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Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Florence, Italy

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Michelangelo’s David close upThe statue of David? Already seen it.

The Uffizi Gallery? Check.

The Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, and the Pitti Palace? Done, done and done.

If you’re a traveler who loves the “must-sees,” but also wants to get a true sense of a city by discovering its hidden gems, Florence has some real rubies and diamonds.

Florence is a walker’s paradise; a small, charming city with classic Italian architecture and all major sights within short distance of each other. The narrow, winding alleys and streets that mysteriously split in two were purposely designed in 59 BC to confuse any attackers invading the city.

Now, these winding streets add a sense of mystery and adventure; an excitement about what may be around the next corner … as well as the need for a map!

MUSEUMS and APPERITIVO

Don’t confuse the Galleria della Uffizi with the more well-known Uffizi Gallery. Instead of the large, well-known art museum housed in the Uffizi Palace, this smaller gallery is located behind the Palace, through a narrow street off of the Piazza Signoria, and around a quintessentially Italian street corner.

In this small, yet multi-story, gallery live two classic Florentine traditions. One is the reputation of Florence for being the home of artists throughout the centuries. This gallery displays the works of local contemporary artists. The second is the thriving Florentine tradition of apperitivo.

Sandwich ApperitivoApperitivo is a widespread practice in Florence, but not one you’ll necessarily find in a guide book or online. Essentially, apperitivo is the Italian version of happy hour. Restaurants and cafes all around the city set out food between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., and with the purchase of a beverage (glass of wine, a mixed drink or even a soda) you are welcome to the food they have set out. This can range from just a few bowls of nuts at a small corner bar/coffee shop; or a whole buffet of delectable Florentine specialties.

The small Galleria della Uffizi has a beautiful downstairs cafe with a polished wood bar, and more importantly, one of the biggest and most delicious apperitivo buffets in the city. Buy a drink, help yourself to the classic Florentine food, and keep going back to check on new items being brought out during the evening. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a chance to try the involtini de melanzane, a slice of eggplant rolled around a piece of fresh mozzarella covered in tomato sauce and baked in the oven. Corner of Via de Leoni and Via de Neri.

The Buonarroti Family dedicated themselves to the idea of creating a beautiful building filled with the works of renowned artists at Casa Buonarroti. This small gallery, begun in 1612, was originally created by the artist Michelangelo’s nephew, and has remained essentially unchanged over three centuries. It displays not only many early works of Michelangelo, but a varied and precious art collection that the Buonarroti family has assembled since the 17th century. Via Ghibellina 70; 055-241752

VIEW FROM THE TOP

Florence ViewWalking up to the Piazzale Michelangelo gives you a chance to burn off all of those apperitivo calories, and make room for some late-night gelato. The long, “hidden” stairway up to this vantage point is worth every step. The Piazzale affords you one of the most breathtaking and all-encompassing views of the city, no matter what time of day.

To get there, cross the Ponte alla Grazie into the less-frequented “Oltarno” region of Florence, and make a left. Follow the path along the river, and make a right on the street right after the small neighborhood park. Make a left on Via de Renai, a right on Olmo, then veer to left and go up Via San Miniato. Keep walking straight up until you see the large stone archway. Walk through it and take the stairs up to the Piazzale.

SPLURGE ON SHOPPING

Falsi Gioelli affords another incredible view: beautiful baubles just waiting to be purchased. This small shop off of one of the main shopping streets, Via del Calzaiuoli, features truly one-of-a-kind handmade jewelry that you will not see all of your friends wearing when you get home. Don’t let the street it is on fool you, it may look like an unassuming alley, but it’s actually home to many worthwhile shops.
Via dei Tavolini, 5/R, 055-287237

Old BooksAbacus Bookshop is another small shop on a street most visitors to Florence would not think to walk down. Off of the Piazza San Lorenzo, which holds a fantastic outdoor market, is Via de Ginori. The Abacus Bookshop sells hand-bound leather books, hand-made paper, and stationary. Some are beautifully imprinted with the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of Florence. This shop is worth a gander just to marvel at the craftsmanship of these items. When you’re done at the bookshop, make sure to bargain with the street vendors nearby at the San Lorenzo outdoor market.
Via dei Ginori 28/30r.

FOOD, THE REAL ITALIAN PLEASURE

Il Latini is an experience in itself. Make sure to call for reservations, and when you arrive, make your way to the front of the crowd surely swarming the door trying to get a seat at one of their long wooden tables.

Call out that you have reservations, and be taken inside to enjoy the prix fixe experience. You can order/request certain items if you would like, but it is much more fun, not to mention customary, to let the waiters bring you whatever the cook is creating that day. This way, you’ll enjoy the surprise when some of the most delicious food you’ve ever encountered crosses your lips. This restaurant specializes in the staples of Tuscan and Florentine cuisine. Ribollita, a vegetable and bread soup, is just one of the Tuscan specialties you can expect to grace your table.
Via de Palchetti 6/R 055-210916

Ari’s Diner … most delicious food ever? Not really. However, for travelers weary of pizza and pasta, this is a welcome respite from all Italian, all the time. Ari’s offers American favorites to give some of us a taste of home. Burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, milkshakes, etc. If you’re feeling guilty about craving this American-style comfort, just go have some gelato and a café latte after dinner in the Piazza Della Republica. That should bring you back to your inner Italian. Via dei Giraldi 4r.

Beccofino ristoranteIf you’re in the mood for some Tuscan food with a modern twist, Ristorante Beccofino is an excellent option. With an outdoor patio overlooking the Arno River, this wine bar/restaurant combo with a variety of vino (roughly 50, available by the glass) is especially pleasant in the summer.

Expect a hip, relatively young, mostly local crowd, and we do mean ‘crowd’. Reservations are a very good idea, if not a ‘must’. Prices are fairly high, but the food’s regularly lauded as some of Tuscany’s most innovative. Piazza degli Scarlatti 1R (Lungarno Guicciardini), 055 290076.

DAY TRIPPING

An hour-and-a-half away train ride from Florence is a little hilltop town called Cortona. Cortona isn’t just about beautiful architecture and cobblestone roads with a breathtaking view over the vibrantly green Tuscan hills—although it does offer all that. Cortona also allows you to truly to take a walk back in time.

This walk is a steep one that follows the small town road up higher on the hill towards the Santa Margherita Church. As you walk up, the architecture and street plan clearly changes from medieval to the earlier Etruscan architecture.

Since Cortona was never modernized, it exists exactly the way it always has. After a tiring hike like that, you’re going to need a few pieces of bruto—the local dessert specialty made with an almond paste filling and covered with powdered sugar.

Montepulciano is another hilltop Tuscan town that is a must-visit for its local specialty. This time, the specialty is wine. Italy is known for its wines, so one is almost obliged to see where the vino magic happens. Cantina del Redi in Montepulciano is not exclusively interesting for its wines, however.

The winery itself is historic, interesting, and worth a short tour. This winery is located in a deep, dark cellar with arched walkways and sloping ceilings. Built in the 1500s, it had originally been a horse stable, but now houses medium and large size wooden barrels that are nestled into the corners of the cave and produce vino nobile, Montepulciano’s famous wine. Via di Collazzi, 5; 39 0578 716092

By Michelle Fields for PeterGreenberg.com.

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