dining.)
Along with the usual suspects (we’re looking at you, David), Florence likes to keep you entertained with exhbitions and museums that traipse between traditional and unexpected. Opened in 2005, Palazzo Strozzi, a fabulous example of 15th century palazzo architecture is a dynamic cultural foundation whose exhibition line up includes blockbuster ringers like Jeff Koons, Carsten Holler, Bill Viola, Ai Wei Wei and so much more.
A blast from the past and my personal meditation is Museo di San Marco, a former Dominican convent now museum with the most extensive collection of in situ Fra Angelico frescos, and Jupe-Pradier loves the Museo del Novecento, a museum dedicated to 20th century Italian art.
Places to rest your head
Where you rest your head in Florence is just as important as what you do. Artist Betty Soldi has a triumvirate of b&b ~slash ~ hotels with Oltrarno Splendid as the latest in her line-up. Funk meets home in this historic Oltrarno palazzo.
For Renaissance-meets-modern, Four Seasons Hotel Firenze is the place. This gorgeous urban resort complex features two refurbished buildings in which you can drift off to sleep — the 15th-century Palazzo Della Gherardesca or the former 16th-century convent, the Conventino.
Center stage in Florence is Hotel Savoy, whose timeless elegance yet au courant chicness redefines the meaning of “historic.” Savoy’s enviable Piazza della Repubblica location puts in the very center of everything.
Hotel Brunelleschi captures the best of Florentine architecture in a labyrinth of Renaissance-era palaces and medieval towers. And if it’s good enough for an overnight stay for Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s prolific The Da Vinci Code protagonist, it should be an adventure.