Florence Travel Guide

Florence Travel Guide

Rich in culture, rife with charm and oh so very alluring; Florence is synonymous with everything we love about Italy. Cradle of the Renaissance, birthplace of the Negroni and one of Europe’s great art cities, Florence has long held allure with design-oriented gays – from Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci to Machiavelli and – we wouldn’t be surprised, based on his depiction of little David – Michelangelo. Florence is an urban dream best savoured slowly, teeming as it is with the world’s best museums, iconic medieval architecture and sigh-worthy shopping. As for the food, traditional mom-and-pop trattorias stand side by side with Michelin-starred affairs, serving up international cuisine as regularly as perfections on pasta, pizza and peasant stew. Florence nightlife is also joyfully mixed, although the Gay Street next door to the Coliseum hosts a fab few gay bars. Despite Italy remaining slow on the gay rights front, its big cities are generally considered gay friendly, with the Florence Queer Festival in November acting as testament to this. Confused about what to see in Florence? Let our definitive Florence gay scene guide lead the way.

The best hotels in Florence

Our Florence gay travel guide starts with a roundup of the best places to stay in Florence. Elegant, effortless and stunningly beautiful, these hotels are some of the best for drifting into sweet, Tuscan dreams. Situated in one of Florence’s most covetable neighbourhoods, Portrait Firenze offers exquisite elegance and unparalleled views of both the Arno River and iconic Ponte Vecchio. While all guests to the Portrait Firenze will find a modern chic aesthetic tempered with a dose of Italian warmth thanks to its carefully curated collection of mid-century furnishings, our favourite rooms are in the Lungarno Collection. Nearby, just steps from Stazione Santa Maria Novella is the J.K. Place Firenze, boasting a location that is nothing short of idyllic. This modern 5-star hotel is both luxurious and convenient, complete with a lounge area serving afternoon aperitivos and leisurely dinners.

While the enticements of Firenze can last well into the night, at some point the time will come to say buona notte. For an alternative accommodation option away from the tourists, try Oltrarno Splendid, a boutique bed and breakfast housed in an 18th century palazzo right at the edge of the River Arno, an area known for its artisan locals and creative atmosphere. Offering individually designed rooms of ornate frescoes and intentionally faded wallpaper, Oltrarno Splendid will make you feel like Italian royalty. For ultimate extra-ness, check into the King Room for views of Brunelleschi’s cathedral cupola from the bubbly comfort of your bathtub. Another Oltarno-based boutique babe, just a short walk from Ponte Vecchio bridge, is Soprarno Suites, boasting restoration period stylings fused with hipster quirks. Filled with vintage finds, roll-top baths and original artwork, the Soprarno suites are deliciously retro, with the Deluxe suites just that bit more divine.

Last up is The Borgo Pinti Collection Suites, a selection of private, luxury apartments perfect for an extended stay. Conveniently located on a main (although still quiet) road, the Borgo Pinti suites offer guests close proximity to many of the best Florence points of interest, as well as access to its spa centre.

Oltrarno Splendid | Photo: Dario Garofalo

Oltrarno Splendid | Photo: Dario Garofalo

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Recommended hotels in Florence
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J.K. Place

J.K. Place

Things to do in Florence

The start of a perfect day of Florence sightseeing begins at Piazza della Signoria in the centre of town for a leisurely al fresco breakfast at Café Rivoire. A legendary local hangout – and one of Florence’s prime spots to both see and be seen – mornings at Café Rivoire revolve around people watching, café and biscotti. Clutching a to-go cup while walking is something you’d never see a Florentine do, instead, take your espresso standing up at one of the area bars. At Bar Damiano on Via di Parione you can hone your fledgling Italian with the convivial barista while downing un caffé doppio, leaving you smiling and well-caffeinated in just a matter of minutes. According to some, Florence is responsible for having invented gelato in the 16th century, so a visit to the city’s leading gelaterie is no doubt one of the top choices of what to do in Florence. Vivoli Gelato, on a hidden street near the Piazza Santa Croce, has been producing gelato since the 1930s, back when the ice had to be shipped in from the Apennine mountains. While the process is a little easier these days, the flavours are no less decadent!

After your gelato fix it’s on to the Piazza Santo Spirito, a bustling market square across the river in Oltarno giving visitors an equally sweet taste of the city’s real cosmopolitan life. Come in the morning and you’ll find street markets taking over the place, whereas in the evenings the piazza’s bars and restaurants come out to play, offering al fresco dining for many a local. If you’d like a breather, people watch on the steps of the church or marvel at the balcony view from the Hotel Palazzo Guadagni over a drink. Florence’s parks are always popular, but when others before you flock to Boboli Gardens, we’ll venture further to Giardino Bardini between San Niccolò and the Costa San Georgio. Enjoy the peaceful space filled with olive groves and, in the right season, arches covered with purple wisteria. The Bardini also happens to be home to the most beautiful baroque staircase in all of Arno, leading up to a darling little bar with a view.

