A UNIQUE TRAVEL GUIDE TO FLORENCE
What to touch, see, taste, hear & smell in Tuscany’s capital
This post was used as inspiration for our Dolce far Niente pyjama collection. This collection has sold out but we’ve got plenty of new pyjama collections at the D&D Shop.
If the five senses are the root of pleasure, then there is no place more pleasurable than Florence.
Tuscany’s capital is dripping with architectural charm, illustrious art, old crafts, fine fashion and locals that are as fiery as they are friendly. Florence stands in the folds of the Tuscan Hills, a rolling patchwork of cypress trees and isolated farmhouses, while the sprawling River Arno cuts through the city.
Good food and wine is at the centre of it all, with a cuisine that celebrates the fruits of the land – a colourful array of ingredients and a restaurant scene that champions brand new ideas as much as the tried and tested recipes of the past.
For Florentines, every meal is a celebration, as small or extravagant as the mood takes them. Eating is an act of celebration; a feast of flavour, friends and lashings of wine.
By day, crowds flock the city centre to see works of the world’s greatest masters - Michelangelo, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, da Vinci, Raphael - and gawp at the treasures of the Ponte Vecchio’s jewellery shops, while locals gather around tables to gossip and share carafes of red wine while their manicured dogs snooze at their feet.
As evening draws near, the last of the sunlight is thrown against the city’s houses and churches, which are the colour of lemons, tangerines and peaches. People climb into the surrounding hills to watch the whole city turn gold in the evening sunlight, the gleaming dome of the Duomo at the centre of it all.
By night, the city sizzles as glasses clink, aperitivos are snapped up and the piazza’s fill with music and al fresco diners. Florence is a small city, easily scaled in less than four hours.
Florentines never seem to be in a rush; they get around by foot and bicycle, or on their beloved Vespas, which can often be found leaning against a cobbled wall as its owner perches at a counter sipping espresso.
Time pressure is all but non-existent in Florence, and visitors can find themselves sliding happily into its relaxed rhythm. In warmer months, the city turns its attention outdoors.
People line the Arno’s bridges, dangling their legs over the calm water; the doors of the ‘antica’s (old cafes) are thrown open, and the endless gardens bloom with wild flowers and fragrant herbs.
There is a well-known phrase in Italian, a mindset that courses through the country’s bloodstream.
DOLCE FAR NIENTE – ‘THE SWEETNESS OF NOTHING’.
This encapsulates an essential part of Italy’s personality; the idea that moments of simple, slow pleasure are the basis of a good life. A moment in a square reading a book, a glass of ice-cold grappa at the end of a meal, a lazy morning under the covers; Dolce Far Niente is about guiltless joy.
And nowhere embraces this mentality more than Florence. Perhaps that is why in stays in the hearts of everyone who visits, leaving visitors glowing. With slow, indulgent joy at the forefront of our minds, we took a trip to Florence to discover the sensory delights of this small but exquisite city.
To Touch: Making Pasta with Mauro
An abundance of art, music and architecture, not to mention endless offerings of sumptuous food, can make Florence a difficult city to leave. But beyond it, in the olive tree-studded Tuscan Hills, even more adventure awaits.
It is no secret that Tuscany has good food. And when we say good food, we mean eye-wateringly, devastatingly good food. Mealtimes demand hours of attention from locals, who file into their kitchens to prepare family feasts and rejoice in feeding their loved ones. And themselves. Cooking is never a strain but a pleasure seared into the Italian psyche.
Just a short train journey out of Florence, perched on a hill overlooking the tumbling hills of Tuscan farmland is Canto Del Maggio.
It is a farm and slow food oasis, located in a little borgo south of Florence. It is run by father and daughter team Mauro and Simona, who serve their celebrated home cooked food inside their kitchen. Their home, which plays host to guests all year round, is accessed down a sloping path of cobblestones.
