While the summer may be over, autumn can bring clear, sunny days in Italy. Just the time for me to nip off to Florence for a weekend break with Citalia, to get a quick fix of culture and good food. My challenge was to strike the right balance between seeing the sights (and there are plenty!) while taking the time to soak up the atmosphere and charm of this ancient city set in the heart of Tuscany. Read on to discover how I spent my 48 hours in Florence.
Arriving Friday lunchtime
Flying from London City Airport direct to Florence, I arrived at lunchtime to be whisked away by private taxi transfer, arranged through Citalia. Driving through the narrow streets, we arrived in 30 minutes at Hotel Balestri, where I was to stay for the next 2 nights. The hotel was well located by the river, close to all the historic sites – I always think that with limited time on a city-break you want to be a short stroll from the things you’ve come to see. From my window I had a fabulous view across the river to the Belvedere gardens and Piazzale Michelangelo on the hill and looking the other way to the well known arcades of the Ponte Vecchio.
After settling in, I relaxed in the hotel’s glamorous, mirror lined bar, treating myself to the local Florentine aperitivo of a Negroni. Mixed with red vermouth, campari and gin, it was certainly strong enough to get me into a good mood for the start of the weekend, and for something lighter there’s always the brightly coloured Aperol Spritz. Salute!
Dinner at Mercado Centrale
On my first day in a new city I like to just meander to get the feel of the place, orientate myself to the main sites and go with the flow. At the recommendation of the Citalia Concierge, I planned to have dinner at the Mercato Centrale where there’s an upstairs food hall serving many different dishes in a lively, café atmosphere.
Let’s talk Tripe
Well that was the plan. But when I arrived at the Mercato I found that downstairs, where the produce stalls would normally be open in the day, a neighbourhood tripe festival was in full swing. Tables designed for communal eating were set up down the centre of the space, lit by silver candelabras, and decorated with posies of cabbages and flowers. Wooden fruit boxes served as impromptu trays, so that you could buy what you pleased from different stalls, then bring it to sit and eat with friends.
A number of trattorias had set up stall, each with a bubbling pan of tripe stew. With the plastic tokens I’d bought at the door, I tasted my way through different styles of stew, one with a rich, tomato sauce, another like an onion soup with white wine. Tripe is a Florentine speciality and although the white spongy lining of a cow’s stomach is not the most appetising prospect, it was defintely a lot tastier than I’d imagined.
Although quite full, I thought I’d just pop upstairs, only to discover a whole world of food on the first floor. The open, industrial style space had different food stands around the walls and tables set in the centre to eat with friends. I wandered around admiring the round balls of mozzarella with a creamy oozing centre, crusty sandwiches filled with brie and sundried tomatoes and the pizzas being freshly cooked in wood-fired ovens.
My head was turned by cabinets of cannoli filled with ricotta and pots of tiramisu. Fresh fish was laid on a bed of ice waiting to be cooked, while at the next stand the well matured beef, marbled with creamy fat and almost black with age, would soon be cooked as the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina. Sadly I had eaten too much tripe to enjoy anything more but I finished the evening at the vegetarian stand with some fresh pressed apple and kiwi juice with fresh ginger, before heading back to the hotel.
Saturday Morning at the Mercato Central
While I’d enjoyed all the cooked dishes upstairs in the market, I wanted to see some of the produce stalls on the ground floor, so headed back on Saturday morning when the market was in full swing. Although I didn’t need to buy any fresh fruit or veg, I enjoyed walking round the different parts of the market devoted to fresh meat and prosciutto, plump cheeses and a butcher’s stall just for tripe.
Coming up to lunchtime I noticed the Nerbone stall was surrounded by a throng of people all waiting to be served with their lunchtime trippa alla fiorentina, just like mama used to make.
Saturday afternoon – a walking tour of Florence
On Saturday afternoon I’d booked a walking tour of Florence through Citalia, who offer a range of pre-bookable tours and excursions to their guests. Our art-expert guide Carlotta gave us an excellent orientation of the main sites of the Centro Historica, explaining the birth of the Renaissance which emerged from the 14th century, bringing a new realism and use of perspective to art that had not been seen in medieval times. The whole of Florence seemed to be a calling card for the great artists of the age; Dante, Giotto, Michelangelo and Leonardo de Vinci, who flourished under the patronage of wealthy families like the Medici.
