This article first appeared in Passport Magazine
by Arthur Wooten
My first trip to Florence was many years ago. I still have a travel book (The Guide: Walking Around Florence) from way back then, one with paper pages that is my “bible” to this awe-inspiring city nicknamed “The Birthplace of the Renaissance.” I’ve returned several times recently, and except for restaurants that may come and go, everything else has stayed the same, so the guidebook is still relevant today. But upon returning, I sensed something had changed. Not structurally, because the ancient buildings are historically protected, but still, I felt as though something was different, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So what had shifted?
Nearby is the famous Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, also referred to as the Duomo. The first place of worship to occupy this footprint was the Episcopal Church of Florence in 394. Eventually the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was constructed in 1416. And to this day, it is still one of the most breathtaking and remarkable designs you’ll see in in the world. It’s massive! Giotto designed the campanile (the bell tower) and Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the founding fathers of the Renaissance, was the architect for the Cathedral’s amazing dome that seriously defies gravity.
You can climb the staircase up the dome, if you want to experience the amazing views from the top. It’s 463 steps, no elevator, and it’s not for those suffering from vertigo, claustrophobia, or fear of heights. There’s a very narrow winding staircase, with windows spaced far apart. As you reach the top of the dome, the stairwell narrows much further and the steps become quite steep. You feel as though you are in a vertical, medieval MRI, but the payoff is spectacular. Plus you get to see Vasari’s fresco of the “Last Judgment” up close and personal.
Also not to be missed are the bronze doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti that are on the outside of the octagonal Baptistery of Saint John. The entire complex sits in the middle of the Piazza del Duomo, a very lively and crowded square bordered by scores of restaurants, cafés, and souvenir shops.
Just a few blocks away is the Accademia Museum, which houses Michelangelo’s “David” as well as many of the artist’s unfinished works of art such as “The Prisoners.” Masterpieces in their own right, these works give us insight into Michelangelo’s creative process.
Take a short walk and you arrive at the Convent of San Marco. Many travelers miss this hauntingly tranquil and beautiful museum. The convent has gone through extensive changes and expansions since its beginning in the 12th century. Make sure you check out the rows of friar’s cells (tiny compartments to live and/or worship in) that were whitewashed and decorated with frescoes by Fra Angelico.
Not far from the Convent of San Marco is the Il Mercato Centrale. It’s a great place for lunch or dinner or something in between. It’s a giant food court with all types of food and wine bars. They even have cooking classes, as well as live music and artisan shops.
Just around the corner, past the train station, is my favorite square in Florence, the Piazza Santa Maria Novella. At the far end is the Italian Gothic-style church, the Santa Maria Novella.
|Santa Maria Novella|
Inside this gorgeous church is one of the most priceless art treasures, “Giotto’s Crucifix,” gracefully hanging in mid-air above the church pews. Painted with tempera and gold on wood panel, it dates back to around 1290.
Close by is the Piazza della Repubblica that was once the site of the city’s forum. It’s now a beautiful square surrounded by restaurants, stores, hotels, and street performers. Plus this is where Florence’s charming merry-go-round takes up residence, and at Christmas everything turns magical.
Bud and I decided to take part in an Urban Adventures Florence foodie walk hosted by Gemma. This experience is called their Aperitivo Time! Florence Wine Tour, and even if you know Florence a tour like this makes you feel like you are “a part of” the city. The history, knowledge, and humor are more interesting and real than anything you’ll find in a guidebook.
Meeting up with just two other guests, we visited three very different establishments. First stop was the elegant Procacci. Their specialties are finger sandwiches filled with the most heavenly truffle cream served with Prosecco. Next stop was a leisurely walk to the lively, La Procuitteria. We were treated to glasses of a full-bodied Chianti Classico wine and a massive board covered with everything from prosciutto, mortadella, and salami to roasted eggplant, zucchini and Tuscan bread smeared with amazing tapenades. Our final stop was the very popular Caffe Degli Artigiani. The night was topped off here with each of us ordering a Negroni and enjoying our cocktails outside in the Piazza della Passera. This was truly an enjoyable evening of culture, food, and spirits.
Connecting the historic center with the Oltrarno neighborhood is the Ponte Vechicco, a medieval stone bridge that crosses the Arno River. Originally the tenants were butchers, but now the bridge is full of jewelry, art, and souvenir shops. It’s always very, crowded, day and night, with tourists and street performers. You can take some great snaps of dramatic views of Florence from this vantage point. I must add that in December, close to Christmas, I’ve experienced the least amount of tourists. If you want to feel as though you have more of Florence to yourself, this is a great time to travel. It’s a bit rainier, but mild, and every street, large and small, is lit up for the Holidays.
