Return to Florence
I studied abroad in Florence back in 2004 and lived on Via Ghibellina just a stone's throw away from Piazza del Duomo for many months. In 2014 I returned for the first time 10 years later in order to celebrate my 30th birthday. It was a wonderful trip, and was great to be back in a city that I had such fond memories of. You can read about that trip here. I knew that once I decided to attend the Toscana Saporita Cooking School in Tuscany that a trip to Florence would be part of the plan. I just had the chance to spend four days in the city exploring all of the sights, and eating at all of the restaurants I could stomach. Florence remains a very special city, and one that I will always love for its walkability, its size, and its history.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Florence is a very walkable city. If you are planning to stay within the limits of town for your visit, you will not need to rely on any transportation other than your feet. If you do decide to take some day trips outside of Florence, the Santa Maria Novella train station is right downtown and can quickly get you to towns like Lucca, Pisa, and Siena within about an hour's time. There is also a fast train to Rome which only takes an hour and a half of travel time. If you buy your ticket at the station, do not forget to validate it! There are little machines that you need to use to scan your ticket so it will stamp the time.
- There are a few Tuscan specialties you should be aware of when dining out in Florence. They are famous for two bread soups: Ribollita and Pappa al Pomodoro. Ribollita is a vegetable soup traditionally made with cannellini beans, kale, carrots and pieces of old bread. It has the consistency of a porridge and can be hearty and comforting on a chilly day. Pappa al Pomodoro is one of my favorites which is made with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil and old bread. You should definitely order one while you are visiting. In addition to the soups, the fegatini or chicken liver crostini is on just about every menu, and it's delicious.
- While you can stumble into restaurants and often times snag a table, a lot of the spaces are quite small. So, if you have specific places in mind you want to go, I highly recommend making reservations in advance. Some allow for online bookings, otherwise ask your hotel concierge to call and help book them for you.
- Here's the scoop on gelato, and this applies to Florence as well as any other town in Italy. Pay attention to what it looks like and how it is being displayed. There is real gelato and fake gelato-- and I highly recommend you stick to the real. The real is made of fresh ingredients and the colors should be normal and subtle. If you see a neon green colored gelato, that is definitely not natural. In addition, most of the real gelato will be stored in aluminum tins either with lids on top, or open but not protruding above the top of the tin. When you see the massive mounds of gelato piled high for display purposes this is likely fake gelato that is made with a powder and chemicals. It might look pretty, but stick to the real deal.
- Here's the scoop on leather: Florence is the leather capital of Italy. While you are in town you will see a leather store on every corner, and almost every stall in the market will be selling it as well. Be careful of where you buy. Many of the stalls and shops in the market are not the real deal, so I relied on this guide from Italy Magazine which highlights the best and most authentic stores in Florence to buy leather goods. If you do your research, you will be heading home with something beautiful that will last forever.
WHAT TO DO
There is so much to in Florence between all of the outdoor piazzas, churches and museums. For a first timer it can be overwhelming, but luckily everything is closeby and walkable. For people like myself who have spent a lot of time in Florence, I tend to love milling about from piazza to piazza, and sitting outside enjoying wine. Below are a few activities to consider:
- Visit the Boboli Gardens. This is my favorite thing to do in Florence! I go every time. The gardens are located at the Pitti Palace, however you can buy a ticket just for the gardens and spend hours roaming about the massive grounds. The climb all the way to the top is incredibly worth it for some of the best views of the city. I find it a very relaxing place to be, and it's hard to beat the surroundings.
- See Michelangelo's David at the Galleria dell'Accademia. There is a fake one located outside in Piazza della Signoria. It doesn't compare.
- Hike to Piazzale Michelangelo at Sunset. This is a very popular thing to do in order to get some sweeping views of Florence as the sun is going down. Just follow the signs and work your way up the steps. You'll be glad you did it.