At the covered loggia known as the New Market or straw market, we stopped to meet Il Porcellino, the bronze statue of a wild boar. He’s a copy of the original marble version that was a gift from the Pope to the Medici family. This ‘little pig” is almost as well known as the David for visitors to Florence – put a small coin in his mouth and watch it fall through the grill below, then stroke his nose, and your dreams are sure to come true!
In the Piazza della Signorina
We continued to the Piazza della Signorina, where Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany lived in the Palazzo Vecchio with his wife Elenora, until she sensibly moved with their eleven children to the Pitti Palace across the river. There’s a statue of Cosimo on horseback in the square but the imposing statue of Neptune in the fountain also has his likeness.
At the door of the Palazzo stands a copy of the David by Michelangelo which stood here until 1873, when it was moved to the Galleria dell’Academia and now lives under its glass dome. The loggia to one side forms an outdoor sculpture gallery and is part of the Uffizi – the roof forms the terrace for the museum’s cafe. The sculptures seem to display a Florentine taste for stories of struggle and violence – the twisting Rape of the Sabines by Giambologna and the bronze Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini triumphantly lifting up the gory severed head of Medusa.
Finishing our guided walk by the River Arno and the Ponte Veccio, we were well placed to continue with a tour of the Uffizi, the main art gallery of Florence with all the masterpieces of the Renaissance. Because the lines for the Uffizi often so long, it’s a good idea to either book a group tour like the one offered by Citalia, or to go online and book a timed ticket to enable you to skip the line.
If you are a real art lover, of course you’d need a whole day to do justice to the gallery, but a two hour tour is a good idea if you are just there for the weekend, as you will cover the most famous highlights. We enjoyed looking at the lovely goddesses in Botticelli’s Venus and Primavera and heard how Filippo Lippi’s enchanting Madonna with two angels was actually a portrait of the nun who became his lover and their children. Perhaps the violent depiction of Judith slaying Holofernes by Artemesia Gentileschi was the female artist’s revenge on the man who raped her as a girl?
I enjoyed the views from the first floor windows of the Uffizi, looking in one direction towards the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo beyond, in the other towards the river Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. Behind an unmarked door in these galleries is the entrance to the Vasari corridor, a passageway that runs from here, across the Ponte Vecchio and ends at the Pitti Palace, providing an easy route for the Medicis to move from home to office.
Saturday evening – window-shopping on Via Tornabuoni
By the time our Uffizi tour was over it was dark and I wanted to get a bit of fresh air and enjoy the streets of Florence at dusk, so I walked along Via Tornabuoni to do a bit of window shopping. This is where all the top stores like Prada, Pucci, Gucci and Tiffany are located and the street was looking very pretty with the Christmas lights strung between the buildings.
Shoe heaven at the Ferragamo museum
At the end of the street, by Ponte Santa Trinita I spotted the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo and popped in as I had an hour or so to spare before dinner. I’ve always loved fashion and have memories of buying a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo shoes at a church sale, where clearly no-one but me realised the bargain I was getting. In the museum below the flagship store, the shoes of the 1930s and 40s were laid out, still looking so fresh and wearable that I would have loved to try them all on. Salvatore Ferragamo learned his trade in Italy, but emigrated to California in the 1920s where he made his name selling shoes to film stars and celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, before returning to Florence.
In some of the inner rooms were other exhibitions of designs, posing the question of whether fashion crosses over into art. The stunning pieces from designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Germana Marucelli answered a resounding yes and were a real treat for a lover of fashion like me.
Saturday evening – dinner in Oltrarno
By the time I’d spent an hour looking around Museo Salvatore Ferragarmo it was time for dinner. I crossed the bridge into the Oltrarno, the old working class area which is now a hip and trendy neighbourhood with artisan shops, bars and restaurants. The restaurant I was heading for was another recommendation of the Citalia Concierge, called Il Santo Bevitore, striking just the right balance between modern style and traditional Tuscan flavours.
