Florence Travel Guide: What To Do In Florence's Centro Storico

Florence is the city of Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and so much history it’s hard not to learn a thing or two just wandering around. But we love it just as much for being the home of Gucci, Pucci, and Ferragamo. And for for its old school (some say snobby) prep factor that’s about as close to New England as Italy gets. The city's history of antiquaries, fashion, design, and fresco work means it oozes with a chic air that almost feels more akin to Paris than other Italian cities.

Despite its being the smallest of the major Italian cities (the population is about 375,000), it manages to stay relevant. If you haven't been there, you should know that Florence is one of the most traditional cities in Italy. Some say it's in a curse-blessing situation where its insane amount of tourism is good for the city but that same tourism means restauranteurs don't always keep up with the times the way they do in Milan or Rome. Even so, we'll always recommend Florence because it's the sort of place you can get to know in just a few days, yet still unique and big enough that you'll want to return to discover more.

Why The Historic Center?

Florence’s shoebox size means the historic city center is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists during the high season (June to September). That doesn’t mean you should avoid visiting but just that you’ll want to know how to do it right. Visit the more traditionally touristy things (the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Academia) as soon as they open then spend the day in the other parts of the city just slowing down and taking it all in. 

Before You Go

Where To Stay

In The Mix: Milu Hotel
It's hard to get a posher, more chic location than a hotel on Via Tournabuoni, which is like the Rodeo Drive of Florence shopping. The new-ish Milu Hotel is perfect if you like boutique properties that mix modern amenties (great wifi!) with classic touches (as in its set in a centuries old palace).

River View: Hotel Lungarno
The Ferragamo family are fashion royalty and their presence is felt everywhere in their hometown of Florence. All their properties—aka the Lungarno Collection—are all modern, gorgeously decorated hotels but we're partial to the Hotel Lungarno, which is set across the river in the alternative Oltrarno neighborhood and affords you a view back on the Duomo and an escape from the tourists. Note that this hotel is under renovation until June 2017.

Hidden Luxury: Villa Cora
If you really want to escape and see how the (really well off) locals live, book a room at Villa Cora. Tucked behind the city in the Bellosguardo neighborhood, the winding tree-lined boulevard feels like a world away from the city center. And the pool and the view are some of the best you'll find anywhere.

What To Cook

  • Tagliata di Manzo -This classic grilled steak—so simple but so good—is a perfect intro to the straightforward but delicious food of Tuscany.
  • Sostanza Brown Butter Chicken - When our Editor In Chief, Aida, lived in Florence, she was obsessed with this dish and this is her attempt to recreate it.
  • Insalata Del Garga - This salad—along with the vivacious chef/owner and some damn good cheesecake—put this small restaurant on the map. Garga isn't quite as good as it once was but this salad is a classic.

What To Watch

  • Under The Tuscan Sun - Okay, yes, this is techinically in Tuscany and it's kinda dated but, if you're looking for gorgeous panoramas of Italy, this is it.
  • Stealing Beauty - There's so much to love about this sordid 90s movie—Liv Tyler as a teen, directed by Bertolucci, a stunning landscape, amazing soundtrack—but it also perfectly channels Italian culture.
  • Hannibal - Not so much for the cannibal plotline and way more for the fact its partially set in Florence, this movie shows the city from a darker point of view.

Once You're There

Must-Eat Tuscan Food

  • Lampredotto: Lampredotto is a typical Florentine dish, made from the fourth and final stomach of a cow. The word "Lampredotto" is derived from the Italian word for lamprey eels, lampreda, because it's said the tripe resembles an eel in shape and color.
  • Crostini Al Fegato: Okay, ya, this is a liver toast and we'll admit it sounds way more appetizing in Italian than in English. But the Tuscans know how to do it right—sauteed with garlic and sweet wine— so it's good enough we order it whenever we see it on the menu. 
  • Bistecca Fiorentina: You have to have at least one bistecca Fiorentina while you're in town—it is named for the city after all. This is a thick cut steak most similar to a Porterhouse and it's charred and served rare. Another steak worth ordering? The Tagliata di Manzo or grilled, sliced steak that's usually served over arugula.
  • Pappa al PomodoroIf carbs are you're thing, then this is your soup. A classic example of the meager ways of classic Tuscan cooking, this is a soup made from nothing more than tomatoes, stale bread, and lots of olive oil. Every Nonna has her own version so look for the one you like best. And if you're into bread soups, ribollita 
  • SchiacciataAnother must for carb lovers is the super thin crusty version of focaccia made with lots of olive oil and salt. During wine harvest, some bakers add in grapes but don't confuse it with focaccia fiorentina—a sweet doughy dessert made during Carnival time. 
  • Torta Della Nonna: One of our all-time favorite desserts because it's so simple with nothing more than pastry dough, pastry cream, and lots of toasted pine nuts. A really good version will have a flaky crusty, a slightly citrus taste, and just be seriously addictive.

