A fall weekend in FLORENCESeptember
Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, has a denser concentration of world class art than perhaps any other city in Italy. Factor in Tuscan food and wine, and it makes for a perfect weekend getaway.
It’s always tourist season in Florence. We’ve visited in the summer (not recommended), the spring, and recently came in September hoping to escape the crowds. We didn’t. The city is tiny, and has so many world renowned museums (most notably the Uffizi and Accademia), and so many famous sites (Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, and Sante Croce), that it always feels crowded. Candidly, Florence can be less relaxing, and more of a hassle than other parts of Italy, but there are plenty of ways to try to mitigate this and enjoy the best of what it has to offer (which is some of the best food and art in Italy). Florence is packed with local trattorias serving seasonal Tuscan recipes that date back centuries. The wine in this region is some of the best, and we love that it’s served in ‘real’ wineglasses in Florence- a rarity throughout Italy, France, and Spain. [Note: to clarify, we just mean that when you order wine by the glass, small wineglasses, or stemless glassware is still the norm throughout Western Europe.] The Oltranto (the other side of the Arno river in Florence) offers a reprieve from the congestion around the Duomo and Uffizi, and on this visit, we found ourselves spending more time in this area, with more locals and less tourists to contend with.
- Sight Seeing 100% 100%
- Food 100% 100%
- Ease of Transportation 90% 90%
- Activities 95% 95%
For such a small, easily walkable city, Florence boasts more art than you could ever hope to see in a single weekend (https://www.nationalgeographic.codon’t try). If it’s your first visit, the Uffizi Gallery with its famous Botticelli paintings is probably the one to start with. Definitely buy tickets in advance online, and try to book for first thing in the morning. In September we arrived with our reserved timeslot tickets, and still waited around 40 minutes to enter, which was extremely frustrating. Limit yourself to one queue experience in Florence (if that!) to have the most positive experience. The Accademia is the other most popular museum, as it houses Michelangelo’s original David statue, but we find that the lifesize replica in situ in the Piazza della Signoria gives you enough of a sense that it doesn’t merit another crowded museum visit just to see the original. Instead, if it’s Michelangelo sculptures you’re after, the Medici Chapels house a wider selection of sculptures that Michelangelo made to honor his most influential patrons. The Bargello is another museum full of famous Renaissance sculptures and is worth a visit if you’ve done museums above already on past visits.
Brancacci Chapel one of our favorite places for art in Florence is the Brancacci Chapel, located on the other side of the Arno river (‘Oltranto’). Slightly off the beaten tourist path, this small chapel houses a masterpiece fresco cycle of scenes from the life of St. Peter, painted by Masaccio in the early 15th century. Think of the Sistine chapel, with its painted ceiling and walls, but on a much smaller scale, and you’ll have a sense of Masaccio’s masterful achievement, with narrative scenes playing out sequentially, and some of the Renaissance’s first technical attempts at perspective and foreshortening.
The Duomo, with Brunelleschi’s dome is the defining landmark in Florence, and only when you arrive in person can you truly appreciate its enormous scale relative to the city. The interior doesn’t live up to the ornate exterior, so you can skip the queues to get inside. Be sure to spend time looking at Ghiberti’s bronze doors on the exterior of the baptistry facing the Duomo (note: these are replicas, as the actual doors are kept in the Duomo museum). If you want to climb the 463 steps to the top of the dome for a view of Florence, you must reserve a ticket in advance. The views are specatcular from the highest vantage point in Florence, but it’s not our favorite vantage point in Florence. For a more relaxing, less crowded experience, we head to…
Piazzale Michelangelo is our favorite vantage point to see all of Florence, the Arno river, Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, Sante Croce, and the rolling hills of Tuscany beyond. Oh, and did we mention it’s free and doesn’t require you to queue with the United Nations of tourists? Located on the opposite side of the river, a leisurely twenty minute walk uphill leads to the best panoramic view of all of Florence. We continue walking a little further up the hill to San Miniato al Monte, a beautiful abbey with benches where you can sit and relax overlooking the Duomo below.
Gucci Museum was on our list, but we never made it. For fashion fanatics, this museum displays a vast collection from the archives, and rich iconography from the brand’s most infamous moments.
Where to Eat
Florence has fantastic food. Seasonal and local might be buzzwords now, but they are embedded in Tuscan cooking traditions going back centuries. Visiting in September, we took advantage of white truffle season, the chill in the air giving us an excuse to order Tuscan Ribollita soup, and the seasonal sweet treet schiacciata l’uva (‘grape cake’ made from the autumn Chianti harvest grapes). Florence is filled with old school trattorias, cult favorite panini windows, and gourmet food halls worth sampling. And don’t even get us started on the wine…
1) Trattoria Cammillo – this popular, classic Tuscan trattoria fills up quickly, so book in advance, or come at the beginning of service. The waiters are charming and welcoming, the atmosphere with framed art covering the walls is warm, and the food is fantastic. We came for the classic ribollita (a Tuscan vegetable soup with white beans and day old bread that thickens into a sort of stew), and started off with delicately fried squash flowers, and a mushroom carpaccio that was so simple, yet outstanding. (Thinly sliced raw mushrooms with olive oil and heaps of fresh Parmesan shavings). We also had an unbelievable glass of Tuscan red wine that we failed to take note of. Perhaps the best wine we tasted on this visit in Florence.
