by Camilla Ridley
Florence is changing. No longer just a historical tourist destination, the city of the Renaissance has a new energy and is a great place to come for those looking for creative inspiration or a stylish weekend away. Here's our guide to our favourite places and things to do in this supremely cultural city.
Camilla pictured here against the Duomo Cathedral and the Florence skyline wearing a new Ridley London customisable Amalfi shirt dress in the aubergine and blush cupids bow print by Liberty of London
Florence is generally seen as a historical city, the wealthy heartbeat of the 14th century and of course the birth place of the Renaissance. You may have trod its medieval streets and enjoyed its picturesque piazzas yourself. Even marvelled at its baroque palaces and extraordinary churches. And of course stared, awestruck at its iconic artworks. Florence is a city that is almost frozen in time. And unsurprisingly, this has made it a major destination for over 10 million tourists each year. So much so in fact, that at one point not so long ago, many of the residents and businesses were moving out, and a once vibrant city was in danger of being transformed into a kind of historical theme park. Definitely not the sort of place one would associate with cutting edge design.
I lived and made shoes and accessories in Florence in my early thirties, my husband and I spent our honey moon here fourteen years ago, and I've been a fairly regular visitor to the city. So I thought I knew exactly what to expect when I went back this week. But I was surprised, and pleasantly so. Florence appears to be undergoing another renaissance, with a new breed of modern restaurants, hip hotels, immersive new museums and smart independent boutiques opening. Not to mention a re-energised and thriving accessories industry. There's a real buzz and energy there again. The creative capital of Medici is re-positioning itself as a relevant creative hub for twenty first century Italy.
While there are a multitude of brilliant books dedicated to Florence’s celebrated history and famous sites, I thought I would try and give you more of an insight into the more contemporary elements of this once again thriving and dynamic place. Without doubt the best times to visit Florence are either in the spring (March to April), or Autumn between October and November when it’s slightly out of season and not so hot. This summer saw average temperatures well into the mid thirties, and the temperature here this week is not far off. So you’ll definitely want to pack a some great transitional dresses, as you can literally get everywhere on foot, and silk is the perfect fabric to wear as it’s wonderfully cool during the heat of the day and evening temperatures drop to the early teens at this time of year, so it will also keep you nice and warm. I would recommend staying for at least 5 days, as there really is so much to see and it’s great to be able to do this at a leisurely pace.
Where to stay
(Top) a picture of the amazing views from the roof terrace and pool at the Kraft Hotel. (Bottom) details of a room and the bar at Hotel La Gemma
This time we stayed at the Kraft hotel near the Ponte Amerigo Vespucci and about a 15 minute walk along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria. The rooms are comfortable without being overtly designed and the staff are friendly and attentive, and overall it was great value. It's also quite nice to be located slightly out of the bustling and hot centre. But without doubt the highlight is the hotel's rooftop terrace and pool with spectacular views of the Duomo and Florence skyline. If you're looking for something a little more 'designer' I'd also highly recommend the boutique Portrait Hotel which overlooks the Ponte Vecchio or Hotel La Gemma which is located just south of the Piazza Della Republica. Both are great.
Where to eat
Florence is the capital of hearty Tuscan cuisine and blessed with some outstanding eateries. But it's well worth doing your research and booking ahead as the most popular restaurants with locals get booked up in advance, and there are plenty of touristy establishments offering bland, second rate interpretations which you want to avoid. Here are a handful of our favourites:
While some of you may be horrified, no visit to Florence would be quite complete without a Bistecca alla Fiorantina, Florence's famous signature dish of fire grilled T-bone steak. And as renowned restaurant critic Jay Rayner wisely observes “If you’re going to eat beef, it should be rarely and the very best you can afford, from well cared-for animals.” Once again I was happy to take Jay’s advice and try the Bistecca at Regina, which is widely considered to be one of the best in Florence. And I wasn’t disappointed. The restaurant is located in a converted antiquarian bookshop just north of The Duomo and maintains the spirit of the place. The staff are attentive and knowledgeable and the menu has a wide range of Tuscan classics, but it’s the beef we’re here for. Everything is priced by weight and presented at the table. You can also choose the breed of your steak, from a generic European Selection to the highly prized (and highly priced) Tuscan Chianina. Bistecca here is served very rare, I’d recommend asking for medium rare, and it’s fabulous, rich, fatty and everything you could possibly hope for. And more. There's also a fabulously retro desert trolley with all the classics which I love!