The teracotta tiles, white walls and simple wooden tables combined with crisp white table linen and interesting and flavoursome dishes that erred on the side of gourmet. I started with an excellent small plate of spinach ravioli with shrimps in a buttery sauce, followed by a marinaded carpaccio of beef scattered with sprigs of salad, capers and egg yolk. My desert brought together all the flavours of winter with a rosemary and raisin cake, topped by a sweet mulled wine ice cream surrounded by a pool of pear custard. I’d certainly recommend this restaurant for those wanting to try the best of Tuscan cuisine in an elegant but relaxed atmosphere.
A Sunday morning visit to the Academia
On Sunday morning I’d made an appointment to see one of the most popular characters in Florence’s artistic scene, a certain young shepherd boy named David. He lives in the Galeria dell’ Academia under a beautifully lit dome that was built just for him and thousands of people visit him each day to admire his physique from all angles. As I wanted to be sure of a visit I took the precaution of asking the concierge at Hotel Balestri to reserve a timed ticket, which can also be done online, and arrived as the museum was opening around 9.30am.
Michelangelo’s David was carved from a block of marble that had been lying for 40 years behind the cathedral, rejected by all the other sculptors when Michaelangelo asked permission to carve it. The piece was intended to sit on top of the cathedral but once complete it was considered too fine (and too heavy) so was given the prime spot outside the Palazzo Vecchio. The Florentines took the David as a symbol of city pride, as the smaller underdog overcoming its much larger and stronger enemies. From close up the head appears to be a little too large, but it was intended to be seen from far below, so the proportions were designed to make sense from a distance.
Unlike the Uffizi, the Academia is a much more manageable proposition and you can easily get around the main things in an hour. After admiring the David, most visitors take a look at the ‘Prisoners’ that line the hall leading to the David. These unfinished sculptures by Michaelangelo were intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II and were give this name as they seem struggling to be released from their blocks of marble. I also enjoyed looking at the plaster nymphs and maidens in the ground floor gallery, with rows of pretty girls in ringlets striking demure poses.
The star of Florence, the Duomo
By mid morning I was walking back from the Accademia along Via Ricasoli, the cathedral dome framed by the buildings at the end of the street. It was time to take another look at the star attraction of Florence, the Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. On Saturday’s walking tour, our guide Carlotta had walked us around the cathedral and given us many of the stories, but I wanted to take a closer look. I bought a €15 ticket from the office opposite the Baptistry entrance, which would get me into the Baptistry, Campanile, Museum and to climb the cathedral dome (the cathedral itself is free), including optional timed entry to enable you to skip the lines.
My first stop was the gorgeous Baptistry, a hexagonal jewel box that sits in front of the cathedral. The patterns of white, pink and green marble on the exterior continued inside with small arched windows illuminating the magnificent gold mosaics on the roof depicting scenes of the Last Judgement. Outside, it was easy to find Ghilberti’s ‘Gates of Paradise’ by the crowds swirling around them. The bronze doors show Old Testament scenes in intricate relief, but are in fact copies of the gold covered originals, which now reside in the Museum at the end of the Cathedral.
The tickets to climb Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome had already sold out that day, but I’d already decided that my preference was to climb the 85 metre high Campanile, which would not only give me views over the old city but also a bird’s eye view the dome itself.
My timed ticket meant that I could skip the long line and start to climb the 415 steps to the top. Luckily there were three different stages to take a break and admire the view before I arrived at the very top, looking down onto the Dome.
After taking photographs from every angle I started the long climb down, which was pretty claustrophobic as I had to keep stopping to let a long stream of people pass on the narrow stairs. Still it was well worth it for the views.
After fuelling up with a quick slice of pizza and gelato from one of the numerous cafes along the main tourist drags, I decided to head across the river to explore the Oltrarno, where I had dined the night before. My walk took me across another of Florence’s must-see attractions, the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval bridge with an arcade of jewellery shops that seem to hang precariously over the river.
The shops were originally populated by butchers and leather tanners who had an easy way to get rid of their waste into the river, until in 1593 the Medicis decided that the smell was unbearable and ordered the shops to be let to goldsmiths instead. Above the shops is an enclosed passageway called the Vasari corridor which runs from the Pitti Palace on one side of the river to the Uffizi and Pallazo Vecchio on the other.
