Read any travel guide and you’re guaranteed to find a section dedicated to Florence, Italy—the capital of Tuscany and heir to such legendary artistic heritage that three full-scale museums can’t even begin to house it. From Michelangelo’s masterful marble David to the Ponte Vecchio’s pricey pendants and padlocks of eternal love, most guide books will send you on a cultured romp of the city that will leave your mind as full as your stomach. But be careful—focus too greatly on Florence’s past and you’ll miss out on the subtle charm of a city that in its present history is often dismissed as the culturally one-dimensional tourist hub of Italy. Florence is vibrant, Florence is authentic, and Florence is worthy of greater appreciation than the lazy tourist’s stay can afford. Delve deeper. Read on to get the insider’s list of musts.
Must #1: San Lorenzo Open-Air Market
Photo Credit: San Lorenzo Market by brianandjaclyn, on Flickr
There’s certainly no shortage of fresh produce, pasta, meat, bread, and wine in Florence; there’s an individual shop for each on nearly every street. But there is a market mother ship, and it’s located in San Lorenzo. Enter this indoor mecca of marketeers and your jaw will drop at the sheer magnitude of fixed stands and colorful products. Not to mention some of the more unusual items for sale. Unlike Americans, Italians like to sell every part of an animal—including parts that may seem inedible (i.e. decapitated sheep heads, cow tongues still between teeth, whole skinned rabbits, and raw pig hooves). There goes my lunch. But whatever you do, don’t miss this culinary spectacle. And once you’ve reached the point where you’re convinced that vegetarianism really isn’t as bad as it sounds, force yourself outside to peruse the surrounding open-air market for leather goods and luscious silk Italian scarves.
Must #2: La Osteria/Il Rey
Photo Credit: Buonconvento - Osteria "la via di mezzo" by "il Carca" - Enrico Carcasci, on Flickr
There are hundreds of restaurant reviews advising Florence travelers, and I’ll admit, it’s tough to go wrong when it comes to food in Italy. But there’s one restaurant whose heaping portions and decadently rich dishes can’t be missed. Visit the modest La Osteria in Piazza Santo Spirito and order the four-cheese gnocchi with truffle oil. Your favorite pasta will never taste the same again. Follow your meal with a leisurely walk to Il Rey for the best of Italy’s signature frozen sweet: gelato. Feeling flavorfully adventurous? Try the olive oil. It’s heavenly.
Must #3: Calcio (Storico)
Photo Credit: santa croce + calcio storico by alexandraalisa, on Flickr
Italians, as do many Europeans, take soccer very seriously. And one of the most interesting snippets of Italian history you’ll ever hear is the story of its barbaric predecessor, Calico Storico (“historic football”), which originated in Italy in the 16th century. The rules are few and simple: 27 players use both hands and feet to score goals by throwing the ball into the opponent’s net at the opposite end of the court. Whoever has scored the most goals at the end of 50 minutes wins. But here’s the catch: anything goes. This means head butting, punching, biting, choking, and full-out brawls, and yes, all occur with high frequency. Be careful which quarter of the city you intentionally or unintentionally rep, and about bringing up the topic of Calcio Storico at all; locals are strongly opinionated about the matter and city divisions in some areas simulate gangs. To be tapped as a new recruit, by current players who more often than not have criminal histories, is to join one. I’ll leave the decision of whether or not to join the devoutly unruly crowd at the championship match on June 24th up to you. The two winning teams of the preliminary round play in Santa Croce on what is known as San Giovanni Day—the day of the Patron Saint of Florence.
Must #4: One-Eyed Jack’s
Photo Credit: One-Eyed Jack" Neon Sign by Sam Howzit, on Flickr
Nightlife in Florence is pretty disappointing if you’re not an Italian (or American) sleazebag looking to pick up a drunken American exchange student. It’s true. There are few places that American tourists become more obnoxiously noticeable than Florence bars and clubs. Explore some quieter areas, however, and you’ll find the locals smoking a stoge and looking untouchably cool, drinking and conversing with friends as they laugh at the stupidity of teenage foreigners and a 21 year-old drinking age. For a more interactive experience, check out One-Eyed Jack—a hole-in-the wall dive bar with charm. If you like rock and roll and want to meet locals, this is your place. Visit once and One Eyed will forever hold a special place in your heart.
Must #5: Michelangelo Hill/Walk along L’Arno
Photo Credit: Firenz: vista da Piazzale Michaelangelo by Gaspa, on Flickr
Before you depart, and leave behind your heart, take a trek up about 100 steps to Piazzale Michelangelo—a famous square with a magnificent panoramic view of all you have seen in Florence. The perfect parting ado, Piazzale Michelangelo is an ideal spot to bring a bottle of wine with friends and reminisce about your trip as you soak in its final moments. Afterwards, be sure to take a walk along the Arno if you haven’t already. Miss that beautiful stroll and you’ll break the heart of the city.
Author: Anna Pieper
Feature image credit: Florence by ChrisYunker, on Flickr