Florence has it all: history, culture, art and food. The medieval centro storico is crammed full of imposing Romanesque palazzos, ornate churches clad in green and white marble, historic piazzas, cobbled streets, and beautiful bridges. The city’s museums house some of the most extensive Renaissance art and sculpture collections in the world.
Modern day Florence is also an important center for fashion. Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Roberto Cavalli, and Emilio Pucci all have their headquarters here. And south of the river in the more bohemian Oltrarno district artists and craftspeople are still creating beautiful objects using centuries-old techniques.
Every visitor should plan to see the Uffizi Gallery, the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio, but here are a few more suggestions for getting under the skin of this beautiful city and beating the tourist hordes. Pace yourself, though. Locals have a semi-serious belief that overdosing on art can bring on a form of madness called Stendhal syndrome. You have been warned!
San Miniato al Monte: One of the most beautiful churches in Florence (above). It is set high up on the hillside with breathtaking views over the city. Don’t miss the glittering mosaics, brightly painted wooden ceiling and stunning frescos inside.
Street Art: Guerilla artist CLET has transformed Florence’s traffic signs into humorous works of art by altering them with stickers (below). Catch his bridge-jumping Common Man statue stepping off Ponte alle Grazie before it is removed by the authorities.Boboli Gardens: These formal gardens behind Pitti Palace are a pleasant, peaceful spot for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city.
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo: Avoid the lengthy queues outside the Accademia Gallery waiting to see Michelangelo's David and head instead to the Duomo Museum to see another Michelangelo masterpiece, his Florentine Pietà.
Gucci Museo: Gucci recently opened this museum (top), dedicated to fashion and contemporary art, in Piazza della Signoria. View the brand’s extensive collection of dresses worn by Hollywood stars, monogrammed luggag,e and even a Gucci Cadillac.
Vasari Corridor: Almost 1km long, this 15th century passage lined with works of art runs from Palazzo Pitti south of the river, over the Ponte Vecchio all the way to the Uffizi Gallery. The corridor is only occasionally opened to visitors, and booking ahead is essential.
Costume Gallery: Housed in a wing of the Pitti Palace, this well stocked museum includes costumes which date back to the time of the Medicis.
Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella: One of the oldest pharmacies and perfumeries in the world (above). The sumptuous interior was originally a chapel. Eau de cologne was allegedly created here for Catherine de Medici.
Elio Ferraro: Visit this vintage gallery — don't dare call it a store! — for one off pieces by Missioni, Pucci, and Valentino and mid-centruy furniture.
Alessandro Dari: Skip the tourist traps on the Ponte Vecchio and see a a real master craftsman at work in this jewelry shop/studio.
Madova: Inside this modest looking shop is a mind-boggling selection of butter-soft gloves in every imaginable color.
Eat and Drink:
Le Volpi e l’Uva: Taste a fabulous selection of handpicked boutique Italian wines that you won’t find in the supermarkets. Delicious local cheeses, cured meats and crostini are served alongside the wine.
Caffè Giacosa: This Roberto Cavalli-owned café (above), decorated in the designer’s trademark animal prints, is a great place to grab a morning coffee and pastry or an after dinner cocktail.
Ora d'Aria: A Michelin-starred restaurant serving up a modern take on Tuscan cuisine in a stylish contemporary dining room.
Osteria San Niccolò: Enjoy traditional Tuscan food in this atmospheric restaurant, complete with underground crypt. Try the bistecca alla fiorentina, a thick cut T-bone steak, or, if you're feeling brave, one of the offal dishes — the sauces are delicious,Vivoli: A wonderful old fashioned ice cream parlor where the same family has been making gelato since 1932.
Riva Lofts: Contemporary art and 20th century design come together in this converted mill just outside the city center (above). Relax by the white sandstone pool after a busy day of sightseeing.
Continentale: The Dolce Vita-inspired decor of this Ferragmo-owned hotel somehow works perfectly inside this medieval building on the banks of the Arno (below).
Le Stanze di Santa Croce: A mid-priced B&B with fabulous jewel-colored rooms and a warm welcome from the very knowledgeable owner, who also runs cookery classes for her guests.
Have you been to Florence recently? I would love to hear your suggestions.
(Images: 1. Gucci Museo, 2. Flickr user Romain Cloff, licensed under Creative Commons, 3. Michele Sacco, used with permission, 4. Caffe Giacosa, 5. Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, 6. Riva Lofts, 7. Continentale, Lungarno Collection)