(Top left to right) the interior of Gurdulu and a detail of their amazing tiramisu. (Bottom left to right) Camilla enjoying the seafood spaghetti at Gurdulu in her customisable Ridley London silk shirt dress in the new Cupids bow print, and the bistecca alla Fiorentina and interior at Regina
This used to be a celebrated high end restaurant and has recently been converted into a more relaxed informal deli-cafe hybrid. The original sophisticated decor has been retained, the staff are charming and there’s a real neighbourhood vibe. We went for dinner and It was full of hip young locals, not a tourist in sight. The food was great and beautifully executed with a deft touch. I loved the sublimely creamy monkfish ravioli, and great spaghetti. The wines on offer are unusual and interesting. The highlight for me however was probably the best tiramisu I’ve ever tasted washed down with home made Vino Santo and Cantucci biscotti.
4 Leoni (an old favourite)
Located Just around the corner from the Boboli gardens in a charming little piazza, 4 Leoni is a relaxed family run trattoria specialising in beautifully executed and authentic Tuscan favourites. I’ve been coming here for years and it never disappoints. Big flavours, charming staff, great wines and if the weather's good a piazza lunch. What could be better.
This popular and charming restaurant excels at seasonal Tuscan classics with a modern twist, and well worth booking ahead for. We enjoyed a fabulous steak and pappardelle with a rich venison sauce. Followed up by the most sublime panna cotta and probably the best desert wine I have ever tasted. Everything is presented beautifully and the rustic flavours are more refined than you'll get elsewhere. Wine is a big deal here, and you can enjoy brilliant well priced Tuscan wines by the glass. For an upscale meal, Osteria dell'Enoteca is excellent value.
(Top left to right) enjoying the bruschetta in the courtyard at 4 Leoni, and Camilla sampling the refined tuscan food at Osteria dell'Enoteca wearing her statement Ridley London made to measure printed floral silk shirt dress. (Bottom left to right) one of the amazing starters at Osteria dell'Enoteca and the Cioccolata Fiorentina at Gilli
La Strega Nocciola (Best Gelato ever!)
Gelato was invented in Renaissance Florence, so no trip to the city would be complete with a spot of sampling. Everyone here is passionate about the stuff and the locals all have their favourite places. Ask for a recommendation and you'll get ten different answers. However some places are definitely far superior quality and value than others, so it's worth doing some research and walking off the tourist route. We opted for the much recommended La Strega Nocciola, which is centrally located just to the south of the Ponte Vecchio and open until 10:30pm daily. And this Gelato is certainly worth crossing the river for. The quality is out of this world and there are some really unique flavours on offer including lavender, white chocolate and cinnamon, rosemary and blood orange. Finally, I opted for a ball of each of their signature Pistachio and Hazelnut flavours which were outstanding. I've literally never tasted any icecream quite so good. And for 3 Euros the value is unbelievable, especially compared to the 12 Euro price near the Duomo which was far inferior quality wise. You know where to come!
Another celebrated luxury of Renaissance Florence is hot chocolate, and the pinnacle of these is the cioccolata Fiorentina, the richest, sweetest and most molten chocolate drink you've ever tried. Literally like drinking pure chocolate ganache. In my opinion the best of these is served at the oldest and certainly most famous cafe in Florence, Gilli. And even though it's still 32 degrees, no trip to Florence would be complete without visiting this much loved institution located on the north end of the Piazza Della Repubblica. Gilli is everything you want from a Florentine cafe, think waiters in white jackets, tables overlooking the piazza, beautiful panelled interiors and of course exceptional cakes and patisserie. Think tea at Fortnum's, but way more Italian and stylish. And the cioccolata alone is worth the plane ticket for!
Where to shop
Enjoying the unique ambience, experience and incredible perfumes at Aqua Flor in Florence. Camilla wears a new Ridley London customisable Amalfi shirt dress in the aubergine and blush cupids bow print by Liberty of London
When I travel, I'm always on the look-out for inspiration, and I love finding shops that are an authentic product of a place, that you just wouldn't find anywhere else. Florence has a fair few of these as well as flagships for many of the city's most celebrated luxury brands. Without doubt I would absolutely recommend visiting:
This beautiful artisan perfumery located just south of the Piazza di Santa Croce creates the most magical and unique scents on site using traditional florantine methods. The label boasts over 1500 essences from around the world, and you can witness the alchemy for yourself within the in house laboratory. You can even have your very own fragrance crafted for you. What could be more unique?
