Church dome with grey sky

How to keep your head in stylish Florence

Pitti Uomo, the most celebrated event in menswear, took place in Florence this week (13-16 June 2023). Not only is menswear back this year, with sales skyrocketing from the US to Korea, but also the international tourists visiting this historic Italian city.

Every Florentine I spoke to during my two-day visit to the capital of Tuscany in June avoided the historic centre at every turn, preferring to go round the city rather than through the city.  Luckily Pitti Uomo takes place at the Fortezza da Basso, on the fringes of the centre.

“Too many tourists,” was the unanimous cry.  And most of the tourists don’t buy their clothes from the kind of brands showing at Pitti Uomo, although they do wear their hats in restaurants, and spend a lot of time looking at their smartphones.

The arched walkway along the northern bank of the river Arno

How to keep the tourists out of your head

It’s hard to practice your Italian in Florence. English is the lingua franca in the historic centre: from the nail & beauty bar to the restaurants and the taxi driver. The only person I met who didn’t speak English was the driver of the coach to Bologna airport (one of the closest larger-sized airports to Florence).

My advice? Stay out of the frustrating stories that may swirl around your head about there being ‘too many tourists’, ‘not enough space’, ‘an invasion of people from outside’.

After spending three weeks volunteering at a holistic breathwork centre in Southern Tuscany, at ASHA, I knew what I needed to do – focus on my breath until the stories disappeared from my mind, and if they came back, let them go gently and refocus on my breath. Then savour each beautiful and pleasurable moment, of which there are many in Florence, whatever the season.

The view towards the Ponte Vecchio – the most touristy part of Florence

The legacy of the Medici family

For Florence, a city that straddles the river Arno, is unique. Much gratitude needs to go to the powerful Medici family, who inspired the Italian Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, and artists from Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci to Michelangelo and Raphael. Milan may be the business centre of Italy, but Florence is the historic centre of art and culture.

Here are the spots for visiting, eating and staying that brought beauty and pleasure to my life during my stay in Florence:

Florence on the north bank of the Arno

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore ­– the Duomo di Firenze, with a dome engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi (the inventor of linear perspective) in the 15th century, and marble panels in various shades of green and pink, and bordered with white.  The queue to go in was too long, so I marvelled from the outside. (See main picture.)

Uffizi Gallery – designed by Giorgio Vasari (the author of what is considered to be one of the most important art history books ever written) in the 16th century. I was particularly taken by the work of the 14th  century artists Giotto and Duce, as well as those by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Well worth battling the crowds for.

One of the rooms at the Uffici Gallery

Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi – this private/public foundation calls itself a ‘laboratory for art, culture and innovation’. The exhibition when I was there was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo collection – one of the most important contemporary art collections in Europe. Another reason to visit the Strozzi is that the international tourists tend not to favour contemporary works.

Contemporary art at Palazzo Strozzi

Libreria Brac – a vegan restaurant and art book shop. I had the most delicious green lasagne, after spending a while reading a travel book on Milan with an article by Paulo Cognetti, author of The Eight Mountains, now also a film.

Gucci Garden – OK I did not eat at tthe Gucci Osteria by Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana fame, but I did visit the Gucci Garden Galleria in this converted palazzo.  The other two big Florentine names in fashion are Salvatore Ferragamo and Emilio Pucci. I chose instead to do my shopping at Aspesi, a Milanese brand.

The entrance to Gucci Garden

On the south bank: San Frediano & San Spirito neighbourhoods

Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmine ­– this church is home to the Bracacci frescoes, dating back to the 15th century. Not so crowded as the churches in the historic centre.

Essenziale – this restaurant reminded me of my favourite places in Paris… it’s about the chefs turning to tasty local produce and coming up with an innovative, refreshing menu, with the three-course lunch menu (with choices) at a reasonable Euros35. In the evening, there are tasting menus

Il Guscio – a restaurant frequented by locals and tourists, and across the road from where I stayed at B&B Monte Oliveto. (They were still gobsmacked when I asked for a menu in Italian. Even asking me why.) I had pappardelle with rabbit and black olives. The best! The bread was also the best I had in Florence.

The view from my table at Il Guscio

Sbrino ­ I’m sure it’s not the only place in Florence where the gelato tastes so good.  All packaging and the spoons are biodegradable. 100% natural.

Mulberry + fig gelato at Sborn
A cool vibe at Sbrino for gelato

Where I stayed in Florence

B&B Monte Oliveto – more of a house & home than a B&B, run by Marta, who luckily went to the gym so she was able to carry my heavy suitcase up the stairs. Just slightly outside the San Frediano district. This is the place that grounded me most during my stay in Florence. The breakfasts are superb, around a shared table. The small garden slopes up to blend with a huge tree-filled private garden. A 15-minute walk to the city centre and with plenty of little places to eat in the surrounding area.  I would go back to Florence just to stay here.

View of the garden from the terrace at B&B Monte Oliveto

On the south bank: San Niccolò neighbourhood

The Boboli Gardens – more of a park than a garden.  I went at opening, at 8am. Perfect. No tourists.  Impressive greenery, vistas and avenues. Not many flowers.

The garden view at the Boboli Gardens

I took the Forte di Belvedere exit from the Boboli Gardens, and then the Via di Belvedere, a pleasant back road, for a coffee at Rifrullo.  Ironically Rifrullo is an American Bar, even though there were fewer Americans here than at any other place I visited in Florence (except Palazzo Strozzi).

Leaving Boboli from the Forte di Belvedere exit

For next time in Florence

The Accademia Gallery – home to Michelangelo’s David, and other magnificent sculptures by Renaissance artists.

Villa Bardini – these gardens, next to the Boboli Gardens, do not open until 10am.  Some people I met preferred the gardens at Villa Bardini to those of the Boboli. More roses, they said.

Piazzale Michelangelo – a square on a hill overlooking Florence. Open 24 hours, which is a blessing in a city where much is closed on a Sunday and a Monday. Magnificent views.

Basilica di San Miniato al Monte – a 30-minute walk from the Palazzio Vecchio, and a view of the city even higher up than from the Piazzale Michelangelo.

Enoteca Spontanea – a natural wine bar and restaurant very near the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens.

For a different city with bridges and a river, and a mediaeval quarter, good restaurants, and surrounding hills, and sea, have you thought about the Catalan city Girona?

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