The Oltrarno translates to “the other side of the Arno” where you’ll discover stunning palaces, piazze, gardens, and restaurants. This is the neighborhood where I prefer to stay. It’s quieter and gives you more of a local feeling.
We stayed at Claudia’s superb two bedroom, two bathroom with rooftop terrace apartment for rent in the Oltrarno, through Airbnb. If Airbnb or VRBO (vacation rental by owner) is not your thing, suggested hotels are the number one rated Hotel David, the amazing castle-like Toree Guelfa Hotel, or the elegant Westin Excelsior, which has a magical terrace high above the city with 360-degree views, great drinks, and the perfect location for picture taking, especially at sunset.
Here in the Oltrarno you’ll also find Piazzale Michelangelo. This overlook of Florence is a photographer’s dream, and the winding walk through this part of Florence is charming. You may want to have your map handy or pull up your GPS on your phone; the twisting streets can get a bit confusing. For those not up for the climb, there are several different buses that will take you right to the top. There’s a small restaurant up there and some souvenir vendors, but the solitude and beauty of the view, whether day or night allows you to reflect and look out upon the city of Florence and think about all of the artists, scientists, scholars, and chefs that have created here.
Upon descending, we decided to take a different route back toward our apartment and by chance we walked by Clet Abraham’s Studio. The artist was actually there that day, and we watched him work on a new piece. Mr. Abraham is a classically trained artist, but best known in Florence for his humorous street art, specifically, his traffic signs. He says, “I don’t damage the signs, because I use stickers, but I wake up attention and I create a dialogue.” I had turned searching for his street signs into a type of scavenger hunt. Once you’re on the lookout for them, you realize they are everywhere.
There’s also an artist called Blub, who prefers to remain anonymous. His work is titled L’Arte Sa Nuotare or Art Knows How to Swim. Peppered throughout the city, you’ll see famous artworks like “Girl with a Pearl Earring” or maybe it’s a portrait of Dalí painted on the sides of building…but they are wearing swimming masks. It’s all quite comical, and provides museum-weary tourists a non-museum-type venue to enjoy art. As my local Florentine friend Francesca says, “The snorkeling mask is a way to say that, even in crisis, art helps and it survives everything. So crisis = opportunity.”
Also in this neighborhood is the Palazzo Pitti. On the outside it’s not the prettiest palace in the kingdom, but inside it’s quite astounding. Like the Uffizi, this museum is gargantuan so choose the rooms you decide to view wisely. Among the former living quarters of the Medici family is a treasure house of priceless paintings, jewelry, furniture, and statues.
There’s also an amazing costume gallery within the Palace. Established in 1983, it’s the only National Museum of Italy exclusively dedicated to the history of fashion. It houses not only garments worn by the Medici’s back in the 16th century, but it travels all the way up to the present. Very extensive!
Behind the Palace are the Boboli Gardens, and if you climb to the very top there is a breathtaking view overlooking the Palace and the city center beyond. Strolling through the gardens can be a well-needed escape from the hoards of tourists.
One afternoon, exhausted from walking all over the city, and in and out of museums, we passed by Il Ristoro and decided to check it out. Light and airy, we were walked to the back of the restaurant, which has the most amazing view of the Arno, the city center on the opposite side of the river, and depending on your seat, even a view of the Ponte Vecchio. This small restaurant has ridiculously inexpensive and delicious food with super-friendly servers. We came back several times, whether for a coffee pick-me-up or a glass of wine. Ironically, just a few doors farther down the street are crazy expensive restaurants boasting the same view that you can get at Il Ristoro for a quarter of the price.
If you’re a foodie like me, you will love Florence. Some of my favorite restaurants are also here in the Oltrarno. Often before a big trip, I’ll do tons of research, which includes restaurants I want to check out. Ultimately, once I reach my destination, I tend to throw the list away and dine whenever a place pulls me in. It might be the décor, the location, or the menu.
