View of Florence from the Boboli Gardens (all photos by me or Mr. SMC).
Friends, I can’t quite believe it’s taken me this long to tell you about my unforgettable trip to Florence this spring. I was a little worried I was deluging you with too many tales of that fantastic trip of mine, and that if I incited any more wanderlust, you’d rise up and demand that we all take a group, SMC-led trip to Europe immediately.
Which, as I think about it, would be kind of amazing. florence travel guide
Still, I think I may very well have saved the best for last. Because for all of the amazing things I did and saw (…and ate) in Paris, it was Florence where I felt most like I found some truly hidden gems: the little jewelbox of a trattoria tucked away on an alley behind the Duomo, the secret gelateria that you’d never find again without a business card and a faded photo of you with the best cone of your life. The places that you absolutely can’t wait to get home and tell your friends about. Luckily, you’re my friends! And I can’t wait another second to share these stories with you.
Enjoying the magnifico view (and staff) at the Hotel Lungarno
I’m reminded of a line in one of my favorite movies, Easter Parade, in which a waiter tells Judy Garland and Peter Lawford, in the sneeriest voice imaginable, “Saladdd? There is only one salad!” (that link will make your day, I promise.) Where to stay? There is only one place to stay, and it’s the Hotel Lungarno. Snuggled up to the banks of the Arno, with a picture-perfect view of the Ponte Vecchio, the Lungarno is truly the best of all possible worlds. Owned by the Ferragamo family (yes, those Ferragamos), it strikes the perfect balance between old-world charm (gorgeous, traditional rooms with Italian furnishings and linens) and modern convenience (rain shower, double marble sinks, overwhelmingly generous breakfasts). And the staff…well, you know I’m a sucker for an amazing staff, but there’s just nothing like Italian hospitality. I still miss some of the concierge team. (Ciao, amici!)
The Lungarno is tucked away on the “quiet” side of the Arno River – a 5-minute walk from the Accademia and maybe 10 from the Duomo – making it both incredibly convenient and a nice escape from the noise and the hordes of tourists. Plus, it’s Florence, so that 10-minute stroll to the Piazza della Repubblica involves at least 2 gelato stops along the way (yes, I measure all walks in Italy by the number of gelaterias I’ll visit en route). Not a bad way to travel, in my book.
Hungry? Clockwise from top left: Spaghetteria Ir Tegame | Il Palagio | Gelateria Rinascimento | Eataly
Oh, friends. Shopping may have been my cardio in Paris, but I can tell you unequivocally that eating was my cardio in Florence. Which is, frankly, exactly as it should be. I ate so very, very well, and (for the most part) so very, very cheaply. That’s the beauty of Italy: Come for the museums, stay for the food. That said, things have gotten more crowded in Florence, so the days of wandering in to a trattoria off the street are gone. Make a reservation, or you’ll end up eating gelato for dinner on a Saturday night (granted, there are worse things). Specifically, you should be making reservations here:
- Spaghetteria Ir Tegame: This was a hot tip from my friend in PR who lives in Florence. She mentioned that this place was new but unusual, locals only, and said something about a pasta tasting menu…at which point, violins started playing in my head. I immediately made a reservation. Friends, unusual doesn’t even begin to cover it. Every square inch of the restaurant is draped with vines, flowers, birds, squirrels, life-size wooden soldiers. I’m told they change the decor often, but I can promise you it’s an experience. As is the 4-course pasta tasting. Every pasta is made in-house, of course – and brace yourself for very full bellies. Tagliolini with truffles, the most incredible spaghetti with a fresh tomato and orange sauce, and a ravioli of pecorino and caramelized pear that I can still taste if I close my eyes. Best of all, the entire tasting menu (which included an appetizer, salad and dessert) was 18 euros. It was pure magic, and worth every last calorie. Absolutely unmissable.
