Beneath the city’s Renaissance façade beats a modern heart
IT’S A LIVING GALLERY OF GLORIOUS RENAISSANCE AND BAROQUE ART AND ARCHITECTURE – BUT DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THIS ELEGANT TUSCAN CITY’S CONTEMPORARY APPEAL, WRITES LEE MARSHALL.
Florence was a fixture on the Grand Tour, the aristocratic 18th-century predecessor to today’s gap-year backpacking trip. Then, as now, visitors came to marvel at Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome and the marble musculature of Michelangelo’s
David. But the Tuscan capital is no dusty museum. The heart of a modern metropolis beats beneath the ancient fabric. It’s a city that caters to lovers of food and wine; a place of design emporiums and quirky craft shops, with a fashion scene that in Italy is second only to Milan’s.
Begin the day in one of the city’s great neighbourhood cafés, Antica Pasticceria Sieni (pasticceriasieni.it), which has been operating since 1909. Try a deliciously more-ish sfoglia alla crema di riso (a puff pastry case filled with a rice-based custard). Next, head to Mercato Centrale (mercato centrale.it/en), Florence’s main covered produce market in nearby San Lorenzo. The surrounding streets are filled with vendors selling clothing, leather goods, souvenirs, jewellery and trinkets. Inside, tripe butchers and vegetable stalls sit with delis offering dozens of extra-virgin olive oils. Upstairs is a food hall with shared seating that’s open from 10am to midnight. It sells gourmet street food, usually sourced from the producers on the floor below.
Time to feast your eyes on the work of two Renaissance masters. The austere New Sacristy (bargellomusei.beniculturali.it) of Basilica di San Lorenzo houses the tombs of Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, along with some of Michelangelo’s most haunting and expressive sculptures. Nearby, a side chapel of the former church of San Pancrazio, now part of the Marino Marini Museum (museomarinomarini.it), contains Leon Battista Alberti’s exquisite scaled-down copy of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the last resting place of wealthy textile merchant Giovanni Rucellai.
Swish Via de’ Tornabuoni is Florence’s main fashion street – but there is culture amid the frocks. At world-class art space Palazzo Strozzi (palazzostrozzi.org), an exhibition by video artist Bill Viola runs until July 23. Even local fashion brand Ferragamo (ferragamo.com) is in on the act: the absorbing art-meets-fashion exhibitions staged at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, below the flagship boutique, aren’t just for shoe fetishists. Refuel at Procacci (procacci1885.it), a historic jewel of a deli and wine bar run by the Antinori dynasty. It specialises in bite-size panini tartufati – mini breadrolls filled with truffle paste.
Cross the Arno River via Ponte Santa Trinita – a good opportunity to admire the romantic bottega-lined Ponte Vecchio (the next bridge upstream) – and venture into the Oltrarno district south of the river. This is Florence’s Left Bank, a lively residential neighbourhood full of good places to eat and drink, plus a thriving craft scene centred on leatherwork, fashion accessories and jewellery (don’t miss the extravagant Gothic creations of goldsmith Alessandro Dari; alessandrodari.com). By now, lunch beckons so call in to Il Santo Bevitore (ilsantobevitore.com), a chic, rustic trattoria with creative regional cuisine, or its charming wine bar/deli annexe, Il Santino, where you can perch at the bar and graze on beef tartare, cheese platters, salads and gourmet panini.
Hold off ordering coffee or dessert so you have an excuse to walk to Ditta Artigianale (dittaartigianale.it), on Via dello Sprone, to enjoy arguably the city’s best espresso. If you’re in the mood, mixologist Kareem Bennett’s artisanal cocktails are also superb. For dessert, duck around the corner to oh-so-cute Piazza della Passera for a scoop or two of Mojito sorbet served (alongside other compelling flavours) at Gelateria della Passera (gelaterialapassera.wordpress.com).
The Renaissance pretty much began in nearby Brancacci Chapel (museicivici fiorentini.comune.fi.it), where Masolino and Masaccio’s astonishingly fresh and intimate fresco cycle of scenes from the life of Saint Peter is still immensely moving almost six centuries after it was first painted. (You’ll need to make a free booking.) Afterwards, explore the quirky La Specola section at the University of Florence’s Museum of Natural History (www2.msn.unifi.it). It’s famous for its gruesome 18th-century anatomical models, sculpted in wax as teaching aids.
Time to slow down. Locate Piazza de’ Rossi (bookmarking one of the city’s best wine bars, Le Volpi e l’Uva, at No. 1R, for future reference) and walk up the winding Costa di San Giorgio. Less than five minutes from the tourist-choked Ponte Vecchio and you’re strolling in what feels like a quiet Tuscanvillage lane. At the top of the hill, at No. 2, Villa Bardini (bardinipeyron.it) is home to one of Florence’s most delightful gardens. Find a bench among the roses and wisteria and rest those tired feet while enjoying a wraparound view across the domes and rooftops of the city’s Centro Storico.
Return across the river via the medieval Ponte Vecchio to Palazzo Vecchio (musei civicifiorentini.comune.fi.it), the centre of Florentine civic power since the early 14th century. Its many artworks include Bronzino’s dizzying Mannerist frescoes, which adorn the private chapel of Eleonora of Toledo, Grand Duchess of Tuscany. Some believe there is also a lost Da Vinci here, hidden behind a more recent mural in the vast Salone dei Cinquecento council chamber. In summer, time your climb up the narrow steps of the palazzo’s 95-metre tower – reopened after decades in 2012 – to see the city tinged with sunset gold. Just make sure your perfect day isn’t a Thursday, when there’s no admission to the palazzo and tower after 1.30pm.
La Terrazza, the chic rooftop bar of the Continentale boutique hotel (hotel.qantas. com.au/continentale) is something of an insider’s secret – there’s no hint at street level that it’s there. Sip an Improved Negroni, made with bitters to an in-house recipe, while marvelling at the height of the tower you just climbed – it dominates the view of the cityscape.
Watch the rowers returning to their clubhouse after training on the Arno as you stroll along the river to La Bottega del Buon Caffè (borgointhecity.com) for dinner. This elegant Michelin-starred restaurant with antique décor serves seasonal dishes such as taglierini pasta with baby squid, sage and chilli and a dessert based on ingredients from the garden of its parent hotel, Borgo Santo Pietro, in the Tuscan countryside.
How do you wrap up a perfect day in a city that turns life into an art form? With an opera, of course, performed al fresco in the inner courtyard of Palazzo Pitti under the aegis of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino’s world-class orchestra and choir. Running until 29 July, the 2017 summer season (operadifirenze.it) features Donizetti’s
L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) and The Barber of Seville by Rossini.
Fountain of Neptune in Piazza della Signoria (left); the cupola, or dome, of Florence’s cathedral rises above the city’s distinctive red rooftops (below)
Il Santo Bevitore trattoria (left) and sister wine bar/deli Il Santino