Auguri from Florence, Italy! Having been here in Firenze for almost two weeks now, I’ve been able to enjoy the New Years holiday in this picturesque, renaissance city. I thought it would be helpful to share some observations and recommendations that may help you if you decide to visit. There are many worthwhile sites to see, so I’ll just highlight some of my favorites.
Florence is an ideal destination for travelers who love to stroll leisurely between sightseeing, as most of the attractions are within walking distance and are easily accessible by foot. Whenever traveling somewhere new, I always like to first go to a high viewpoint in order to get acquainted with the lay of the land. Whether it’s on a hill or tall building, I find it helps you to orient yourself and to better understand the directional layout, especially in cities.
Therefore, I went directly to Piazzale Michelangelo, a lovely square located on the less-visited side of the Arno River, opposite the tourist attractions in the historic center. As it is set atop a hill and is reached by climbing a gentle yet seemingly endless incline of steps, you’ll notice many winded travelers resting to take a breather before continuing their ascent. Fortunately, it is also accessible by road for those who are less mobile. The view from the top is panoramic and affords picture-postcard photos of the city whose skyline is dominated by the majestic Duomo Cathedral. My tip is to go right before sunset so you can capture the sun-drenched buildings, then linger in the square until night to see the lit up skyline at night.
You’ll also want to visit the Mercato Centrale, a two-story food emporium with fruit and vegetable, wine, mushroom, and chocolate vendors selling mostly local and a few imported products on the ground floor. There are also some vendors selling the usual decidedly not vegan unspeakables. Upstairs is a bustling food court with restaurants, wine bars, and gourmet food shops. There’s even a small vegetarian/vegan restaurant called Veg&Veg with an equally small menu that, nonetheless, is a welcome addition to the building’s dining options. I’ve eaten there twice. The first time I had the chickpea-based vegan burger served with sliced beets and red cabbage on a whole grain bun—a tasty, if a bit dry, quick lunch. Another time I had soup (two of the three soups that day were vegan) that had roasted cauliflower and mushrooms and was served in a bread bowl. It was large and very filling and was a cauliflower lover’s dream as that element was the strong, singular flavor.
2nd Floor of Mercato Centrale
At some point, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself crossing the perpetually-thronged Ponte Vecchio, the remarkable stone bridge, rebuilt in 1345, that traverses the Arno River. It houses mostly jewelry shops with dazzling display windows showcasing bracelets, necklaces, and rings running the gamut from understated to gaudy. While the views from the bridge are splendid, I prefer the views from either bridge adjacent to it since you can actually capture the Ponte Vecchio in the shot.
Another attraction I enjoyed was the imposing Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens located on the southern bank of the river (same side as the Piazzale Michelangelo), just a short walk after crossing the Ponte Vecchio. This former Medici family residence is full of opulent artwork and furniture typical of the period. The adjoining Boboli Gardens feature hedged pathways of tall, groomed bay laurel trees that meander through the garden’s grounds and lead you to fountains and sculpted courtyards. There’s an underwhelming Porcelain Gallery that’s entirely skippable, but I definitely wouldn’t miss the Silverworks Museum (Museo degli Argenti). On it’s ground floor, it houses creepy reliquaries and intricate tables inlaid with precious stones, while upstairs you’ll find stunning silver plates and goblets, as well as a large variety of pompous jewelry including rings, brooches, and cameos.
Other points of interest that you’ll want to check out are the Uffizi Gallery, Santa Croce church, Piazza della Signoria, the Duomo Belltower/Giotto’s Tower (be advised, the climb up can be challenging and claustrophobic, but the views are spectacular), the Museum of the History of Science/Galileo Museum (I want that Apothecary’s Table in the second floor exhibit!).
Overall, the dining options for the vegan traveler are decent. There are some entirely vegan restaurants and, of course, well-stocked supermarkets for self-catering. Smaller Carrefour and Conad supermarkets can be found in the city center, with the larger supermarkets located in the surrounds. You can find produce, nondairy milks, soy yogurt, and breads in the small supermarkets. For the full range of vegan essentials, head over to NaturaSi, an organic grocery store. It’s not entirely vegan, but you’ll find most everything you’d need, albeit at slightly elevated prices.
Via Masaccio 88 90, Firenze
Here are some of the restaurants I have visited:
Via San Gallo 92, Firenze
The service is a bit awkward since you have to go up to the counter and fill out a menu with your choices, give it to the proprietor that’s standing there, and then you set and bus your own table. The food was not bad. I tried the gnocchi with vegetables and the lasagne with seitan ragu. Both were good, but the portion of lasagne was a bit small for a dinner. The optional side dishes (I tried the roasted potatoes and the mixed sprouts) were underwhelming. For dessert I tried both the tiramisu and the panna cotta. I enjoyed the creamy and not-too-sweet tiramisu but the panna cotta was unsuccessful as the texture was too rubbery.
Via San Gallo 75, Firenze
The Florence branch of an Italian vegan fast food chain, Veggy Days serves burgers, sandwiches, and small entrees. I’ve been there twice since it’s so close to where I’m staying. I’ve tried the spinach and mediterranean burgers, and the lupin pita pocket. The sandwiches were good but could definitely use more seasoning. More herbs and spices would boost the food’s muted flavors. The potato fries are tasty.
*I did try a few other vegetarian/vegan restaurants, but since I can’t recommend them, I will leave them unmentioned.
Even though it’s winter and a bit chilly, I just couldn’t resist having some gelato. Gelateria dei Neri had two soy milk gelato flavors: vanilla and hazelnut. I got a little bit of both. Next time, I’d skip the vanilla (its texture and vanilla flavoring were both poor) and stick with the hazelnut. It was very sweet but fortunately had a hint of saltiness which made it taste more balanced.
Gelateria dei Neri
Via dei Neri 22, Firenze
As I mentioned, I was able to be here in Florence for the New Year holiday and have witnessed the spectacle that is the Italian capodanno celebration. In short, the revelry includes tipsy camaraderie and deafening firecrackers. Oh, and smashing of lots of empty beer and prosecco bottles on the ground!
I headed out two hours before midnight and did a loop around the old town with the intention of finding the most boisterous crowd with whom to ring in the New Year. I found the rowdiest to be those who were gathering in the square of the Duomo, so I located an elevated spot against the cathedral and watched as the crowd went nuts. Just before midnight, the crowd of thousands separated, leaving a large circular pit into which firecrackers and smoke bombs were thrown. Each loud boom was followed by a louder cheer from the crowd. It peaked at midnight, when many people shook their bottles and rained prosecco onto surrounding revelers. I looked around me and saw people take one final swig from their bottles then launch them into the pit, which soon became full of spent firecrackers and broken glass. It was such a spirited (and funny!) celebration that it left me in favor of this Italian style of ringing in the New Year!
Check out my recipe for Orange Almond Olive Oil Cake (Torta di arance e mandorle con olio), inspired by my trip!
Have you been to Florence? If so, what were some of your favorite sights?