Museums have reopened, opera is back but the crowds are absent. Go now to see the Tuscan city at its best, says Nicky Swallow
If you were to take a walk through Piazza Santo Spirito in Florence’s Oltrarno neighbourhood at the moment, you could be forgiven for thinking that post-lockdown life is pretty much back to normal. Granted, many people are wearing masks (they are mandatory in shops and other public closed spaces), but market stalls are doing a brisk trade, café and restaurant terraces are mostly full while mums with bambini gather around the central stone fountain for chat and play.
And on Monday, when I stopped off for an early morning cappuccino, there was the extra thrill of seeing excited children on their way to school for the first time since March 5.
Italy suffered terribly in the early days of the pandemic; the horrifying statistics are well-known. But one of Europe’s strictest lockdown regimes ended on May 18 – and in spite of the rise in cases due to people returning from holidays and post-lockdown partying, the country is doing a lot better than some of its European neighbours. On Sept 14, there were 59 new cases of Covid-19 in Tuscany, of which just two were in Florence. We are keeping our collective fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, there are signs – a few green shoots – that tourism is on the increase. The red double-decker hop-on, hop-off buses (hated by locals, it must be said) have started running again, as have the electric golf carts that offer tours of the centro storico. There is even the odd horse and cart in Piazza del Duomo.
Two hugely significant events took place in the city in early September: fashion house Dolce & Gabbana staged the world’s first live, in-person fashion event since before the pandemic took hold, and Ferrari celebrated its 1,000th Grand Prix race at the Mugello circuit, 20 miles to the north.
For two days, Piazza della Signoria was filled with gleaming red cars from vintage racers to today’s cutting-edge models. Both events brought a desperately needed boost to the city’s hospitality industry.
But as long as non-essential travel from the United States and China remains banned, mass tourism will not return to Florence – a blow to the tourism industry, for sure. But for visitors from the UK and elsewhere in Europe, this autumn is a brilliant time to visit.
Florence is a perfect city for safe wandering as the centro storico is so compact, and these days, while there are plenty of people out and about, there are no big tour groups and the jostling crowds that were omnipresent in Piazza del Duomo and on the Ponte Vecchio have vanished. To get a feel for the old city and some of its most important monuments, take a stroll from the vast Duomo down Via Calzaiuoli to Piazza della Signoria, sometimes dubbed Florence’s “Drawing Room”, where Girolamo Savonarola famously lit his “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497.
After many centuries, the Palazzo Vecchio is still the seat of local government. From here, a short walk across the Ponte Vecchio, with its quaint gold shops, will bring you to the quiet Oltrarno. Literally “beyond the Arno”, this neighbourhood is characterised by pretty narrow lanes lined with artisan workshops and artists’ studios alongside hip bars and restaurants and one-off boutiques. Explore the stradine radiating off Piazza della Passera to find bookbinders, picture-framers and furniture restorers, and leave time for an ice cream from artisanal Gelateria della Passera (Via Toscanella 15r).
A Mobike is a safe alternative to walking and there are always plenty available. Visit mobike.com to download the app and carry some disinfectant wet wipes to sterilise handlebars. If you do need to use public transport (a fleet of electric “bussini” serves the city centre), masks are obligatory, as they are in taxis.
Catch some culture
Having staggered their post-lockdown reopening through the summer months, museums and galleries in Florence are now up and running with strict anti-Covid measures in place. At first, when visitor numbers were still very low, we locals revelled in having the Uffizi, the Accademia and the Pitti Palace to ourselves; that was a real treat. The footfall steadily increased through July, and by August the queues were back. But at the time of writing, there were same-day tickets available for all three of these major museums, an unthinkable situation in a pre-pandemic September.
Advance booking is required for all museums and galleries and temperatures are taken on entry. Numbers are limited, one-way systems are in place and a minimum distance of one metre must be observed. At the Duomo, each visitor is given a device that flashes and vibrates if you come too close to the next person. Groups are capped at 10 people, and tour guides must use the “whisper system” (microphone and earphones), which makes a huge – and very welcome – difference to general noise levels.
I didn’t manage to see Aria, an exhibition of immersive works by Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno at Palazzo Strozzi (palazzostrozzi.org) before lockdown, so I am looking forward to that too – the show took up where it left off in March and runs until Nov 1. Audio guides are available free of charge.
Music goes live
As a classical music lover, I have been starved of live music for much of the year, so I’m looking forward to getting back to the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (maggiofiorentino.com) where the 2020/2021 opera season kicked off on Sept 7 with Handel’s Rinaldo, postponed from March and performed to a real, live socially-distanced audience. The rest of the season includes Verdi’s Nabucco, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The symphonic season runs concurrently featuring such eminent conductors as Zubin Mehta, Daniele Gatti and Adam Fischer.