- Piazza Surf. I'd recommend checking out as many as you can. They are all beautiful and unique in their own ways. Some of the musts are Piazza del Duomo, Piazza della Reppublica, Piazza della Signoria, Piazza Santa Croce, Piazza Santo Spirito, Piazzale Michelangelo, Piazza Santa Maria Novella, and Piazza San Lorenzo.
- Climb the Duomo and Giotto's Bell Tower. Beware that the lines will be incredibly long for this, so I recommend you look into booking a tour in advance that might allow you to skip the line. I do think they are both worth doing at least once in your lifetime.
- Visit the Uffizi Gallery. This museum is home to many Italian Renaissance works by Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Caravaggio among others.
WHERE TO EAT
It is hard to go wrong in Florence, but there are still a lot of mediocre tourist traps that you want to avoid. Eating well does not have to be expensive, in fact some of my favorite spots are quite casual and affordable, but the quality of the food should always be the top priority. Below are some of my favorites from this most recent trip, and the biggest standout was Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori.
This has been a favorite of mine for years, and it still holds its place after this most recent visit. The atmosphere at Coquinarius is really a step up from many of the other casual trattorias or osterias in town. It is a wine bar that serves a full lunch and dinner menu with an excellent selection of salads, crostinis, pastas, and meats. My favorite thing on the menu is the raviolini stuffed with cheese and pear in a light butter sauce. This dish is something you can find on a few menus in Florence, and this is one of the best. I also love to get an assortment of the crostini such as the fegatini (chicken liver), sun dried tomatoes and feta, and the goat cheese with jam. Reservations are recommended here, and you can easily make them directly on their website. Coquinarius is located at Via delle Oche, 11R.
This is definitely a fancier option for a nice dinner out in Florence. In addition, the atmosphere can be quite romantic as the whole restaurant is decked with white twinkling lights. This used to be the place everyone would take their parents when they visited Florence back when I was studying in town because it is a bit more costly than the places we would frequent on our own. The menu here is quite large, and their starters are enormous. I ordered the beef carpaccio which was served with tomatoes, arugula and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano on top. It was wonderful, especially with the squeezed lemon, but this could have easily served 2-3 people. For the pastas, I would recommend trying the ravioli with Pecorino and pear, they also have a great ravioli with pumpkin sauce, or the pappardelle with wild boar ragu. I splurged on the steak with balsamic sauce served with potatoes and carrots. Intense and delicious, but it definitely left no room for dessert. Reservations are recommended. La Giostra is located at Borgo Pinti 12/r.
I read about this place in Eater's 38 Essential Florence Restaurants earlier this year, and knew this sounded right up my alley. It's a small wine bar just a block away from the Ponte Vecchio that serves a great selection of wines, cheeses, and crostinis. This would be a great spot for a light lunch, or an afternoon drink and snack. There is a great outdoor patio, but those tables are reserved for reservations. However, if you don't have a reservation, there is a small indoor bar with about 8 seats and I was able to snag one of those spots. The majority of the people inside were all Italian (which I like), and the staff was not overly attentive or helpful (which I don't like). However, I waited patiently and eventually was able to order. While I didn't get a lot of help with choosing wine, I still really loved the vibe of this place and I made some good decisions on my own. I first ordered a glass of Verdicchio from Marche, and ended with a Fiano from Sicily. To pair with the wine I had the selection of Italian cheeses and I also had the crostine with Asiago, speck and honey. The speck was crispy and the touch of honey really made it just a perfect blend of ingredients. I also read amazing things about the crostine with salami paste, but the most popular dish seemed to be the one with truffle sausage which permeated the quaint space and convinced me to order that on my next visit! La Volpe e l'Uva is located at Piazza dei Rossi, 1.