Sunday afternoon at the Pitti Palace
Just a little way up the road on the other side of the river I reached the Pitti Palace, the residence that was purchased by Eleanora de’Medici, wife of Cosimo I who decided that she wanted a home away from the bustle of the city with a large garden for her 11 children.
While I didn’t have time to look around the whole palace, I was keen to see the costume museum, since I love fashion and textiles. I very much enjoyed the exhibition which showcased the couture collections of notable Italian women – wealthy of course, but also patrons of a different kind of artistic achievement just as the Medicis had been in the past.
The most startling part of the costume musum’s exhibits were the clothes of Eleanora de’Medici, her husband Cosima I and their son Don Garzia. Startling because these were the very clothes they had been buried in, which had been removed from the bodies when their tombs had been opened, pieced painstakingly together and put on display. While the doublet and tunic of Don Garzia was pretty much intact, Eleanora’s dress was just a jigsaw of delicate scraps, bordered by well preserved gold lace embroidery.
My final hour was spent wandering around the Boboli gardens behind the palace, a tranquil contrast to the crowded streets on the other side of the river. Walking back through the parterres and formal gardens I came across a spot where the view of the Duomo was framed by olive trees, the roof tiles of Florence glowing in the evening sun. It was a lovely memory to lock away as I made my way back to Hotel Balestri ready to head home after my weekend in Florence. Have you visited Florence and if so, what was your perfect weekend?
Where to stay in Florence
I can highly recommend the four star Hotel Balestri where I stayed in Florence, conveniently situated by the river, just 5 minutes from the Ponte Vecchio and 10 minutes from the Piazza della Signoria. My bedroom was spacious with clean, modern lines and plenty of wood and leather. The dark wood parquet floor, leather headboard and furniture had an art deco feel, with even the walls covered in a cream leather effect with decorative wood bands.
The wardrobe space was quite small, but fine for a weekend break and there were the usual amenities of a flat screen TV, small safe and kettle to make tea and coffee. The French windows opened wide to a lovely view of the river Arno and over the bed was a photo print of the coloured marble facade of the Duomo.
My luxurious bathroom was lined from floor to ceiling in light brown honed marble panels. Marble is used everywhere here in Florence, since the Tuscan quarries that Michelangelo used are not far away. The bathroom was modern with a large backlit mirror, plenty of shiny chrome fittings and shower set in the corner with water draining straight into the floor. The luxurious feel was completed with white monogrammed bath robes, billowing white shower curtains, and plenty of nice toiletries. I wafted around in my marble bathroom enjoying all the space and feeling very spoiled indeed.
Hotel Balestri does not have a restaurant, but that’s hardly an issue when there are so many excellent places to eat within an easy walk. There is a bar area that adjoins the reception and like the bedrooms, the style is modern with clean lines and a slightly art deco feel in the mirrored tables, marble floors and leopard-print stools.
Breakfast was served in a private area through mirrored doors beyond the bar. In a side room was set out an excellent spread of cold meats, cheeses, pastries, yoghurts and breakfast cereals, with some hot eggs and bacon as well. I found the hotel staff were extremely helpful and friendly, and they were able to make timed entry bookings for the museums so that I didn’t need to stand in line. Hotel Balestri would be an ideal choice for those who want a well located, stylish and comfortable base for their weekend break in Florence.
How to book your perfect weekend break in Florence
My weekend in Florence was arranged through Citalia who are a leading specialist in Italian holidays, winning the title of ‘Best Tour Operator to the Italian Peninsula’ for six consecutive years. They have more than 85 years experience in putting together flexible itineraries to suit your needs, using Italy’s finest handpicked hotels. The Citalia team are expert and knowledgeable in all things Italian and even have local concierges in each destination for personal recommendations, advice and help with day trips, car hire, or restaurant bookings. For more information visit the Citalia Florence page
Citalia is offering a three nights for the price of two in Florence staying at the four star Hotel Balestri on a B&B basis from £363 per person – a saving of up to £ 226 per couple. The offer includes return international flights from London Heathrow with British Airways. Based on departures 28th January 2017.
Thanks to Citalia who hosted Heather’s stay in Florence. This trip was part of a project between Citalia and Travelator Media.