Eat and drink Al fresco
Until the end of October, Florence city council is allowing restaurants, bars and cafés to spill over into the street without having to pay the usual hefty supplement. In some cases this just means a couple of tables for two squeezed on to the pavement, while others have been able to expand much more liberally.
Piazza Santo Spirito is a case in point, with bars and restaurants now filling the square with tables laid out in front of Brunelleschi’s iconic blank facade. Volume is the place to go for an Aperol spritz and then you can move on to Tamerò (tamerofirenze.com) for a plate of hand-rolled spaghetti alla carbonara or culurgiones (Sardinian ravioli) stuffed with potatoes, mint and pecorino cheese. The square is a focal point for the city’s night-time movida; the crowds pile in after dark with little regard for masks or distancing in spite of a constant police presence, so should be avoided if this makes you nervous.
The pop-up terrace at tiny, rustic Vini e Vecchi Sapori (vinievecchisapori.it) offers views over Piazza della Signoria along with your pappardelle while at wine bar Le Volpi e L’Uva, with its well-spaced tables on a quiet piazzetta behind the Ponte Vecchio, you can sample wines from small producers and order a bubbling cheese and truffle sausage-topped crostone. I am keen to return to stylish Gunè (gunesanfrediano.it), an airy contemporary restaurant in hip San Frediano where the gourmet-style food is inspired by the culinary traditions of both Tuscany and Basilicata; expect pasta with anchovies and toasted breadcrumbs and local pigeon cooked three ways. There’s a small terrace for balmy evenings.
There is no lack of choice for an al fresco cocktail. Rooftop Sesto (sestoonarno.com) offers 360-degree views and plenty of space along with a menu of sophisticated cocktails and “gourmet finger food”. J K Lounge (jkplace.com) has a spacious, comfortable terrace overlooking Piazza Santa Maria Novella and Alberti’s swirling church facade. In the evenings you can order from a list of cocktails and a menu of dishes that include stuffed zucchini flowers and traditional lasagne.
The sophisticated, multilevel Angel rooftop bar and restaurant opened last year atop the Hotel Calimala (hotelcalimala.com) where you can opt for one of the signature cocktails and tapas-style snacks or sit down to a full dinner – amberjack sashimi and seafood spaghetti maybe. It all comes with wraparound views of the city and live music on Fridays and Saturdays. At the Serre Torrigiani (0039 328 9666268), a huge glasshouse near Porta Romana, aperitivi are served in a glorious garden from 6pm, and you can stay on for spare ribs or hamburgers cooked over an open grill. There’s regular live music too.
Rates provided by Booking.com
Many visitors in recent months have opted for the comparative safety (and bargain-basement prices) of a self-catering apartment, but hotels with gardens or rooms with independent entrances provide reassuring alternatives. Safety measures required by law include regular temperature checks and hand sanitising and the mandatory use of masks inside by both staff and guests.
Rooms are deep-cleaned and sanitised between guests, and social distancing must be observed in bars and restaurants. The ubiquitous breakfast buffet and its accompanying piled-high plates is out; you either point at what you want, or there will be table service.
Up in airy Fiesole, the five-star Belmond Villa San Michele (belmond.com) has 24 rooms with independent entrances and private terraces accessed through the lovely gardens. At the ridiculously romantic La Loggia restaurant, Campanian chef Alessandro Cozzolino whips up the likes of lamb loin from the Maremma and his take on the classic melanzane alla Parmigiana. And if you don’t fancy sharing space with your fellow guests first thing in the morning, you can order a picnic breakfast in the garden.
Rates provided by Booking.com
Hip, stylish Riva Lofts (rivalofts.com) lies on the south bank of the Arno, some way west of the city centre, and has nine rooms with independent entrances and a peaceful garden with lap-pool. Back in the Oltrarno, retro-chic Ad Astra (adastraflorence.com) enjoys a privileged setting in a huge, privately-owned garden and has two suites housed in a cute little cottage annexe. The large terrace is a perfect spot for breakfast.
Rates provided by Booking.com
Checklist for a safer visit
- Move around the city by foot or by Mobike.
- Wear a mask (which is mandatory) on public transport, in taxis and in all shops.
- Also wear a mask between 6pm and 6am, both inside and out, in situations where there is likely to be an assembramento (a gathering of people). It is a rather vague rule.
- Be prepared to have your temperature checked often – at the airport on arrival, in museums and galleries, and at hotels.