Firenze for the Win

Florence was the next stop on our Italian adventure. Rather than flying, we opted to take a high speed train so we could not only save some $$$, but also be able to see more of the country. As if we didn’t have enough of it already – we bought some proscuitto, breseola, bread, and EVOO at a market to have for breakfast on our ride. What a perfect way to start the day 🙂

When we arrived in Florence, we had big plans to rush back to our hotel, drop our stuff off and jump back on a train to Pisa. When we were double checking directions with our hotel concierge when we learned that there was a regional rail strike, and attempting to take a train that day was not a good idea. Although we were disappointed we made the best of our situation and took advantage of the extra time we now had to explore Florence.

We set out for Santa Maria Novella church. It was a quick walk from our hotel and we spent the journey hopping in and out of stores and ooo-ing and aaah-ing at all of the amazing architecture.  We walked around this area for a bit and then headed to the nearby San Lorenzo leather market. The market is comprised of about eight streets surrounding the San Lorenzo Basilica. This church was very different from many of the others in Europe and even just in Florence itself. It is just a stone facade with almost no decoration. I later learned that the inside is pretty beautiful and is home to the tombs of many members of the Medici family.

Forget about the church though, Joe and I were ready to do some shopping. (Okay, I was ready to shop, Joe was ready to use his best negotiation skills). The leather market itself is much larger than I expected. We roamed through aisle after aisle of leather goods, from bags to belts to gloves to jackets – they literally offer it all. It did seem like most of the stalls had similar selections, so eventually we made a game plan of what we needed and set out for the best vendors. I would definitely recommend walking the whole thing first to see what you are working with, and then find who has the best selection and try to make your entire purchase there. Joe found it was easier to haggle when we bought more than 1 item at a time 🙂 We stocked up on Christmas presents and a few things for ourselves! I have to thank my husband for really working the salesman who sold us my new Italian leather jacket. Now every time I wear it I think of our incredible trip!

After our shopping escapade, we headed toward the Arno river to explore the other side of Florence. It couldn’t have been a nicer day, there were tons of people strolling along with us that afternoon in the perfectly sunny, 60 degree weather. We walked over the Ponte Santa Trinita which gave us the perfect view down the river of the Ponte Vecchio. I literally could not stop taking pictures – between the colourful buildings, and the glassy river water, and the picturesque blue sky – I was in heaven.

Once over the bridge, we were in the Santo Spirito neighborhood. While we were walking around this area, we noticed so many young people and also overheard lots of American accents. Absolutely starving at this point, we were headed for lunch at Gusta, the right pizza place recommended by Steph. (and multiple other people at this point!) We had noticed along our walk here that there were so many young people in this area, and overheard lots of American accents, and when we walked in, it all made sense. Steph had eaten here when she studied abroad, and the place was clearly filled with college kids from the states who seem to live in this area. After grabbing our margherita and spicy salami pies, we walked around the corner for a place to sit & dig in. When we turned the corner into the Piazza Santo Spirito, we noticed another line of what looked like college kids, queuing to get in to another placed called Gusta. Had we made a mistake? Oh no, turns out this was their panini location and again since we had a bunch of people telling us we HAD to eat here… Joe decided to go for it. As if 2 pizzas weren’t enough, now we had a mozzarella, tomato and pesto panini to share as well. If you couldn’t tell, we really overindulged while we were on this trip…. And as you can imagine, everything was SO good, I could literally eat pizza for every meal. Full & content – we needed to walk it off and started our next walk towards Boboli Gardens.

This is a massive public gardens, made up of many smaller gardens, grottos, and pavilions lined with sculptures and fountains. We walked along the main path and followed a zig-zagging walkway up to the top of the hill for an expansive view of Florence. It was so quiet and peaceful at that time of day, we we really enjoyed strolling through and taking it all in. When it was time to leave, we took the exit at Pitti Palace, which houses multiple other art galleries and serves as a major museum complex in Florence. We were still a little museumed-out from our 3 hour Vatican tour, so decided to skip this for now and trudged on back towards the Arno. We continued on and came right up to the Ponte Vecchio. We were losing sunlight by the second but we had to get a picture on the bridge before it was too late. It was completely mobbed but we managed to fight through the crowds and get a few snaps. The Ponte Vecchio is lined with jewellery shops which brings people from all over the world to buy gold jewellery. I stopped at every other window begging Joe for a ring, but he kept reminding me I was still holding on to my new leather jacket. Next time I need to be more strategic…

