Travel Tips for Women Visiting Florence
By Rebecca Bricker, Guest Writer
American Journeywoman Rebecca Bricker is the author of Tales from Tavanti: An American Woman’s Mid-Life Adventure in Italy, the funny, poignant, romantic story of her year in Florence, after her only child left for college. For more about the book and Rebecca’s travels, visit her website and blog.
We asked Rebecca to tell us about some of her favourite spots in Florence. This is what she said…
There’s so much to love about Florence. During the year I lived there, I was awed by its beauty, history and art. How could you not feel inspired when walking on ancient cobbles in the sandal steps of Dante, Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci – and Salvatore Ferragamo (whose flagship store at Palazzo Spini Feroni, Via Tornabuoni 2, has a shoe museum, fyi). Which brings me to my first tip if you’re planning a visit.
Wear sensible footwear
The pavers and cobbles of Florence were laid by Romans drunk on grappa – at least that’s my theory. If your heart is set on stillettos, you’ll enjoy shopping for them in Florence, famous for its leather goods. I severely sprained my ankle on those cobbles during my early weeks in Florence, consequently elegant Italian shoes and boots weren’t high on my shopping list. Instead, I was on a mission to find the Perfect Purse (= handbag, to those of you who think of a ‘purse’ as a wallet). Buying a purse/handbag in Florence is like a courtship. The courtship is more of a hustle if you shop at the market stalls. But if you’re in a store, it’s more languorous and often starts with an espresso or a cappuccino.
San Lorenzo Street Market
Bargains abound in Florence’s bustling San Lorenzo street market. But be wary of inferior quality (and pickpockets). Handbags sold in the markets may be imported (mostly from China) and made of vinyl, not leather. The way to tell vinyl from leather is to briefly heat the bag with a match or a lighter. Vinyl will melt instantly. If you have doubts, ask the vendor to do the flame test.
The Flame Test
I learned about the trick above at one of my favorite handbag shops, Linea 91, at Via del Proconsolo 91/r,* two blocks south of the Duomo. The owner, Tito, and his brothers are charming and their handbag selection offers high-quality and style. It was brother Alex who playfully torched a bag I was looking at, to prove it was leather – and then offered me a cappuccino as we had a good laugh. It was the beginning of a wonderful Perfect Purse relationship. That torched bag (unscathed by the flame) brings me happy memories of funny Alex.
Another handbag shop I like is Flavio Pelletterie, Piazza Duomo 37/r. When I made my first purchase there, Flavio proudly told me that the bag I had chosen had been made by his father. The store has a wide range of leather merchandise, from briefcases to small packable gift items, and is popular with tourists.
My favorite Florence gift items are scarves, linens, journals and stationery – all easy to tuck into your suitcase. You can buy inexpensive scarves and shawls in the markets or off vendors’ street carts. There’s a lovely scarf shop called BIVA, at Via Dell’Ariento 8-10/r, in the San Lorenzo market district. Keep a scarf handy if you’re wearing a sleeveless top and are planning to visit a church. Many Italian churches require women to cover their shoulders (and knees). Btw, you rarely see Italian women in shorts. In warm weather, capris or below-the-knee cotton skirts or dresses are good choices.
Gorgeous Italian linens are made by Tessitura Pardi near the Umbrian village of Montefalco. In Florence, you’ll find an extensive selection of Pardi linens at Johnsons & Relatives, Via del Proconsolo 26/r, (across the street from Tito’s Linea 91). Pardi’s bath and hand towels, tablecloths, runners, placemats and napkins are made of finely woven cotton, linen or a blend of both, with patterns ranging from floral garlands to intricate geometrics to griffins among palmettos.
As a writer, I’m drawn to Florence’s artisan stationery shops. The proprietor of Johnsons & Relatives, Francesco Giannini (a wonderful gentleman), also owns the Il Papiro paper shops around Florence. One is located at Piazza Del Duomo 24/r (near Flavio’s leather store). Il Papiro has a beautiful collection of journals and stationery (marbleized paper is a specialty).
Signum is known for its exquisite leather-bound journals. Of the several Signum shops in Florence, my favorite is at Borgo degli Albizi 54/r, which has an Old World-style bindery in the back of the store.
For more contemporary paper products, check out the Fabriano Boutique, Via del Corso 59/r. Although Fabriano embraces modern graphic design, it has been in the paper business since 1264!
At the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo gift shop, on Piazza del Duomo, I stock up on lovely, reasonably priced notecard sets imbued with Italian elegance. I give them to friends (a big hit) and stash a few sets away. When I send out a gift copy of my book, I include a note decorated with a gilded Florentine fleur-de-lis.
I highly recommend The Civilized Shopper’s Guide to Florence by Louise Fili (The Little Bookroom, 2007), a chunky little book chocked full of specialty shops, some that have been family-run businesses for centuries. The guide is organized by area, with walking-tour maps and suggested cafes, wine bars and gelaterias to sustain you. This book was often my compass for my wanderings around Florence.
It led me to Scriptorium, Via dei Servi 5/r, which specializes in handmade books, inks, calligraphy items, sealing stamps and fine leather-covered boxes.
And to Officina Profuma Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella at Via della Scala 16, one of the world’s oldest pharmacies where herbal essences and perfumes are prepared according to original formulas that date back to the 1500s.
Where to Eat in Florence
When you’re shopped out, head to my favorite café Giubbe Rosse at Piazza della Repubblica, a great place for people-watching. It’s a lively large piazza, with a mesmerizing carousel. The first and last scenes of my book take place here. I spent many days writing in my journal(s) at Giubbe Rosse, where writers and artists have gathered for more than a century—and where the Italian Futurism movement was born. Be sure to take a look at the photos and sketches on display inside the café, which also has art exhibitions in its back dining room.