Photo: Jonathan Singer

Photo: Jonathan Singer

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With Tuscany being home to some of the world’s best countryside retreats, it’s time we head out of the city to experience country life

One of Florence’s best kept secrets, Palazzo Strozzi is rarely mentioned on the list of Florence’s top museums, despite being a stunning Renaissance palazzo inside which you’ll find a modern space filled with an ambitious collection of contemporary art, including Carsten Holler and Marina Abramovic. To complete the exclusive feel, most exhibitions are only available through advanced reservation. Pushing your dosage of art even higher is the Gucci Garden, an interactive complex from the mind of Gucci’s creative director, fusing fashion, food, history and art in a wonderful 14th-century palazzo on Piazza Signoria. Visitors can walk through the history of Florence’s most famous fashion house, enjoy the boutique-slash-museum stocking exclusive designs as well as the contemporary art gallery, before getting sated at the on-site restaurant run by rockstar chef Massimo Bottura.

With Tuscany being home to some of the world’s best countryside retreats, it’s time we head out of the city to experience country life. The serene hillsides of Fiesole are a good place to start, a short yet steep bus ride north of the city, a rural town with inspiring views overlooking the entire valley. From Fiesole’s main piazza, visitors can tour the town’s Roman Theater, the San Francesco convent or get out further into the wilderness along the hiking trails of Monte Ceceri, a place where da Vinci is said to have tested his early flying machines. To get a challenging walk within the city, walk from the Ponte Vecchio up to San Miniato al Monte, a church dating back as far as the 4th century. Inside, 16th-century masterpieces cover the walls, one of which runs adjacent to the Costa di San Giorgio, former home of Galileo. While the nearby viewpoint at Piazzale Michelangelo has become perennially crowded, take another steep climb towards the Basilica San Miniato al Monte, one of Florence’s most beautiful religious sites with a classical façade of grey and white marble that’s been standing since 1013.

Photo: Giuseppe Mondi

Photo: Giuseppe Mondi

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Recommended experiences in Florence
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What to see in Florence

It’s difficult not to fall in love with Florence’s medieval streets and spending a whole day wandering slowly through them is very easily done. Brunelleschi’s cupola and the Duomo, a symbol of the city, will orient you, allowing you to explore the maze of history and culture rippling out from Florence’s epicentre. Nearby you’ve got the revered Baptistery of San Giovanni, the city’s oldest building and the Via dello Studio to the south. While you’re in the area, try to hunt down the plaque marking the spot where Dante watched the construction of the Duomo before being exiled. Along the Via Santa Margherita is the 11th-century church of the same name, while Borgo degli Albizi is said to be one of the city’s most beautiful streets. On your walk you may also find a number of private palaces, 13th-century towers and the marker of the city’s worst floods of 1333 and 1966.

In any other place, a visit to a pharmacy wouldn’t be on the to-do list. In Florence however, a visit to the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is a cultural activity, founded as it was by Dominican friars in the 16th century. For hundreds of years Florence has been famed across Europe for its herbal medicine, and many Florence erboristerias are still frequented by many older locals looking to treat minor ailments. Santa Maria Novella is the most famous establishment, featuring historic, old-world décor and stocking creams, perfumes as well as all types of weird and wonderful gifts. Another of Florence’s remarkable curiosities is the Bull of Santa Maria del Fiore. Based on the cathedral’s left side, a stone bull’s headrests atop one of the capitals. While there are many stories explaining how the bull came to be, one of the most intriguing is that represents one stonemason’s heartbreak after his affair was discovered by his lover’s husband and promptly broken off. The bull’s horns are said to point in the direction of the meddling husband, acting as a reminder of the woman’s true love.

Photo: Cihan Soysakal

Photo: Cihan Soysakal

Within the Piazza Signoria lies the Palazzo Vecchio, former city hall and private residence to the Medici family, now a museum known as the ‘old palace’, crammed full of magnificent artwork and frescoes. Home of Dante’s death mask, the Palazzo Vecchio offers a tour through its secret passage ways and storybook style history. Climb the tower to see the prison walls where Savonarola was held before execution. Morbid yet all true! More secrets are to be had along the secret corridor connecting the Palazzo Veccio with the Palazzo Pitti. Accessible by appointment only, take the staircase entrance from the Uffizi Museum and travel the one kilometre along the self-portrait-lined corridor, displaying works from Renaissance artists like Vasari, all the way to the 20th-century masters. If time allows, see what all the fuss is about at Buontalenti Grotto & Boboli Gardens. While the park and its immense 16th-century garden is a great place to come to relax and socialise, the grotto is a real crowd-pleaser; a man-made cave filled with sculptures of mythical creatures, complete with a stalagmite-heavy façade.

