36 Hours in Florence
WHEN Roman soldiers founded Florence around 60 B.C., its original name was Florentia, meaning “may she flourish.” It may have taken some 1,500 years, but flourish she did — becoming home and inspiration to Dante, Michelangelo and a lot of other really, really talented people. That's a source of pride for a city that clings to its history. Wander around, and you get the sense that Florentines never got the memo that Italy's capital moved south 140 years ago. That may explain its enduring appeal to legions of tourists and art-history majors. But the city's reputation as a tourist trap in Renaissance clothing may be undeserved. Florence still has the ability to surprise, with modern art, specialty shops and trendy bars. And with a half-dozen breathtaking gardens overlooking it all, not only is the city flourishing, it's in full bloom.
1) EAT YOUR DESSERT
Start on the right note. Head to Badiani (Viale dei Mille, 20r; 39-055-578-682), the best gelateria in a town full of gelaterias. What makes Badiani so popular is its Buontalenti — named for the Medici Renaissance architect Bernardo Buontalenti. According to local lore, the original recipe for Buontalenti gelato was mysteriously found among some old manuscripts by the owner of Badiani and has never been successfully copied. If the weather is nice, order a “piccolo” cup (you won't have room for more) for 2 euros (about $2.75 at $1.37 to the euro) and eat it outside with Florentines who have come to start the weekend early.
2) NO TIME LIKE THE RECENT PAST
There are a gazillion museums in Florence, but only a handful postdate the Renaissance. Start your circuit with the modern sculptures at Museo Marino Marini (Piazza San Pancrazio; 39-055-219-432; www.museomarinomarini.it), a spacious and airy museum that features the work of only one Italian artist, known for his stylized equestrian statues. The museum is a Florentine anomaly: not only is the art from the 20th century, but there's also a good chance you'll have the whole place to yourself. Take full advantage. Open stairways, balconies and landings let you examine Marini's work from every angle.
3) THE OTHER PIETÀ
No one packs a house like Michelangelo. To see the artist's Pietà in Rome, you could wrestle the crowd and try to glimpse the top of Mary's head. Or you could visit the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (Piazza del Duomo, 9; 39-055-230-2885; www.operaduomo.firenze.it; 6 euros) and walk right up to the Pietà that Michelangelo carved just before his death. He never finished it (the woman on the left was completed by another artist). The museum, oddly empty and under the shadow of the duomo, also houses Donatello's masterpiece, Mary Magdalene, and the original baptistry door panels by Ghiberti.
4) VERY HAPPY HOUR
Florentine wine bars know how to lure customers: free food. And we're not talking beer nuts. The aperitivi, as the bar food is known, may include cheese ravioli, seafood risotto, crisp artichoke salad, grilled vegetables and tomato bruschetta. For the price of a glass of vino rosso (about 5 to 8 euros), you can eat like a duke at the cavelike cantina of Fuori Porta (Via del Monte alle Croci, 10r; 39-055-234-2483; www.fuoriporta.it) or under the stars on the roof of Rifrullo (Via San Niccolò, 55r; 39-055-234-2621). For more action, you might head to La Dolce Vita (Piazza del Carmine; 39-055-284-595; www.dolcevitaflorence.com) and order a spritz (Aperol and prosecco) or a negroni (Campari, vermouth and gin). It's the favorite spot of locals who are serious about their eating, drinking and merrymaking.
5) THE SWEET SPOT
A short walk outside the center, just past the reach of the tourist swarms, is the city's best pasticceria, Dolci & Dolcezze (Piazza Cesare Beccaria, 8r; 39-055-234-5458). This tiny bakery has cases full of preciously wrapped chocolates, sweet berry tarts and everything in between. Order a frothy cappuccino and a freshly baked cornetto (croissant) at the bar while Florentine women scurry through, picking up torta di cioccolato for the evening. If you want eggs for breakfast, try London.
6) FINDING RELIGION
The Museo de San Marco (Piazza San Marco, 1; 39-055-238-8608; 4 euros) makes a compelling case for living as a monk. It's a former Dominican convent from the 15th century and, today, the stone hallways are as quiet as, well, a monastery. Inside, you can see the frescoes of ”The Last Judgment” and “The Annunciation” by Fra Angelico, but the highlights are the rooms — each with a small window and a fresco painting by him from the 1400s. The frescoes depict biblical scenes meant to encourage religious contemplation by the monk who lived in the cell.
7) STONE AGE
You can't go far in Florence before you bump into something from Ferdinand I de'Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany from 1587 to 1609. In this case, it's the Museo dell'Opifico delle Pietre Dure (Via degli Alfani, 78; 39-055-265-1; 2 euros), a humble gallery of stone mosaics and inlays. In the 1500s, the museum was a workshop that Ferdinand I set up to teach craftsmen the art of stonework. And the results are impressive: mosaics of precious and semiprecious materials like lapis, mother of pearl, slate, jade and seashells and so detailed you'll swear you're looking at a photograph.