- Nerbone: All I’ll say here is that my friend Lynne was right – the bollito sandwich is fantastic, as is the entire experience of ordering at this wonderful little stall in the Mercato. But she didn’t mention that they also have the best pasta Bolognese I had on the entire trip – don’t miss it!
- Gelato: There’s nearly no such thing as bad gelato in Italy. But as with all things, some are more divine than others. I went entirely on recommendations from others, and found a trio worthy of sharing. For traditional flavors, my favorite spot was Gelateria Rinascimento in Piazza Santa Trinita, just across from the Ferragamo flagship store (more on that later). Try the amarena and the creme caramel. For something a little unexpected, cross the Ponte Santa Trinita for the blueberry cake gelato at Gelateria Santa Trinita, which was so good, I went back every single day to see if they had it again (they never did). And for truly unusual flavors, Carapina is hidden away in an alley behind the exit of the Uffizi, but well worth seeking out. Their vin santo gelato was unforgettable, and the pistachio…oh my lord. The Parmesan was also extraordinary, especially when paired with Pear.
- Gusta Pizza: The opposite of fancy, Gusta Pizza looks like a place you’d frequent as a college student, and with good reason – the pizzas start at 5 euros. But every single Florentine I mentioned this place to nodded knowingly right away. And when we showed up at 4:45 pm on our first day in Florence, wanting to eat and go to bed immediately thereafter (ah, jetlag), there was already a line down the block. I’m telling you, they’re making magic there. The pizza comes to you blisteringly hot, the light, acidic San Marzano tomato sauce and the fresh mozz somehow marry into this liquid pool of creamy deliciousness, capped off with a drizzle of olive oil and a single basil leaf, and suddenly, you wonder what it is you’ve been eating all your life, because this is pizza as God intended it. (For the record, not all pizza in Florence is this transcendent, but I will say that the pies they’re churning out at Eataly were a very, very close second to Gusta. I’d recommend trying both, but if one were forced to choose, it’s nice to know you have an option on either side of the river.)
- Il Palagio: Oh, have I saved the best for last. I’ll start by saying that I don’t make a habit of eating high-end fare in Italy. I’m generally so blissfully happy in my cozy little neighborhood trattorias, I don’t see the point of straying. But the Four Seasons Firenze invited me to visit while I was in town, and friends…I am sitting here, racking my brain to make sure what I’m about to say is true, because…best meal of my life. Truly. Imagine every succulent, extravagant dish you’ve ever wanted to try, then add an overwhelmingly beautiful setting and hospitality so warm and generous, it would put your grandmother to shame (which is divine, but also…I ate until I thought my stomach might burst, because everyone was so kind and so wonderful, I was terrified of insulting anyone by leaving a plate half-finished). Sea bass carpaccio, house-made linguine with prawns so tender, I think they may have volunteered for the pleasure of being served, roasted Iberian suckling pig, and…a chocolate cart, in which they chisel chunks of milk and dark chocolates from torso-sized bricks of Domori chocolate (which you’ll want to take home, and can find at Eataly). And absolutely flawless wine pairings with every course. But beyond all of that, there was such a warm, welcoming spirit in this restaurant, it took away any hint of stuffiness or formality that you’d expect from a meal of this caliber. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you’re in Florence, go!
Me and my new BFF at Francesco da Firenze!
Friends, I’m going to blow your mind here, and not suggest much in the way of shopping. In all honesty, that was the one thing that I really didn’t love doing in Florence. The city has become so exhaustingly overrun with tourists that it’s also become overrun with stores selling cheap or wildly overpriced leather goods and knockoffs of well-known designs (seriously, if I saw one more fake Birkin…). I spent more time than I care to admit searching for that diamond-in-the-rough artisan who was making beautiful bags in some tiny little atelier, caring about what he did, and not just trying to take tourists for a ride. Spoiler alert: he’s not there.
