You know how when people talk about trips to Italy and then they’re like, “It was magical! Dreamy! So romantic! Amazing food!” and you’re all, “Shut up, I hate you. I want to go to Italy.” Disclaimer: that’s what’s about to happen. Because Italy was awesome.
There were days I thought I’d never be done with this first post about our trip, but finally, it’s finished! We spent the majority of the time of our 8-day Italian Road Trip in Florence, so I had a lot to say on the subject. This post is a bit long, but I really wanted to share our full experience with you all and include all of my recommendations in one, easy to reference post. Plus, there’s a lot of eye candy and Food Porn for you all.
So before we jump into the Dos, Don’ts, Eats of the trip, I’d like to start off with a few general observations that I jotted down in my journal during our time in Florence:
- Do come hungry. And do not even think about trying to stick to a diet. Seriously, Florence had the best food of our entire road trip. Just see the Eats section below. We were in carb heaven.
- Do visit in the off season. I cannot imagine this place in the summer. The crowds must be insane. We were so lucky to just waltz up to all of the main sights and not wait in a single line or have to book anything in advance. And the weather was just fabulous. We bundled up and yes it got cold at night, but we were comfortable, the sun was shining, and we got a great, off-season deal on our hotel. And you know I love seeing all the holiday decorations that a winter trip affords.
- Do walk across the Ponte Vecchio. This “old bridge” used to be filled with butcher shops way back when, but now it’s a pedestrian bridge full of jewelry shops and souvenirs. It’s fun to see, has some great views, and is very photogenic.
- Do go south of the Arno. Most of the sites in Florence are located on the North side of the Arno River within a 15 minute walk of each other. During my research, I realized that most of the bars, cafés and restaurants we wanted to check out were south of the Arno in a neighborhood called Oltrarno. We spent a lot of time wandering around this area and just loved it. It’s where you’ll discover some pretty unique shopping, not just on the popular Borgo San Frediano, but also on the Via dei Serragli. Antiques, leather goods, clothes, furniture, sigh. It was strictly window shopping for this housewife.
- Do run into the Santo Spirito Sunday market. Our first day in Florence, as we were walking around the Oltrarno, we literally ran into this very local street market. Right away we could tell this was not a tourist destination as it was filled with locals buying their produce and vendors who just sat in their chairs relaxing, talking to one another, and having a drink. There were some really interesting stalls filled with cheeses, children’s clothes, woodwork, and homemade chairs.
- Do stroll around the Piazza Duomo. You can stand in the center and knock out three major sights without even moving. Giotto’s Tower, the Bapitistery, the Duomo, this is Florence’s cultural center and even just staring at the outside of these ornate landmarks is worth the trip.
- Do plan an afternoon for the Pitti Palace/Boboli Gardens. I’m going to be honest, we really didn’t know all that this attraction entailed. Basically, it’s the Versailles of Florence. Pitti Palace is a giant mansion where the Medici lived for many years, and which now houses great works of art. The Boboli Gardens are the sprawling backyard full of fountains, an amphitheater, several museums, and some spectacular viewpoints. Coming late in the afternoon, we didn’t budget nearly enough time to explore the grounds to the fullest, and we didn’t go inside the Pitti Palace at all, but we still spent and hour or so strolling around the gardens and taking in the views. I’d recommend going earlier in the afternoon when the light is a bit more present in the Gardens.
- Do watch the sunset from the Piazzale Michelangelo. After we visited the gardens, we walked over to this piazzale, far from the other sites of Florence and high on a hill, to watch the sun go down and the lights come up. We carried a bottle of Prosecco up, up, up, the steps to this viewpoint only to discover that there’s a little shop at the top selling all the booze you could want. Oh well, it gave our arms an extra workout. The hike up to the top was absolutely worth it as we had a virtually unobstructed view of the entire city panorama. It was the perfect way to start our last night in Florence.
- Do wander, wander wander! There are so many cool things you can see just by walking around. We ran into teeny shops the size of closets, beautiful street art hiding scaffolding, a strange dancing circle, and the Jersey Shore pizzeria. Ok, the Jersey Shore pizzeria is not exactly a landmark, but when we realized we’d walked right into it without even trying, we couldn’t stop laughing.
