Henry James once described the northern Italian city as if "everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine" and Mr. James was not wrong. The terra cotta roof of the oft-photographed duomo rises above those of the neighboring buildings, creating a sea of weathered tiles that turn the skyline a rich copper, only deepening as the sun fades. The best place to witness the city's transformation under the glowing sunset is from Piazzale Michelangelo, nestled upon a hilltop across the Arno River. I was lucky enough catch this dazzling show not once, but twice while I called the city home for two weeks, with each time the evening sky turning it's own special kaleidoscope of colors - cotton candy pink faded into flames of orange, which melted into shades of deep purple as the sun's final rays disappeared behind the hill, leaving the stone walls of the city awash in the mild violet color that Henry James was so fond of. The best way to experience a sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo is with some friends, a bottle (or three) of wine and a variety of meats and cheese to snack on, but make sure to get there early if you want to snag a spot on the steps - the piazzale fills up quickly with locals and tourists alike, as the location is no secret if your looking for the best place to take in views of Florence.
After indulging in both wine tinted skies and beverages, I headed back across the river to enjoy one of the most famous dishes the city is known for - la bistecca alla fiorentina. Sure, you can get a steak in most places around the world, but what sets the Florentine steak apart is not only the cut, but the way it is prepared and cooked. Traditionally coming from a Tuscan breed of cattle called Chianina and cut from the loin, the steak has a classic T-bone shape and typically weighs between 800g and 1.2kg. Any reputable place will present you with the selected piece before cooking it. If you are not offered a glimpse prior to being served, cancel your order right there and get out; much better can be found elsewhere for a guaranteed higher quality. A good piece of meat will be between 3 to 4 fingers high and will only be cooked rare. In fact, most menus will specify that they will only cook it rare. Due to the sheer size of the steak, most places also suggest to share the meal between a party of two or more people - do not take this warning lightly, the steak is HUGE and attempting to devour one alone will only result in a tummy ache and a significantly lighter wallet. At the recommendation of a friend and frequent customer, I was able to snag a reservation at Osteria De' Benci, a small, family owned restaurant that has yet to be overrun by tourists and quickly fills with locals after 7:30pm any given day of the week. I shared the bistecca alla fiorentina and a single side with a friend, which was more than enough to leave us extremely happy and extremely full. If bloody meat that may still be mooing isn't your thing, I highly recommend trying another Tuscan favorite, the wild boar. I ordered a very tasty pasta dish with wild boar ragu from Borgo Antico and was not disappointed! The meat has a similar texture to a beef pot roast and simply falls apart in your mouth, while the taste leans more toward earthy without being gamey. Order with a glass of red wine and enjoy your meal on their outside patio, which happens to sit across from the Basilica di Santo Spirito, home to a large wooden crucifix carved by Michelangelo early in his career.
What would a first-time trip to Florence be without seeing another one of Michelangelo's impressive - and perhaps most famous - sculptures, David. Because I am a huge art nerd, I wanted to experience this larger-than-life work without the hoards of tourists that typically surround it. Thankfully, I came across an organized tour by Walks of Italy that combined both a VIP David experience with another must-do tourist attraction, climbing the famed duomo at Catterdrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. While costing more than the combined admissions ticket for both, the tour included early access to Galleria dell'Accademia before the general public, as well as skip the line entrance to the duomo. The selling feature for me however, was the exclusive access to the cathedral's terraces, generally closed off to the public, allowing for blissfully empty, unobstructed views of both the city and the duomo itself. My Florentine friends didn't even know this area existed until I told them about my tour! Our perpetually upbeat and knowledgable tour guide, Teresa, only added to the whole experience and was able to answer any question we threw her way. Taking the better half of the morning, you are free to continue on after the tour, making your way back down the winding duomo steps and onward to Giotto's Bell Tower for more panoramic views of the city, as your ticket is valid for 48 hours.
For those looking for affordable accommodation that is clean and safe, I recommend staying at PLUS Hostel. Having previously stayed at one of their locations in Berlin, I new that the European hostel chain delivered in both decor and atmosphere and Florence was no exception. There are a variety of options available for rooms, from dorms with ensuite shower and toilet to private doubles. Two things sold me on this hostel when narrowing down my options: the rooftop terrace with stunning views of the duomo and the outdoor patio with pool. Yes, that's right, a pool. Although I was there in September, the weather was still warm enough in the afternoon to lay out and catch some sun, so having both options available was a major plus. With hostel wifi also available in both areas, this provided ample options to get my work done without feeling stuck inside. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are also offered at the hostel restaurant and if they're anything like the drinks (both alcoholic and non) then they should be reasonably priced. My only complaint about the room, which can probably be considered a "girl problem", was the lack of mirrors and hair dryer. But don't let that scare you away - the hostel does have AC in every room, a huge plus in a city where AC in general is very rare and a blessing on hot days.
