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Florence Trip Planner
Text by Lorenzo Carcaterra, Sisse Brimberg, and Cotton Coulson
Photo by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson

Photo: Michelangelo's "David" in Florence, Italy
 A copy of Michelangelo's famous "David" stands in Piazzale Michelangelo.

Known for its art and architecture, Florence is an Italian city that celebrates the present while always remembering the Renaissance of its rich past.

I n the July/August 2006 issue of Traveler, writer Lorenzo Carcaterra and photographers Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson visit Florence, home to some of the world's most famous artists, in "Stalking Michelangelo." Here are their recommendations for planning a trip to the Tuscan capital.

The Basics

Food

Lodging

Things to See and Do

Books That Put You There

Must-See Movies

Local Media

Language Tips

For More Information

 
The Basics
Entry requirements: U.S. citizens need a valid passport to enter Italy.

Time difference: Italy is typically six hours ahead of U.S. eastern standard time.

Money: The currency of Italy is the euro. For current conversion rates go to OANDA Currency Converter.

When to go: Summer (June-Aug.) is the most popular time to visit Florence; the weather generally is sunny, humid, and hot (80-90°F; 27-32°C). Autumn (Sept.–mid-Nov.) ranges from warm (70-80°F, 21-27°C) to cool (50-60°F; 10-16°C), with occasional cold spells. Winter (mid-Nov.–early Mar.) can be cold (40-55°F; 4-13°C) and rainy. Spring (Mar.-May) evolves from cool and wet to warm and sunny, with temperatures of 43-52°F (6-11°C), rising to about 64°F (18°C) in May.

Getting there: There are no direct flights from the United States to Florence, but you can fly there from Rome, Paris, Frankfurt, and other European cities. Trains do travel directly to Florence from several European locations.

Getting around: Driving in Florence can be a challenge; the roads are narrow and drivers pass one another with mere inches to spare. Buses, trains, and taxis are good alternatives if you're not comfortable driving under these conditions.

 
Food

Following are recommendations from writer Lorenzo Carcaterra:

"Trattoria Sostanza (also known as Il Troia—the trough) offers the closest replication of a Renaissance meal you'll find in Florence and is the type of place Michelangelo would have frequented." The tables are communal (the norm in medieval times) and the meals are heavy on meat, though you can get pastas and small green salads. Appetizers consist of thick slabs of Tuscan salami followed by pastas or soups. Signature meat dishes include Florentine steak cooked to very rare over wood, chicken breast in butter, and tripe. The owners don't take credit cards and serve only water, wine, and coffee. 'We have two seatings,' the headwaiter told me. 'One at 7:30 p.m. and one at 9 p.m., and we like to close no later than 11 p.m. That goes for you, Michelangelo, Leonardo, whoever. We treat everybody the same.' Somehow, I think even Michelangelo would appreciate such a direct and sensible approach." Via del Porcellana 25/r; tel. +39 055 21 2691.

"If you venture to Florence in search of Michelangelo, you would do great justice to your journey by spending some time in the company of the charismatic owner of Trattoria Pandemonio. Known to all as Mamma, Giovanna Biagi doesn't just welcome you to her small, elegant place—she embraces you as if you were a relative she had long hoped to meet. As I sat and devoured a meal of freshly sliced prosciutto and soppressata, white-bean soup, and grilled steak with mixed salad, Mamma gave me her skinny on Michelangelo, who apparently spent little time on personal hygiene. 'If he were alive today and wanted to eat here,' she says, 'he would need to take a warm bath and put on some clean clothes. A shave and a shower would have gone a long way toward lightening his mood.'" Via del Leone 50/r; tel. +39 055 22 4002.

"Fuor d'Acqua ('Out of the Sea') is another great dining experience; they literally cart the fish past your table on its way to the kitchen. There is no set menu: You come up with your meal in consultation with the waiter. The spaghetti with fresh clams was superb and the tuna unbelievable. Everything was great and the service was wonderful. The crowd is very elegant—lots of Chanel—but you're fine if you dress casually. Moderate to expensive, but priced fairly; reservations are essential. Dinner only; open Mon.-Sat.; closed August. Located across the Arno River from the Duomo, it's fairly far out, so best to take a taxi." Via Pisana 37/r; tel. +39 055 22 2299.
 
Following are recommendations from photographers Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson:

"The Osteria dell'Olio has a wonderful ambience—it feels like a really local, elegant Tuscan osteria—and wonderful food. It's not inexpensive, but worth a visit. Try the pasta with tomatoes and mozzarella." Piazza dell'Olio 10/r; tel. +39 055 21 1466.

"Ristorante Cafaggi was our favorite evening restaurant. Right around the corner from the hotel Il Guelfo Bianco, it's full of Italian families and tourists dining on solid Italian food. Try the classic bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine steak)." Via Guelfa 33/35/r; tel. +39 055 29 4989.

"If you're looking for local color, check out a small restaurant called Nerbone in the covered part of the city market, the San Lorenzo Market. Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. this combination food stall/ trattoria dating to 1872 is packed with market workers eating such Italian classics as pasta e fagioli and panino con bollito (boiled beef sandwich)." Tel. +39 055 219 949.

"Also in the market is Perini, a delicatessen known for its Tuscan cheeses and hams. You can buy a wonderful over-the-counter sandwich here, and they also send products to the U.S." Tel. +39 055 239 8306.

