For those who enjoy a taste of nightlife, you’ll find Florence has much to offer. There’s something for everyone: American-themed pubs for students, small speakeasies and wine bars, clubs, and gay bars.
Recently, my days in Florence started with a cappuccino and ended with an aperol spritz. When I first fell in love with the city as an 11 year old, I started and ended the day with a chocolate crepe and the largest possible gelato. As a child, Florence’s sunny yellow buildings and warm glow made quite an impression, so I knew when I decided to return I would fall back in love. Food, drink and people, one could easily argue, are a top priority in Italy. When I had the opportunity to stay in Florence for three months earlier this year, most evenings appropriately included that aperol spritz, and of course good company. The city is also famous for its quaint charm, walkability, and being the home to some of Europe’s most revered artworks, but what happens after you’ve visited the galleries, seen the famed Duomo, and walked the Ponte Vecchio? Florence is a destination full of aesthetic and cultural beauty, and it is also full of life. It teems with international students, aspiring artists and artisans, tourists, and Italians from every corner of the country.
Waking up in Florence, you’re not going to find many places with a savory breakfast, but for some of the sweetest pastries, stop by Vecchio Forno and try their mini cheesecake, sweet pistachio croissants, or fruit tarts. You’ll need all the fuel you can get so you can explore the city’s amazing museums. Florence is known as the artistic center of Europe, birthplace of Michelangelo, and home to some of Italy’s most lavish palaces and churches. The first place to check off your must-visit list is the Duomo (the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral). This structure towers over Florence, and if you purchase a Brunelleschi Pass, you can access the cathedral’s dome, ascend the bell tower next to the cathedral, and peruse a museum, baptistery, and underground crypt for just €30. Afterwards, head to the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), the only bridge in Florence that survived WWII.
Artistic must-sees in Florence are varied and inspiring. These include the Galleria dell’Accademia, which displays the original colossal statue of David by Michelangelo; Pitti Palace, the former home of the infamous Medici family that once ruled over the city now hosts multiple art exhibits and features a vast garden; and the Uffizi Gallery, which houses more 300,000 artworks, including those of Leonardo Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo. The museum, located right next to Florence’s Arno river, is itself is a work of art.
After I visited all of the popular city attractions, I found myself wanting to explore more of the culture of Florence. With a lot of investigating, and a lot more walking, I found that this city from Renaissance times is bursting with vibrant nightlife and, of course, amazing food. If you’re anything like me and you want to live like a local while traveling, you’re going to want to cross the Arno to the less touristy side of the city called Oltrarno, which quite literally translates to “the other side of the Arno.” Here you can find some of the city’s most authentic food as it is also home to a majority of Florence’s locals.
When I first visited Florence, my family and I dined at a famous pizzeria called Gusta Pizza in Oltrarno. I can still remember the scent of the pizza dough and tomato sauce floating into the street. It was through my rediscovery of this restaurant that I stumbled upon a local treasure just a few feet away, the Piazza Santo Spirito. Here you will find an unassuming church that the locals revere called Basilica di Santo Spirito The church’s glittering interior is one of Florence’s most ornate, with works by Michelangelo, and the father of Renaissance architecture, Filippo Brunellschi.
Piazza Santo Spirito is a hub for local nightlife, home to many quaint bars and cafes and, in my opinion, some of the best lasagna in Florence at Gusta Osteria, a little restaurant that serves Italian classics done the right way. On a random Sunday as I strolled through the piazza, I discovered that it also hosts one of the city’s best flea markets, with offerings from local food and winemakers, clothes, pottery, and artisanal goods of all sorts. But the best time to visit this piazza is around 5 P.M. any day of the week for aperitivo. It is at this time that everyone gathers with friends to chat and people watch.
Nearby the piazza Giardino Bardini offers views of Florence framed by greenery and Renaissance-style architecture for less than €10. Tucked away between Oltrarno’s backstreets, in the spring and summer you can find a glowing purple tunnel of wisteria, paths of perfectly groomed deep green shrubbery, and a cafe at the garden’s highest point. I often returned to this spot on sunny afternoons, as it offered some of my trip’s most awe-inspiring moments. Just a few blocks over and you’ll find another romantic spot, Florence’s rose garden which houses 400 varieties of roses, and an outdoor bar where you can enjoy your second (or third) spritz of the evening. Bring a picnic blanket, some cheese, wine, and don’t forget the prosciutto for some aperitivo snacks.
