A day in Florence
Todd Ritondaro is a writer/director and photographer living in Los Angeles. He also hosts a podcast called Frame & Sequence, interviewing filmmakers, photographers and artists. He spends as much time in Italy as possible.
I was fortunate enough to study in Florence in the spring of ’99 and ever since it has felt like my spiritual home. I have been back countless times, and while there are always new things to explore, I’m naturally drawn to the classic, the unchanged, the old reliable staples.
And if I only had one full day in Florence, here are some ideas for a perfect one.
First, waking up in one of the 16th century palazzo rooms of the Soprarno Suites, with it’s high ornate ceilings and windows that open to the sounds of the Oltrarno, the more residential side of the river, one feels like an actual resident of Florence. Or at least like being in a friend’s lavish home, which is accentuated with the attentive personal staff. Especially if you are greeted by one of the hosts, Alberto, who’s warm smile sends you on your way to breakfast. Their sister property, the Ad Astra, with grand balconies that overlook the largest private garden within a city wall in Europe, is equally charming. Both are smaller boutique hotels in the Oltrarno with unique ornate rooms and charming staff. Each have a luxurious breakfast spread with coffee made to order, fresh pastries, local meats and cheese, and seasonal fruit.
Even if you don’t go for one those, I recommend staying in the Oltrarno, the less touristy side of the Arno across from the Duomo. There are some really special things happening there with a resurgence of local crafts and restaurants opening with younger chefs, and an attention to local produce and seasonal dishes. Plus, it’s only a short walk to the city center over one of the medieval bridges, which provides plenty of photographic opportunities.
The next stop for me is always a second cappuccino or espresso at Caffe Gilli in Piazza della Repubblica. It’s the oldest caffe in Florence, that also makes the most exquisite pastries. The “cornetto con la crema” is my personal favorite. You’ll find an equal mix of locals and tourists standing at the bar in the morning. The hum of crowd and the espresso machine, and the clanking of porcelain “tazzine” is equally as stimulating as the coffee.
Before hitting the galleries, a tradition of mine is to stock up on art supplies from one of the local art shops. A particular favorite, just down the street from Duomo, is Zecchi Colori Belle Arti. They have a wide range of supplies, including their own line of paints, and even more special, they carry the red chalk from Siena that the old masters used. Ask for it behind the counter. A few doors down is Parione Tipografia e Legatoria Fiorentina. They make beautiful hand bound leather sketchbooks, traditional Florentine dyed papers, and an assortment of other stationary. And if you have a few days in Florence and want a custom ordered sketchbook or journal, the best spot is Legatoria il Torchio. She has a wide range of gorgeous papers and sizes to choose from and will make it from scratch.
Next is on to a museum or two. If you plan on going to several museums over a few days, I highly recommend getting the Firenze Card. It ends up being cheaper over all and you get to go through a separate line, right to the front. Reservations are still required in some cases, so make sure to check out the fine print. The Uffizi and the Accademia are still two of my favorites, even given how touristy they are. I have a few favorite works in the Uffizi I always like to view, and seeing The David in the Academia is always, truly, a spiritual experience. Just get there early to avoid the crowds trying to take selfies.
If it’s nice out and you want to forgo being inside, the Boboli Gardens are a treat to walk through, with their meandering paths and fragrant Italian cypress. As is the less known, Bardini Villa and Gardens, which has a magnificent view of the Duomo. Some other ones to visit are the Medici Chapel, The Bargello, Galileo Museum, Pitti Palace, and Santa Croce.
Now the most important question while in Italy: where to eat. I have two lunchtime strategies. The first is a long, boozy lunch followed by a nap. Or a quick sandwich followed by more walking and art to ensure Stendhal Syndrome.
I have two long lunch favorites, both are classic and have been written about extensively before, but there is a reason for that. They are fantastic and always deliver. The first is Trattoria Sostanza. A tiny little place with family style tables and gracious waiters. Orders written on pads and only paid with cash. I can recommend the tortellini in broth or artichoke omelette to start, followed by the butter chicken served in the pan it was cooked in, or if you dare, the tuscan steak for two. A half liter of house red will round things out.
My other absolute favorite, and conveniently down the street from the Soprarno Suites, is Trattoria Cammillo. Another classic trattoria style restaurant that’s timeless and bigger than it looks from outside. Inside is a world of crisp white table clothes, warming smells of cooking sauces and meats, and a meal that one dreams about when one thinks of Tuscany. Perhaps you start with a glass of prosecco, along with some fried artichokes, or shaved artichoke salad if in season. A half bottle of Montepulciano to go with their home made “tortellini al ragu,” and a secondi of one of their thinly sliced and fried, but not greasy, chicken or veal Milanese. Follow that by an amaro and you are almost all the way to that nap.
For the quick panino, there is only one place for me. I Due Fratellini. A nondescript little sandwich stand, with a marble counter, a wall of wine bottles and an incredible selection of meats, cheeses, and veg, all served on tuscan bread with an assortment of toppings. Whichever one you opt for, I recommend the additional truffle cream option. There is usually a line, but it moves fast. Enjoy on the street with the other patrons and a little “bicchierino of vino.” If your lucky, both brothers will be there with their big smiles and exuberant energy.
After lunch, or post nap as the case may be, a walk along the Arno as the sun starts to get long is never a bad idea.
Usually my walk takes me to Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. This four hundred year old apothecary has everything you could want for personal care and to keep you smelling like Florentine Royalty. The potpourri soap always comes home with me along with numerous other luxurious sundries. It’s worth spending the time to look around and savor each room with it’s unique fragrances and offerings. And Da Vinci used to live in the back when he was younger.
By this time the sun is setting, and one could either hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo to take in the view of the whole Arno river valley, or find a nice spot in the sun for an aperitivo. Piazza Santa Croce has a few charming little places to sit outside. And of course Harry’s Bar along the Arno for a negroni, as well as Cafe Alfieri, which also has tables outside along the river.
For dinner my first choice would be Alla Vecchia Bettola. One of my absolute favorites, far off the beaten path in the Oltrarno. You enter past the marble bar with the meat slicer on top, above which hangs a selections of salami and prosciutto. The room is warm and casual, with long wooden family style tables, lots of locals, and a simple menu of classic dishes done right. I dream about their pastas. Another one that has made it into the rotation the last few visits is Il Santo Bevitore. Also in the Oltrarno, beautiful candle lit atmosphere, great wine list, and an interesting seasonal menu that is always changing.
And I’ll leave you with two books to get you excited before your trip to Florence.
The first is Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King, which is all about the contest and then building of the Duomo, and paints a rich picture of life in Florence at that time.
And the second is The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. A compelling biography of Michelangelo with great descriptions of the various artists studios of the day.