Sep 26, 2012

Black Book Travel Guide: Florence

By: Karen Kwan

ISTOCKPHOTO Author: Elle Canada Credits: ISTOCKPHOTO

Sep 26, 2012

Black Book Travel Guide: Florence

By: Karen Kwan
Ask a seasoned traveler what city in Italy would be their top recommendation and the answer more often than not will be Florence. What makes this nearly everyone's favourite city?

Considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance, in Florence you can take a step in any direction and you'll be met with stunning architecture or more culture than you can possibly absorb in a lifetime-in fact, you may find it so breathtaking you'll be brought to tears (don't worry, wipe them away with a Prada handkerchief and we won't tell anyone). Read on for our travel guide to this opulent and picturesque city.

Travel guide: Where to stay
For a comfortably chic spot to rest your head that's easy on the pocketbook, reserve a room at Mr. & Mrs. Smith property Floroom. This charming four-room bed and breakfast is tucked up on the third floor of a building found on a quiet alleyway just a few minutes walk from the Ponte Santa Trinita.

Before you set out for a day of sightseeing, enjoy a light breakfast (think cereal, yogurt, toast, cheese, prosciutto, juice and, of course, a cappuccino to jolt you awake) in the dining area, which is a cozy sunshine-filled space you'll find on the upper level. (Bonus: You can request your breakfast-time preference-so you can sleep in a bit if you've been out late the night before).

Best of all, Floroom is literally steps from numerous fantastic restaurants, including 4 Leone (where there's a busy patio right in a busy but charming square), and cultural sights, including Pallazzo Pitti-and you'll especially welcome the short walk after pounding the city's cobblestones day after day.

If, however, what you covet most in a hotel is more on the luxe and sleek end of the style spectrum, set your sights further afield on Riva Lofts. Just outside the city gates, and about a 30-minute walk to the Ponte Vecchio, Riva Lofts boasts eight contemporary lofts, each equipped with amply sized washrooms stocked with local olive oil-based toiletries.

The chic outdoor space, complete with pool, chaise longues and hammocks, would make an A-list celeb feel right at home and, take our word for it, you'll welcome the peace and quiet after dealing with the hordes of tour groups that congest the Centre. If your nerves are particularly frazzled, be sure to book a massage through the hotel. Then, when you're ready to play tourist again, don't miss out on the complimentary bikes available on the property to tour around the area.

Additional touches, such as the complimentary snacks and beverages in the stunning dining room (accessible 24 hours a day with a passcode) and the DVD library, will make Riva Lofts feel like the pied a terre you've been dreaming about owning. In fact, this boutique hotel should come with a warning upon check-in: You'll never want to leave.

Black Book Travel Guide: Where to get a posh cocktail in Florence on the next page ...

Travel Guide: Where to dine and drink
Want to break bread where all of the Florence's trendsetters do? Grab a table at Il Santo Bevitore in Oltrarno. Set in a large space decked out with dark woods and wine bottles, this bustling restaurant is filled with stylish, attractive locals and tourists with a love of food enjoying well-prepared food that's refined but not fussy.

Insider tip: Order the zuppe of potato foam, poached egg and truffle-it may just be the best soup you've ever had. Other popular dishes include cheese and charcuterie boards so beautifully presented they're almost too gorgeous to eat (almost!) and the spicy 'nduja ricciola pasta.

If you're craving a slice of pizza, head to Il Pizzaiuolo. To say the mouthwatering Neapolitan-style pies here will merely hit the spot is a gross understatement. The crust manages to be both satisfying chewy and crispy, while the mozzarella is joyfully stretchy and delicious. Order one topped with prosciutto, too, for the perfect salty fix.

To enjoy some vino with locals of all ages, grab some red or white at Caffe Sant'Ambrogio where there are several selections sold by the glass and then enjoy it right outside in the square where all of the bar's patrons spill out onto on a warm summer night. The ambiance is lively and casual-sit on the church steps or even the sidewalk for some excellent people-watching.

Travel Guide: Shops we love
Stumble inside Nadine, located on alongside the river, and you'll be thoroughly charmed by this girly boutique, which carries a mix of vintage and new apparel and accessories. The clothing largely focuses on local designers from Florence and includes casual separates in retro-inspired fabrics and feminine patterns with a slightly hipster vibe.

For trend-driven fashion, head to one of the four locations in Florence of Dixie, where you'll find a young crowd of stylistas shopping for the season's hottest items at affordable prices, all neatly arranged by colour on the racks.

If it's luxury designer goods you're after, set aside at least half a day to go to The Mall. This 26-boutique outlet mall is about a 30-minute train ride away (you'll have to grab a cab from Rignano Sull'Arno train station to get there) and includes the likes of Prada, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Marni, to name just a few. Prices are not dirt cheap, but you'll definitely save more than a few pennies (and don't forget you can get the tax refund at the airport before you leave Italy when you spend more than 154.94 euros in one shop).

Travel Guide: Fave haunts
If you can brace yourself for the experience-you'll have to wade through a sea of tourists and deal with some pushy sales tactics from vendors-you can score some great leather finds and souvenirs at San Lorenzo Market. And while you may find yourself tired after touring numerous cathedrals, the Church of Santa Maria Novella is a must-stop for its stunning artwork (there are masterpieces here, including pieces from Massacio and Giotto) and beautiful Gothic architecture.

Travel Guide: Can't miss
You can hardly visit without enjoying several scoops of gelato, and Vivoli is a Florence institution. Often voted the best in the city, Vivoli has lines pouring out of the shop at all hours of the day and night of people waiting to get their hands on the creamy, delicious treat.

And to feed your soul, visit the Giardini di Boboli for an escape from the city's hustle and bustle. The stunning gardens and beautiful views of Florence will have your jaw dropping. And, last but not least, cross the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence, which is lined with jewellery shops that are fun to peruse. Come dusk, grab a seat on ponte alle Grazie and enjoy the view of the sun setting beyond this Florence landmark.

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Black Book Travel Guide: Florence