you are my favorite city in the world and even when i am not with you are always in my heart...
My mad love affair with Florence started in 2006 when I was just 21. This was my first international trip and I was studying abroad for the summer, leaving everything I knew behind for a glimpse at something... different. What I discovered in Florence changed my life forever, kickstarting my deep rooted addiction to travel and all things Italian. Since that summer, I have returned 3 additional times, including convincing my husband to come on our honeymoon then again every other year since. I like to joke that part of our marriage contract states that my feet must touch Florence at least once every 3 years for our marriage to be valid... so far it's not a joke. So, through my 10 years of travel to this incredible city, I bring you a list of my personal tried and true favorites for where to stay, where to eat, where to shop and what to do for the perfect visit to Florence.
Before you go, don't forget to check out:
Where to Stay in Florence
The lungarno collection hotels
If you were to combine the timeless elegance of Aubrey Hepburn, the classic styling of Salvatore Ferragamo with the breathtaking views of the Arno River, you will get the most incredible hotel brand I've ever had the pleasure of staying in - The Lungarno Collection. This group of unique properties are all located in the most coveted location in Florence, just steps from the Ponte Vecchio, and are the perfect accommodations to compliment any savvy traveler's vision of an Italian dream vacation. I'll take you on an inside look at three of their four boutique hotels - Portrait Firenze, Continentale and Hotel Lungarno, each with its own unique look and feel ensuring that every type of traveler's needs are met.
BUT FIRST... SOME DELIGHTFUL PERKS WHEN STAYING AT A LUNGARNO COLLECTION HOTEL
Since the Lungarno hotel collection is owned by the infamous Italian fashion legend, Salvatore Ferragamo, the creator of the wedge and who has designed one-of-a-kind shoes for a multitude of A-list celebrities from Katherine Hepbern to Sophia Vergara. Guests of any of the Lungarno Hotels receive the following perks:
Free entrance and to the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum
An exclusive shopping experience at the Salvatore Ferragamo boutiques, including a surprise gift with purchase
Of course, a stay at some of the primest real estate in Italy. If you've ever been to Florence, you already know that there is no better spot in the city than near the Ponte Vecchio; it's quieter, less commercialized, has the best views and is within short walking distance to every major sight in the city from The Duomo to The David to the Boboli Gardens.
The portrait firenze
Located on the north side of the Arno River, just a few yards from the Ponte Vecchio, is the Lungarno Collection's latest five star hotel - The Portrait Firenze. Distinguished as one of the Leading Hotels of the World (LHW) properties, The Portrait Firenze is the most lavish of the four properties, providing celebrities and elite travelers with private butler service and customized itineraries to meet every need. Not a detail was left untouched when it came to decorating these suites - rich mahogany wood finishes, porcelain claw foot bathtubs, and wall to wall windows overlooking the river. But the real romance of The Portrait Firenze is in the details, like the black and white historical photos, the tasteful touch of color in the fabric choices and the one of a kind art deco inspired furniture pieces - it will make you want to go home and completely redecorate.
As you can probably imagine, the two bedroom luxury suites on the 6th floor provide the utmost sophistication and grandest space for both relaxing and entertaining. This 50's inspired miniature penthouse is equipped with a fireplace, kitchenette, separate dining room and living room as well as a full sized bedroom and bathroom on each end. Sprawled across the entire length of the suite is a spacious balcony with unobstructed views the Arno River and a picture perfect glimpse of the hills of Fiesole in the distance. If you are looking for the ultimate Florentine escape, you've found it.
Even the lobby feels different than other luxury hotels - it's more intimate, like stepping into a museum reserved for you alone without oversized desks and ringing phones to distract you; surprisingly serene considering its prime location. Breakfast is equally as grand, with champagne, artisinal meats, cheeses and breads along side a buffet of hot and cold options with delectable accompaniments, including an array of local honey.
The Continentale Hotel is my personal favorite of the collection. Picture chic, contemporary design, bright whites and light wood, simple yet tasteful decorations and nothing but the glow of the sun lighting up the entire room as you peek out your window overlooking the Ponte Vecchio on one side and The Arno on the other. Just across the courtyard from the Portrait Firenze, this upscale, four star boutique hotel is a trendy traveler's fantasy.
