Florence, Italy is the world’s best known city for Renaissance art masterpieces, from Michaelangelo’s sculpture of David at the Galleria dell’Accademia to Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and da Vinci’s “Annunciation” at Le Galleria degli Uffizi. And it was art that drew me to the Tuscan capital this fall for the opening of the first exhibition by a female artist at Palazzo Strozzi, performance artist Marina Abramovic’s first major exhibition in Italy which runs until January 2019. While art was at the top of my agenda, I made a few other discoveries worth recommending.
1. To fully immerse yourself in a city with art and beauty at its heart, stay in a historic palace or townhouse. When the Helvetia & Bristol, a nineteeth-century townhouse, was opened in 1885 by its Swiss owner, it was Florence’s first hotel. The hotel is conveniently located across from the Palazzo Strozzi with Marina Abramovic’s current blockbuster exhibition, and very near the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Academia, the Medici Chapels and the chic boutiques on Via de’ Tornbuoni. Over its history, the hotel has attracted notable guests such as philosopher Bertrand Russell, composer Igor Stravinsky and in more recent years, politician Yasser Arafat, film director Ken Loach and actor Leslie Nielsen.
The Helvetia & Bristol feels more like a private luxurious residence than a hotel. When the family-run Italian group Starhotels Collezione acquired the hotel in 2016, they painstakingly restored and modernised the property, being sure to maintain the Florentine style and character. Also part of Leading Hotels of The World, Starhotels Collezione, led by the charming Elisabetta Fabri, includes twelve luxury hotels worldwide (three in London, seven in Italy, one in Paris and one in New York), each in charming townhouses with individual interiors and an Italian style. The group aims to be an ambassador for and to promote Italian style, history and character, both in its Italian properties and in those outside Italy.
Each of the 38 guestrooms and 29 suites in the Helvetia & Bristol are unique, with individual pieces of art and furniture. My suite featured Chinese porcelain lamps, 17th-century paintings and woodcuts and lovely touches such as silk upholstery and Murano glass chandeliers. Making an effort to source from local artisans, the rooms also have gorgeous wooden trays and boxes made by Florentine artist Tommaso de Carlo.
The restaurant, Hostaria Bidendium serves classic Tuscan cuisine and the cozy Bar Bibendium features lovely baroque mirrors. Breakfast is served in the Winter Garden, a 1920s styled room with a leaded glass ceiling. There are also plans for a spa, a larger restaurant and a roof terrace which will be in the former multi-storey bank building next door.
2. A brilliant piece of advice from the charming concierge at the Helvetia & Bristol is to visit the city’s number one tourist attraction, the Uffizi galleries on a Tuesday or Wednesday night when they’re open until 1opm. Clearly this isn’t well publicised as local Florentines I spoke with didn’t know about the late opening and the museum was blissfully empty during my nighttime visit. In addition to iconic paintings like “Venus” by Vecellio and da Vinci’s “Adoration of the Magi”, be sure to see the seven “virtues” paintings by Botticelli and Pollaiolo. Botticelli’s 15th-century portrait of the woman entitled “Fortitude” seems particularly appropriate today.
3. I skipped the Medici chapels and headed straight for the palatial gardens, formerly owned by an accountant for the Medici family, that are now part of the Four Seasons Hotel. The city’s largest private park (11 acres) dates back to the 15th century and is filled with fascinating historic statues, fountains, and Ionic temple, flowers and beautiful old old trees. Temporary exhibitions of contemporary artworks are often also on show in the gardens. Even if you’re not a guest of the hotel, it’s possible to stroll in the gardens and have a drink or pizza in the Pool Tree Bar.
4. Florence’s famous cathedral, the Duomo is fantastic to view from any angle but do see the iconic dome from high at the medieval Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni 1. The bar and restaurant on the seventh floor has 360° panoramic outdoor terraces that offer spectacular views of the Duomo, other Florentine landmarks and the Arno River. There you’ll be rewarded with clear views during the day or at night of the Duomo nestled among Florence’s rooftops.
5. Gelato is an ubiquitous but essential treat in any Italian city and it is usually the first thing I consume on arrival. Florence is no exception and in a city filled with gelaterias, it is difficult to choose where to go but Carapino is certainly one of the best. They have two locations, one near Ponte Vecchio and one in the Campo Marte area. What sets them apart from their many competitors is the use of local and strictly seasonal products in a few rather than dozens of flavors that alternate daily. It’s no surprise that the ice cream at Carapino has been described as”Gastronomic Gelato”.