Everything is art. Arriving in Florence via the main railway station, Santa Maria Novella, I was instantly struck by the heat and crowds of people. In early September the city was heaving, but having the gift of slow travel and spending a month there, it didn’t take long to fall for this city where everything truly is art.
Florence is a small, compact city, perfect for endless exploring on foot. Each day was spent discovering different areas of the city, taking in the street scenes, the iconic Duomo, an exhibition or a museum, visiting curious shops and makers, slowly eating joyous food, wine and coffee, and meandering through the crowded streets to get back to my airbnb to start work on New York time.
I quickly discovered Florence is an explosion of the senses, it’s a city of not only art (art in art, history, architecture, artists workshops, food, wine, service, scent, experience), but hospitality in every sense of the word. In my experience I found the locals to be the funniest, most generous and patient people who despite their city being overrun by tourists they were nothing but kind.
I don’t normally come so prepared for travel and generally try to wing it in order to try and stumble across hidden gems however this time I came armed with two books that I would recommend to anyone traveling to Florence, they guided me to those hidden places that I would have never found myself. The first “The Cognoscenti’s Guide to Florence”, written by the legend Louise Fili, and the second “Lost in Florence” by Nardia Plumridge. With these guides in hand I discovered impossible to find artisans, craftspeople, amazing food, gardens, walks, markets, galleries and museums, all beyond the typical.
There are too many things to share in detail on this city guide (please find google map and list below) but just a few of the places and experiences that have stayed with me and hopefully paint a picture of the special place Florence is.
Santa Maria Novella
My first stop was to the stunning Santa Maria Novella and then the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Di Santa Maria Novella. Entering this incredible space you are completely transformed into a world of scent, medicine and history, the pharmacy is one of the oldest in the world. The Dominican fathers collected herbs from the courtyard to create their own medicines and opened to the public in 1612. The Farmaceutica still uses the original formulas developed in 1500 and the experience is one of visual and sensory overwhelm, I dare you to visit and not leave with a suitcase full of treasures.
When you peak behind the surface and behind doors in Florence – particularly south of the Arno river – you will find workshops. Everything you can imagine is made by hand with generations-old techniques. One of these places is Taddei, the workshop of the incredible artisan Simone Taddei. He makes exquisite leather boxes in different shapes and sizes. I had the pleasure of meeting Simone and spending time chatting to him in his space. Now working alone after learning the skills from his grandfather and father, he first makes a wooden mold, which is then covered with calfskin and stained in a rich selection of colours. I was incredibly lucky to have timed my visit in such a way that he was half way through a small box (made entirely from leather, no wooden component) which hadn’t yet been sold (everything flies out the door and he’s backlogged with orders). On my last day, I picked up my treasure and hung out with Simone. We chatted about everything from music to politics to him jokingly offering me an internship to his hatred of air conditioning. Upon asking him about ordering one of his stunning shell shaped jewelry boxes he sighed… rolled his eyes, laughed and said maybe towards the end of next year.
The Torrigiani garden is nearly seventeen acres hidden in the heart of Florence, and is the largest privately owned garden in Europe. The garden is owned by two Torrigiani families, the Torrigiani di Santa Cristina and the Torrigiani Malaspina – who both have their respective homes in the garden – it can only be visited with the agreement of one of the owners (email them and they will coordinate a visit if they can accommodate). I was on a tour with Tomasso Torrigiani and learned about the history of the family, the design of the garden or ‘romantic park’ in the english style, with a light to darkness theme representing the cycle of life.
While the garden is known for its botanical garden, it also houses amazing works of art amidst the vegetation. One of these pieces is a neo-gothic tower which is almost twenty-two metres high, it housed a collection of astronomical instruments, a library, and a terrace from which to study the heavens. Connecting the floors there is not only a stone spiral staircase but also a mechanical chair activated by pulleys which permitted a speedy ascent. Nearby, below the artificial hill, is part of the original defense bastion erected in 1544 by Cosimo I dei Medici.
On the visit you are lead on a sentimental journey through the dark ’sacred‘ wood surrounding the crypt, symbol of the transience of earthly life, to the open spaces around the temple of Arcadia, symbol of pastoral life.
Quercioli E Lucherini
This shop dates back to the 1800s where buttons, thread, ribbons, lace and undergarments were sold. The current owner (who has owned it for 75 years) has carried on the traditions. I visited in search of some gifts not expecting to have anything more than a typical shopping experience. As with everything in Florence, the experience was deliberate, artful and turned on its head. When I asked to see some mens striped socks, the store assistant behind the original wooden counter proceeded to take boxes and boxes of socks from the shelves behind him, gently opening them and laying them out with delicate precision until the counter was filled with every color and stripe combination one could imagine.
He said “Look. Think. Take Time. Think.”
When I finally made my selections, I was delighted to note he offered his approval and carefully wrapped them up. The experience felt like stepping back in time. There was nothing quick or transactional about it, every customer was treated to the same level of service and care.
Wandering around my neighborhood I discovered a restaurant or technically a natural wine bar, that I ended up visiting twice. Recently opened by Nico: the co-owner and sommelier, and his sister Irene: the chef. I found the food to be homely, comforting and melt in your mouth delicious. Nico matched their unique wine selections with the food and talked through each of the wines and obscure producers. The space is small so it’s worth making a booking to avoid disappointment. While the food and wines were amazing, Nico and Irene have made such a wonderful atmosphere, it feels like you are in their home. Nico remembered me from my visit almost a month earlier and I witnessed him warm and befriend each and every guest, to the point where dinners ended with hugs and fond farewells and I’m certain no one wanted to leave.
When I departed Florence, the heat had left the city, the crowds were beginning to die down, there was a bite to the morning and evening air that brought with it a new perspective. I noted the persimmons on the large tree outside my window had changed from apple green to golden and orange. On my last evening, I joined the tourists on the St Trinity Bridge to look at the Ponte Vecchio and the surrounding buildings, to watch the sunset and the golden and peach hues bounce across the city. I found myself thinking the crowds, that at first shocked and frustrated me, now felt in a way… charming. That each night they would gather and stop to catch that golden hour and the fall of the sun. Something we only make time for when we are on holiday but perhaps we would all be much better off if we did this in our daily lives.
“To see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature.”
― Mark Twain
OTHER NOTABLE THINGS TO EXPERIENCE
Museums / Galleries / Palaces:
Bargello National Museum
Opificio delle Pietre Dure
Eat & Drink:
Ditta Artigianale (coffee)
Il Santo Bevitore
Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina
Le Volpi e l’Uva
Gelateria Della Passera
Scuola del Cuoio S.r.l.
Giulio Giannini e Figlio
Sileno Cheloni Firenze Maestro Profumiere
Farmacia SS. Annunziata dal 1561 Firenze Italy
Luisa Via Roma
L’ippogrifo stampe d’arte
Pegna dal 1860
Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte
The Boboli Gardens
Access to our google map for all these places and more, View Here.