FLORENCE — At the risk of horrifying the more cultured among your friends, try confessing that you went to Florence, the Tuscan capital replete with Renaissance riches, and didn’t set foot in a single “must-see” museum. You didn’t ogle David, Michelangelo’s larger-than-life (in some respects) Magic Mike masterpiece at the Accademia. You didn’t ponder the Medicis’ proudly OTT Royal Apartments at the Pitti Palace. You even ignored the Uffizi’s collection of works by legends like Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, and Raphael.
That’s exactly what I did — or rather, didn’t do — when I visited Florence recently. When I revealed my secret shame (well, somewhat less secret now) to my friend Stephen, he responded with slack-jawed disbelief. I had visited the city once before and hit the highlights, I hastened to assure him, but he continued to regard me warily, as if I were a creature from a scifi film that has just unzipped its human skin and revealed a lizard body underneath.
In a sense, though, “what lies beneath” is exactly what I hoped to learn on my return trip to Florence. I craved “deep cut” experiences that wouldn’t feature on a forced-march, box-ticking itinerary, but which had the potential to transform superficial sightseeing into meaningful personal encounters and connections.
So, for my fellow fans of tangential detours, here’s a guide to where to eat, shop and sleep in Florence.
Left: Roberto Buonamii makes cookies. Centre: Simone Ballegi holds a cow's stomach. Right: Guide Omar Aziz enjoys beef stew.
WHERE TO EAT
“People say they visit Italy for Michelangelo, but they’re really coming for food,” Omar Aziz insists with a sly smile. The native Florentine is a guide with Eating Europe, which offers food tours in 10 cities across (you guessed it) Europe.
“But you never find the same food in every city,” Aziz says, “because food tells you about the local society where you are.”
Eating Europe’s “Other Side of Florence” walking tour focuses on Oltrarno — literally, “the other side of the Arno,” the river which bisects the city. Over the course of four hours, we’ll visit seven foodie hotspots, but this is more than an “Instagrammable” movable feast. It’s also a highly entertaining, bite-sized introduction to Oltrarno’s history and to some of the area’s most popular culinary purveyors.
Within Oltrarno lies San Frediano, an historically poor neighbourhood, “like the ancient Bronx of Florence,” Aziz explains. “Ten years ago, no one was speaking English; no one was doing tours here.”
Then, thanks in part to the double-edged sword of Airbnb, travellers seeking more “authentic” experiences (and cheaper accommodation) started to arrive. Today, Aziz says, it’s “hipster land — very vibrant and cool.”
Yet it’s also still a neighbourhood of craftsmen and artisans, rooted in working-class origins and “poor food” culture. The term used to refer to a reliance on leftovers and “making do,” but now, Aziz says, “poor food” means simple fare made with a few high-quality ingredients.
The most uniquely Florentine example we sample is a lampredotto panino from Da Simone, a food cart that has evolved into a permanent fixture on Piazza de’Nerli. If you don’t know what lampredotto is, you’ll probably be sorry you asked. It means eel, which seems unappetizing enough, but it actually gets worse, because a lampredotto sandwich is, in fact, made with the fourth stomach of a cow. WOW.
It sounds like something a 10-year-old boy might scarf on a triple-dog-dare, but lavishly seasoned lampredotto is legendary in Florence. So, mustering a semblance of juvenile derring-do, I accept the fist-sized sandwich offered by a smiling Simone Ballegi, who has run this stand since 1999.
Above: Getting away from the normal tourist sites and heading down backstreets leads to some fascinating places,
Deep breath. Small bite. Verdict? DELICIOUS. I’d seriously have asked for seconds, but I know Aziz has more up his sleeve.
At Alimentari Sandro & Ivana, we’re greeted with a meat and cheese platter prepared by owner Marzio Pirgher, who has toured all of Italy to select the best the country has to offer. “My blood is made of cheese,” Pirgher declares with, dare I say it, a charmingly “cheesy” grin.
At Pasticceria Artigianale Buonamici, founded in 1949, I gorge on cantucci cookies resembling tooth-cracking biscotti, but softer and therefore less likely to result in a dental apocalypse. They might also double as the recipe for eternal youth, because the man making them for us today is Roberto Buonamici, the 82-year-old son of the original owner. Buonamici moves with the ease of a much younger man, smiling as he effortlessly kneads together flour, honey, salt, vanilla, eggs and a sprinkling of nuts.
After Buonamici’s demonstration, I queue to buy my favourite souvenir of the trip — a bag of freshly baked chocolate pistachio cantucci. I feel younger — albeit about a kilo heavier — already.