For a gelato fix, don’t miss world-famous Vivoli, Via Isola delle Stinche 7 (a little side street a block west of Piazza Santa Croce). My favorite Vivoli flavor: cioccolato all’arancia (chocolate orange).
Another good place for gelato is Vestri, Borgo degli Albizi 11/r, known for its sublime chocolates.
And if you fancy death-by-chocolate, order a hot chocolate – so thick it almost doesn’t need a cup – at the ritzy Caffè Rivoire at Piazza della Signoria, adjacent to the Uffizi Gallery.
My favorite restaurant in Florence is La Giostra, Borgo Pinti 10/r. La Giostra, which means ‘carousel,’ was the winter storehouse for a Florence merry-go-round years ago. La Giostra has two side-by-side dining rooms with separate entrances and kitchens, though the menu is the same at both. The meal starts with prosecco and an antipasto platter, both complimentary. A typical Italian dinner includes a primo course (pasta), followed by a secondo course (meat or fish). I’m quite content to make a meal of La Giostra’s delicious pasta dishes. I especially like the pennette served with gorgonzola sauce, laced with pear slices and pistachios. La Giostra’s original owner/chef was a Hapsburg prince, which explains why one of the signature desserts is Sacher torte. Reservations highly recommended: .
You’ll enjoy hearty fare at reasonable prices at the popular Trattoria Zà-Zà, Mercato Centrale 26/r – the truffle ravioli is tasty.
But if you want an authentic trattoria lunch in a Florentine neighborhood, away from the crowds in the city center, I’d recommend Fratelli Briganti. It’s hugely popular with local residents who show up with appetites for a feast that begins with antipasto or pizza, followed by primi (pasta) and secondi (meat/fish) courses, with cheese, dessert and coffee at the finish. The waiters (including members of the Fratelli family), the cooks and the guy with the cleaver who cuts the steaks are characters from Central Casting. The delicious food and lively ambience don’t get more genuinely Italian than this. Address: Piazza Giorgini 12R, Florence (near Piazza Leopoldo, a 10-minute bus/cab ride north of the train station) Lunch: M-W, Sat-Sun 12-3 p.m. Dinner: M-W, Sat-Sun 7 p.m. – midnight (closed on Thursdays) phone: 055 475255
Opposite Zà-Zà is Florence’s historic food market Mercato Centrale, which is worth a visit, though vegetarians may disagree. The butcher shops there are not for the squeamish!
Best Things to Do
If your wallet allows for a spa splurge, indulge at the Four Seasons, Borgo Pinti 99. Lingering after a massage in the napping room, which overlooks the hotel’s park-like gardens, is other-worldly.
Another other-worldly experience: Monks singing vespers at San Miniato, often described as the most beautiful church in Florence. Behind the church is a molto creepy cemetery, with towering crypts, where the author of Pinocchio is buried. The sweeping view of Florence from San Miniato is divine. The church is a short walk up from the parking area at Piazzale Michelangelo, a popular vantage point on the south bank of the Arno.
Enjoy the magic of twilight in Florence on an evening stroll along the Arno. Cross the river via the Ponte Vecchio where the dazzling jewelry shops close up at night like wood-paneled, iron-hinged treasure chests.
For Florence nightlife, check out a chic little bar called Slowly, at Via Porta Rossa 63/r, near Piazza della Repubblica. It’s a great place for evening drinks and savory nibbles from an aperitivo buffet, with a DJ serving up an eclectic mix of club music until the wee hours. (Editor’s note: Slowly Cafe has since been permanently closed.)
A few steps from Slowly is the Cinema Odeon, Piazza Strozzi 2, where Brits and Americans come to watch English-language movies (in English) on velvety seats under a stained-glass cupola in a 15th-century palazzo. The concession sells candy, espresso and liquor. Very civilized.
P.S. That’s my top 25. But I’d be remiss not to give you this one last tip: If you’re visiting Florence between May and November, bring mosquito repellant as well as anti-itch cream. Florence’s tiger mosquitoes are small, but as savage as their name implies. Fyi, many hotels use mosquito poison bottles that attach to little electric vaporizers, which plug into wall sockets. The fumes, which slowly paralyze mosquitos, aren’t great for humans either (side effects = eye/throat irritation and headaches). If the vaporizers are on, you have to leave the windows open for ventilation. Window screens aren’t common in Florence – so mosquitos rule.
And per the asterisk (*) above, buildings in Florence have color-coded numbers: red (rosso/”r”) for businesses and black (nero/”n”) for residences. It can be very confusing – 15/n might be next door to 87/r and sometimes the red numbers are actually black and often the black numbers aren’t denoted with an “n.” If you get lost, re-orient yourself at the nearest wine bar, which won’t be far away. It’s Italy!
Tales from Tavanti
As a female who has spent a great deal of time on the road it always gives me great pleasure to read about other females’ adventures. I especially enjoyed Rebecca Bricker’s telling of an American woman’s mid-life adventure in Florence, Italy. The author calls her book a ‘novoir’ – a genre of her own invention that blends novel and memoir but she quickly points out that even though she has taken liberty with the facts, the underlying essence of her story is true.
Rebecca is a single mom and when her son went off to college, she sold the family home and went off herself to experience Florence for a year. This book is the story of her experiences — the good, the bad and the interesting relationships she forms in the process.
Rebecca is a freelance writer and a former columnist for People Magazine, who has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. To find out more about her book, visit her website.
(Evelyn Hannon, Editor, Journeywoman.com)
Read More on Italy
This year I spent one week in Florence all by myself and it was so enjoyable. Much of the reason it was so much fun stemmed from the female-centered tips offered to me from other JourneyWomen both prior to my departure and while I was there. Now in true JW style I pass these suggestions on to other women heading off to explore Florence!
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