You don’t have to be an art lover or a history buff to enjoy yourself in Florence. Sure, there’s an interesting museum every hundred yards and the buildings in the central district are so full of stories and significance you’d expect them all to be haunted by a thousand ghosts each, but Florence has other charms too. When you’ve hiked a hundred miles back and forth across the city in a single afternoon, you deserve to take a moment to relax and reflect on what you’ve seen. And by “relax and reflect” I mean, “shovel gelato into your mouth with abandon.”
My love for gelato borders on the obscene, and one of the first things I like to do when I’m finally burped out of the airplane upon arrival is find some. The variety of flavors in most shops is often astonishing, although many places sell gelato that comes from a factory. In-house, freshly made gelato is always best, and you can tell by looking at the banana flavor; gray is fresh and yellow comes from a machine. Regardless of origin, it’s all still pretty darn good, and since you’re allowed to order more than one flavor per cup you may as well try several. I can’t recommend the combination of peanut butter and lemon, which I ordered by mistake (I thought the lemon was cream), but the alarming combination didn’t stop me from stuffing it in my face. After all, it was gelato. My personal favorites are mixed berry and pear and the rather memorable rose, made with rose petals and cream. It was like eating a bowl full of angel hugs. Laugh if you will, but I think you know what I mean. You almost can’t go wrong with any gelato shop in the city.
Drinking coffee in Florence is nearly as important as seeing the David, because no one makes coffee like the Italians. The espressos are rather different than what we’re used to, much stronger and more concentrated, and many people drink them without sugar. The intensity of the espresso is often too much for me, although two of them is more than enough to propel me to the top of the Duomo at a dead run. I prefer the cappuccino, which adds steamed milk to the rocket fuel, with two sugars, giving me a nice kick to continue on to the next site. There are coffee shops on nearly every block, and I highly recommend taking the time to stop and try them out. You’ll pay more if you sit at a table than standing at the bar, but when you need a break it’s worth the price and the people-watching is free.
I wish I could provide a better analysis of Florentine cuisine, but unfortunately I’m not much of a foodie, and since I have a high tolerance for mediocre food I’m probably not the right guy to suggest anything. I can report that I have never had a bad glass of wine with any meal in Florence. Ordering the house red wine is always a safe bet, but if you’re unsure what to get, the waiter can suggest something good. You also can’t go wrong if you go to a grocery store and pick up items for a picnic on a sunny bench in one of the piazzas. Even the small shops often have their own deli and butcher and the quality and prices are pretty fantastic.
If shopping is your thing, you’ve come to the right city. Every major Italian designer (and many minor ones) has a flagship store in Florence. You can easily spend your retirement funds on this season’s hottest leather jacket with matching dog carrier and horse saddle, but window shopping is much cheaper. Also cheaper are the San Lorenzo markets, where you can find some beautiful items as well as wonderfully tacky souvenirs. Sharpen your bargaining skills, because many of the prices are fairly soft and you’ll save a bundle. Sadly, many items are made in China, regardless of what the label says, so if you’re looking for something made locally, you’ll need to venture out of the tourist areas to the smaller shops that are sprinkled all over the city. There are a lot of resources available online to help you find the best places and the vendors usually speak English. Often when you’re looking for a specific address, a challenge all its own, you’ll come across a shop selling all sorts of things you can’t live without and you’ll end up with something you’ll love and enjoy for years. I absolutely love my handmade leather laptop case, which I bargained for and bought in a shop off the beaten path.
After you’ve spent enough money to make the people at Visa build a shrine in your honor, celebrate with a gelato. Honestly, don’t you deserve one?
Matt Grigsby is a Redding native who has learned how to tell the difference between fresh gelato and machine-made. He owns a beautiful imaginary six-room villa in the hills above Florence, as well as a very real cottage on the west side of town. By day he’s a computer analyst toiling for the public good and he dreams of one day owning a robot servant. Matt only uses the fancy ketchup.
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