At the front door, Mauro’s little dog greets you before trotting off into the house to lie beside the fireplace. Our friends in Florence had told us about Mauro and Simona’s home cooked feasts, their bold flavour combinations stacked upon classic Tuscan recipes, and, most temptingly their handmade pasta.
So we had to pay them a visit.
The one downside of visiting Italy is that you go away with an understanding of what true pasta should be. And it is a world away from the kind we are used to eating at home.
Visiting Mauro, who greeted us from the kitchen table with his hands covered in flour, we had a chance to observe the process of the pasta dishes we had enjoyed every day on our trip. Naturally, lunch at Canto Del Maggio meant two courses of pasta.
First, Mauro taught us the ways of strozzapreti, or gnocchi verdi - hand rolled pasta dumplings made with spinach.
With the cheery encouragement of Mauro and Simona, our confidence rolling the long lines of dough into small balls grew, and soon we were tossing them into the pan in between conversations about home, the sun and family life. Simona’s son came through to help us with the second pasta course.
Pici is a hand rolled pasta that originated in Tuscany, adored for its thickness and simplicity. Using just flour, water and a little salt, we mirrored Mauro in rolling the dough into long, hefty threads.
The dough felt supple and stretchy beneath our hands, but fragile.
Each time we pressed the precious mixture too hard, Mauro would cry “Leggera!” - “Gentle!” with a smile.
The cooking time was minimal, such is the way with homemade pasta. It takes no time to cook and lends itself perfectly to simple, rich sauces.
We gathered around the table whilst Mauro proudly spooned the strozzapreti onto our plates, stirred through with ricotta and sprinkled with tangy pecorino. We ate it with soft chestnut bread, made by Simona, and a bottle of frosty white wine.
Lunchtime drinking is another thing you are destined to take home with you.
Next, Mauro served the pici with buttery cabbage and anchovies, stacked over a smooth sauce of blended cauliflower.
Around that table, with three generations of a family sharing their stories over food that had been raw in our hands just moments before, we came to understand the joy so many Italians find in the preparation of food. In Italy, cooking is a luxury.
And pasta is the simplest luxury of all.
Book yours now: Cantodelmaggio.com
Want to find other pasta making courses in Florence?
To See: Brutal and Beautiful Nature at La Specola
Lurking behind the glass at La Specola, the intricate wonders of the natural world unfold before your eyes.
Sometimes shockingly beautiful, sometimes just shocking. Weaving through the thirty-four rooms of Florence’s Museum of Natural History, visitors can drink in the infinite colours of a rare butterfly’s wing, see the brilliant blues and magenta’s of rare tropical birds, and gawp at species of fish that look like they have landed from another planet.
The museum was opened in 1771, tucked beside the grand Palazzo Pitti. Much of the collection was made up of the spoils of the Medici family, who had collected curiosities and objects of natural wonder for generations.
Twenty-four of the rooms display the art of taxidermy, which preserves the magnificence of creatures from polar bears and zebras to sharks and hippopotamus.
The rest of the rooms are home to Florence’s prized collection of anatomical wax sculptures, an art that captured the city in the eighteenth century. Though disturbing at times, these lifelike figures are regal somehow, frozen in time in this lavish corner of Tuscany.
To Touch: Eternal Marble at Galleria Romanelli
Statues are an essential part of Florence’s beauty.
They are found all over the city; muscular bodies suspended in battle, elegant angels staring into the clouds, noblemen draped in plush robes, cheeky nymphs, chubby cherubs, titanic horses caught mid-spook, gods and demons and renaissance icons, all rendered in angelically smooth marble.
Of course, the celebrity of Florence’s marble statue collection is Michelangelo’s David, who sours at over fourteen feet. But fine artists have been building flesh and bones from marble for centuries. And sculpture is still one of Florence’s finest crafts.
Over at Galleria Romanelli, sculpture artists are celebrating Florence’s artist past and embracing its future. In the soaring-ceilinged gallery, statues fill every corner.