Location, location, location. If you're wondering just how close the hotel is from the Ponte Vecchio, see for yourself. It's literally the closest building to the north end of the bridge without actually being connected. At night, I would open my corner window and listen to the sounds of the guitar as musicians serenaded couples and tourists as they walk along the bridge. You can actually see my window from the photo (which I took while staying across the river at The Lungarno Hotel). There really isn't a better spot in the city in my opinion.
Rooms are spacious and bright, with all of the amenities needed for a comfortable stay. The Continentale is much simpler than The Portrait Firenze with fewer of the lux details, but just as much charm and curb appeal. It feels as if it belongs as much in an issue of Vogue as it does Travel and Leisure, with a real essence of contemporary fashion. There's an effortlessness and ease to the rooms that only comes with such simplicity. Everything is arranged purposely to optimize the space - banquette seating under the windows, modular desk and floating shelves (very Type-A if you ask me!).
On the first floor you'll find a relaxation room with floor to ceiling windows looking directly onto the Ponte Vecchio. Grab a seat in one of the numerous chaise lounges and cuddle up with a blanket and a cup of tea as you people watch for hours, making up stories for each of the window shoppers that stroll along. There's also three additional communal sitting areas for planning your day, chatting with friends or opening your laptop and working for a few hours (like I had the pleasure of doing many afternoons). Another contemporary, but quirky touch is the iPad in the elevators - strategically placed at eye level for taking ridiculous selfies on your way back to your room after finishing a bottle of wine at dinner... not my best work.
Breakfast is served just across the courtyard at the Gallery Hotel Art, the most casual and modern hotel of the Lungarno Collection, featuring some of Italy's greatest modern artists and their work - even the outside of the building is an exhibit. Since breakfast was my only real experience at the hotel, I chose not feature it specifically, but do note that it is also a four star hotel, with exquisite city views and is set just steps from The Portrait Firenze and The Continentale.
One of the best aspects of The Continentale is the rooftop bar. With exquisite view of Florence, there are few better spots you can find to sip a cocktail or two... or three. I especially love the elevator that takes you up which has banquette seating and throw pillows inside! Unfortunately, the rooftop was under renovation during my visit so I did not get to experience it firsthand, but judging from the photos I would have loved it very much! Instead, here are some photos taken from my bedroom window - imagine just how much better the view would be coming from the rooftop on the 6th floor.
the hotel lungarno
The flagship of the collection belonging to the elite SLH collection (Small Luxury Hotels of the World), The Hotel Lungarno represents classic luxury and exemplary service, best suited for those who prefer the traditional and timeless instead of modern and trendy. Located on the south side of the Ponte Vecchio (my personal favorite area of Florence), the hotel sits directly on the Arno River with an unbeatable view that no other hotel in the city can compete with.
I've always felt that the south side of the river is where you truly get a glimpse of Florentine life because it's where real people live, shop, eat and work. Of course, there's still plenty of tourism going on, but it's also where you can get lost weaving through quiet shaded alleyways, passing by artist studios, shoe maker storefronts, butcher shops and produce stands. You find that there's an authenticity that is is much harder to find on the northern side and that's exactly the feeling you get when you step foot inside Hotel Lungarno - an authentic and intimate experience. The best way to explore this area is on wheels, so be sure to borrow one of the hotel's retro bicycles, fitted with a white basket and a bell, and get lost.
Overall, there is a clear respect for the traditions of hotel culture, with dressy doormen who greet you when you arrive to a classic front desk staff ready to cater to your every need, hand written notes welcoming your arrival and a lobby bar where the bartender is sure to make you a stiff, but classy cocktail. Be sure to admire the rich art collection, that serves as much more than mere decoration. With over 400 pieces of art that adorn the walls of the hotel, it is home to some of the richest pieces in Italian art history including a one of a kind Picasso, which you can find in the main lounge.
Rooms are the epitome of sophistication, with an aristocratic feel to the decor - royal blues, rich whites and brass touches accentuating every detail. Rooms tend to run a bit on the smaller side; however, they more than make up for it with breathtaking views overlooking the Arno River below and a direct view of The Duomo and bell tower in the distance. I highly recommend the Executive Arno River View rooms, located on the 5th and 6th floors that include their own private patio, which is where we spent most of our time, both day and night, taking in as much of the priceless view that we could.