For the best gelato, it's Florence's famous Gelato Vivoli. Always a scene, this is where many locals go for ice cream. Try the coffee and unusual rice (riso) ice creams. Via Isole delle Stinche 7; tel. +39 055 29 2334.


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Lodging

Hotel Il Guelfo Bianco is a hotel in a late 15th-century residence that is a short walk to the Duomo and is close to the Galleria dell'Accademia, where Michelangelo's "David" is displayed. "We stayed here," say Brimberg and Coulson. "The 40 guest rooms are done in a quiet, nice decor, and include contemporary artworks from the hotel owners' collection, and the rates were very reasonable for Florence." Doubles from $166. Via Cavour 29; tel. +1 39 055 28 8330.

"If you want a hotel room with a view," adds Coulson, "the Hotel Porta Rossa is the place. It is very central to all of the best fashion shops." Allegedly the oldest hotel in Florence—it occupies a palazzo that dates to the 1300s—Porta Rossa offers 78 guest rooms, some of which hosted such legendary figures as Lord Byron, Honoré de Balzac, and Stendhal. Doubles from $178 (includes buffet breakfast). Via Porta Rossa 19; tel. +39 055 28 7551.
 
 
Things to See and Do

Galleria degli Uffizi, Piazzale degli Uffizi; tel. +39 055 23 88651. See works by Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli ("Birth of Venus").

Church of Santo Spirito, Piazza Santo Spirito; tel. +39 055 21 0030. Brunelleschi's interior and Michelangelo's early crucifix are among the items displayed.

Casa Buonarroti, Via Ghibellina 70; tel. +39 055 24 1752; . Highlights include Michelangelo's early bas-reliefs, "Madonna of the Stairs" and "Battle of the Centaurs," and his wood model for the facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo.

Galleria dell'Accademia, Via Ricasoli 58-60; tel. +39 055 29 4883. On exhibit are six Michelangelo works: "David," "St. Matthew," and the four "Prisoners (Slaves)." Also here: notable collections of musical instruments and gold-leaf paintings.

Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Piazza del Duomo 9/Via della Canonica 1; tel. +39 055 230 2885. Highlights include Michelangelo's "'Florentine' Pietà," Brunelleschi's model for the dome, and Ghiberti's bronze "Gates of Paradise" doors.

Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Via della Scala 16; tel. +39 055 21 6276. One of the world's oldest pharmacies, known for mixing perfumes, the pharmacy has frescoes on display along with antique implements.

Basilica of San Lorenzo, Piazza San Lorenzo; tel. +39 055 21 6634. Highlights include the Michelangelo-designed Laurentian Library, Brunelleschi's Old Sacristy, and Michelangelo's New Sacristy.

Basilica of Santa Croce, Piazza Santa Croce. Contains the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli; Brunelleschi's chapel; and frescoes by Giotto.


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Books That Put You There

Michelangelo's Florentine Pietà, by Jack Wasserman (Princeton University Press, 2002), examines one of the artist's most debated works, the Florentine Pietà, and posits a theory for why Michelangelo damaged it.

The Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari (Oxford University Press, 1998), features seminal biographies of 160 artists written in the 16th century and includes biographies of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael.

The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall, by Christopher Hibbert (Harper Perennial, 1999), offers a portrait of the colorful, controversial family that ruled medieval Florence and fostered the city's cultural and artistic renaissance.

April Blood: Florence and the Plot against the Medicis, by Lauro Martines (Oxford University Press, 2003), focuses on Florentine society in the 15th century—and the 1478 assassination of Giuliano de' Medici.

 
Must-See Movies

A Room with a View. Based on E. M. Forster's novel of the same name, this 1985 movie by the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and starring Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Julian Sands, follows a young British woman and her chaperone on a visit to Florence in the early 1900s. Here, the young woman, liberated from the rules of British society, meets and falls for an unconventional British man. Scenes take viewers through the streets of Florence and into the Tuscan countryside.

Tea with Mussolini. This 1999 film starring Cher and Judi Dench is based on director Franco Zeffirelli's autobiography about growing up in Florence in the 1930s, during dictator Mussolini's rise to power. The young protagonist is informally adopted by some British ladies, who introduce him to the city's museums and churches. When he's older, he falls in love with a wealthy visiting Jewish American (Cher). Soon thereafter, Mussolini's Fascists take the ladies as prisoners of war, but Zeffirelli helps free them. The film depicts Florence during the difficult pre-war years.


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Local Media

La Repubblica, one of Italy's leading newspapers, is widely read in Florence; La Nazione is the local paper. English guides, including Florence Concierge Information (published by Florence Golden Keys Assoc.) and Florence Today, are generally available at the city's tourist information offices and in many Florence hotels. Also useful is the ViviFirenze magazine and website, aimed at students living or studying in Florence


Language Tips

Italian has its roots in Latin and is understandable to Spanish speakers (and vice versa). Italians in large cities often know some English, so it's worth asking "Parla Inglese?" to see if someone speaks English. Italians always appreciate visitors who take the time to learn some basic words, including "buon giorno" for daytime hellos, "per favore" for "please," "grazie" for "thank you," and "arrivederci" for "till we meet again."

 
For More Information

General information: The Florence Tourism Office.

Florence city guides: About Florence, Florence Travel Guide, and Explore Florence.

Michelangelo in Florence: Art in Tuscany.


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