Text and photos by Tom Merchant
Florence is a city filled with Renaissance art and architectural treasures. My wife and I spent a blissful few days there last week, enjoying the art, browsing the shops, discovering small cafes and tucked-away restaurants and strolling in public gardens away from the crowds.
Here’s what we discovered, with a few comments on making the most of your time here when you visit. Which you must, if only once.
Florence is a compact city, so take comfortable shoes and be prepared to walk everywhere. A car or public transport are only needed if you venture out of the centre.
We travelled to Florence by train from Rome, an efficient, quick and inexpensive option. The main station is Santa Maria Novella, or SMN as everyone calls it, close to the centre of town.
A good trick is to decide which attractions you plan to visit and book in advance. That way you get timed entrance tickets and avoid long queues at ticket desks. We were surprised by the number of tourists, even this early in the season.
We had booked tickets for the Uffizi Gallery on our first morning, at 9am sharp. The Uffizi has the best collection of Renaissance art in the world with over 5,000 works including pieces by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, Raphael and Parmigianino.
After an hour or two of taking in all this amazing art, we found the rooftop café. It serves the best hot chocolate ever, enjoyed with a view dominated by the imposing Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall since medieval times.
After recharging ourselves for more art viewing, we stayed another two hours. By then we were suffering from art-overload rather than running out of things to see.
The is a panoramic view of the river from the gallery including the nearby Ponte Vecchio.
The iconic 14th century Ponte Vecchio has shops along both sides, originally fishmongers and butchers. By the end of the 16th century they were deemed too noisy and smelly and replaced by gold and silver smiths, whose descendants are still there today. It was the only bridge in the city not destroyed by the retreating Germans towards the end of WWII, apparently thanks to the intervention of the local German consul.
There is a brilliant array of shops in Florence including many independent shops you’ll find nowhere else; leathermakers, jewellers, designer boutiques and ancient perfumeries. We came across a paper shop with a team of bookbinders working away while we browsed beautiful stationery and leather-bound journals.
The most memorable shop was the Perfumery and herbal pharmacy which backs onto the churchyard at Santa Maria Novella. It really is an antica farmacia, with its origins dating back to Dominican friars in the 1220s. The shop occupies a beautiful 13th century frescoed chapel, with marble floors and stunning chandeliers. The aroma of potpourri and what is claimed to be the world’s best soap is all-pervading.
The usual upmarket chains in the centro storico looked rather tame by comparison.
Shopping for food is a great experience too. There are old-style grocers and delicatessens and of course gelato to be bought in all flavours and colours on almost every street. You can buy delicious pizza in family owned grocers whole or by the slice for a quick snack.
We visited the Franciscan basilica of Sante Croce for the first time. The original building dates from 1212 when St Francis of Assisi visited Florence. Seven centuries of history lie within its impressive Gothic structure: frescoes by Giotto, works of art by Donatello, Brunelleschi and Vasari and the tombs of illustrious Italians, including Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini and Michelangelo.
We had a long walk in the Giardino di Boboli, a vast green space occupying the slopes above the Palazzo Pitti. There are beautiful fountains, grottoes and statues at every turn and views of the city and surrounding hills.
The climb to the top of the garden is rewarded by a porcelain museum and views of the storybook Tuscan countryside.
Below the gardens, in the artisan quarter, lies the baroque church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Its simple, undecorated exterior hides a big surprise inside: one of Florence’s greatest art treasures, the 15th century frescoes by Masaccio and Masolino. Entry is by timed ticket, but once you’re in, you can go right up to this amazing piece of art, tucked into a side chapel. You could reach out and touch it, but nobody does.
We had excellent recommendations on eating out from the hotel’s night manager. We wanted to go where the locals go and were lucky to get a table at Il Latini. It looked like nothing much from the street, but opened up, Tardus-like, with room after room full of locals and a few tourists enjoying great food. They serve wine only by the bottle, but if you don’t finish it, they will estimate what you’ve had and only charge you for that. Great idea, although we didn’t ask what they do with the remainders!
Another charming eatery was Za Za near SMN. Excellent food and fast, friendly service despite being almost full. The central market is in the same piazza, with a huge array of food outlets on the first floor in the evenings after the market itself closes. You can put together your meal, desserts and drinks from a wide choice of vendors. There also a cookery school where you can learn the art of making fresh pasta and, of course, eating it afterwards.
Walking back after dinner was the perfect time to see the architecture of Florence with fewer people around.
We had a wonderful time in Florence and we’ll be sure to visit again, without any need to trouble the boar.