A soldier stands to attention, his head almost reaching the ceiling. A horse stares ahead into the distance. A gathering of smooth-skinned bodies congregate in the corner, their hair tumbling down their backs.
Behind the gallery you will find the studio room. The space has been run by the same family of sculptors for two centuries.
Brothers Raffaello and Vincenzo Romanelli celebrate locals materials in the space, blending together traditional sculpting methods with contemporary twists.
This room is where blocks of marble and bronze turn from inanimate objects into corporal figures. When we visit, the white washed room is flooded with light. A prized sculptor is at work on an intricate bust, carving out the features as his model sits serenely for him.
In here, visitors can come to learn the basics of this timeless art.
Students from the famous Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze visit regularly, using the space to perfect their skills. The walls of the studio are surreal, filled with half-finished heads and marble faces watching blankly over the room.
We sit for a while, watching the sculptor scoop out the features of the bust. It strikes us that the sculptures that fill Galleria Romanelli are frozen in time.
They represent the classical, unmoving beauty of Florence, as alive today as it has been for centuries.
It has taken inspiration from the dedicated third-wave coffee shops found in Scandinavia and Western Europe, challenging Italy’s tradition of short, sharp espressos in timeworn coffee bars. In here, each cup is to be savoured.
Time is not important, and locals pore over their drinks reading the paper or waiting languidly for a friend to join them. It is a strangely unfamiliar sight.
Found on the corner of Via dei Neri, a mix of young students and gossiping old ladies gather at the benches outside. Step inside, and you are met with the scent of roasting coffee. The wood-clad café was opened two years ago by Francesco Sanapo, a multi award-winning barista.
Hearty, high-quality brunches of granola, pastries and poached eggs on toast are on offer here, and loved by young locals. But make no mistake; Ditta Artigianale is all about the coffee.
Each cup is prepared slowly and steadily by proud baristas, made with a selection of specialty, single-origin beans.
Far from the hardy coffee drunk elsewhere, which is typically made using cheaper, bitter beans, locals are rejoicing in Ditta Artigianale’s bright and naturally sweet cups. It is a welcome change for a city so rooted in culinary tradition.
As much as we adore the sheer Italian-ness of perching at a traditional coffee bar, slamming back a tiny glass of dark espresso before the barista snatches it away seconds later – Ditta Artigianale offers a breezier alternative.
Perhaps it is a sign of what is to come.
To Smell: Thursday FLORENCE Flower Market
On Thursday mornings, you might notice Florentines strolling home with armfuls of sweet-smelling sunflowers, poppies, wild roses and orchids.
You will also notice them carrying brown paper bags filled with parsley, dark feathers of rosemary, wide leaves of fresh basil.
The outdoor market is a staple of Florentine life.
From the leather vendors beneath the domed arches of Porcellino to the handmade ceramics and linens sold under the shady awnings of San Lorenzo, the open-air market is a must-do when visiting this city. And there is none closer to the hearts of its locals than the Thursday flower market.
Tracing the stony pathway below the bowing portico of Via Pellicceria, this small stretch bursts with colour and scent on market days. Traders cry out their offerings, whose names sound poetic in the Italian dialect, and display their pickings in generous ‘mazzo’ - bouquets.
There are miniature olive trees, elaborate cactuses, bright geraniums, dwarf citrus trees glistening with small fruit, and tangles of palms.
The proud herb vendors offer up bunches of luscious green plants.
Strolling the arcade, the perfume of oregano and thyme mingles with the scent of violets, cornflowers and lilies.
Get there early, as the stalls empty fast, leaving nothing but the faint smell of herbs and flowers lingering in the air. As a visitor, there is little reason to pick up a bunch of flowers or a handful of herbs on a short trip to Florence.
But wandering the length of the flower market, beside locals filling their arms with freshly cut flora, you might just find yourself joining them anyway.