For my first day in town I really wanted a casual and comfortable meal. I stumbled over to Piazza Santo Spirito which is a beautiful square that has an antique market on Sundays. The Osteria was busy, but I was able to wait a few minutes to get one of the outdoor tables on the patio. The sun was shining, people were milling about the market, and I was situated facing outward for the best view possible. I stared with rolled bresaola stuffed with caprino cheese which was creamy and delicious. Bresaola, which is air dried beef, is a favorite of mine and not super easy to find in the United States. I tend to order a lot of salads with it when I am in Italy given it is a very popular ingredient. For my main course I went with a classic homemade spaghetti chitarra with tomatoes and basil. Sometimes the most simple dishes are the best, and this one was perfection. There were large pieces of cherry tomatoes as part of the sauce, and just the right amount of garlic which made this the quintessential Italian lunch. One of their famous dishes is the potato gnocchi with truffle oil. I saw many people around me ordering it and it looked amazing (and rich!) Osteria Santo Spirito is open for lunch and dinner, and they take reservations by phone. It is located at Piazza Santo Spirito, 16r.
Located directly off of Piazza Della Signoria, this tiny restaurant has about 8 tables and is always packed. There is usually a cluster of people waiting outside hoping they get lucky enough to have their name called from the waiting list. This is definitely my new favorite spot in Florence and was one of my favorite meals of the trip. They have a handwritten menu which they change every day, but their famous pasta is the tagliatelle with duck ragu which you will always find. One thing the menu makes clear: "No pizza. No ice. No Cappuccino. No Steak." So, just know that in advance.
I was lucky enough to get a seat at a communal table for a late lunch, and I just loved watching the hustle and bustle of the staff as they ran back and forth from the kitchen to the stand in the center of the restaurant where they were cutting bread, cheese, and charcuterie. I had cheese ravioli in a tomato cream sauce as my primi. The sauce was divine with specks of tomato in an otherwise perfectly pink gravy. For my secondi I had the fried chicken with fried zucchini flowers which was crispy and was a very nice contrast to the rich pasta. Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori is authentic and charming, and also small and cramped. In addition, they play great music which adds to the atmosphere. I'd highly recommend making a reservation here if you are planning to be in Florence. Open for lunch and dinner. Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori is located at Via Dei Magazzini.
I have loved this place for 14 years, and it was one of my favorite meals yet again on this trip. Trattoria 4 Leoni boasts a beautiful atmosphere with brick interior walls, hanging lights, and it's also situated in a small courtyard tucked away from the busy streets. Their stuffed cheese and pear pasta is amazing, and they serve it with an asparagus cream sauce. It's one of my favorite dishes on the planet. They also make amazing steak and have great desserts like a classic tiramisu or cheesecake. If you are going to be in Florence, Trattoria 4 Leoni is a must. You can make reservations on their website. Trattoria 4 Leoni is located at Via de' Vellutini 1r.
WHERE TO DRINK COFFEE
There are many traditional places to get a coffee or espresso in Florence, but the trendy java gods have found their way to this Renaissance mecca.
I loved this a trendy coffee spot which has three locations in Florence. You can either take away or have your coffee and meal with service. They have a great "American" breakfast menu which includes eggs, pancakes, French toast, and even croque monsieur. For those of you who know Paris, this reminds me of a cross between Holybelly and Café Oberkampf. Ditta has a great crowd and it's an awesome spot to perch for good people watching. In addition, I loved the music selection when I was there which included "My Girl" by The Temptations and other Motown hits. Ditta is located at Via De' Neri 32r, Via Dello Sprone 5r, and Via Cavour 50r.
La Ménagerè offers quite a unique concept for Florentines and visitors. This is a coffee shop/restaurant/bistro/flower shop all in one! Random, I know. But, it's absolutely stunning. There are massive arched ceilings, hanging plants, a skylight, and a grand piano. They offer traditional breakfast but they're also open all day for lunch, dinner, and drinks. It definitely seemed to be a popular place to study as I saw many students with laptops and notebooks. For me, it was a perfect spot for a morning cappuccino and a croissant. La Ménagerè is located at Via de' Ginori 8R.
It was great to be back in Florence and to head to some of my old favorites, but also discover new places in order to experience the city in a different way. Florence will always be special to me given the memories, but I know it is a special city for anyone who visits.