The last time I slept within Florence’s historic city walls, it was the summer of 1997. I was sharing a room in a very classic pensione with three other students, each with her own nun-bed. Fast forward more than 20 years and I’ve never been a downtown dweller – by choice – which means I haven’t experienced the thrill of staying right at the heart of things in Florence. [OK there was that one time we slept on my office floor, having been locked out of the house for a broken key, but that doesn’t count as it was involuntary.] The invitation to spend a night at the newly opened Arté Boutique Hotel, just steps from the Duomo, was too tempting. This is the kind of place I’d choose if I were to visit for a long weekend – small, central and eclectic.
As my husband and I packed a small bag for our Florence staycation, I challenged us to stay within a 500 meter radius of the hotel, and planned to take advantage of the proximity to cultural sites to revisit some old favourites, off-season, as well as show some to Tommaso, who hadn’t seen them since grade school. To complete the “tourist effect”, we took the bus to destination, armed with google maps to find the right building. What follows is my staycation itinerary – two days in Florence with a view of the Duomo.
Checking in to our central hotel
We enter Arté through one of the grand doorways off via Cavour, a building that still houses some private apartments, tucked between public offices and businesses. An old lift takes us to the second floor where we enter into an alternate reality of velvety textures and perfumed calmness. Welcomed by owners Sara and Antonio, we’re immediately offered a drink and a chat in the lounge that features an always open snack bar with rather irresistible upmarket goodies. She’s an experienced hospitality manager, he’s an architect who manages large hotel construction projects, and this is their first hotel, built on years of criticizing others and a desire to create the perfect hospitality experience.
Off to our room, a gigantic top-floor loft suite with private Duomo view balcony – though we got a peek into a number of other stunningly decorated rooms on our way. Faux-architectural wallpaper, art-deco style custom furniture and jewel-tone velvets are the order of the day, and the bane of the cleaning staff’s existence – they spend half their time brushing the velvet that shows every imprint. With each room unique in both decoration and layout, the hotel’s website allows you to pick the specific room you want.
Antonio, who is actually Spanish, knows I’m into art so he takes out a roll of what appear to be blueprints that he reserves for special guests “who seem to want to go beyond the surface.” On tracing paper as well as transparent acetate are a series of sketches of Brunelleschi’s Dome, with numbers and formulas annotated in the margins. “These are just my first drawings,” explains Antonio, saying he hopes to codify this little “speech” of his. Looking through the window and concentrating on his lines, he speaks with rare enthusiasm about the miraculous way that Brunelleschi developed the Dome, and I learn about the pointed fifth arch, an architectural term I didn’t know before. Hear his story about the Dome in this video below.
Left to our own devices in the suite, it was a tough call: go outside, or snap a million photos of the Duomo while helping ourselves to the Nespresso? This would be a great place to read a book, if I weren’t feeling manic about having a million things to do just outside the door.
What to see near the Duomo in Florence?
Downtown Florence is very compact and contains a high density of cultural sites, though having limited myself to stay within 500 meters of the hotel, just for fun, I’ve eliminated a few major museums like the Uffizi, Bargello and Pitti, not to mention sites like the Ponte Vecchio and Oltrarno, or Santa Croce. But even in the immediate area of the hotel, there’d be plenty to keep us busy for two or three days. On this occasion, we didn’t, of course, do them all.
Right across from Arté, on via Cavour, is the Medici Riccardi palace, the Medici family’s first home. Commissioned in 1444 to Michelozzo from Cosimo de’ Medici, this large building became the model of domestic architecture in Florence for about a hundred years to come. Its two courtyards, which you can visit without a ticket, are one of the lauded features of private homes of the time; it was necessary to create an “outdoor space” even in a busy urban area. The first courtyard, by Michelozzo, is fun to photograph due to a great regularity typical of Renaissance architecture and was the more public space into which visitors would be welcomed. The second courtyard, with garden and fountain, would normally have been reserved to the family and children and was the original location of a rather racy sculpture of the David by Donatello (now at the Bargello) as well as of Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes (now at Palazzo Vecchio). A ticket to this museum gets you upstairs to visit a tiny and densely decorated Chapel of the Magi, the family’s private chapel with every wall frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli.
Kitty-corner from Palazzo Medici Riccardi and staunchly in Medici territory is the church of San Lorenzo, which as a complex offers an architecture smörgåsbord – the early Renaissance church and Old Sacristy designed by Brunelleschi, the Laurentian Library by Michelangelo, and the Medici Chapels, also by Michelangelo. (Follow the links for my articles about each of these, which I will not repeat here.) The austerity and regularity that speaks to our natural understanding of things inside Brunelleschi’s serene church is turned upside down by Michelangelo in the New Sacristy, which takes the architectural language established one hundred years earlier and scrambles it with attitude.
Continuing on our Medici theme – it is their area! – Tommaso and I visited the museum of San Marco, known for its frescoes by Fra Angelico and his school. The Renaissance form of this Dominican convent is thanks to Michelozzo, again under the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici, who had a private cell here. There are many remarkable things about this convent – the cloister and the “public spaces” like the chapter house and the library. But the most unusual of all is the dormitory, with private cells for each friar, each decorated with a fresco by Fra Angelico. On a quiet winter weekend, San Marco is sufficiently off the tourist path to find ourselves alone in exploring the cells, a condition that helps one imagine the peacefulness that the friars might have felt meditating on these images.