Venture just a bit further and you’ll find Florence’s most sought-after lookout spot, Piazzale Michelangelo. Home to a replica of Michelangelo’s famous statue of David, along with the most jaw-dropping views of Florence’s warm-hued buildings, rooftops, and the Arno river. Every evening at sunset, students sit on the grand staircase drinking wine while tourists lean out over the stone parapet taking photos. On multiple occasions, people spontaneously started to dance to live street music or pop songs from a nearby radio. If you stay after sunset, once the piazzale has emptied out, you can watch as the lights of Florence’s buildings brighten the night sky with an orangey-yellow glow.
Now comes the greatest question of any evening in Italy: where to eat? Florence is famous for steak and to find the good stuff you’ll have to wait in line at Trattoria Dall’Oste, a favorite of Florentine locals and tourists alike. Or pull your hair out trying to decide what to order at Acqua al 2, where the pasta tastes like they invented ‘al dente,’ and the staff treats you like an old friend. When I brought my family to try the pasta at the end of my stay in Florence, our waiter brought the check to the table and placed it squarely in front of me giving a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for bringing them to the restaurant. The truth is whatever you order, you can’t go wrong.
If you’re looking for a more affordable option for dinner, you can always grab a panino at one of Florence’s famed sandwich shops. A lesser known favorite is Pino’s Salumeria Verdi where you can get an amazing panino for €5. During my stay, Pino’s was my go-to every Monday night for a sandwich and a glass of wine for myself and all my expat friends.
For some of Florence’s most authentic pizza head over to L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele before the dinner rush. Every night at approximately 8-9 p.m, Florentines line up outside Michele’s for their incredible Neapolitan-style pizza. The pizza’s are huge, but once you take a bite you’ll understand how everyone seems to put away the whole thing.
Once you’ve wined and dined, there’s no avoiding the obvious: gelato. Florence has no shortage of gelato shops, but some of the best are worth a longer walk. Housed in two locations on the east side of the Arno is Gelateria de Medici, a spot with classic gelato and dessert creations. Try the Crema de Medici flavor and you’ll have a new reason to never leave town. For some crazier flavors, Gelateria La Carraia is revered amongst Florentine locals as the best gelato in town. There are also two locations for this shop on both sides of the river, but many say the best (like most things in Florence) is in Oltrarno. I must’ve tried every flavor, but I’d have to recommend the Cremino Divino, with mascarpone, egg, Marsala wine, and hazelnut flavor, it lives up to its name, divine. A fruitier option would be the Lampo di Cioccolata, a fudgey chocolate mixed with sweet and tart raspberry gelato.
For those who enjoy a taste of nightlife, you’ll find Florence has much to offer. There’s something for everyone: American-themed pubs for students, small speakeasies and wine bars, clubs, and gay bars. Music-lovers should find their way to the Jazz Club Firenze, where you enter once for €8 and get a membership card for life. Though you may have a hard time finding the club, when you approach a side street filled with people smoking cigarettes and a bodyguard manning what appears to be a basement door, you’re there. Jam out to jazz quartets, indie rock bands, and a wonderful array of music here. Should you wish to spend your evening socializing with locals, or practicing your Italian, you might consider returning to Piazza Santo Spirito, or exploring the Sant’Ambrogio neighborhood where there are many bars, and people line the streets drinking and talking.
Each night on my way home, I almost always passed the Duomo. Somehow more beautiful in the empty piazza at night, it shines over the whole city like Florence’s personal moon. It was during one of those evenings, that I understood why Florentines are so unyielding in their insistence that their city is one of the best in World. In how many other places can you see some of the world’s most famous works of art, enjoy drinks with friends outdoors, have an amazing meal, and watch live music, all during the course of an evening’s stroll? La vita è bella a Firenze!