When I was researching Florence, I read about multiple rooftop bars and restaurants with great view of the Ponte Vecchio. I was really looking forward to a happy hour cocktail at rooftop wine bar of Hotel Torre Guelfa, but when we arrived, the host let us know that the roof is actually closed in the winter. Same went for our back-up option, Gold View. He also explained that most places are closed this time of the year and won’t reopen until the spring. Note to self if we ever make it back to Florence, come in the warm weather! He did tell us about one place that would be open, The Westin Excelsior, so we quickly headed there as the sun was about to set. Luckily, this place did not disappoint and we were able to get some awesome pictures of the river while enjoying some pre-dinner appertivo.

Deciding where to eat dinner in Florence was really hard. There was part of us that just wanted to roam around until we found a romantic hole in the wall, but then there was the planner side to me that wanted to make reservations at every restaurant I’ve seen on Instagram. We were also flooded with recommendations from people who had been to Florence as well – so with only 2 nights, you can imagine how hard it was to choose. After much deliberation, we decided on a place I had come across on a few different travel blogs, Pitti Gola e Cantina. When we walked in, we were shocked to see how small it was, probably only 10 tables and a few seats at the bar. It was packed, but we were delighted when we saw one cosy table tucked away at the back of the restaurant. The menu at this place is small, but dangerous in the sense that you want to order everything. We started with a scallop appetizer – holy deliciousness. But before I get to the food, let’s talk about the wine. The restaurant itself has a notable wine selection and offers many different options to try them. They even have an exclusive wine club, which I was jealous I couldn’t join… Many people come here for the pairing dinner which I read is a really awesome experience, but instead of doing that, we just spoke to our waiter about what we liked and he let us try a few options before deciding. We started with a really great white, Volgar Sauvignon from Alto Adige, Italy. Shocking for us, but decided it would be the better choice with our seafood starter. For dinner we moved on to the red, Val Delle Corti Chianti Classico, which Joe and I both decided was the best we’ve ever had. I put it into my Vivino app, but sadly learned it was not available for purchase in the U.K. After a lengthy discussion with our waiter, Zeno, it turns out he is actually the owner and said he would happily ship us some once we were back home in London. Talk about customer service! Writing this post has reminded me that I need to send him an email to take him up on that offer asap. Moving on to the entrees, we knew we wanted pasta. We shared two dishes – something similar to pappardelle bolognese and a spaghetti with garlic, oil, and calamari. Both were out of this world. Joe and I decided that there is officially nothing better than fresh, homemade pasta.

With no official plan for after dinner, Joe asked Zeno if he would recommend any bars in the area. He suggested a local speakeasy called Rasputin. Although we were skeptical about going here, we gave it a try since we have always wanted to go to one. As we followed the directions he gave us, we came up to what looked like a small church vestibule. Basically just a room with a chair and kneeler, with multiple statues and crosses on the wall. Were we in the right place? Joe then noticed a random doorbell with the word “Rasputin” above it. He rang it…. no response. He rang it again, no response. As I started snapping away on my phone, he scowled at me to stop, stating “They won’t let us in if they see you doing that!” I knew there was no way they could see us so I continued taking pictures and as we waited around, Joe continued to blame me for not getting in. We were about to give up, when we heard it, someone’s voice saying hello. Out from a small opening behind a picture frame peered a set of eyes. Joe explained that Zeno sent us and we were looking to grab a few drinks. A few seconds later, what we thought was a wall opened, and we were escorted down a dark staircase to an even darker bar. The place was bustling, and we were shocked to see such a lively place coming from the absolutely deserted “waiting room”. We sat and enjoyed some really delicious craft cocktails, while scoping out the scene. Joe also realized he had the best seat in the house – perfect view of the small TV screen behind the bar showing the people arriving to the vestibule, trying to get in to the bar. It was fun to watch how people reacted when they arrived, most looking confused, and most also leaving if there wasn’t a quick response. Joe wound up asking our waitress if they made us wait because I was taking pictures, and she told us no. (HA!) She said they were just waiting to see if the reservation for 2 was still coming before putting us in their seats. Turns out having a little patience worked out for us and we were able to experience this super cool place. As Joe and I took our last sips of our drinks, we mutually agreed that although our first day in Florence didn’t quite go as planned, we ended up with the best day of our Italy trip so far.

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