Three reasons you’ll fall for Tuscany’s capital.
Colpo di fulmine is what Italians call love at first sight and translated it means a ground-shaking thunderbolt. It’s hard not to feel that bolt when you set foot in Florence, partly because of the sheer beauty of the city, with its tangle of parks and piazzas, and partly because it fuses the past with the present.
Even as Florence embraces renewal, the metropolis holds steadfast to the ideals that helped lead Europe out of the Middle Ages during the Renaissance long ago, including a commitment to the arts. Is it any wonder that Tuscany’s capital fascinates travelers, who come for a glimpse only to find themselves falling hard? Read on to get the lay of the land and discover three sides of the storied city.
Lay of the Land
Long considered the cradle of the Renaissance, Florence believes itself to be the heart of Italy. Geographically, it lies about halfway between Venice and Rome, in the region of Tuscany. Reachable by North American air carriers via connections through Rome, Milan, and other European cities, Florence is also a major hub for railway transport. While exploring Tuscany requires a car, for Florence, one needs only a great pair of walking shoes, as the main attractions lie within about two square miles.
Building on the site of an Etruscan settlement turned Roman military colony, the Medicis (a political dynasty that once ruled Florence) created a graceful city of piazzas, palaces, and promenades. Today’s urban layout is almost identical to that of Florence’s 16th-century heyday. The Centro Storico, or historic center, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and straddles both sides of the Arno River in a gorgeous knot of medieval- and Renaissance-era streets that subdivide into niche neighborhoods. These tiny districts are often anchored by the piazzas they’re named after and are usually within a 5-to-10-minute walk of one another, so wandering around the city feels like a kind of historical-piazza hopscotch.
Most of the Centro Storico lies north of the Arno River. But if you cross the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone bridge spanning the waterway, you’ll enter the residential neighborhood of Oltrarno, which has been home to Florence’s artisans since the early Renaissance. Explore Oltrarno’s Piazza di Santo Spirito or Via Maggio to view the newest generation of Florentine craftspeople, from traditional goldsmiths and jewelry makers to clothing designers and street artists.
There are not enough days in the year to enjoy each of the cultural sites of Florence, which span all corners of the city and range from Renaissance masterpieces and Roman antiquities to contemporary art, fashion, and design. Begin north of the Arno and work your way south, starting on the narrow Via Ricasoli, where the Galleria dell’Accademia houses Michelangelo’s David along with a small collection of his unfinished sculptures, as well as works by other Renaissance artists.
About a five-minute walk away lies the emblem of Florence: the Piazza del Duomo. Its centerpiece is the encrusted marble Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo because of its famous dome by master architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Once you’ve seen your fill, head to the Palazzo Strozzi , a few blocks southwest, for a different perspective on the city’s artistic legacy. The museum hosts blockbuster temporary exhibitions highlighting everything from the art of the ancient world to works by today’s superstar artists, such as Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović and Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei.
Follow the sightseeing crowds to the L-shaped Piazza della Signoria, the political center of the city and an open-air museum. Here you’ll find an exact replica of Michelangelo’s Davidin front of the Palazzo Vecchio , a 700-year-old fortress that today serves as Florence’s city hall and mayor’s office in addition to being a museum open to visitors. The standout room of the Palazzo Vecchio is the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred), a monumental meeting space with larger-than-life frescoes by Renaissance painter Giorgio Vasari. Immediately adjacent to the building is the Loggia dei Lanzi, an arcaded open-air gallery showcasing Renaissance sculpture.
Nearby is the Gallerie degli Uffizi a lavishly decorated multilevel building designed by Giorgio Vasari as the offices of the Medici family. Known fondly as the Uffizi, it holds one of the world’s greatest collections of Italian Renaissance art yet still manages to constantly upgrade its offerings by establishing new rooms to appreciate the greats, such as Raphael, or by hosting epic exhibitions, such as the one last year commemorating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death.
Yet despite the many wonders these museums hold, Florence’s greatest work of art might be its landscape, and to fully appreciate it, you have only to cross the Arno. South of the river lies the Giardino di Boboli, a park that was once the Medicis’ playground, and the Giardino Bardini, a tiered garden in the Oltrarno. In the latter, Michelin-starred restaurant La Leggenda dei Frati, looks out on the lush grounds.
In Florence, the cuisine is subtle and elegant, and simple dishes are proudly made with mostly local ingredients. Its hard to eat poorly and easy to find great food in the centro storico. Here are a few highlights.