- Do stay at the Strozzi Palace Hotel. Is this the most amazing place to stay in Florence? Probably not, but the staff was so friendly, the hotel was nice and clean with a good television, mini-bar, and normal bathroom. Plus, it’s in a great location – the Piazza della Repubblica right in the center of town – for a good price. My only complaint about this place is that the Wi-Fi was very temperamental.
- Do bring cash. Most of the museums, like the Uffizi and Pitti Palace, were cash only, which I found a little strange and pretty annoying.
- Do walk and drive defensively. It’s true what they say: Italians are crazy drivers. And bikers. And walkers. Everyone is just doing whatever the hell they feel like, focused on their own agenda with no regard to traffic rules. For example, on our first night in Florence, Michael and I were walking home from dinner at around midnight. We were on this wide and virtually vacant street, walking on the sidewalk, engrossed in our own conversation.
All of the sudden, I was on the ground. Didn’t see it, hear it, feel it coming, just one second talking, the next second sprawled out in the street. Apparently someone needed to turn his car around from a parked position immediately without any time to look in the rear view mirror and ran right into me. It hurt. A lot. But it could have been much, much worse. For the record, the guy did get out of the car to make sure I was ok and offered to take me to the hospital. But aside from a lot of bruises all over my elbows and legs, I was fine. I managed to not hit my head during the fall which caused Michael to proclaim me a “good faller.” So seriously, watch your back in Italy. Even on the sidewalk.
- Don’t go to the Uffizi. Unless you have a really strong connection with Renaissance art, I just don’t think it’s worth it. I think by know you all know my opinion on museums. Spending all day inside is no way to experience a city in my book. Art museums can be really cool and fun if you are truly interested in the exhibitions, but just to go for the sake of going is kind of silly. That’s why in all my trips to Paris, I’ve never been to The Louvre (gasp!). Since we were spending four full days in Florence, we thought we should check out the Uffizi, but didn’t even entertain the idea of going to the Accademia (where Michelangelo’s original David resides. We settled for the replica at the Piazzale Michelangelo). The Uffizi was interesting for the first 45 minutes, but after room after room of Bible depictions, I really would have rather been outside walking around or relaxing in a café.
- Don’t expect much from the San Lorenzo Street Market. This is your typical huge, touristy street market filled with aggressive vendors and cheaply made goods. Something about it just made me feel dirty and like I was about to get ripped off. It’s a good place to stop for cheap scarves, postcards, or trinkety souvenirs, but don’t do any serious shopping there. However, at the end of this street market you’ll find the Mercado Centrale, an indoor food market that’s pretty cool. We picked up some arrabiata spices for pasta sauce and tried some delicious tapenade.
- Don’t climb the Duomo if you’re hungover. Or if you’re tired, elderly, or have any sort of physical ailment. The views from the Duomo are epic, but I almost did not make it to the top in my…”state.” It’s 463 steep, spirally steps and I almost died. Seriously. Are the views worth a near-death experience? I guess so, but I hear the climb up the Giotto’s Tower is much easier with similar views. But the interior of the Duomo (which has a fascinating history) is pretty incredible and one of a kind.
- Don’t go to dinner before 9pm. Make sure to plan for late dinners, like the cool kids. Besides, you’ll be too full from your free aperitivo to eat early!
- Don’t bring a car. Oh my god, having a car in Florence was a NIGHTMARE. We didn’t really have much of a choice, being that this was our Italian Road Trip and all, but if you don’t have to, do not even think about driving into the city. Our plan was to drive up to the hotel, drop off our bags, and go park the car somewhere for the week. Sounds simple, right? Well, one missed turn later (fatal error) and we were stuck in Florence’s infamous maze of one way streets and “Zona Traffico Limitato” areas. Cars aren’t allowed in the ZTL areas unless you’ve received permission in advance, and if you accidentally cross the line into one, there’s no way out. You’re photographed and sent a hefty fine by mail. If you cross in and out of the ZTL areas multiple times, which we definitely did while trying to find the hotel, you’re sent multiple tickets. Awesome. We were relieved to discover that the ZTL is not in effect on Sundays, which is when we arrived in Florence, Thank God. For our departure, we set up permission with our hotel to be allowed in the ZTL, so it wasn’t a problem. Or at least, we haven’t received a ticket yet.
