Photo by Olga Makarova
My love affair with Florence is long. I first visited Tuscany at age 15 and was immediately mesmerised by Florence’s beauty, its graceful buildings and open piazze which are museum-like, filled with elegant statues and bordered by cafes with locals lounging alfesco sipping cappuccini well into the late morning sunshine. There is a unique spirit the city holds, a certain ‘dolce vita’ that washes over you and there, just like that, you’re hooked. Years on, my passion for the city remains ignited.
During the city’s Renaissance heyday, Florence was divided into four quartiere – Santa Croce, Santo Spirito, Santa Maria Novella and San Giovanni – which still make up the four teams for the annual Calcio Storico (historic soccer) matches played each June. These central neighbourhoods still retain a village-like charm, all of which are worth exploring.
Arguably the centre of Florence with many shopping, dining and wine spots within the city’s three main squares: Piazza della Signoria, Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza del Duomo. The latter houses the city’s most famous landmark, the must-see Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore. Its impressive dome, lined with terracotta tiles, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 15th century, is a beacon for the city.
This truffle haven has been in situ on elegant Via de’ Tornabuoni since 1885 and continues to retain its 19th-century salon feel. Founded by Leopoldo Procacci, a passionate truffle connoisseur, the space was recently refurbished yet retains the original layout with L-shaped bar and wood-panelled walls filled with shelves of truffle products infused in butter, salt, olive oil and jams. Choose from finger sandwiches layered in truffle cream, anchovies and truffle butter or truffle with foie gras. Procacci also has a gourmet shop should you be so enamoured by the truffle items that you wish to take them home.
Across the road, Cantinetta Antinori is tucked within the ground floor of a grand city palace, owned by one of the oldest noble families in Florence – Antinori – who have been winemakers in Tuscany since 1385. In this cosy restaurant, dishes are cooked to traditional recipes as the kitchen follows the rhythm and seasons of Tuscany, offering fresh pastas and game, while in truffle season, buttery pasta with shavings of this prized root is to be savoured. Cantinetta Antinori offers an old-world dining experience with attentive service in true Italian fashion.
A Narnia-inspired wonderland of new and vintage fashion for men and women, jewellery and homewares with tantalising Italian clothing including vintage Roberta di Camerino and Emilio Pucci, French houses of Chanel, Dior, Hermes and YSL and emerging fashion designers sourced by owners Irene Zarrilli and Matteo Querini on their travels throughout Europe. The boutique also includes their own labels: feminine flair with dresses by label Odette, while Vigliano focuses on men’s cotton and linen shirts and wool jackets inspired by life at Matteo’s Tuscan country retreat.
Author of Lost in Florence, Nardia Plumridge
Santa Maria Novella
To the Duomo’s west, the Piazza of Santa Maria Novella is lined with elegant hotels and eateries offering alfresco dining, their seats looking towards the marble facade of the church. Streets like Via del Moro and Via dei Fossi shine and are ideal for window-shopping antiques and fashion or finding a classic Tuscan trattoria to indulge in local fare.
Tucked into the ground floor of a 14th-century pile, Sei Divino is run by a young and enthusiastic sommelier, Neri Vignozzi, offering quality wines with over 200 labels and 100 styles to taste by the glass. Proudly sharing its passion for Tuscan wine and food produce, its food menu changes daily, offering dishes it calls Aperigourmet. Quality is key with cheeses and cold cuts sourced from local Tuscan farms while Neri pairs all plates to a wine and will even customise a tasting just for you.
A handwritten menu, a limited number of seats and regular clientele offer a glimpse into Sostanza’s charm, a cosy trattoria near the river Arno. Typically Tuscan in the truest sense with pastas, antipasti and mains changing daily, while its famed sizzling butter chicken is available all year round. When in season try the fluffy egg omelette with artichokes.
Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
Florence’s famous perfume house was originally a monastery where monks created tinctures for health, and remains an elegant atelier dedicated to apothecary with over 400 years of history. Under the grandeur of the Great Sales Hall, with frescoes painted by Paolino Sarti, you can try before you buy, from hand cream to perfumes, including its namesake originally commissioned by Caterina de’ Medici. Make sure to visit its ancient Antica Spezieria, the old shop dating from 1612.
Its streets are crowded with leather stores, a hark back to the neighbourhood’s original guise, and today Santa Croce remains popular with travellers who venture to its crown jewel, the 13th-century Basilica di Santa Croce in its main piazza housing the tombs of Florence glitterati, including Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli.
A tranquil oasis in the heart of old Florence, Liberia Brac fuses cafe, restaurant and bookshop – its modern style is the antitheses of the aging yellow sandstone in the streets outside. The front bar is bright with walls clad with Polaroid-style pictures of the vegetarian dishes on offer. The inner courtyard is overtaken by an installation of draped mesh fabric floating above head level, armchairs and hidden nooks to nest while reading one of the magazines scattered on tables to enjoy with your coffee or wine of choice.
Arà: è SUD
What started as a hole-in-the-wall snack stop near the Galleria dell’Accademia has evolved to a full restaurant led by Chef Carmelo Pannocchietti, a Sicilian native. The menu is a nod to the region’s food heritage with classic dishes like pasta alla Norma in all its intense tomato-and-eggplant-sauce glory (topped with grated salty hard ricotta) using handmade techniques and a regional flour. For dolce, cannoli is done correctly – freshly piped to order with ricotta cream then dressed with finely chopped almonds and pistachios.
Dedicated to stylish products by Tuscan or Italian designers and contemporary artisans of fashion, accessories and ceramics, this concept shop showcases emerging talent that represents ‘new’ Florence. This store is filled with lust-worthy items, many created within nearby workshops. Thirty local designers specialising in handmade crafts are featured, with the buying team focused on authentic regional products. As many pieces are limited, there is no mass production on sale, rather ideal take-home pieces uniquely made in Italy.
With its bohemian feel, Santo Spirito is a lively neighbourhood popular with students and locals alike who congregate on the church steps and in the piazza, drinking wine and eating pizza as the sun sets on another glorious Florence day. Its cultural stops include Palazzo Pitti where a day can easily be lost within its many ornate rooms, and its luscious greenery, Boboli Gardens.
Pitti Gola e Cantina
Wine and Florence go hand in hand and the team here serves up some of the best bottles in the city. This boutique wine bar housed in an old bookstore is incredibly intimate with just five tables tucked beside former bookshelves that display a fine collection of wine labels from Tuscany and Piedmont. The team focus on small, independent Italian wine producers with sommelier Edoardo, along with brother Zeno and business partner Manuele, on hand to share their expertise.
Down the road, the Pitti Gola team has recently expanded with a restaurant specialising in bistecca. In the kitchen, Chef Nicola Chiappi creates a menu laced with seasonal local ingredients and four types of bistecca, from a house special to Chianina breed. Starters include creamy cheese zucchini flan, or paté aficionados will devour the local specialty of fegatini (chicken liver) glazed with a sweet Vin Santo wine. The team will happily perfect a pairing to suit your food from their hefty Wine Wall featuring Italian labels from small batches made by boutique wine producers.
Tiziana’s stylish pieces are unsurpassed – from 1950s Audrey Hepburn-inspired dresses to 70’s style wide-legged trousers – all hand-sewn onsite in her Oltrarno bottega in a side street by Palazzo Pitti. A Sicilian transplanted to Florence, Tiziana’s southern warmth is as inviting as her designs, all made with sumptuous textiles rich in the feel of true Italian quality. Inspiration from her home-island – its azure blue seas, bright sun hues and Baroque architectural styles – adds a classic feel to her contemporary pieces. Ready-to-wear items can be bought off the rack while bespoke tailoring is Tiziana’s specialty.
Lost in Florence: An insider’s guide to the best places to eat, drink and explore by Nardia Plumridge (Hardie Grant, £15) www.lostinflorence.it