That is how we stumbled upon Osteria dell’ Enoctica. It’s a restaurant I loved so much that on this trip I made reservations online for a second evening. It was a bit chilly and windy that night, and when we arrived they informed us that they were completely booked. (I had neglected to check my e-mails, and there it was, their response in my mailbox.) As we turned to leave the host shouted, “But wait! You’re here, we must fit you in.” He studied his laptop and after a short period of time he alerted us that a cancellation had just come in and before we knew it, we were whisked to our favorite part of the restaurant. Once seated, the sommelier, greeted us with, “Welcome back!” He remembered us? “You were here two nights ago and sat across the way at that other table.” He even remembered what wine we were drinking, and offered to bring us a bottle. In amazement, Bud and I looked at each other and laughed. (Again, I thought to myself, what is it about Florence that is so different now?). I highly recommend their chicken liver terrine as an appetizer. As an entrée try their grilled skirt steak from a special Tuscan breed of cow served with bell peppers in thyme, or their tender and succulent braised wild boar with olives. A delightful plus: their menu and wine list are moderately priced.
Not too far away is the Piazza Santo Spirito named after the Basilica di Santo Spirito. It’s a charming and beautiful plaza with an octagonal shaped fountain anchoring the center of it. Populated by restaurants, bars, and artist shops; street musicians often entertain throughout the piazza. On weekdays, Santo Spirito hosts a flea market and on the third Sunday of every month it turns into an organic farmers’ market. My favorite restaurant in Santo Spirito is Trattoria Borgo Antico.
I prefer eating outside. Even if it’s winter, there are plenty of heaters. At Borgo Antico be sure to try their selection of country homemade salami with crostini and pickled veggies. For an entrée consider their beef stew with red wine, which is to die for. Regulars rave about their gnocchi, risottos; and pizza. It’s relaxed, casual and everyone is friendly.
Right next to the restaurant is a very popular bar, often full of locals called Volume. It’s a former millenary shop with relics of its past incarnation creating almost a museum affect. They offer coffee and pastries in the morning and at night, drinks, bar snacks, plus a buffet and crêpés. A DJ or a local band plays music on the weekends hence it’s very popular and crowded after 8 P .M.
If you’re thirsty for some gay nightlife there’s Piccolo in the Santa Croce neighborhood. It’s a quiet place, perfect for smart cocktails and catching up with a friend…or making a new one.
The highlight of all my experiences in Florence was a day trip out of the city to take part in a cooking class. LovexFood was created by a witty and super-creative gay couple, Luca and Lorenzo, who live just 15 minutes outside of the city in the Chianti Hills.
The class was going to focus on making pasta. I had wrestled with preparing homemade pasta years ago, and in a flour-induced panic I gave up midstream and dashed out to the store to buy packaged pasta. I never tried again, until this day trip.
|The Fountain of Neptune|
Luca met us at the Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence, and we traveled off to Lastra a Signa. Even though we had a drizzly day, their lovingly restored farmhouse was warm and inviting. With a roaring fire burning in the fireplace, we were offered morning coffee and a spread of tasty treats. This class is a total hands-on experience that even novices can handle.
The men grew up in families in which cooking is the best way to show the love you have for someone, and they’ve always enjoyed sharing their passion for cooking with family and friends, hence the creation of LovexFood. Discovering that they both worked in fashion for several years, I asked them how they met.
“We meet at a fashion party during the Florentine Fashion week in January 2008. We fell in love and we started sharing our lives together.”
Luca and Lorenzo
Luca and Lorenzo have a cookbook in the works and have just recently purchased the property next to theirs. In the future, they hope to open up a bed and breakfast.
The pasta we made in our class that day were ravioli with pumpkin filling, and potato gnocchi. Lorenzo also demonstrated how to make farfalle, tortellini, rigatoni, and fettuccine. We made two different sauces that were so easy and simple, even “non-cooks” would be able to master these mouthwatering recipes. One was an olive oil, butter, and fresh sage sauce, and the other was a speck, brandy, chopped arugula, and cream.
When all the food was ready, we sat down to enjoy our dishes at a beautiful and tastefully set dining room table and local Chianti wines were served at the meal.
We shared olives from their very own olive trees, the herbs used in their dishes are all from their garden, and the eggs we used for cooking came from their own chickens! Can it get any fresher than that? Plus dessert…a light and not too sweet, tiramisu that we all helped to make. The 6.5 hours flew by. Honestly, I didn’t want to leave. When Luca and Lorenzo open up their bed and breakfast, I’ll be one of the first to book a reservation.
After enjoying the cooking class, my fears, frustrations, and failure in making homemade pasta happily disappeared. Their knowledge, simple explanations, and patience fueled me to run back to New York City and recreate their traditional family recipes. Upon leaving, I asked what they hoped people would take away from their classes.