8) THE NATIVES ARE HUNGRY
In the middle of the horrendously crowded flea market in Piazza San Lorenzo is Trattoria Toscana Gozzi Sergio (Piazza San Lorenzo, 8r; 39-055-281-941), known to its regulars as Da Sergio. It scowls on foreigners, it's open only for lunch, and the food is utterly delicious. Order what the men next to you are having: the big and juicy Florentine steak (34 euros a kilo). A click fancier is Osteria Belle Donne (Via delle Belle Donne, 16r; 39-055-238-2609), a colorful, crowded restaurant where patrons sit on stools and fresh vegetables cover every surface. Squeeze alongside the local businessmen for the arugula salad with pecorino and artichokes (8 euros), eggplant Parmesan (8 euros) and roasted chicken with peppers (12).
9) EURO STARS
There is no shortage of ways to spend money in Florence. But for every pair of artfully cobbled Florentine shoes there are a dozen plastic Crocs. That is where Angela Carpio comes in (39-333-837-7210; www.personalshopperflorence.com). For 100 euros an hour, Ms. Carpio will guide you to the best shops in town. If you choose to go it alone, be sure to check out Anna (Piazza Pitti, 38-40-41r; 39-055-283-787; www.annapitti.it), about the only place a self-respecting Florentine will buy a leather jacket, and Loretta Caponi (Piazza Antinori, 4r; 39-055-213-6668, www.lorettacaponi.com), one of the city's loveliest lingerie stores. For more committed shoppers, make an appointment with Louis Passarelli, a founder of Tuscan Resource (800-761-1877; www.tuscanresource.com), which has the inside track on old-school Florentine artisans, like the silk weavers whose looms have been in use for three centuries.
10) BEST IN SHOW
Fabio Picchi's Cibrèo is to food what the Medicis were to housing — impressive, famous and seemingly everywhere. There are four Cibrèos: the trattoria, the cafe, the restaurant and then there's Teatro del Sale (Via dei Macci, 111r; 39-055-200-1492; www.teatrodelsale.com), which is not only a trattoria, but also a boutique grocery, theater and private club (membership can be bought at the door for 5 euros). Snag a table close to the stage and make your way to the buffet table, heaping with olive tapenade, rigatoni with ricotta cheese, spaghetti with pesto, sautéed fennel, bean salad, rack of lamb and — when the time comes — chocolate mousse with whipped cream and wafer cookies. Around 9:30 p.m., the entertainment starts, which can be anything from a poetry reading to a Gershwin-playing pianist. As much as you'll enjoy it, nothing beats the bill — 25 euros a person.
11) ANGEL OF DARKNESS
For a taste of night life, follow the sound of boisterous Italians and techno music to Angels (Via del Proconsolo, 29-31; 39-055-239-8762; www.ristoranteangels.it), where slick 30-somethings meet for midnight martinis. With its stark white chairs, high-tech mood lighting and frill-less décor, Angels might look as if it were airlifted from South Beach, but the crowd and the neighborhood — steps from the duomo — are molto Italian.
12) THE LAST SQUARE
The Piazza della Santissima Annunziata is Florence's prettiest square. On one side is the Spedale degli Innocenti (Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, 12; 39-055-20371), a 1419 beauty by the Renaissance architect and whiz kid Filippo Brunelleschi, which combines huge archways, Corinthian columns and geometric grace. A bronze statue of Ferdinand I by Giambologna is in the square's center. It depicts Ferdinand on a horse forever staring at the second floor of Palazzo Budini Gattai (www.budinigattai.com) — the former bedroom, locals will tell you, of his true love.
It is most likely that your flight will connect through Paris, Rome, Milan or Frankfurt, with round-trip fares from New York starting at about $1,200 for travel from mid-June to mid-July. From the Florence airport, a taxi into town costs about 20 euros, or about $27 at $1.37 to the euro. The best way to get around the city is on foot.
If you really want to live high, surrender your credit card to the Villa San Michele, just outside Florence in the hillside town of Fiesole (Via Doccia, 4; 39-01-852-67803; www.villasanmichele.com). This enormous palace has terraced gardens, majestic rooms with modern amenities and canopied beds — not to mention that the facade was designed by Michelangelo. Weekend rates start at 840 euros. Closed November through March.
Gallery Hotel Art (Vicolo dell'Oro, 5; 39-055-272-63, www.lungarnohotels.com) is under the Ferragamo umbrella in Florence, along with several other hotels, stores and restaurants. It serves the family name proudly — sleek, modern bedrooms, a trendy lobby bar and as centrally located as you can get at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio. Weekend rates start at 200 euros.