So after we figured all that out, we had parking to contend with. We should have done some more advance research, but we didn’t, so we were stuck with figuring it out on the fly. Our hotel offered parking at 28€ per day, which for a 4 day stretch, seemed really pricey. The hotel recommended another parking garage, but their price of 25€ per day didn’t really seem much different. They also suggested we check out parking at the nearby train station, but that garage didn’t offer daily rates. So we used our iPhones to pull up nearby parking garages, drove around, and checked out the prices. We finally settled on Garage Porte Nuove. It was about a 15-20 minute walk from our hotel and charged the lowest rate we found, 21€ per day. Definitely not ideal, but we did save 28€ overall. I heard somewhere that you might be able to park outside the city at the University for cheap and then train in, so I guess we’d check that out for next time.
- Don’t assume it’s free. Several times we were brought glasses of Prosecco when we sat down to dinner that we thought were on the house, only to find it later on the bill. The same goes for digestifs that may unexpectedly arrive after the meal. Just assume that you’re going to pay for anything that you consume.
I really cannot say enough about the food in Florence. It was incredible. Every single restaurant we picked to eat at was an out of the park homerun. We indulged in the local Tuscan cuisine with lots of wild boar, ribollita, and Chianti. I would love to go back to any one of these places, so check them out if you can. I’ve also included a few of the bars/cafés that we enjoyed.
If I gave you a panini, would you be surprised if it looked like this?
I was. I didn’t realize that a real panini is actually small, filled bread roll that is sometimes toasted, not a flat, grill-marked, melted sandwich (although I still love those too!) My friend Julia, who studied abroad in Florence during college, suggested that we check out I Fratellini for lunch. And we did. Pretty much everyday that we were in Florence. We loved it! It was centrally located (near the Piazza della Signoria), fast, and fresh. You walk up to the window, order your paninis, then eat them curbside with some vino, of course. Filling, cheap, and delicious!
Golden View Open Bar
Golden View has it all: apartments for your stay, a wine cellar for your cravings, and a beautiful restaurant for your dinners. We went to this sorta schmancy place across the Ponte Vecchio for our first night in Florence, and it was a great way to start our trip. The upscale restaurant has 3 different rooms to choose from and we made a reservation at the room with a live jazz ensemble. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 9pm you can listen to live jazz at Golden View and it was a big part of the reason we picked it for our meal. The music was fantastic, the wine superb and the dinner delish.
The options were seafood focused, but we started with some Ribollita (a traditional Tuscan soup with vegetables and bread), Hub chose Spaghetti alla Boia (Spaghetti with Fresh Tomatoes, Chili Peppers, Garlic, and Egg Yolk) and I chose the Tagliolini con Zucchine, Pomodoro Fresco, e Pinoli Tostati (Taglioni, Zucchini, Fresh Tomatoes and Toasted Pine Nuts). I wouldn’t say it was our absolute most amazing meal in Florence, but it was damn good (wine was excellent) and we sat at a table overlooking the river. We couldn’t ask for much more for our first dinner.
Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco
I read a lot about this charming little restaurant, which translates to Inn of the White Boar, and we just adored its cozy and friendly atmosphere. Plus, everything had this adorable white boar on it.
Located in the Oltrarno neighborhood, this local restaurant serves traditional fare at a really good price. I think it was one of our cheapest dinners and was definitely one of the best. We even did it “Italian style” with an Antipasti, Insalate, Primi Piatti, Secondi Piattie and Dolci. Whew! We started with some Bruschetta and Arugula Salad with Parmesan.
For our Primi Piatti, we ordered the Tagliatelle with Wild Boar and an absolutely delectable Pumpkin Ravioli with Lemon and Fried Sage. It was our first experience with wild boar, to which we were instantly addicted, and the flavor combination of the ravioli was perfection.
Next we tried the Peposa, a beef and pepper stew.
And finished the meal with an amazing homemade Tiramisu, that was spooned out from a huge bowl on display. It was everything Tiramisu should be.
This place was special. It was definitely the most local, decidedly nontouristy places we went the entire trip. So it was obviously one of the best. Translated to “The Trolley”, Al Tranvai is a small, family-run operation with a daily, handwritten menu and framed photos of old-fashioned Italian trolleys adorning the walls. We sipped on the house Chianti while we paged through our pocket dictionary and tried to decipher the menu. We chose well because every dish we had was absolute magic.
At Hub’s request, we continued the “Tour della Bruschetta” and began with his fave.