While I absolutely adore this hotel, it is important to mention that being this close to the river inevitably means mosquitos are present during warmer months and can be a nuisance. While I visited in early November, the temperatures were abnormally high; however, the hotel had shut off their air conditioning capabilities (a common occurrence during Winter in Italy), so we were left with the choice of sweating out the night or opening the sliding door and waking up to a body full of bites - so it's worth bringing bug spray due to this unfortunate force of nature during summer and early fall.
A grand breakfast is served downstairs in the dining room each morning, with everything from bacon and eggs, fresh pastries, fruit and yogurt and even mimosas to start the morning off right. The dining area also serves as the hotel's signature fine dining restaurant in the evening, Borgo San Jacopo. This Michelin Star awarded restaurant is headed by Chef Peter Brunel who is known for his original take on traditional Italian dishes.
While staying in Florence, I was lucky enough to dine at the restaurant during its monthly Spoon event, an exclusive evening where Chef Brunel invites other Michelin Star chefs from around the country to join him in creating a private tasting menu and wine pairing for his guests. An intimate group of journalists and distinct guests partake in a night of cocktails, appetizers and unique dishes designed just for this occasion. It was one of my favorite nights in Florence, but be warned that wine flows at a steady pace at this event and I have to admit that anything after the third course is still a bit fuzzy to me... but I'm pretty sure I loved every bite of it. On the other hand, the next morning on our windy drive to Modena I was a lot less enthusiastic about the over abundance of wine.
Where to Eat in Florence
sit down restaurants and tratorias
Tratoria Nella is my favorite restaurant in Florence and I've been ordering the same thing for 10 years - The Walnut Ravioli and the Hot Chocolate Panna Cotta with a 1/2 liter of house red wine. Down a quiet alley not far from The Ponte Vecchio is where you'll find this little Tratoria, which I must admit serves more tourists than locals before 8pm, but it's because the food is so delicious which is why it's so well known now. This is a casual dining restaurant with very reasonable prices, but it does fill up quickly so you'll want to make reservations at least the afternoon ahead of time by calling directly or having your hotel make the reservations for you (remember - if you want to dine with locals eat after 8pm, most tourists eat before). Keep in mind that the owner is a bit dismissive, service isn't excellent (I've eaten at very few Italian restaurants with good service), and tables are practically on top of each other (perfect for making new friends), but despite all of that I always come back for the food. Other dishes I'd suggest include the prosciutto and cantaloupe appetizer and the tiramisu for dessert... stay clear of the lasagna, it's not the best.
Golden View Open Bar
Open Bar is another favorite restaurant I've dined at for an entire decade. This restaurant has one of the best views of the Ponte Vecchio and perfect for a romantic evening, located just steps from the famous bridge on the south side of the river. While I consider this to be a fine dining restaurant, with beautiful views, live music and complimentary champagne upon arrival - it's also one of my favorite places for take-out. The pizzas and pastas here are great in both size and flavor in addition to being reasonably priced, so as a student we would often order "take-away", skipping the dress up, tip and lengthy dinner and take our pizza and pasta for a picnic on the Ponte Vecchio. Here's a quick tip - my favorite pasta dish is no longer on the menu, but if you ask for it, they will make it for you... the spaghetti alla boia - it's a spicy, buttery red sauce, over perfectly cooked al dente pasta.
Now Casalinga is a real local spot and one I've been coming back to since 2006. On the south side of the river, next to Santo Spirito (see more under What To Do in Florence), sits this unassuming, loud and refreshingly simple classic Italian restaurant. Don't expect frills or presentation here, just simple, straightforward dishes that have been made the same way generation after generation - menu items like pasta carbonara, rabbit, veal, perfectly roasted potatoes and white beans - all Italian staples. Anticipate this place to be packed at both lunch and dinner, so a wait is common although it moves quickly. I love that when I'm in there I usually see construction workers, nuns and priests and actual Italians speaking Italian and in the back there are old Italian men cutting and curing meat - all signs of a restaurant that real people eat at . Service is especially efficient - not necessarily attentive - but gets the job done superbly and the owner is really sweet. Know that this is a fast moving, casual restaurant and not the place you should be pondering over a menu for 20 minutes or expecting the server to explain every dish to you - sit, order, eat and enjoy (no rush, you are still expected to take your time and savor your meal time).
