After living in Italy for 17 years, with the last 7 spent in Tuscany just outside of Florence, I have spent quite a bit of time in my beloved Renaissance city exploring the endless treasures of this artistic, colorful haven and center of bellezza (beauty).
Read on to learn about a few (almost) secret corners and my most favorite hang-outs.
Cover and above photos by Kathy Dragon
Two Secret Chapels and a Hidden Garden
There are two very special chapels in Florence that are not often mentioned in guide books but deserve a special visit--without crowds! One is the Magi Chapel in Palazzo Riccardi piano nobile of the palace. Gozzoli painted his cycle over three of the walls. The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem is covered in three large frescos, each showing the procession of one of the Three Magi on their way to Bethlehem to see the Nativity of Jesus. This is a colorful site to see!
Another favorite is the Rucellai Chapel or Cappella Rucellai e il Sacello del Santo Sepolcro. This chapel was closed for years and only reopened four years ago. Wondering if the Pennsylvania Dutch took their hex signs from Rucellai.
Secret Garden: Giardino Villa Bardini
The Giardino Bardini garden is absolutely amazing in Springtime when it’s completely in bloom. A special terrace view over the city of Florence! You can enter the garden, climb up and over the hill to the other side where you can visit Museo Bardini, in the San Niccolò neighborhood.
Creative Spaces - Cultural Corners - 'Made in Italy'
Il Bisonte: Art Prints
One of my favorite little hotspots with beautiful prints and a wonderful archive is at Il Bisonte, a center specializing in the study of printmaking. They’ve been offering etching courses, hosting artists in residence, organizing print exhibitions and events---since 1959. They house an amazing library of more than three thousand books and a collection of more than five thousand art prints. The gallery there hosts exhibitions of art prints, meetings and book presentations.
Perfume Museum & Garden of the Aromas
Ladies (and Gents), by now we’ve all heard about the famous Old Pharmacy at Santa Maria Novella where Dominican monks are still churning out wonderful soaps and scents including my personal favorite: the Acqua di Santa Maria Novella (for controlling hysterics!!). But, I've found an alternative fascinating, historical place that is much more unique/off the aroma track. Follow your nose to Lorenzo Villoresi’s Studio in via de’Bardi. Villoresi continues to create personal fragrances by appointment.
Todo Mondo Bookstore & Caffè
Todo Mondo in via dei Fossi, is an old style bookshop with a small wine bar. The owner Paolo Marchionni has a small winery just outside of Florence and serves up tasty finger foods to accompany his amazingly delicious organic wines. Books and wholesome elixir. That sure is the whole world.
Antique Objects & Oddities
Luca Rafanelli’s Studio in via dei Serragli (Oltarno). His website reads: “Furniture, fragments, objects & oddities and paintings.” This is a wonderful shop filled with special items in using antique fragments from various periods. He designs mirrors, chandeliers, candle holders, among other things, respecting the patina of every single broken piece that we rescue. Most fragments have been recovered from the 1966 flood in Florence. More photos here: http://www.italianways.com/luca-rafanelli-il-quartiere/.
A Small Silk Factory in the heart of Florence
The Antico Setificio Fiorentino (Florentine Silk Factory) is a real treat. In Florence, the art of silk weaving found its natural home and flourished in the Fourteenth century bringing prestige to the city and wealth to its merchants. The silk woven in Florence reached its peak during the heir of the Medici. To welcome the Grand Duke Cosimo to Florence, story tells that the streets were draped with “precious tapestries”. From the Renaissance age onwards, silk was the source of wealth for many noble Florentine families, including della Gherardesca, Pucci, Bartolozzi, Corsini and Agresti, who decided to establish a single workshop that would regroup all their looms and fabrics. This establishment was located in Via de’ Tessitori (Weavers Street). Don't miss out on this incredible silk weaving center and be sure to write ahead as visits are by appointment only (firstname.lastname@example.org).
My first visit to UB happened during a period when I was obsessed (ok, better termed "in search of" - ahem) 1960’s style wallpaper. This is a specialty store/space that sells (or rents) vintage furniture or modernized objects/furniture. They have the best Italian vintage wallpaper collection you could ever, ever imagine or if your mind can go there. Very close to the Duomo...and San Lorenzo market. They have a lovely courtyard in the middle of the store and often hold fun cocktail, musical or foodie events in that space. Very fun.
Italian vinyl records
Interested in purchasing some cool Italian vinyl records? Check out Rock Bottom and Contempo record shops in the center of town. Impress your friends and colleagues with some stylin' Italinan LPs and 45s. Now that is an original gift to take back to America.
The artistic studio of the Masters Iacopo and Bruno Lastrucci is located just a few steps from the the stunning Basilica di Santa Croce. The medieval building housing the studio dates back to 1335. All mosaics are made using original techniques dating back to the 16th century, which highlight the natural color of every stone. Following tradition, every piece is cut with a simple saw made of a tree branch bent in the form of a bow with an iron wire stretched from end to end and covered with water and emery powder; the pieces are then glued together with a mixture of virgin wax and pine resin. Modern technology has not replaced the beautiful effects created by these original ancient tools. All mosaics are made in the studio of the Masters Iacopo and Bruno Lastrucci, situated in Via de’ Macci 9 and annexed to the Galleria Musiva, selling Florentine mosaics of their own production. La Bottega di Mosaici Lastrucci is located near Piazza Santa Croce.