“We would like that people understand that ours is an unconventional cooking class. We share with people what our families shared with us…spending some hours cooking with people as we are friends. Usually we shake hands when we first meet you at the train station, then we say goodbye with an Italian strong hug!” And that they did.
It was during the quick train ride back to Florence, when all of a sudden, it dawned on me what had changed since my very first trip here so long ago. The city seemed easier, the Florentines more friendly. It now felt as though the city had opened up its arms and embraced me. Or maybe…it wasn’t Florence at all. Maybe it was because I was older, more patient, and more self-confident. Maybe I was…friendlier. In fact, it wasn’t the city that had changed, it was me.
Firenzecard. Purchase at ten different locations throughout the city. 72 musuems for 72 euros in 72 hours. Includes many cathedrals and gardens, too. Additional five euros if you want to include free bus passes. www.firenzecard.it
Hotel David, Viale Michelangiolo n,1 Tel: +39-055681-1695 Highest guest rated hotel in Florence. www.hoteldavid.com
Hotel Toree Guelfa, Borgo SS. Apostoli, 8. Tel: +39-055-239-6338 Beautiful castle-like hotel. www.hoteltorreguelfa.com
Westin Excelsior, Piazza Ognissanti 3. Tel: +39055-27151 Friendly, luxurious-rooftop bar/restaurant with 360 degree views of Florence. www.westinflorence.com
Piazza del Duomo is an iconic Florentine Cathedral complex. www.firenze-tourism.com
Piazza della Repubblica is the central plaza with a charming merry-go-round and surrounded by restaurants. www.visitflorence.com
Piazza della Signoria is a very popular square with a bounty of restaurants, outdoor statues and it houses several attractions including the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery. www.visitflorence.com
Piazza Santo Spirito is a beautiful square in the Oltrarno with great restaurants and flea markets. www.visitflorence.com
Piazza Santa Maria Novella is a tranquil and beautiful, surrounded by museums, hotels and restaurants. www.visitflorence.com
CATHEDRALS AND CHURCHES
The Baptistery of Saint John, Piazza Del Duomo. Here are the bronze doors recreating the stories of the life and passions of Christ were created by Lorenzo Ghiberti. www.visitflorence.com
Campanile, Piazza del Duomo. The bell tower designed by Giotto. www.museumflorence.com
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Piazza del Duomo. The main centerpiece within the Duomo. www.visitflorence.com
Convent of San Marco, Via A. Manzon/Piazza San Marco +39-055-23320 Home of Fra Angelico’s magnificent frescoes. www.visitflorence.com
Santa Maria Novella, Piazza Santa Maria Novella, a must see Church and museum, which includes Giotto’s Crucifix. www.visitflorence.com
TOURS AND DAYTRIP
LovexFood, Via Vecchia Pisana 22, Lastra a Signa. Tel: +39-348-606-9987 Cooking with Luca & Lorenzo at their farm in the Chianti hills. www.lovexfood.com
Urban Adventures Florence – Aperitivo Time! Florence Wine Tour Tel: +39-345-088-2826 Excellent orientation to local restaurants and bars. www.florenceurbanadventures.com
Accademia Museum Via Ricasoli, 58/60. Tel: +39 055-238-8609. Probably best known for Michelangelo’s statue of David. www.accademia.org
Palazzo Pitti Palace, de’ Pitti, 1. Tel: +39-055294883. with amazing permanent and rotating exhibits. www.polomuseale.firenze.it/en
Palazzo Vecchio Piazza della Signoria. Pallazo V Piazza della Signoria, 50122. A magnificent palace, it’s also home to Florence’s town hall. www.visitflorence.com
Uffizi Museum, Piazzale degli Uffizi, 6, 50122. Tel: +39-055-23885 Piazza della Signoria. One of the most important and extensive museums in Florence. www.uffizi.com
Osteria dell’ Enoctica, Via Romana 70r. Tel: +39055-228-6018. If this restaurant were in New York City it would definitely be my weekly go-to! www.osteriadellenoteca.com
Procacci Via Tornabuoni, 64/r. Tel: +39055-211656 Elegant wine and truffle bar. www.procacci1885.it/en/florence
La Procuitteria, Via dei Neri 54 rosso. Tel: +39-055 265-4472 Rustic and lively, eat with the locals. www.laprosciutteria.com/firenze