But. One of my happiest discoveries of the entire trip was another Lynne find. She had mentioned getting sandals custom made by Francesco da Firenze. Tell a shoe-loving girl she can have a custom pair, and watch how quickly she beelines for the store. And here, all along, was that artisan I’d been looking for. You walk into the store, and things look a little haphazard – every available surface is covered with shoes. Mostly sandals, but clogs and boots as well. Very little English is spoken, meaning you spend a lot of time with Google Translate, or pantomiming (my communication method of choice). I spent most of my time with Mrs. Francesco and her son, who evaluated my foot, argued about what would look best on me, measured a few styles, then let me place my order. I came back the next day (really!), and they were waiting for me. I’ll tell you, friends – there is just nothing as satisfying in the entire world of retail. Except possibly wearing them back home, because when people (inevitably) compliment them, you get to say, “Oh, these? They were custom-made for me in Florence.”
Once you’ve ordered your shoes, there are only three other shopping stops to make.
- Intimissimi is an Italian lingerie chain that makes the most lovely pieces, and is utterly unattainable in the US – I always try to stock up.
- Massimo Dutti was a new discovery on this trip (and they’ve just launched e-commerce!). They’re actually based in Spain, but they’re a bit like the Italian J.Crew (they’re owned by Zara, and it shows). Striped shirts, quilted jackets, leather coats, easy dresses – effortless pieces you’ll wear to death.
- Last, go to Eataly, where you’ll buy all of your souvenirs. I stocked up on violet pastilles, Domori chocolate, pistachio paste (trust me), rabbit ragu, duck rillettes…it’s foodie heaven.
Clockwise from top left: Gorgeousness at the Museo Ferragamo | Florentine florist | Aperol Spritz at sunset
You most certainly don’t need me to tell you to visit the Duomo (but opt for the climb to the top of the bell tower next door instead of the dome – equally amazing view and the opportunity to take better photos of the Duomo), the Accademia, the Uffizi or the Ponte Vecchio. I’m sure you’ll have a guidebook to tell you all of that. But I did come across a few unexpected thrills.
- Museo Ferragamo: Quite literally a hidden gem, this gorgeous ode to all things Ferragamo is neatly tucked away in the basement of their flagship store on Piazza Santa Trinita. One of only three medieval buildings still standing in Florence (built in 1289!), the Ferragamo headquarters is a sight just for the architecture. Head downstairs first for a visit to the Museo Ferragamo, where you’ll learn more than you ever imagined about one of the most remarkable craftsmen in the world (plus shoes belonging to the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and so, so much more). After you’re steeped in sartorial history, head upstairs for a little souvenir hunt through the rooms (and rooms, and rooms, and…) of shoes, scarves and ready-to-wear, including pieces you can only find at the flagship store. It’s a feast.
- Museo Galileo: After you’ve subjected your significant other to a shoe museum, make it up to him at this gadget-filled science mecca, packed with instruments, experiments, early telescopes and gyroscopes, maps, globes, and all other manner of things I didn’t really understand but which made Mr. SMC’s eyes light up. He even insisted on buying (and lugging home) a museum catalog. Boy heaven, I tell you.
- Boboli Gardens: The grounds accompanying the Medicis’ Pitti Palace, this has always been one of my favorite spots in Florence. The guidebook will tell you to go, but they won’t tell you that you can skip the Palace (for my money, I prefer the Palazzo Vecchio) and spend more time in the gardens, which are extraordinary. Your hike to the top will be rewarded with the most picture-perfect view of Florence you’ve ever seen.
- People-watching: Yes, this is an official “to-do”. Florence is one of my all-time favorite cities for people-watching. Find a coffee shop in the center of a piazza (my favorites are della Signorina and della Repubblica), grab a gelato and sit on a bridge, wander down every tiny alley you see until your feet give out. In other words, just relax and enjoy the fact that you’re surrounded by some of the most beautiful architecture and the most vibrant, colorful people in all of Europe. Soak in every morsel.
What do you say, friends…shall we grab our passports and head back immediately? I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to pack.