To Smell: Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella
Push open the heavy door, unassumingly located on Via della Scala, and you will find Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, the world’s oldest perfumery.
Until the 19th century, it was closely guarded by the Dominican friars of Florence, who used herbs and flowers from the monastery gardens to develop fragrances and medicinal body products since the 13th Century.
Now it is open to the public, and is one of the city’s most precious sites.
Following the elaborate marbled floor of the entrance hall, the pharmacy opens up before you.
Its three main halls are adorned in gold, with high, vaulted ceilings patterned with pastel coloured frescos and glistening chandeliers, offset by the gentle sound of string orchestra music swirling through the air.
This theatre of scent houses cabinets of precious glass bottles, filled with the same fragrances that have been worn on the necks of Florentines for hundreds of years. The air is filled with the scent of flowers, herbs and spices. It is heady, but somehow refreshing.
The pharmacy’s modern products are a love note to the Tuscan landscape, made using the same methods as those friars over seven hundred years ago. We left with a paper bag of rose potpourri, which kept our clothes smelling of soft pink flowers for days.
The rich textiles, low lighting and sumptuous oil portraits give the Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella the manner of a Renaissance palace, and though it has turned into something of a tourist trap, its air of elegance endures.
In fact, our house still smells of Tuscan roses.
To Hear: San Miniato al Monte
The olive tree-studded peaks of Florence’s surrounding hills provide the perfect platform for studying the city’s ethereal light. Tracing a steep pathway, passing by handsome country houses hidden amongst the hazy greenery, you will find The Abbey of San Miniato al Monte.
Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, the outside of this church is adorned in the same green and white geometric marble patters as Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella.
The walk is a challenge in the afternoon heat. But up there, you will find serenity in its purest form. Florence’s winding streets often cough you out into bustling piazzas or romantically disheveled gardens.
So part of the joy of looking down at the city from above is suddenly understanding its layout.
The glassy River Arno laces through the centre of the city, and the citrus-coloured buildings spread out across the city, peppered with impossibly grand structures; the Duomo, Campanario de Giotto, Basilica de Santa Cruz.
From high up among the endless, hazy Tuscan hills, Florence seems at once sprawling and tiny.
At 5.30pm each evening, as the sun throws a creamy shade of gold across the whole of Florence, the monks of San Miniato al Monte begin to chant. Their Gregorian song floats gently into the air, before filling it completely. It is an elegant, haunting kind of music.
It speaks of centuries of worship.
Roped off from the public, the monks are not to be seen, but their voices spill like liquid across the basilica, down the steps and across the cityscape below.
To Hear: Le Volpi E L’Uva
Love or hate the book, Eat Pray Love puts it into words pretty wonderfully – “Every word in Italian is like a truffle…a magic trick.” It may sound obvious, but for any outsider, the language of Italy becomes one of the most joyful parts of a visit.
This lyrical, lusty dialect, so incomprehensible to the non-speaker, becomes the background music to the country.
Wandering Florence’s streets, the community of the small city can be felt in the trills of ‘Ciao!’ shared between passing friends and family. Grand old men in tailored suits greet young students sipping espresso in doorways, and shop owners call after their most committed patrons as they head home.
Stop in for lunch in a tiny trattoria like Osteria del Cinghiale and you will overhear the melodic barking of the staff, or the dulcet tones of a couple sharing burrata and truffles.
In the charming Le Volpi E L’Uva wine bar, pull up a stool at the small counter and listen out for the regulars, who come bursting in through the door and launch into zealous conversations with the owners.
Some of the language’s most graceful words are the ones used most regularly – ‘arrivederci’, ‘prego’, ‘bella’. Even a simple ‘thank you’ is a treat – the curvaceous melody of ‘grazie’.
As much as we envy the native speakers of this seductive language, there is a certain pleasure in sitting back and letting it flood over you.
Florence’s dialect is as romantic as its landscape, and as opulent as its architecture.