Pensavo Peggio is a new edition to my list of restaurants that we stumbled upon this last trip. This family owned, casual trattoria is highly reviewed for good reason: the food is fresh and flavorful, the owner and his daughter are kind and accommodating, prices are reasonable ($10-15 euro for entrees) and no matter how many tourists there happen to be, it feels and tastes local and authentic. To this day my husband still says they serve the best lasagna he's ever had and the tiramisu here is so creamy and fluffy I order one just for myself every time. Unfortunately, in heavily visited areas like Florence, it can be tiring to sift through the many tourist traps and it's hard to expect these days that you'll find gems that don't have some tourists in them, so don't be disappointed to find a number of non-Italians dining here on any given night.
For a Quick Bite:
If fluffy focaccia bread, fresh cuts of meats, spreads like creamy artichoke, ricotta and truffle combinations sound appealing to you, then this wildly popular sandwich joint is the place to be. For $5 euro, allow the Italian sandwich gurus of All'Antico Vinaio to make you the best damn sandwich you'll have in Florence. You have the option of making your own, choosing from a list of specials from the menu or having the guy at the counter surprise you. It is cash only, the line gets crazy long unless you arrive around 11am when there is no wait, and you'll probably have to eat on the go - but it is sooo worth it. This place has two locations - literally directly across from one another on the same street. Each one serves THE EXACT same thing so if one line is longer, just hop over to the other one (for some reason people don't realize this and one line ends up being empty at times). In addition, part of one of the shops is a sit down restaurant, but they DO NOT serve sandwiches. I was introduced to this place by my best friend last year and my husband and I couldn't get enough, it's the perfect place for a quick and delicious lunch.
Similar to late night tacos in California, kababs (or what are commonly known in the US as gyros) are Italy's most common street food. Discovered by my hungry friend Tony late one night after a long train ride home, this is the only kind of food you'll find open all the time. Rotisserie meat, french fries, lettuce, tomatoes and spicy sauce is stuffed and rolled into a pita bread taco and wrapped in foil for $5-7. There are numerous spots you can grab one of these Italian burritos, but my personal favorite is Kabab Babilonia, located just behind The Uffizi, actually on the same street you'll find All'Antico Vinaio (mentioned above), so if you don't want to wait in the long line for a sandwich check this place out instead.
This public marketplace chain owned by Mario Batali has recently opened a location in Florence, upstairs above the San Lorenzo food market. Before you snub your nose at the word "chain", know that Eataly really is just a public marketplace with a variety of vendors selling all kinds of dishes - from fresh pastries, pasta, cheese, fish and meats by the plate. Think of a food court, but with way better options and where most of the vendors purchase their ingredients locally. If you you don't have the time or aren't in the mood for a long meal or want to avoid paying extra to sit at a restaurant table, check Eataly out for a fast and casual, but still hot and delicious lunch or dinner.
Grom is one of my first loves in Florence and continues to bring my taste buds back to this very location (ok, and every location around Italy I can find). Yes, Grom is a chain, but back in the day this was actually a hidden gem down an inconspicuous side street, not far from the Duomo. Despite the long lines and popularity, the quality and flavor are still the same in each delectable cone served. The menu is in Italian, but they do allow you to taste samples in case you're unsure. You are able to get multiple flavors in one cup (more flavors are allowed the bigger the cup or cone). One of their most popular flavors and my personal favorite is Crema di Grom (creamy vanilla, chunks of cookie crumbles and chocolate chips) and I usually pair that with Nocciola (hazelnut) and their oh-so-awesome whipped cream.
Gelateria La Carraia
La Carraia is another Florentine hot spot located on the south side of the Arno, two bridges away from the Ponte Vecchio. This artisanal gelateria is one of the few places I've been able to find peanut butter gelato and it's actually my husband's favorite spot, which means I now have to split my nights between Grom and here these days... which for the record, I'm thrilled about.