Santa Maria Novella, L'Angolo dei Fiori

Santa Maria Novella, L'Angolo dei Fiori

Photo: Gina Samarotto

Photo: Gina Samarotto

Where to eat in Florence

From the most humble of bars to the grandest of restaurants, it doesn’t take long to discover that dining in Florence is a celebration for the senses. At first, you might like to try it all at once, which can be done at the Mercato Centrale Firenze, a late 19th-century steel and glass-covered market in San Lorenzo. Since the recent renovation, the market now holds a contemporary food hall showcasing the best regional delicacies on the second floor, all above the chaos of fresh produce vendors on the first floor. This place may give you both sensory overload and a food baby of champions, but it’s as local as it gets! Those looking for their first sit down meal in Florence should check out concept restaurant La Ménagère which serves up modern Tuscan delights in a charmingly rustic setting complete with a communal dining table, flower shop and home boutique. Enjoy the fusion menu at brunch or come back later for live music in the downstairs bar.

Over in Oltarno, find delicious Mediterranean food at Osteria dell’Enoteca, a townhouse with contemporary design excelling at seasonal Tuscan dishes, as well as rare but tender T-bone steaks such as the prized Fassona from Piedmont or Chianina from Tuscany. La Giostra is another Tuscan delight, notable for its endearing backstory and celebrity guests including Elton John. Run by Austrian royals, La Giostra is home to a romantic, candle-lit ambience, with carefully crafted gourmet dishes to be accompanied by a range of deep red wines. Just around the corner minutes from the Duomo is the lesser-known Cantina Barbagianni. Although a little hard to find, this cantina serves up stellar twists on traditional Tuscan cuisine, in elegant, underground and wholly medieval environs.

Manuele Giovanelli, Osteria dell'Enoteca | Photo: Olga Makarova)

Manuele Giovanelli, Osteria dell'Enoteca | Photo: Olga Makarova

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Possibly the best pizza in Florence can be had at Da Gherardo, a hard-to-find, hole-in-the-wall type Italian restaurant on the Santo Spirito side of the river

For a special occasion, the Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura awaits. Part of Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele’s imagining, in addition to the Gucci Garden, this fine dining restaurant is a plush velvet dream, decorated from ceiling to floor in various shades of green, accented with custom-made Ginori porcelain. The dishes presented here are mainly twists on Emilian and world classics, influenced by chef Karine Lopez’s Mexican roots. Choose from the tentacle spectacle, the taka pork belly bun, or creamy parmesan tortellini, served by smiling, Gucci-sneakered staff. One more fine dining option is the esteemed Borgo San Jacopo, belonging to Hotel Lungarno and located on the south bank of the Arno. The restaurant’s Michelin-starred chef, Peter Brunel from Northern Italy, puts his own modern take on his native traditional cuisine. While some dishes remain within the bounds of classic fare, some are rather more off-piste, presented in sophisticated yet relaxed surroundings, with the hotel’s Picteau Lounge Bar perfect for a pre-dinner cocktail with river views.

Possibly the best pizza in Florence can be had at Da Gherardo, a hard-to-find, hole-in-the-wall type Italian restaurant on the Santo Spirito side of the river, offering friendly service and exquisite design as well as unbeatable doughy discs. One more for the pizza lovers is Cucina Torcicoda, a gourmet restaurant and pizzeria moments from the Piazza Santa Croce, hosting authentic Tuscan dining experiences with elegant design fusing the classic with the modern. On the menu, choose between the Neapolitan wood-oven pizza or the best Florentine steak, pairing your dish with a choice of over 300 wine labels. When you’re in the mood for seafood, there’s only one restaurant on our minds; the off-the-radar L’Angolo Del Mare in the north-eastern outskirts of the city. Despite the slight inconvenience to get here, L’Angolo is more than worth it, as this place locally sources all of its fish and seafood, with an ever-changing seasonal menu and specials board. Enjoy the lush lobster linguine or seared tuna, before hitting the desserts – such as the Champagne-strawberry tiramisu – to take your meal to a whole new level.