Where To Coffee + Tea

Ditta Artiginale

Sure you can go to a sidewalk cafe and get a more-than-decent espresso almost anywhere in Florence. But, if you want something a bit more of-the-moment — a pour over, a flat white, a cortado — you'll want to head to Ditta. There are two locations and we prefer the chicer Oltrarno one to the rustic one in the city center where many a study abroad student hangs while eating avo toast. 

Le Murate

Once a monastery then a jail, Le Murate in its modern form is a square with a great cafe. We reccommend stopping by Caffe Letterario Le Murate for a coffee or a glass of wine and checking out whatever event or live music is happening at that moment. 

La Via Del Te

Sure, Italy is all about coffee, but in a city as classic as Florence (and a city so beloved by the English), there’s a legit tea culture. I like to kick up my feet up here for a second as the day gets started and taste one of their 200-something teas from all over the world. In particular,we're fans of their “tea cappuccinos.

Where To Brunch

La Menagere

Not so much a restaurant as a cafe with a homeware store and floral space, La Menagere is an all-around gorgeous place to hang, This concept restaurant located in the San Lorenzo area that has helped Florence break from tradition, if sometimes a little too far. Even if you don't go for a meal, it's an Instagram-worthy place to grab a snack or a coffee. Oh, and their cocktails are top notch!

Where To Light Lunch

Gucci Museum Caffe

Don't let the fact this is located on one of the busiest piazzas of the city deter you. At any given time, you might be dining next to an exec from one of the big wine houses or some impossibly chic fasionistas. We like it for its contemporary vibes, fresh and healthy food, and that it's just as chic as the brand its named after. 

Cantinetta Dei Verrazzano 

For a more old-school light lunch, head to the wine bar, Cantinetta Dei Verrazzano, run by the Verrazzano winery. Here you can try an assortment of the winery's wines but we really love it for the bites, from salumi to cheeses to breads that are among the best in the city. Just be ready to wait because there's pretty much always a line (or just grab a piece or foccacia to go and snack on that as you walk around the city).

Where To Dinner

Trattoria Cibreo

When it comes to restaurants that have a reputation, Cibreo holds its own. This restaurant is a bit of a walk from the historic center but totally worth the trip. A more high-end, white tablecloth meal, Cibreo is our pick for classic Tuscan food. Oh, and if you never thought you'd like chicken livers, well, hold your judgement until you've tried the crostini al fegato (see above) at Cibreo.

Il Santo Bevitore 

Yes, we're loved this place since it opened over ten years ago. And we're clearly not alone because it's always busy. If you can get someone on the phone, do make a reservation in advance. Otherwise, show up when they open and put your name on the list then head to Golden View Open Bar (below) for a drink and a snack while you wait it out. The wine list here is noteworthy in and of itself but the pastas and meat dishes are what keep us coming back. 

Borgo San Jacopo

When it comes to a high-end, white tablecloth dining experience in Florence, we like how Borgo San Jacopo pushes the envelope. Located along the water on the Oltrarno in the Hotel Lungarno (under renovation until June 2017 FYI), this Michelin-starred restaurant is impeccable from its service to its thoughtful menus that are creative twists on traditional Italian flavors. 

Where To Panino  

'Ino

Florence takes panini (aka sandwiches) seriously so you'll see shops on seemingly every corner. But we feel a few are worth the hunt. Tucked away between the Lungarno and the Uffizi, 'Ino can be hard to find but it's totally worth the search. They take their sandwich-making seriously and stay true to Italy by using only local ingredients. We try something new everytime and have yet to be disappointed.

I Due Frattellini

For us, it's not a trip to Florence without at least one stop by I Due Frattellini. Yes, All'Antico Vinaio (below) is way better known among tourists but we prefer this place if only for the fact it always has a locals vibe (you might roll up and find yourself in a debate about last night's soccer game before you're allowed to order) even though it's smackdab in the city center. There are 10s of choices here but each panino is palm-sized so feel free to order a few (but don't miss the sandwiches with eggplant or salsa cruda).