Il Ristoro. 48R Borgo San Jacopo. Tel: +39-055-2645569. Best views of Arno and inexpensive café for coffee, drinks, lunch or dinner. www.facebook.com/ilristorodeiperditempo
Trattoria Borgo Antico, Piazza Santo Spirito. Tel: +39-055-210-437 My favorite restaurant in Piazza Spirito. www.borgoanticofirenze.com
Boboli Gardens, located behind the Palazzo Pitti. www.visitflorence.com
Piazzale Michelangelo, stunning views of the city of Florence from this outlook. www.visitflorence.com
Caffé Degli Artigiani, Via dello Sprone 16r Tel: +39055-291882. Hip and happening. www.firenzeoltrarno.net/caffeartigiani/#1
Piccolo:Borgo Santa Croce. Tel: +39-055-200-1057 Friendly gay cocktail bar best after 10:00pm. www.travelgayeurope.com/venue/piccolo-cafe
Volume, Piazza Santo Spirito. Tel: +39-055-2381460. Young and hip crowd. www.volume.fi.it
Clet Abraham Studio, Via dell’Olmo, 8/red. www.facebook.com/clet.abraham
Hard Bar85, Via Guelfa 85/r. Located near the train station, this attracts a hardcore, edgy crowd. People are quite experimental. On Exhibitionist Friday’s you can hangout nude and express yourself sexually. Weekend hours 10:30 P .M. – 6 A.M. www.facebook.com/HardBar85FIRENZE
Piccolo Café, Borgo Santa Croce 23R. Friendly, relaxed and centrally located cocktail bar best after 10 P .M. with a very mixed crowd— twinks to daddies. www.facebook.com/piccolocafefirenze
Queer, Borgo Allegri 9, Near Piccolo. Queer plays pop/house music. Quiet enough that you can actually talk and patrons rave about the cocktails prepared by the owner , Andrea. www.facebook.com/queerfirenze
Y.A.G Bar, Via de’ Macci 8R. Gets going around midnight, offers dancing all night long and is open Thursday to Saturday. With big screen TVs and free Wi-Fi, it’s a popular hangout for all types and offers dancing continuously throughout the night.
CLUBS and SAUNA
Crisco, Via Sant’Egidio 43R. One of the newer clubs playing classic 80s music to a younger crowd. Closed Sunday and Tuesday. Note: must be on the list to get in. criscoclub.com
Fabrik, Via del Lavoro 19, Calenzano, outside of Florence. Gay club with bars, video booths, and cruising areas. Mid to older ages. www.fabrikfirenze.it/site
Fairy Gold, Via della Vigna Vecchia 23. Dance club with sometimes long lines to enter. Gay on Saturdays, September to April (busiest after 1 A.M.) Three floors of DJs, go- go boys, drag artists and special guests who perform for an audience of all types. www.facebook.com/FAIRYGOLD
Florence Baths, Via Guelfa 93R. Bring an I.D. Very popular and centrally located. They also serve drinks and food. Attracts a very mixed crowd. www.facebook.com/FlorenceBaths (Most gay cruise clubs and saunas require an ANDDOS membership card. You can purchase them at any participating club.)
Mamamia@Viper Theatre, Via Lombardia. Check their site for current events, theme nights, and club parties. Loud and on the younger side. www.facebook.com/mamaflorence
Hotel Lungaro, Borgo San Jacopo, 14. Stunning and luxurious hotel situated overlooking the Arno River in the Oltrarno neighborhood close to Piazza Santo Spirito. www.lungarnocollection.com/hotel-lungarno
Hotel Regency, Piazza Massimo d’Azeglio 3. An authentic Florentine Villa. www.regency-hotel.com
Hotel Roma, Piazza Santa Maria Novella, 8. This ancient 18th-century palazzo isin the beautiful and peaceful Piazza Santa Maria Novella near the train station. www.hotelromaflorence.com/en
A Room With A View. Maddalena’s place is just down the street from the Duomo. It sleeps six with one bath. Museums, restaurants and shopping are all at your fingertips. www.misterbandb.com/rooms/8836
Claudia’s. I loved staying at Claudia’s apartment, which has 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, and is located in the Oltrarno neighborhood. She’s very helpful with tips and suggestions and I totally enjoyed her charming rooftop terrace. www.airbnb.com/rooms/8965865
La Maison At The Old Bridge, Costa dei Magnoli. Marie’s very beautiful and hip apartment has 2 bedrooms, 2.5 baths. Located on the fringe of the central area, it offers a quiet respite from Florence’s hectic bustle. www.misterbandb.com/rooms/119964