Favorite Bar to Catch a Game:
If you really want to travel like a local while in Florence, catching a local futbol (soccer) game in bar would make sure you fit right in. I'm not talking one of those swanky bars with guest lists and dress codes, I'm talking about a true watering hole which aren't easy to find in downtown. Located on the first side street on the south side of the river, is this small, Irish/English dive bar that you'll find Italians piling outside of to watch a game. The Friends Pub is also where I watched nearly every Italian match of the 2006 World Cup, which they won by the way. I still have a poster of my Italian futbol boyfriend and greatest defenders of all time, Fabio Cannavaro, hanging up in my house, much to my husbands disapproval.
Where to Shop & What to Bring Home from Florence
If you're looking to bring home some Italian artisanal goods like chocolates and pasta, take a peak in this little local grocery shop. It's actually not so little once you walk inside - at Pegna you can find anything from toothbrushes to fresh cuts of meat. It's a little pricier than what you'll find in a grocery chain, but the quality of goods is much higher and the variety is undeniable.
I love this shop - Boutique Nadine is a fashionable mix between high-end vintage items like classic Prada pumps and Burberry coats to brand new, feminine designs and dainty jewelry pieces. There are two locations in downtown Florence- one right next to the river and another not far from Santa Croce, which has men's items as well. I like to check out both of them since there are unique finds in each and they get new inventory daily.
San Lorenzo Market
The San Lorenzo Market is comprised of two parts, the indoor section which is dedicated to food and fresh, local ingredients as well as Eataly (as mentioned above) and the outdoor marketplace, home to endless stalls of leather, silk and paper goods where bartering and bargaining are commonplace. For a detailed look at all that there is to discover at the San Lorenzo Market, read Visit Florence's Market Day at San Lorenzo.
Sapori & Dintorni Conad Grocery
Sapori & Dintorni is another great grocery store in downtown. Conad is a large grocery chain throughout Italy, but this is one of their boutique/artisanal shops where you can find some higher quality items, both for making a meal or buying goods to bring home.
List of Foods To Bring Home from Italy
Know that when I travel, the only souvenirs I buy are food related and clothes. I pack extra suitcases and even a portable cooler to bring home perishable treasures with me. Just keep that in mind when I give you this list... I love being transported back to a city when I'm at home enjoying butter, pasta and salts that I've brought home from my travels. So here's what I am on the hunt for when I'm in Italy:
Olive Oil, Truffle Anything, Salt, Jam (Confettura is made in Florence and is incredible), Pasta (I specifically love one in a bright yellow package with black writing called Martelli which is made in Tuscany), Hazelnut Chocolates (Domori Truffles are my favorite), Tomato Paste in a tube, Balsamic Vinegar & Balsamic Glaze, Chili Flakes, Dried Mushrooms, Butter (the butter in tin cans are easiest to travel with and last a long time), and Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese.
What to Do in Florence
On hot summer evenings, Santo Spirito is the best place to find locals and travelers in the know who are sipping wine sitting on steps and listening to live music in the square. It's super casual and a great place to sit and listen to the sounds of summer as people leisure around drinking, laughing and making out. There's a wine shop on the corner where you can pick your poison and they will provide you with plastic cups to enjoy a classy evening under the stars.
San Miniato Al Monte
This is the best walk, to one of the best churches in Tuscany, to the best view of Florence. It's about a 20 minute walk up quite a few steps on the south side of the river, but all the effort is absolutely worth what awaits at the top. This nearly 1,000 year old church sits atop a hill with panoramic views of the city and is home to some of the oldest frescos in Florence (click here for more of the church's history). In addition to the mystical cemetery, if you arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon, you can still hear the monks chanting each day. On your way back down, make a quick stop over at the very popular Piazzale Michelangelo (commonly known as Michelangelo Square) for more views, lots of tourists and cheesy vendors. From there, you can make your way back down to the city center.
Academia (The David)
Of course, you absolutely must visit the Academia where the glorious David lives these days. It's one of the few famous monuments in the world, in my humble opinion, that actually lives up to its fame. You definitely want to reserve tickets online ahead of time as it books up fast, especially during the summer, and it will keep you from having to wait in extra long lines to buy tickets. I also suggest either going with a tour guide or downloading an audio tour to fully grasp the depth of Michelangelo's masterpiece.