Food was a major focal point of my Italy experience - no surprise and no better place - with Florence being one of the highlights. A very affordable city if you know the right places, I ate out for most of my meals. One of the lunch spots I returned to over and over was a little sandwich shop, Salumeria Verdi or Pino's, aptly called after the owner. I ordered the Springtime off a recommendation by a friend and ordered the same sandwich each time, it was that good! Some people will say Pino's is overrated, but with fresh ingredients, welcoming staff (who also happen to be the owner and his family), and your average sandwich costing €4, you really can't go wrong. One of the most famous sandwich shops in Florence is arguably All'antico Viniao; with three locations across the city, this place draws both tourists and locals alike. I had heard that lines for a takeaway order typically stretch down the block, but figured how busy could the place possibly be on a Tuesday at two in the afternoon? The answer: BUSY. The line was not only down the block, but wrapped around the corner, with people waiting 45 minutes just to order. I decided to skip All'antico Viniao this trip and head over to Mercato Centrale. Located near the Leather Market, Mercato Centrale is a huge two-level open space building catering to food and produce stalls on the ground floor, and several more permanent restaurants on the upper-level. The first time I ate here, I found a small restaurant on the ground floor with an open seat at lunch time (rare). I don't remember the name and got a bit lost wandering around, but if you see a shop along the outskirts of the market with homemade lasagnas, crocchette di patate, and a variety of pastas featured under a glass buffet case next to the register, you've hit home. I order a piece of lasagna, a crocchette, and a glass of wine for €10 - a fantastic deal considering both the quality and quantity, as I struggled to finish the heaping portion put in front of me. I ventured upstairs my second time, where the restaurants are located along the outside walls and tables fill the middle, structured similarly to a cafeteria or food court. I ordered a Chianina beef cheeseburger from L'Hamburger di Chianina and was pleasantly surprised. Being an American, I'm very judgmental about only two things when abroad: hamburgers and Mexican cuisine. The burger itself was juicy and well-seasoned, while the sautéed onions and cheese complimented the burger nicely and would happily order it again. If you're looking for some late night grub and McDonald's doesn't sound as appetizing in Italy, look no further than Fo' Caccia la Notte, or affectionately dubbed Pizza Window by locals. With the restaurant located next to one of the city's more famous clubs, Fo' Caccia la Notte serves late night pizza whole or by the slice from - you guessed it - a large open window, into the early hours of the morning. Nothing better than a hot slice of greasy pizza to soak up all that alcohol! Finally, what Italy themed blog would be complete without mentioning the best place to get gelato?! For me, that place was Gelateria de Neri, conveniently located a couple blocks from the Uffizi Gallery and was the perfect pit stop on the way to explore Santo Spirito via the Ponte Vecchio. Brush up on your language skills and and try ordering in Italian: "Un gelato di caffè, per favore!"
Celebrated as the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is an art lover's dream. Beyond the must see sights, I highly recommend taking an afternoon to just walk around the city and see what you find. Coffee is one of my guilty pleasures and as a city with a large student population, Florence has built quite the coffee culture featuring both traditional and modern cafés. While wandering around the city, you're guaranteed to find at least one on every block; check out my guide to coffee in Italy for my favorite cafés and how to order like a local. I spent several afternoons getting lost in the cobblestone streets that led me to the fascinating Basilica di Santa Croce, home to the most famous leather school of Florence and where illustrious Italians such as Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli are buried. While exploring the city, make sure to track down Il Porcellino, the bronze boar statue located in Il Mercato Nuovo, and rub his nose - this will traditionally bring good luck and guarantee a return to Florence. Free public wifi hotspots located around the city are also a wonderful Florentine feature I took advantage of many times, taking a moment to reorient myself and rest my feet while humming along to the latest Ed Sheeran single as a local man serenaded those in the piazza with his guitar. Florence left an imprint on my heart and I know I'll be returning to the city again, with a special promise from Il Porcellino.