Groovy Shops & Stops
This place is filled with wonderful goodies--even if you haven’t yet discovered your inner Picasso. The building that houses the Zecchi store is part of the historic seat of the ancient Studio Fiorentino, the first University of Florence (1348). The paint store - located on this same street for centuries - has always been an important reference point for Florentine artisans and painters. Zecchi took over the business in the fifties and based everything on the fourteenth-century Cennino Cennini’s treatise Il Libro Dell’Arte. Zecchi has succeeded in finding, reviving or reproducing all the colors and materials used by pre-Renaissance and Renaissance painters. The major Florentine works of art throughout the city - including some of the most important international art masterpieces - have been restored with the help of Zecchi’s products. How cool is that?
This great little hotel/youth hostel is a happening place. Music, performing arts, theater, cinema---it’s all happening here. But, during the day there is a wonderful little salon to have a nice informal coffee. One of my favorite get-away-hide-aways.
Just a few foodie favorites
This list is not only never-ending but its ever-changing. Here are just a few of my old favorite stomps and standbys in Florence---always quaint and welcoming. I am always in search of quality, authenticity and intimacy. Here is a quick pick of my Top 5 as there are so, so many more to share.
I finally understood why they call them "artisans" when I went to see how the Vestri family creates their beautiful chocolates and all the love and care that goes into every step of the process. Their laboratories, based in Arezzo --- where our fabulous Assaggio Toscana trip stays ---are managed by the masterful Danielo Vestri. Their logo reads: "family passion since 1960."
Dolci e Dolcezze
This jewel of a pasticceria (pastry shop) is by far one of the best in town--hands down. An old world pastry Florentine establishment. As soon as you walk through the beautiful patina green doors of this elegant little place, your senses are overloaded with the smells of raspberry and lemon tarts, marmalade and coffee, fresh fruit and champagne (yes, that’s right!). Located in Piazza Beccaria.
Bike friendly caffè behind Piazza della Signoria. Great place to hang for hours, chat with friends, work, have an aperitivo. Super friendly coffee loving-Italian-hipsters behind the bar. They serve italianized brunch items all day long!
This swanky, spumante-aperitivo bar opened up not so long ago by owners of Caffè Verrazzano and Castello di Verrazzano winery (Greve in Chianti). Silvia, the elegantissima wife of legendary winemaker Luigi Cappellini calls this her “baby.” A tiny corner at the entrance of the Ponte Vecchio, Spumantino serves up healthy snacks, wonderful sparkling wines and of course, the Verrazzano wine varieties. The walls are covered with navigational maps (the15th c. navigator Giovanni Verrazzano's route along the Eastern US shores) . Lovely!
Not in the mood for a sit down restaurant? Lines? Formality? Want something amazing but relatively quick? (faster slow food?). I have the place for you: right there and in the shadow of the Uffizi Galleries. Not at all related another favorite spot of mine called “Spuntino”, ‘Ino has the absolute best, fresh stacked sandwiches (panini) you could ever imagine! This gourmet sandwich bar-cum-deli ‘Ino is hidden away on a tiny side street so doesn't attract big crowds. A definite in the know spot. ' Inoshines like a beacon in the gastronomic wasteland that surrounds the Uffizi/Piazza Signoria area and I just stumbled upon it with one of my co-guides while tramping around Florence one day. Chef Alessandro Frassica has created a lovely little hang out and has transformed the sandwich into something more elegant: a real pique nique! Ino has an endless menu of cheeses, cured meats (top quality prosciutto, and other salumi), vegetarian options and so on to fill your panino (sandwich-ed with either the saltless Tuscan bread or crispy, olive oil-spattered schiacciata). Menu changes according to market and seasonal availability. The price of your sandwich includes a glass of wine. We are loving that.
Open Markets: Sant’Ambrogio & San Lorenzo
Sant’Ambrogio market is decidedly more for locals than tourists. With stalls outdoors and indoors, any time of the year, it is a colourful place to get a taste of Florentine life as you mix with locals buying artichokes or fresh pasta, household items such as cheese graters, plants or cheap clothing. Open 8am-2pm Monday to Saturday.
The San Lorenzo markets are actually comprised of two separate markets. One is better known as the Central Market (mercato centrale), which is a two-level, indoor food market. On the upper level there is now a swanky collection of food stalls run by a variety of local producers and the food is amazing. This is a great lunch stop! Just outside is the outdoor market full of stalls selling leather, clothing and souvenirs. It runs from the Church of San Lorenzo along via Ariento all the way to via Nazionale. The market is as markets go – a cheap and cheerful place to search for a bargain, although definitely not the best quality items (and not always a bargain), but popular with tourists and Italians alike. Open 9am to 7pm Tuesday to Saturday.
Check out Ciclismo Classico's legendary bike shop: Cicli Conti Firenze. This shop and family hold a historical place in the heart of Director Lauren Hefferon, many of our guides and lots of guests! Please stop by and say hello before or after our Heart of Tuscany, Liguria & Toscana, or our Tuscany and L'Eroica trips.
Any one of our numerous Ciclismo Classico Tuscany trips deserves time in Florence either before or after the bicycle portion of your trip. This city has a magical affect on those who visit---calling most to come back again. And again. So much beauty in one place!
Stay tuned for upcoming posts on more of my favorite Florentine haunts!