2) Zeb Gastronomia – a friend recommended this sleek little restaurant in Oltrarno (on the way if you’re walking to the Piazzale Michelangelo above), and its the one place we almost returned to a second time in the same weekend. It has a modern winebar look, but the food is traditional Tuscan, executed by mother and son proprietors. Most of the seats are arranged around a central bar / chef’s counter (making this a great solo dining venue). There isn’t a food menu, so all 9 pastas of the day will be recited to you to choose from (so pay attention!) They’ll take your wine order, and then, after you’ve eaten all your pasta, come over and ask what you’d like for a secondi before listing the avaiable options. Since we were lucky enough to be in Florence for white truffle season, we opted for a simple spaghetti with shavings of truffle that was perfectly cooked, buttery and rich. We had a few veal meatballs for a secondi, and a glass of super Tuscan red. Everything was delicious, and we had a serious case of ravioli envy when we saw someone at the other end of the bar reveive their plate of pasta purses. We have unfinished business with the seasonal pumpkin ravioli…
3) All’Antico Vinaio – this is THE sandwich spot in Florence, and at peak times, has the queues to match. Come at an off peak hour for the freshest meats and cheeses loaded into foccacia, and take it to enjoy along the banks of the Arno.
4) Osteria dei Centopoveri – this is a simple, inexpensive trattoria with a big local following. We went on Sunday when they offer a popular set menu with a selection of primi, secondi, wine and water for €12, and it gets packed with local families. Luckily we arrived right when they opened (around 12:15) and were seated right away, but by the time we left there was a queue out the door! Our simple classic tortellini in ragu was comfort food at its best.
5) Vini e Vecchi Sapori – this popular trattoria pops up on many ‘must visit’ lists and for good reason. It’s small and cozy, the food is fantastic, and there’s a mix of locals and tourists. We lucked out with a walk-in seat, but you should definitely try to make a reservation. Our papardelle with duck ragu was rich and satisfying, and the cheeses paired with fresh pear and pear compote was autumn on a plate. It goes without saying, the wines by the glass are fantastic.
6) Gelateria della Passera – we read a few places that list this Oltrarno spot as the best gelateria in Florence. We don’t know about that, but it is fresh and tasty.
7) La Strega Nocciola – this was our favorite gelato of the weekend.
9) Pasticceria Nencioni– this classic pastry shop is a place for an afternoon coffee and cake with the locals (in September it’s all about the seasonal schiacciata l’uva), or a place to pick up pastries for the rest of your visit. We bought a torta della nonna that we ate the following morning with our cappuccino on the banks of the Arno river. The highlight though, was a cake made with almonds and a sort of sponge cake with jam inside. We wish we knew the name of it because it was fantastic.
10) Mercato Centrale: Marco Fierro Pizzeria – the central market is a popular, upscale food hall where you can ogle everything from fresh pasta, charcuterie, and trappezini, to asian dumplings and craft brewed beers. Generally, we prefer old school dining in Italy and wouldn’t be into this, but we were pleasantly surprised by how many Italians were here, and the quality of some of the charcuterie and cheese stalls in particular. We wouldn’t get pasta here (it just didn’t look as good as in the trattorias) but when we walked past the fresh, made to order Neapolitan wood fired pizzas, we couldn’t resist. And we had really been planning to stick with a Tuscan-only diet the entire weekend! We ordered a margherita and a glass of wine while we waited, then watched as they hand tossed the dough, added the fresh ingredients, and fired the pizza before our eyes. Reader, we ate every last slice (they even sliced it for us in a nod to non-Neapolitan eating habits) while sitting in the sun on the steps of the Basilica San Lorenzo. It was unbelievably fresh, and one of the bet pizzas we’ve ever had.
11) Ditta Artigianale – this is the popular third wave coffee option in Florence. There’s one location in Oltrarno and one near Sante Croce if you’re craving an upscale cortado. This is also one of the few places to get a more substantial breakfast of eggs or pancakes, which is very un-Italian. (Though with so much pasta, panini, and gelato on our agenda, we do as the Italians do and keep it to just a coffee, and maybe a pastry in the morning).
12) Salumeria Verdi, aka ‘Pino’s Sandwiches’ – a fantastic sandwich and panini place to eat in or takeaway, without the queues of some of the popular delis in town. We love the menu of sandwiches, but you can create your own if you don’t see exactly what you want. Get it to go with a cup of wine and head for a spot outside.
PLACES STILL ON OUR LIST TO TRY
1) Trattoria Sostanza – you must reserve (preferably weeks in advance) for this super popular trattoria. We tried to call and walk in twice to no avail.
2) Buca Mario
3) Il Latini
5) Procacci – come here for apertivo and wine, especially during truffle season
7) Dondino – for a glass of wine overlooking Sante Croce
9) Semel – another contender for some of the best sandwiches in Florence
12) da Gherardo – Suitcase magazine claims this is the best pizza in Florence…
13) Borgo Antico
15) Il Santo Bevitore – this chic trattoria popped up on numerous lists and recommendations from friends. Must reserve. Their winebar Il Santino next door is super popular as well.
16) Amici di Ponte Vecchio – we walked by this sandwich spot and were stopped in our tracks by how good it looked. If we hadn’t just eaten, we would have tried one of their sandwiches.
17) Le Volpi e l’Uva – wine bar with amazing apertivo snack selection. (Think melted cheese on toasted focaccia, amazing charcuterie and cheese platters).
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