Duomo, Baptistry & Duomo Museum
The Duomo is one of Florence's most prized structures and serves as an excellent spot for orienting yourself in the city. To enter these locations, you can purchase tickets from the Duomo Museum on the back end of the Duomo which will cover the admission to all or a combination of these sights. So here's my advice if you are pressed for time: The inside of the cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore (few people actually know the name of it), is pretty lack luster and isn't worth much more than a quick stroll through, but you absolutely will want to ascend the very confined top of the dome where you can look out onto all of the city (entrance is found outside the church). Being someone scared of heights and who avoids super strenuous activity when possible, I still love this experience and would highly suggest that you take the time waiting in line to do it too, climbing the 463 steps through the interior of Brunelleschi's dome. Then be sure to check out the golden doors of the Baptistry (the octagonal structure just outside the basilica entrance) and then head inside, because unlike the cathedral, the interior of the Baptistry is outstanding. Finally, spend some time in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, where you'll learn about the cathedral's history, see some its original statues and, if nothing else, get a close up view of the dome from the rooftop (my favorite view of the dome during sunset - you're so close it feels like you could reach out and touch it).
As mentioned above under the Where to Stay section, the Ferragamo Museum is where you must go if you love fashion and love shoes. As the inventor of the wedge, Salvatore Ferragamo is one of the most famous Italian designers of all time and shoe maker to nearly every A-list celebrity from Audrey Hepburn to Kobe Bryant, whose autographed molds are all on display along with hundreds of gorgeous and intricately designed Ferragamo originals.
The Pitti Palace & Boboli Gardens
The Pitti Palace, once owned by the powerful Medici family, is now a museum with expansive gardens. You have to buy tickets to the museum and gardens separately, so I usually just skip paying for the museum and opt for a long walk through the gardens. Bare in mind that the initial entrance into the gardens requires a bit of a climb up a large outdoor staircase, so better done when it isn't too hot out; however, the walk is worth the maze of gardens and statues that lies beyond it and serves as a fulfilling way to pass time.
Here's the short version - the Uffizi is a massive museum and it would take days to see it all. It is home to a large collection of some of the most famous Italian works of art in history, including The Birth of Venus, but unless you have the slightest interest in Italian art or have plenty of time in Florence, it may be in your best interest to skip this specific museum. Don't get me wrong, the Uffizi is one of the world's greatest museums, but the line to get in can be very long and the rather extensive maze takes hours upon hours to get through, so it's really only worth it if you enjoy museums or have a passion for art. If you still want to visit, be sure to buy tickets online so you can skip the lines and get right to it! (guided tours also available)
The Many Churches of Florence
There are a number of churches in Florence that are all worth visiting - Santa Maria Novella, Santa Maria del Fiore, Santa Croce... - all unique with rich and vibrant history within. However, I appreciate them because I studied them for an entire semester... my husband on the other hand was less enthralled. So, if you don't have the time, energy or interest in visiting all of them, I'd highly suggest the San Lorenzo Complex, where you can visit the basilica, the library designed by Michelangelo and the Medici Chapels as well as the San Marco Museum which has some of the most impressive frescos in the city and you can walk through the small chambers where the church's friars once lived.
Touch the Snout of the Pig
Located in the Mercato Nuovo, Il Porcellino is a bronze statue of a boar with a shiny gold snout. The superstition goes that if you touch the snout it will bring you good luck and by placing a coin in the mouth of the pig you are guaranteed to return to Florence. Superstition or not, it's worked for me every time and I don't plan on testing fate by forgetting to pet the lovable pig!
Old Movie Theater Playing American Films
In need of a movie fix or just want to get out of the heat while being entertained in an air conditioned, historical building? Catch a movie in English at the Odeon Cine Hall, where they still abruptly stop the movie in the middle for intermission.
So the Ponte Vecchio is really just a bridge that is lined with overpriced, flashy jewelry and its overly famous draw is beyond me. BUT, at night, when the endless amounts of tour groups have gone away and the moon shines bright on the Arno River, guitarists and singers play to onlookers and it is transformed into one of the most romantic places in the city. I like to order food to-go from Open Bar and eat it on the curb of the Ponte Vecchio, listening to music - it makes for the perfect evening.