For our Primi Piatti, I chose the Penne alla Chiantigiana, a Penne in a meaty, Chianti-tomato broth that was hands down my favorite dish of the entire vacation. We immediately started brainstorming on how we could try to recreate it at home. Michael ordered the Linguine all’Arrabbiata which, much to our delight, was the perfect level of spice.
We moved onto our Secondi Piatti and enjoyed these dishes just as much as the pasta course. I had the Petto di Pollo con Cipolle e Parmigiano, a chicken dish with onions and Parmesan that had a really delicate and beautiful lemon flavor. I hardly ever order chicken in a restaurant (I eat it so often at home), but something drew me to this dish and I’m so glad I tried it. Michael got Filetto di Maiale all’Aceto Balsamico, Pork tenderloin with Balsamic Vinegar. The tomatoes and vinegar actually made the sauce a bit too ketchup-li
We had our best overall experience at Terra Terra. Our hotel concierge recommended we check out this place (which also happens to be the only Sardinian restaurant in town) and when I went online to read the reviews, everyone was talking about the lovely service from Christian. How funny he was, how attentive, and how he liked to pull up a chair and have a drink with his guests. We were so glad that that the reviews ended up being reflection of our experience. Christian was a riot. He told us what to order, what to drink, when to drink it, and we took every bit of his sage advice. He brought us a beautiful bottle of Sardinian wine, went through a whole decanting process, and then made us wait 5 more minutes before we could drink it. It was worth the wait.
Even though Christian said the bruschetta was “the worst thing that they make,” we needed to continue the tour. Guess what? It was my favorite bruschetta of our trip…so that should tell you a bit about the rest of our meal.
For our Primi Piatti, we shared an incredible Lasagna that was made with a creamy Béchamel sauce. Not exactly typical of Sardinia, but we’d read that it was great and oh, was it ever.
We also ordered a house specialty, a Gnochetti with sheep’s meat and artichokes in a saffron sauce. The flavor was so unique, like nothing I’d ever had before, and the Gnochetti was soft and light. It was a really memorable dish.
Then, Christian demanded we get the suckling pig. We didn’t have a choice and frankly, we didn’t want one. We got the pig. A whole pig, salted, put in a pan, and cooked in the oven at a low temperature for 4 hours. We could actually hear them breaking it down before they served it to us. We ate every bit that was put in front of us, with our hands, as Christian instructed.
Finally, it was time for dessert. I had my eye on a dessert the entire evening and was relieved when Christian confirmed that, yes, that is the dessert we should get.
I really could have had two, but Christian had other plans for us. It was time for the homemade Grappa. And some Mirto verde, which I loved so much that we bought a bottle and brought it home.
Christian sat down with us, and as we drank our digestifs, he helped us plan our trip to Cagliari. We can get there easily from Marseilles on RyanAir and plan to do so in the spring. Don’t worry, Christian’s already got us all set up with a place to stay, obviously.
La Cité Libreriacafé
I read about this place on Design Sponge and it quickly became our go-to spot, just across the Arno River. It’s part bar/café, part library, part concert space, part gallery. The first time we visited, we came with Figgy after a long day of walking around and enjoyed the cheapest macchiatos (only 2€ each!) in a really hip and interesting environment. You can hang out and talk, read, or view their latest exhibit.
We went back after dinner the next evening for a live “jam session” that ended being a fun way to see more live music in Florence, although it was much more crowded. Our final visit here was on our last day, to fuel up with more cheap and tasty macchiatos before heading to the Boboli Gardens. This is when I snapped my favorite picture of the whole trip.
The Friends Pub
All I’m going to say about this tiny Irish pub in the Oltrarno is that we had so much fun here, we woke up the next day in our bed with all our dinner clothes on with a very fuzzy idea of how we’d gotten home. So we either had a great time, or we got roofied. Not surprisingly, there is no photo evidence of this excursion. Go at your own risk, but please remember not to climb the Duomo the next day.
We chose this place near our hotel for an aperitivo and had a lovely little visit. It’s a nice local, café smack in the middle of the main part of town and has lots of photography books to look at and a nice drink selection. Free treats for the aperitivo hour and a warm welcome to Figgy made for a very comfortable experience, away from the tourists.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! Stay tuned for Part Two of our vacation when I’ll be telling you about road tripping through Riomaggiore, Siena, and Torino.