Osteria dell'Enoteca | Photo: Olga Makarova

Osteria dell'Enoteca | Photo: Olga Makarova

Osteria dell'Enoteca | Photo: Nicole Caldwell

Osteria dell'Enoteca | Photo: Nicole Caldwell

Shopping in Florence

Un pomeriggio perfetto in Florence can only mean shopping. And there’s no better place to start your shopping foray than just a few blocks from Piazza della Signoria in the Florence epicentre of luxury retail, Via de’ Tornabuoni. Home to Cavalli, Hermes, Loro Piana and Ferragamo – for the couture-obsessed, this is as close to Mecca as one can get. Indeed, even window-shopping your way through these veritable temples to style is an experience not to be missed. Should your interests lend themselves more towards admiring fashion rather than acquiring it, plan to spend an hour or two at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo. Located on the banks of the Arno in Palazzo Spini Feroni, the exquisitely curated museum pays homage to nearly a century of design by the man who is arguably Italy’s most revered designer.

For a thoroughly authentic shopping experience in Florence, shop where the locals shop and head to Via del Corso and the tiny streets surrounding it where you’ll find everything from handcrafted leather goods to exquisitely woven textiles and cutting edge couture. For shoes and boots handcrafted in Italy, take a look at Leonardo’s on via dei Cerchi or Sabatini’s on Borgo degli Albizi. Also on Via dei Cerchi is Jean Saade, a local mainstay for exquisitely handcrafted fine jewellery.

Stefano Bemer

Stefano Bemer

Venturing across the Arno into the Oltrarno neighbourhoods of Florence is a must if you’re serious about shoes. At the workshop of Stefano Bemer, you’ll find breathtakingly beautiful men’s shoes made from leathers that range from the predictable calfskin to exotic elephant and eel. And while you’re in the Oltrarno, take a stroll down Borgo San Jacopo for the quirky vintage and antique stores it offers and as well as to stock up on the deliciously indulgent, Sicilian soaps found at Ortigia.

Florence is full of markets and two you’ll want to make a point of going to are the Flower Market held every Thursday at the Piazza Repubblica and the Fortezza Flea Market held the third weekend of each month (sans August) in the Piazza Vittorio Veneto. And for a shopping experience that comes wrapped within a history lesson, don’t miss the Scuola del Cuoio, or Florence School of Leather. As rich in history as it is rife with exquisite leather, you’ll find fabulous goods in this little-known gem.

Stefano Bemer

Stefano Bemer

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Our first pick of Florence’s gay bars is Piccolo Cafè, a small but fun establishment offering throwback vibes, funky décor and a wide-ranging drinks menu

Florence nightlife

Despite sticking closely to their small social circle, Italians are a social lot and you’ll feel this most when the sun sets and the nightlife kicks off. Get involved referencing our Florence gay bar guide to discover the best hotspots. For innovative cocktails in speakeasy fashion, Bitter Bar can help you out. Decorated in typical vintage style, what sets Bitter Bar apart is its menu consisting solely of inventions from the owner. While it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a martini, creations such as the cheesecake foam topped pineapple cocktail may turn your head. Then there’s the glorious rock ‘n’ roll dive bar known as Lovecraft, close to the Ponte alla Carraia. Although there’s no food menu, join the heavily tattooed drinkers in a round of shots, craft beer or classic whiskey-based craft cocktails.

Our first pick of Florence’s gay bars is Piccolo Cafè, a small but fun establishment offering throwback vibes, funky décor and a wide-ranging drinks menu. The place gets especially buzzy on weekends when the DJ spins mainstream international and Italian tunes to a good-looking crowd of gays sometimes spilling outside, onto the street affectionately known as ‘Florence Gay Street’. If a gay event is what inspires you to dress up, then a GULP evening may be what you’ve been waiting for. Refusing to be labelled, GULP’s organised adventures span music, live ‘queerlesque’ performance, poly-dance and aerial shows as well as more simple gatherings that often transform key sections of the city into alfresco party hubs. Check Facebook for their upcoming events.

Keeping it chic for over 20 years is gay nightclub TENAX, a haven for gays, straights and unicorns to dance the night away to the tune of – sometimes famous – DJ guests. But if it’s a Thursday Bossy @ Soul Kitchen is where you’ll want to be. The go-to place in town for Florence’s hipster cool crowd, Bossy offers great drinks, a chilled vibe and an eclectic mix of deep house and electro-funk. A special one to finish is Mamamia @ Viper Theatre, the party made famous in the beachside town of Torre del Lago which during the winter months graces Florence with its presence. Welcoming all sorts, Mamamia is an epic night to remember, filled with fierce music, laser shows and a whole lot of drag.

Piazza Michelangelo | Photo: Faruk Kaymak

Piazza Michelangelo | Photo: Faruk Kaymak

J.K. Place

J.K. Place

Piazza Repubblica | Photo: Gina Samarotto

Piazza Repubblica | Photo: Gina Samarotto

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