(Top) catching up on some light reading in the brilliant Brac concept book stor and cafe. Camilla wears a new Ridley London customisable Milly shirt dress in the black and silver cupids bow print by Liberty of London. (Top Right) the cafe restaurant at Brac and bottom inside the Julia B Casa store
This popular homeware boutique was founded to re-introduce traditional Italian craftsmanship and handmade artistry into the modern home. Everything here is designed and hand-crafted to each customers’ personal specifications. The shop is full of beautiful handmade linens for the bedroom and dining room and vintage inspired plates, glassware and silverware. I found it all really inspiring and could spend all day here, not to mention a small fortune!
Located in the heart of the historical centre, the Brac bookshop is a small well-hidden gem in Florence that has developed a cult following amongst locals. Not only does it sell the most fabulous art books, it is also a coffee shop and possibly the best vegetarian restaurant in the city. Intellectual Florantines love to meet up here for a coffee or revitalising juice and to browse the books. And if you've had enough of the meaty tuscan diet the food is meant to be fabulous and the restaurant is very romantic.
Florence is renound for it's beautiful artisan leather goods and accessories, but very few are still made here in the city. The Donnini family has been making gloves by hand since 1919 in their factory by the Ponte Vecchio and you can buy a pair of made to measure gloves from their factory shop or on-line. They're absolutely exquisite and I still wear the pair I brought 14 years ago every single winter. Talk about the perfect investment piece.
Don't miss out on
A small sample of the incredible interactive digital displays and amazing dresses at the Gucci Museum and Garden in Florence. Camilla is pictured here in the Gucci handbag room in a new Ridley London customisable Amalfi shirt dress in the aubergine and blush cupids bow print by Liberty of London
Those of you who are keen students of fashion will know that Florence is the birthplace of some of Italy’s most famous luxury brands including Pucci, Ferragamo, Cavalli and of course Gucci. The latter have opened the most extraordinary interactive museum in a beautiful 14th century palazzo in the heart of Florence. The museum charts the brand’s 90 year history from local luggage maker to global luxury fashion titan with incredible style, cutting edge technology and exceptional curation to create a not to be missed experience. This really is a Gucci wonderland, and it’s thrilling to see so many iconic pieces together in one place. There's also the Gucci Garden, part brand experience, part high end gift shop by former creative director Alessandro Michele. Not to mention the popular Gucci Osteria by three Michelin star chef Massimo Bottura. Great on brand design, exciting looking but somewhat pricey menu.
A walk in the Boboli Gardens
This is without doubt, one of my favourite places to visit in Florence and a real oasis for the city. Situated directly behind the Piti Palace, the historical Boboli gardens were originally designed for the Medici, and represent one of the first and most important examples of the Italian garden, which later served as inspiration for many European courts. The large green space is a real open-air museum with beautiful statues of various styles and periods, ancient and Renaissance that are distributed throughout the garden. It also has large fountains and caves, among them the splendid Buontalenti grotto built by the artist, architect, and sculptor.
The latest installation at the Uffizi
If you're coming to Florence, the chances are you will want to visit the Uffizi gallery to ogle at their world famous collection of Renaissance masters. Not to be outdone by the likes of Gucci, the Uffizi have curated a dynamic programme of striking and provocative contemporary installations which sit amongst the Michael Angelo sculptures. While puritan classicists might shudder, in reality the juxtaposition works beautifully. Introducing energy, vibrancy and attracting new life into this once slightly stuffy gallery. We saw the incredible Royal Valkyrie textile installation by Joana Vasconcelos and if this is anything to go by, future installations are definitely worth the visit.
Enjoying a stroll in the beautiful Boboli Gardens. Camilla is pictured here in a new Ridley London customisable silk Kat dress in the orange and jade Athena print by Liberty of London
Ridley London's new collection of dresses, skirts, tops, jackets and knitwear for Autumn and Winter 2023 is available to purchase online and in Ridley's Barnes store. Celebrate your individuality this season with a unique piece that's customised to flatter in your choice of any of our stunning new printed florals or solid silks or luxurious velvets. Or call us to arrange a virtual fitting:
Ridley London, 82 Church Road, Barnes, London SW13 0DQ T: 01730 823097