Get your walking shoes on, Melbourne interior designer and Florence insider Janine Vasta takes us on a tour of some favourite corners of her Italian home away from home.
I’ve been coming to Florence for more than 20 years now and it’s still hard to believe you can have so much incredible beauty, history, gorgeous fashion and art all in the one place. And practically everything you want to see is within walking distance. You just arrive, start wandering and discovering so many beautiful things and places, you can’t help falling in love on the first day. I always try to make Florence my first stop in Italy so I can walk off the jet lag and get an instant update on Italian street style at the same time. I think the Florentines have a beautifully effortless, easy chic look. They’re not as flamboyant as the Milanese and they really understand the impact of getting the details just right, whether it’s the perfect weight of a scarf or the way they roll their jeans. The same goes for their interiors, I think. They really know how to mix old and new.
If you love small hotels that make you feel so much part of the furniture that you never want to leave, you will love Hotel Scoti as much as I do. Just down from Gucci on Via Tornabuoni, the hotel is on the second floor of a Renaissance palazzo that’s still home to a mix of old style offices and apartments. You feel like you’re coming and going from your own little Florentine pied-a-terre, which I love. Guests are treated like members of the family with use of the huge comfy lounge complete with frescoed ceilings. A homemade breakfast is also on offer, brought to your room by the resident owner Doreen, a Melbourne-born Italian girl who came to live in Italy as a teenager. The simple white rooms, each one different to the next and some with original terrazzo floors, overlook terracotta rooftops. They feature vintage Italian furniture in timber and marble, and the small but sparkling bathrooms are the icing on the cake.
If you’re after something a little more indulgent without losing the personality of a small hotel, The Continental is a great choice. Part of the Salvatore Ferragamo hotel group, rooms at The Continental are sleek and understated with natural leather, light oak and lots of white so they are ideal for a longer stay. Mine even had its own walk-in robe. But it’s the cool glamour of the public spaces that makes the hotel so special. The private roof terrace with panoramic views over the river is the picture perfect spot for an apertivo. But for me, the show-stopper at The Continental is the first floor lounge where you can cosy up on a day bed for an hour or two and gaze out over the Ponte Vecchio.
For breakfast I always head to Caffe Giacosa, the bar owned by fashion designer Roberto Cavalli, for a brioche and a cappuccino. It’s such a cool address – the bar sits right next door to Cavalli’s flagship store in Via della Spada – but the vibe actually feels easy going and local. Prepare to be even more impressed the next morning when the barista takes one look at you and starts making your coffee just the way you like it and you haven’t said a word.
After breakfast, I love a quiet walk up Via Porta Rossa to check out Aspesi for puffer jackets and simple cashmere. Then I pop into Quercioli & Lucherini for amazing hosiery and underwear in every colour of the rainbow and the cutest shop windows in Florence. The service is so good that even buying a new pair of socks here feels like the most indulgent thing you’ve done in ages. For something uniquely Florentine, head to 20:12 Gallery in the newly buzzing artisan precinct just between Santa Maria Novella and the river. Bespoke and edgy, if the hand-stitched leather pouches or canvas and leather shoppers aren’t quite what you’re after, the owner Dimitri will create to order. He even runs workshops to teach his craft if you’re in town for a while.
Another new favourite is UB, which is tucked away on the other side of the Duomo, for once-in-a-lifetime vintage Italian décor and lighting as well the most amazing collection of retro 70’s wallpaper outside Milan. For perfect thank you gifts for Italian friends and a quintessential Florence shopping experience all in one hit, sweet treats from Migone or the sublime handmade perfumes and potions from the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella have got you covered.
Florence has too many unmissable museums to name and I am far from exhausting the list, but experiencing the tranquil beauty of the wall frescoes by Fra Angelico at the Convent of San Marco has stayed with me. When you think you can’t take another museum, this is the one to see. Once you’ve finished your shopping, another hidden gem on Via Porta Rossa is Palazzo Davanzati. The museum is the closest thing to a real life Renaissance show home you’ll find, in Florence at least, with room upon room furnished just as the family Davanzati would have done.
For real Florence street food Da Nerbone inside the covered market at San Lorenzo is still the best. You just choose the filling for your panino (the bollito di manzo is perfection), order a glass of the local red (as everyone else seems to be doing) and lunch is sorted. Another spot I love for a quick midday snack is the pizzicheria at Via della Spada 47. It’s more a neighbourhood food store than a sandwich shop so be prepared to wait your turn. Otherwise, you can try the gelato of the day at Gelateria Perché Non, another great lunchtime solution even in winter.
Dinner on the first night (and often the second and third) is always at Trattoria La Casalinga just near Santo Spirito. I have been coming here for years and just walking through the door and seeing the owners’ faces as they work the floor makes me feel like I’ve never been away. If it’s Spring I’ll definitely start with something like spaghetti with asparagi then have the lombatina di vitello and a side of spinaci saltati or finocchio in pinzimonio, which is all the excuse you need to eat more of their amazing bread. And probably why I’ve never had room for dessert though I’ve promised myself the torta della nonna has my name on it for next time. Try to call ahead for a table but even if you turn up and have to wait, it’s worth it for the food as well as the people-watching.
Back over the other side of the river, not far from Santa Maria Novella, another good spot is Rosticceria La Spada where the specialty is roasted meats and Bistecca alla Fiorentina cooked on an open wood-fired grill. The owners are originally from Naples and the vibe is always upbeat. Being a neighbourhood rosticceria, you can put together a complete lunch or dinner right down to pasta and wine to take away. This is just perfect if you’re staying in a small apartment and have friends coming around or just want to stay in for a night and feel like a local.