Buca dell’Orafo, by Ponte Vecchio, is a beloved basement wine cellar-cum-restaurant with local dishes like ribollita , panzanella and maltagliati. Antinori wine lovers will love Cantinetta Antinori in the family’s historic palazzo.
Florentine elegance is epitomized at the Piazza della Repubblica, the city’s center in the time of ancient Rome. Most elegant today is Caffè Gilli, the oldest café in the city and a great people watching spot, while across the piazza is Gucci Osteria, stellar chef Massimo Bottura’s designer outpost helmed by acolyte chef Karima Lopez.
Piazzas Santa Croce and Sant’Ambrogio—re foodie musts. Both are residential areas with squares flanked by a parish church and streets lined with butcher shops, bakeries, electricians, hair salons, and the like. Here you can expect quiet mornings, post-school chaos, and early evenings filled with dog walkers—as well as some of the best food in town.
Sant Ambrogio is the kinddom of famed chef and restauranteur Fabio Picchi, who passed in 2022. Picchi was a culinary emperor, combining Florence’s innate spirit of innovation with a passion for food and property. His first foray, Cibrèo Ristorante was the pioneer of Tuscany’s foodie destinations, a formal ‘white table’ cloth restaurant, Cibreo is known for elevating Tuscan cuisine.
Keeping it casual is Cibrèo Trattoria, a no reservations rustic trattoria with a menu based off of Cibreo’s hits, and changing daily. Cibrèo Caffè is a local favorite for a coffee and light fare, while Ciblèo is Picchi’s whimsical Tuscan-Asian fusion where Italian ingredients and recipes mix up with Korean, Chinese, and Japanese dishes.
In the Santa Croce neighborhood, Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo prepares heritage dishes that are made from hard-to-find and often foraged regional ingredients and are therefore on the verge of extinction.
Oltraarno fave is Trattoria Sabatino. Its yesteryear vibe – menus typed daily, 1950s decor- and heirloom Florentine recipes such as minestrone di fagioli e riso (rice and bean soup) or trippa alla fiorentina (tripe, a dish made with cow stomach, is an Italian specialty) at affordable prices – cannot be beat.
For bistecca alla fiorentina, a must for ominvore foodies, the rustic Antico Ristoro di Cambi does not disappoint. Note to self: always ask about the sides.
[For more restaurants, Coral Sisk of Curious Appetite pens a great list for Eater.]
Florence is as much about shopping and people-watching as it is about sightseeing. Since the 14th century, the Via de’ Tornabuoni has been a runway for beautiful palaces and people. From the Piazza degli Antinori to the Ponte Santa Trinità, you’ll find the designer labels that everyone loves: Gucci, Pucci and Prada. Elegant and wide, this is the most pleasant window-shopping experience in Italy. Make sure to visit Palazzo Spini Feroni, home to Ferragamo where you’ll find Museo Ferragamo, a century of shomaking history and cutting edge contemporary exhibitions.
A must-visit is Gucci Garden, the fashion house’s concept store/fantasy world in the 14th-century Palazzo della Mercanzia. Conceived by former creative director Alessandro Michele, Gucci Garden is boutique (the only place where you can find Gucci Garden branded products), bookstore, restaurant and museum.
Time stops at Richard Ginori, the nearly 300-year-old porcelain manufacture whose flagship store in the ground floor of exquisite palace equally beautiful vaulted and frescoed ceilings. Another period piece is Aquaflor the custom perfumeur whose location is vintage Florence.For more contemporary artisan finds, Florence Factory is a showroom of artisan pieces made by the city’s resident talent.
Speaking of vintage, Recollection -Albrici on via Serragli in the Oltrarno has the city’s best collection of impeccably preserved or restored designer dresses, shoes and handbags from the 1930s to the late 1980s.
Leather lovers traditionally, peruse Piazza San Lorenzo whose vibrant market, Mercato di San Lorenzo, is best known for its leather goods. But Florence has a limitless listing of leather shops. For new creations and gorgeous handbags, head to Bottega Giotti, in Piazza Ognisanti. For his and hers jackets, visit Anna by Palazzo Pitti. And if you are looking for a gift that says la dolce vita in leather, check out Cuoiofficine, whose finely crafted leather purses and wallets combine 17th-century marbling patterns and contemporary leather-tattooing techniques to create designs that are reminiscent of centuries past.
This article first appeared as a feature in Endless Vacation, Summer 2019. Updatead 2023