All' Antico Vinaio

Arguably the most famous panino shop in the whole city, this store and wine bar has been around for decades and pretty much always has a line. The sandwiches are super-sized so only order one and bring your appetite! 

Where To Sweet

Antonio Mattei

Seriously though, these are our all-time favorite cookies in Florence. In fact, we always thought biscotti were just dry and boring until we went here. This family-run shop serves up classic regional cookies from the well known biscotti di prato (aka cantuccini) to the lesser-known but equally-addictive bruti ma buoni (aka ugly but good) cookies. Our only other stop for cookies in town is for a bag of the lemon cornflake almond cookies from the gift shop at San Miniato Al Monte church (worth a detour from Piazzale Michelangelo (see below) if just for the cookies, in our opinion).

Gelataria La Carraia

There are more gelato shops than we can count in the city center but we prefer to cross the river for this classic shop just next to the Ponte alla Carraia bridge. The crowds are (usually) way more chill than in the other parts of town and their gelato is super creamy and pretty much all the flavors are delicious!

Carapina

Okay, yes, you've caught us: this is the same Carapina that we like in Rome. But, seriuosly, it's really good stuff. Their flavors are all really clean and fresh and it's hard to go wrong with the classics, but we're really into their savory gelato flavors. 

Where To Drink

Cantinetta Antinori

You can't talk Florence without talking wine. And you can't talk wine in that region without sooner or later discussing the storied Antinori family and their wineries. This place is a true cantinetta (aka wine bar), meaning you go primarily to wine taste, but they also have some really great small bites if you're hungry. They are always opening some of their most award-winning wines so you can taste some super serious (and pricey) wines by the glass instead of having to pony up for a whole bottle.

Archea Brewery

The last decade has seen the rise of a really noteworthy craft beer scene in Italy and, when it comes to Florence, Archea was one of the breweries that lead the way. This grungy, hole-in-the-wall is a perfect place to watch a soccer game and rub shoulders with the alternative local scene, all while trying some of the best beers in the region.

Golden View Open Bar

Though the Negroni was invented in Florence about a century ago, there hasn't historically been much in the way of cocktails. A big nod must be made to Mayday Club who has been mixing up craft cocktails for over 15 years. But for a more posh cocktail experience with a riverside view, we often head to Golden View Open Bar (a perfect pre-dinner stop if you've booked a table at Borgo San Jacopo (above), by the way.

Where To Shop

Piedi Nudi Nel Parco

Yes, Florence has a big tradition of leather shops but know that the majority of them these days are total crap. At the end of the day you get what you pay for so it's better to go to a higher end shop like Piedi Nudi Nel Parco and buy quality rather than seek out a deal (which may end up being fake, FYI). 

Gerard Loft

One of the lesser known (to visitors, at least) shops in Florence, this is our must-shop stop whenever we're in town. There are all sorts of unique, edgy designs that are a far cry from the global brands over on Via de' Tornabuoni. 

Luisa Via Roma

Speaking of pushing the envelope, Luisa Via Roma has been the leader in doing just that in Florence. Yes, it feels like a cool kids club when you enter and their Instagram following is like that of a Jenner sister, but it's well worth the visit, if only to check out the layout of the story. 

Make Sure To...

Day Trips

Chianti In Greve

Ideally you'd spend a few days running around Tuscany so you can check out everything from wine country to the incredible country resorts and Volterra (where Twilight was shot). But if you only have time for one place, have it be an afternoon in Chianti In Greve—ideally a winery visit followed by a super long lunch at one of the restaurants.

Fiesole

Not so much a day trip as a great place to spend an afternoon or visit for dinner and an opera, Fiesole is just a few minutes from Florence but one of our favorite places for a quick getaway from the city. The Etruscan town dates back thousands and has some of the best views back on Florence you could find. In the summertime, it's pretty incredible to do dinner at Villa San Michele followed the opera.

Forte Dei Marmi 

If you're in Italy during the summertime, you'll definitely want to book some beach time. And in Tuscany one of our favorite spots—think locals, beach clubs, and good restaurants—is Forte.

Our Favorite Locals

When we've got dome sickness (aka need to see the Florence cathedral), we scroll and double-tap our way through these Instagram accounts:

More Florence On Salt & Wind


Published May 2017

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