Florence with its 10+ million visitors annually is full of touristy places to shop, eat and people watch. You really have to dig deep to find the “real” Florence. As avid flaneurs, we are always on the lookout for locals who have a hipster, modern, funky or designer look about them, as they are good bets for having the best insights into the city’s true culture.
Once you have sussed out such people, good questions to ask them beyond the usual “Where is a good place to eat or shop? “are:
- Is there a design or galley district in your city.
- Are there any retro, second-hand, antique or used bookstores nearby?
- Where do the locals like to hang out?”
After 10 days of flaneuring in Florence, we found three streets that offer a more authentic Florence experience – Niccolo, Pinti and Macci. Yes, there are still lots of tourist traps on these streets, but there are also great local hot spots.
Borgo Pinti District (from Via Egidio to Via dei Pilastri)
Even though this street was just a block away from where we were living, it took us a couple of days to find it. As there are no cars, it is a popular pedestrian and cyclist route into the core from the edge of the City Centre.
Here you will find several upscale shops (from kids to high fashion), bakery and restaurants catering to locals and off-the-beaten path tourists. We loved the three vintage/retro boutiques – Mrs. Macis (#38), SOqquadro (#13), Abiti Usati & Vintage (#24) and a funky hat and jewelry shop, Jesei che Volano (#33). Note the numbers in brackets are the street numbers, but Florence has a strange way of numbering homes and shops with different coloured numbers; even by the end we were not sure we had figured it out.
The big flaneur find on Pinti was FLY (Fashion Loves You), which looks like a high-end fashion store, but is in fact a boutique run by students from the fashion department of the Florence University of the Arts. FLY has very trendy, well-made designer purses, jewelry and clothing created by the students. It also has some of the friendliest and knowledgeable staff we have ever encountered. We were immediately given information about other places to check out including their cooking school/restaurant on Via de Macci (more below).
On the other side of the Arno River, away from the main tourist traps, is an up and coming area anchored by Via di Niccolo, at the base of the hill to the Plazzale Michelangelo. Already home to several good restaurants and artisan studios, and lots of construction, it might be too late to call this a hidden gem, but it is definitely worth checking out.
Vivaldi Cioccolateri (Via dei Renai, 15r) has a “North American meets Florence” atmosphere. The high-ceiling back room salon with an eclectic assortment of big comfy antique chairs and couches and classic music oozes relaxation. I had perhaps one of the best chocolate desserts I have had here - an unbaked chocolate torte, garnished with thin chocolate leaves. Though we didn’t taste the gelato, it sure looked good! And, while sitting enjoying your coffee and dessert, you can also enjoy some voyeuristic fun as the pastry chef’s kitchen is in the loft space above the salon.
If you are into luxury and love shoes, a visit to the Stefano Bemer studio is a must. Here they make custom shoes from scratch and promise a perfect fit for both of your feet (few people have both feet the same size or shape). The front of the shop is both a showroom and workshop where you can see young artisans at work and view some of their samples (mostly men’s shoes, but some women’s flats). Don’t expect to walk away with new shoes; there is a six-month waiting list. Rumor has it Salvatore Ferragamo’s son buys his shoes here. Note: Be prepared to shell out 3,000 euros of a new pair of shoes, but this also includes the one time molds.
We were amazed at how friendly all the artists in this district are. Don’t hesitate to go in and chat. They all speak some English, were happy to talk about their art and often had interesting tips on what to see and do in the area.
Via de Macci District
We found this street after checking out the area’s Ghilberti Market. Here you will find interesting artisan shops like Ad’a’s Studio (#46) with a great selection of knitted and crocheted handbags, hats, mitts and scarfs made right on site.
Brenda loved the L’Aurora Onlus charity (thrift) shop (#11) located in the decommissioned San Francesco al Tempio hospital, church and convent complex built in 1335 (open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday). Part of the church space has been converted into the most amazing thrift store space we have ever encountered, with its intact cathedral ceilings with their religious paintings on them. Unfortunately, the lighting is poor so you might have to use the flashlight on your phone to look at things. And the fitting room is a tiny, back storage room with poor light and no mirror. Brenda says, “it is like shopping in the twilight zone!”
At the I Mosaici di Lastrucci (#9) workshop and gallery, you can watch amazing artisans painstakingly create amazing realistic mosaic artworks from very thin slices of different coloured rocks. The art of natural stone inlaid work dates back to 15th century Florence. This is truly is a walk back in time, when everything was handmade by local artisans.
Danda Necioni’s (#27) is an etching and map shop that is literally jam packed with historic works – a great source for a unique souvenir from Italy. All of the works come with documented authentication, making them real collector items.
Based on the hot tip from the staff at FLY, we lunched at GANZO (#85), the restaurant owned by the Florence University of the Arts and run by students. If you are looking for a break from dark spaces and ancient architecture, its bright white walls, contemporary furnishings and large black and white student photography provides respite from the dark and decaying places outside.
The food is “stellar,” says Brenda. Her tuna steak on polenta cake with autumn pesto had us both wanting more. I loved my pumpkin puree soup with floating candied pumpkin; mint scented ricotta and an olive powder. The desserts were a work of art; mine a pumpkin tartlet and Brenda’s Sorrento lemon, Sicilian orange and tangerine scent mousse on a chocolate cookie base. Our sweet teeth were happy!
We found Trattoria Ciacco after a morning of strolling one of the world’s longest flea market (3+ kilometers) in Le Cascine Park on the far west side of the City Centre. We were hungry. So we crossed the river, as that is where most of the people seemed to be headed and were willing to take more or less the first place we found. Lucky us, it was Ciacco! The place was full of locals but we were welcomed and took the only table available. (Note: if you are looking for a good restaurant, we always find the busier they are the better.) Noticing what the couple (our age) next to us ordered, we thought it might be a good idea to do the same (the only Italian menu board wasn’t helpful to two non-Italian speaking tourists). Again, lucky us, as it was pasta with fresh truffles and it was delectable.
When our lunch arrived, the couple smiled and said “good choice” and we continued chatting getting lots of hot tips, including the name of another good restaurant popular with locals near the Piazza Della Passera called il Magazzino.
The Florence University of the Arts also has a photography school which we visited thinking they would have a public gallery of student works. Wrong! But the staff was extremely friendly and we learned the university offers cooking classes for small groups. There we got two hot tips for restaurants – IL Santo Bevitore and Dilladarno.
BFF (Best Flaneur Find)
One of the great things about Florence is the vibe of its thousands of young university students. One of the first things you notice about Florence restaurants is that they cater to the students – many offering discounts. Every night while roaming the streets and alleys for on our daily gelato fix, we would run into a street where there were dozens of students all eating sandwiches and drinking beer or wine on the street. After a few nights we realized (yes, sometimes we are slow learners) this must be the place for sandwiches and indeed it was. If you are ever in Florence you have to check out All’ antico Vinaio located at 65/R Via De’ Neri.