Staying in our 500 meter radius, a seldom-visited site one could drop in to is the Cenacolo di Sant’Apolonia, a former convent for Benedictine nuns. The refectory here was painted by Andrea del Castagno and makes for an interesting comparison to the two refectories painted in San Marco. This museum can be visited for free every morning.
Another destination would be the Museo degli Innocenti, dedicated to the fascinating history of what may be Europe’s first orphanage (and it has a loggia by Brunelleschi). There’s the Archaeology Museum, with its unusual garden full of transposed Etruscan tombs, or, speaking of gardens, you could visit the Giardino dei Semplici or Orto Botanico, part of the university museums. All four of these museums don’t draw large crowds, especially in wintertime.
The Duomo itself of course is there for the taking – maybe this is the time you walk up it again! Consider taking a tour that gives you access to the “Secret Terraces” as well as allows you to skip the line (see article below). Most certainly, don’t miss a visit to the Opera del Duomo Museum, and if possible, take advantage of your combined ticket to also enter the Baptistery, with its stunning mosaics.
Too close to the shops!
With all intent to visit “cultural things,” our first stop was, nonetheless, a commercial one. It is still the winter sales period, and Tommaso sought the perfect suit, which was an ideal opportunity to walk into some high-street stores we don’t usually frequent.
Being very, very close to Florence’s main shopping streets can be a plus or a minus depending on your budget, but one can’t deny that it’s awfully convenient to be able to hop back to your room for a snack or to drop off bags. The stores in this central area tend to feature major brands, with upscale internationals like Miu Miu, Armani, Prada and Longchamp near the Duomo giving way to Coccinelle, Zara and H&M towards the Ponte Vecchio.
For something a little bit more niche, try Momonì for special-occasion womens’ pieces that are made in Italy; concept stores Flow and Gerard Loft for both sexes; and Eredi Chiarini for a nice classic menswear multi-brand store.
Hire a portrait photographer
You know how your travel partner never seems to manage to capture just how great you looked that night you dressed up while on holiday / were on the beach / were looking at monuments etc? It’s those kind of terrible photographers that inspired the vacation-photographer-for-hire movement that I totally espouse. While there are specialized platforms for this service, if you follow some local photographers on Instagram, consider contacting them directly – they might be thrilled!
Here in Florence, American resident Tracy Russo is my go-to for good head shots, and it was high time I got a new set, as my last ones were shot in 2017 before I let my hair go naturally grey. Tracy is brilliant at putting you at ease so we fooled around on our Duomo terrace as well as in the hotel’s lounge, ultimately producing some photos that make me look better than I do in real life. You can hire Tracy through her website, Dolce Vida Photography.
Really central spots to eat in Florence
Everyone knows never to eat in a restaurant by the Duomo of any city. So, if you want to remain as central as possible in Florence and still eat well, what are your choices? We asked Sara and Antonio about their favourite restaurants to send clients and they admitted that most of the places they recommend are in the Oltrarno. Which is not really a problem – Florence is so walkable – but what if you want to stay within 500 meters of the hotel? There are actually a ton of options.
First of all, you’re in the San Lorenzo area, where there are numerous traditional restaurants around the market; at lunchtime, for example, any Florentine will recommend the steak at Mario’s. The upstairs floor of the historic market building is called “Mercato Centrale” and is a top quality food court open all day every day until midnight. It’s great for groups who want to try different foods, and I often recommend it to visitors. This is an option for lunch as well as dinner, or for take-out to enjoy on your terrace if you have one!
For lunch in the heart of it all, one of my favourite spots is Floret, the bar inside Luisa via Roma, a fancy multi-brand store on, you guessed it, via Roma just one building in from piazza Duomo. Certainly a place to see and be seen, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of their ingredients. A detox shot and a superfood bowl will make you feel like your skin is glowing with health. Too bad it’s not open for dinner, but they do have all-day food and coffees.
Time to think about dinner, but before that, how about a glass of wine? Personally I like the range available at Enoteca Vigna Nuova, more than 500 labels that go well beyond Tuscan borders. Get a tagliere of prosciutto and cheese or some appetizers that pair with whatever you’re drinking. Dinner here is good too, and they often organize wine tasting events.
If you’re in the mood for pizza, the pizzeria at Mercato Centrale is good quality – you can receive sit-down service accessed by a stairwell near their counter; or, in the piazza, head to Naples import Da Michele, famous for not taking reservations.
So much for casual eating, if you’re celebrating a special occasion or just want to mark the evening with an experience, head to Ristorante Sabatini, located on via Panzani between the station and the Duomo. For dining room ambience, you can’t beat repurposed furniture from a de-consecrated 16th-century church! In the booming 60s and 70s, Sabatini was THE place to be, full of movie stars and fashion icons. Recently under new management, the menu still proposes their famous flambé – quite the spectacle! – alongside Tuscan favourites, all served in impeccable style.
All in all, I think I should staycation more often! If you’re experiencing Florence as a visitor or a resident, staying in this central area really is a good option – with everything just steps from the door, time and experience are maximized.
Disclaimer: I was hosted at Arté Boutique Hotel, though all reviews and opinions are my own.