Hidden amidst the groups of tourists encircling the duomo we found a low key friendly Florence which opened up a city full of surprises.
We loved the Santa Croce neighbourhood, so-named for the Santa Croce church which is its focal point, which became our Florence home for five days (We are ever grateful Karen!). We rented an apartment on Via Pinzochere which comes highly recommended. The Mansarda apartment had everything you need for a 2 person stay and right away we claimed this corner of Florence as home.
The very next morning after wandering around the narrow streets close to our apartment we found the Sant’ Ambrogio market. Once discovered this became a daily pilgrimage for breakfast. Both indoor and out the market had a wonderful array of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as pastas, meats and cheeses and a spot inside to grab an espresso. The piazza around the market was filled with inviting restaurants which supplied some of our best eating experiences in Florence. Il Pizzaiuolo was one of those gems which served up deliciously fresh pizza unlike any we’d had before. Even so it was pipped for our best dining experience by the small warm restaurant Antico Noe. It is a converted old butchers shop where the tables are rickety, the lights dim and the walls painted blood orange. The food was transcendent. A masterclass in fresh ingredients and simple fuss free italian cooking. Go for the specials, and the pastas, and you wont be disappointed. After your meal head to Natalino wine bar around the corner or venture into Il Buffalo Trippone – a delicatessen come wine bar where you will be welcomed like long lost friends. Dont even think about leaving!
It was after a trip to Il Buffalo that we discovered perhaps the most endearing reason to love Santa Croce. We lived next door to a bakery. A bakery that let us buy hot buttery, just out of the oven, Italian pastries when we got home in the wee hours.
And then there was the Basilica di Santa Croce itself which possesses an understated magnificence. We had walked past the church for days. We could see it from the end of our street. We had even parked ourselves on its steps with a bottle of wine one evening soaking up the babbling dusk. But our visit to the church itself we left until our last afternoon. The church has a fascinating history from its founding to the floods in 1966 which threatened its existence. The Giotto frescos inside which are being painstakingly restored were remarkable. The church is the burial site of many famous Italians including Michaelangelo. The church also houses a leather factory out the back which is well worth stopping in to see the masters at work. I had to be dragged out.
Santa Croce made Florence for us. It was an oasis to escape to, but close to everything with a lively genuine atmosphere. During the day we took in the museums and city sights. Booking early for the museums really did pay dividends. We used ticketitaly and had no problems. In four days we visited the Medici chapel, Accademia, Opera del Duomo, Bargello, Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. The range of artwork on offer is overwhelming so try not to overload yourself. One to two booked sites a day is plenty preferably in the early morning and late afternoon which are the quietest times of the day. The Bargello was a particular favorite given its tranquil outdoor courtyard and large collection of both sculpture and painting without the show stopper that brings the the hoopla of the Accademia or the Uffizi. The Pitti palace was a great option for a Sunday when most of the other museums are closed. The Bomboli gardens were majestic and made up of hidden corners which make an ideal picnic spot. The Bardini gardens were a lot smaller and quieter and an incredibly pleasant spot for tea.
Climbing the Duomo is a must. Not only are the views over the city breathtaking but the journey up inside the dome itself captures the imagination. My top tip is to shoot for the last entry of the day which is much less busy and can mean you get the viewing platform almost all to yourself as people start to leave. Treat yourself to gelato afterwards. Everyone seems to have their favorite but ours was Coronas cafe.
For food options more centrally food lovers will delight in the central market which has a mesmerising selection of fresh produce from the porcini mushrooms piled high, the tri colour pastas or the sundried tomatos by the bag. Truffle permeates the air. Nerbone in the market is an institution for all the right reasons. Famous for its tripe but home to the best caprese salad we had anywhere. The market also doubles as a great place to buy a little bit of Florence to take home. The mushrooms probably have to stay but the selection of olive oils and balsamic vinegars was impressive. We splashed out on some Leonardi 15 year aged balsamic vinegar which was worth every penny and will have to act a taste of Florence until we can return.