Heading to the Heel
A stop in Florence
On our way to Puglia, the heel of the boot in Italy, we decided to spend a few days in Florence. We hadn’t been in a number of years, and we wanted a little contrast of city and eating and drinking prior to the trip. (We were anticipating serenity in Puglia’s seaside historic towns and beautiful Adriatic water. Serenity is tough for us sometimes; we have to wear ourselves down enough to earn it.)
It’s not convenient to get to Florence and then Puglia (especially transferring through Charles de Gaulle, the airport that doesn’t believe in moving people through with any level of efficiency…Ahhh, the French).
After dealing with the French, we rolled into to Florence’s tiny airport. The drive to our hotel near Ponte Vecchio gave us an initial taste. Florence is as we remembered it. It’s an extremely walkable city, but there are people literally everywhere, making the drive through the streets like a video game in slow motion. If you’re planning to drive into the city, don’t. On our last trip, we had to return a rental car into Florence. Have you ever seen Chevy Chase’s European Vacation? Driving around Big Ben 7000 times? That’s trying to get around Florence. You can see it, but you can’t get to it.
The city is dripping with Italian warmth, gelato, ice-cold sparkling wine at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and friendliness. Although it is very touristy, you can still find many small streets and squares tucked away from the masses. The Ponte Vecchio, however, is not one of them. Walk over the bridge, if you must, as early in the morning as you can. Then walk to the next bridge the Ponte Santa Trinita, look back at the Ponte Vecchio, and be glad you’re not on it.
For hotels, the Lungarno group commands the best location in center city with:
- The Gallery Art: Street patio lounge on a quieter, charming street just a block away from madness.
- The Continentale: An incredible rooftop bar. Check it out, even if you don’t stay there, and watch the sunset over the Arno (if you stretch a little over the edge). And, as we always advise, get to know your bartender. Ours had been Instagramming (is that a verb? Probably should be) with a bartender from Chicago (of course we know the bar) and was excited to learn from our self-proclaimed expertise in bars and drinks.
- Portrait Firenze. Right on the Arno (charming, even dirty) with views of Ponte Vecchio.
Not the most economical of choices, but for a few nights, La Dolce Vita.
(from the bar at Continentale)
The JK Place on Santa Maria Novella (thankfully, a newly renovated square from its former rundown self) is also a great choice near the train station. And it’s all close to the Arno and major highlights. There’s a little shopping street ,Via della Scala, right off Santa Maria Novella with cool little local shops with more unique treasures than all the big dog stores surrounding it.
After dumping our bags the first stop was as it always is: Santo Spirito for lunch. It’s on one of the aforementioned squares with church steps and outdoor cafes with people gather for lunch and dinner. The Santo Spirito church is still waiting for its Renaissance facade, and looks like someone stole the front. (This is our technical architectural expertise coming through.)
We beelined for Osteria Santo Spirito with the the most heart-stopping gnocchi you can imagine. Always sit outside when you can. Even in the rain, the umbrellas are great at even the smallest neighborhood places.
We walked off our gnocchi, and bottle of ice-cold Prosecco, through the gardens of the Palace and up to Forte di Belvedere to get the best view of the Florence rooftops and Duomo. (Side note: We always start with Prosecco, then work our way up to Franciacorta. It’s also Italian, but with more bubbles and attitude.)
Then, siesta time. Naps are good. You always learn on your first Italian visit that anything actually open from 2:00 – 5:00 p.m. (14:00 – 17:00) is too touristy to take.
Restaurants. Oh, the restaurants. There’s a lot of mediocrity, but even mediocrity in Italy can be good. In our humble opinion, Yelp can be a real buzzkill. Food is subjective, experiences are personal. Concierges can be helpful if you ask for the non-touristy, quality, simple places. Bartenders are better sources of info, always. You can always find a Michelin star, but the real challenge (and reward) is small, quality, neighborhood spots.
A few restaurant spots to try include either the more famous bistecca places (Buca Lapi and Boccanegra), or a smaller recommendation that serves the famous Florentine steak. Bistecca is the largest, rarest piece of steak you can find. It’s obscene gluttony at its finest, and worth it at least once. You could feed a family of five with it and have leftovers, yet yes, you often find in front of just a lowly one or two people. If you’re tempted to ask for it medium or (god forbid) well-done, their reaction would better if you ran away with their spouse. Or try the more modern trattorias like Lungarno Bistrot, Angiolino, or Il Santo Bevitore.
A few comments about the restaurants in general. As a general statement, Europeans have not learned the importance of the right lighting in restaurant design (there are many exceptions, and it is getting better). The lights hit the wrong spots, and are almost always the wrong temperature. The restaurants who have mastered the art of dim lighting of usually filled with tourists lighting the menu with their iPhones (maybe Italian is easy to translate if it’s lit by your smartphone?)
There is museum after museum, and church after church, so pick your poison. You don’t need a tour or tour bus to see them, just get some tips from your concierge or the web, and head out on foot. Seriously, the most easily walkable city.
The Duomo (and its bapistry and campanile) is a must see, and take the time and effort to climb to the top of the inner ring of the dome and see Dante’s Inferno first-hand and close up. It’s mind boggling. Actually absorb that it’s the largest brick dome ever constructed and it was built from the 1200’s to the 1400’s. If there is one historic sight not to miss, it’s this one.
The other must is Mercato Centrale, the market in center city near San Lorenzo (another great church stop). The market’s first floor is the traditional shops from meat markets with tripe, to fresh fruits, veggies and limencello. It’s one of the best markets to just wander. People line up at 10:00 a.m. for tripe sandwiches. I’m all for sparkling wine in the morning, but a cow-stomach sandwich is a little harder to push down.
The second floor is fairly new, and a great market to eat whatever you’re in the mood for, from pasta to pizza to cheese to truffles, with a center beer hall. The graphics, the furniture, everything is just cool. It’s a good modern contrast to the original first floor.
The gelato. This is the mothership. Try Vivoli or dei Neri near San Croce. Is all gelato the same? Well, feel free to give it a try to find out. You can find a gelato shop every three meters (you’re in Europe, it’s meters). Sort of like Starbucks in NYC. Or crepes in Paris.
Off to Brindisi, through Rome. Remember not to have more than 8 kilos in your carry on. Arreviderci Florence, for now.