WHERE TO SHOP
Here’s what every tourist knows. For all that glitters, head to the Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge flanked by posh shops filled with gold and gems. For designers like Armani, Prada, Pucci, and Dolce & Gabbana, sashay away to Via Tornabuoni. Meanwhile, the San Lorenzo Market and Mercato Nuovo boast more leather than a dominatrix convention.
Left: There's some great art finds at a shop called Mio. Right: Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.
But you can really go off-piste in some of Florence’s more unique boutiques. Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, founded by medieval monks and housed in an ornate rococo chapel, is like the world’s weirdest Bath & Body Works. It stocks a bountiful assortment of soaps, shampoos, lotions, candles and eau de cologne, but some items — like the Acqua di S.M. Novella perfume, originally commissioned by Caterina de’ Medici in the 16th century — have a remarkably illustrious history.
A five-minute walk away, Mio Concept Store is filled with funky eco-friendly jewellery, homewares and accessories, including a messenger bag made of recycled paper — washable, so presumably it won’t turn to pulp in the rain. There’s also a terrific assortment of works by Florentine street artists like Exitenter, Blub and #Lebies, whose creations brighten building facades around the city.
Florence nurtures a particularly rich seam of creativity along Via dei Bardi and Via San Niccolo, where you’ll often encounter artisans at work in their shops. Il Torchio, run by native Toronto artist Erin Ciulla, sells Florentine handicrafts made of leather and handmade marbled paper, including photo frames, photo albums, blank diaries and bespoke bound books.
Nearby, the Lorenzo Villoresi boutiques sells pret-a-porter perfumes. But Villoresi, whose products have been commissioned by the designer houses of Gucci and Fendi, will also create custom fragrances for fans who have more money for scents. Tours of his adjacent perfume museum are available by appointment.
And now, for something completely different: Bottega Storica d’Art “jewellery museum.” Picture, if you possibly can, a Gothic steampunk version of Hogwarts’ Room of Requirement: brass goblets, glass pyramids, test tubes, mysterious fluid-filled jars and Persian (possibly flying) carpets, creating a theatrical stage set for Alessandro Dari’s elaborate jewellery.
Left: Hotel owner Sara Maestrelli.
WHERE TO SLEEP
“Some people say, I don’t care about my hotel or where I sleep.” Sara Maestrelli, the 28-year-old owner of Grand Hotel Minerva, shakes her head in disbelief. “For me, it’s such an important part of the journey, if the hotel represents a piece of the place where you’re travelling.”
A hotel could hardly be more ingrained in its surroundings than the Minerva, a four-star luxury property with 97 romantic rooms and suites.
The building, which dates to the 13th century, first served as housing for the monks of Santa Maria Novella — the landmark church with which it shares a vast square, only a few minutes’ walk from Unita and Santa Maria Novella train stations.
After the monks departed, aristocrats moved in, treating the structure as a private home for generations before it became a hotel in 1869.
Legendary Italian architects Edoardo Detti and Carlo Scarpa masterminded an extensive remodel of the property in the 1950s, leaving only the facade and a few rooms untouched; the rest of the interior became a showcase of clean, uncluttered Mid-Century Modern style.
The Minerva was recently treated to another multi-million-dollar makeover, overseen by local architect Piera Tempesti Benelli and completed just in time for its 150th anniversary as a hotel.
The result is a feeling of unforced eclecticism, like a private home that has evolved organically over time. In fact, many of the artworks on display come from the family’s own collection, including pieces by Giuseppe Chiari, a native Florentine who was a jazz musician as well as a visual artist.
Maestrelli, who studied clinical psychology and neuroscience before entering the hospitality industry, clearly embraces an environment that appeals to a deeper realm of the human spirit.
“The idea is to create a hotel that adds to your experience of the city,” she smiles. “A hotel with a heart and soul.”
JUST THE FACTS
• Eating Europe food tours: http://www.eatingeurope.com
• Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella: http://www.smnovella.com/en/
• Mio Concept Store: https://mio-concept.com
• Il Torchio: www.legatoriailtorchio.com/en/la-bottega/
• Lorenzo Villoresi perfumery: https://lorenzovilloresi.it
• Bottega Storica d’Art: www.alessandrodari.com/en/
• Grand Hotel Minerva: Amenities include a seasonal rooftop pool and bar, gym, jacuzzi hot tub, multiple restaurants, Bistrot Bar and al fresco dining April through October. www.grandhotelminerva.com
Florence Free Tour: Meet at the Obelisk in Santa Maria Novella square for a free tour of Florence any day of the week, 11 am and 2 pm. Guides are paid in tips. http://www.florencefreetour.com