Given Florence’s extreme wealth of artistic and cultural heritage, it’s not surprising that the achievements of its Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo and Brunelleschi overshadow the city’s contemporary attractions.
But beyond the churches and museums the city is in the midst of a cosmopolitan revival, with atmospheric neighbourhoods such as Oltrarno and San Lorenzo playing host to hip cafes, fashionable boutiques and dynamic artisanal workshops.
Gourmet dining in a reinvented palazzo
Breathing new life into a high-ceilinged, light-filled 16th-century palazzo, La Ménagère (lamenagere.it) is a true crowd-pleaser in the San Lorenzo neighbourhood. Once an iconic homeware shop, it has been transformed into a rustic and chic multi-use space, with a florist, homeware shop, bistro-cafe and gourmet restaurant packed into its 1500 square metres. Come nightfall, diners crowd the restaurant's long Last Supper–like table and live jazz music permeates the downstairs lounge area.
Leather with a heart
The seriously hip Benheart (benheart.it) store is a must-visit destination for leather aficionados. Heart-transplant survivor Ben ’Mbarek and his best friend Matteo Masini have made a name for themselves in the fashion world with their upscale leather items. The tiny space is lined from top to bottom with buttery leather jackets, distressed belts that can be made to the customer’s specifications and woven leather sneakers. Plenty of items are unisex and all are made in Italy. And you can make it personal by getting your initials stamped, old-school style, on items such as wallets and jackets.
A fresh take on Italian coffee culture
Challenging Italian gulp-and-go coffee bar stereotypes in the birthplace of espresso is pioneer and award-winning barista Francesco Sanapo of Ditta Artigianale. His coffee shop invites people to linger over their brew with its stylish industrial decor and welcoming laid-back vibe. Coffee connoisseurs will appreciate the selection of filtered blends, refreshing cold brews, AeroPress and syphon brewing, along with more classical espresso-based drinks. In the evening you can rub elbows with locals choosing from a wide range of gin-based cocktails and tasty Florentine tapas.
Jewellery direct from the makers in Santo Spirito
Most people have no idea that many of Florence’s great artists were once goldsmiths. This artistry remains engraved in the soul of the city in jewellery workshops like Officine Nora (officinenora.it), found behind Santo Spirito. Once a mechanic shop, it retains its industrial shell but has been transformed into a luminous loft where creativity meets co-working. You’ll discover well-loved wooden desks covered with industrial tools, showcasing the residents’ vibrant work using materials such as enamelled copper wire and gleaming precious stones in bracelets, earrings, rings and necklaces. It’s the perfect place to get a gift of truly unique wearable art and a chance for a behind-the-scenes lesson on how each piece was created.
The family-run boutique where fashion meets fantasy
For an insider’s look at cutting-edge Florentine fashion, sashay into Luisa Via Roma (luisaviaroma.com) on the city's main drag. The family-run fashion boutique has been Florence's epicentre for luxury and contemporary style since the 1930s. Fantasy takes centre stage here, from the dramatic window displays to the outside terrace outfitted with colourful Willy Wonka–style furniture. The carefully assembled selection of international clothing, shoes and accessories intermingles the creations of hot young designers with famous names like Dolce & Gabbana.
Bespoke fragrances created by a master perfumer
Passing through Santa Croce’s side streets, follow the intoxicating fragrance wafting from a tiny doorway that leads to Aquaflor. This perfume shop brimming with old-world charm is tucked into an elegant 15th-century palazzo, which also serves as the in-house laboratory. Neatly lined up on antique pharmacy furniture are master perfumer Sileno Cheloni’s latest creations, sold only in Florence. Each bold glass bottle presents a unique blend of his bespoke perfumes made from over 1000 different raw materials. For something truly unique, make an appointment to create a one-of-a-kind scent. Also don’t miss Cheloni’s scented candles, bewitching home fragrances and body care range.
Artistic treasures of the modern age
A worthy diversion from the city's abundant historical art, Florence's Museo Novecento brings together an eclectic collection of modern art from the early 20th century to the 1990s. Three hundred treasures from this interesting but lesser-known artistic period in Italy are showcased over five floors of a 13th-century high-vaulted palazzo. The easy-to-follow itinerary allows you to fully immerse yourself in the paintings, sculptures, videos and installations, including notable works by Filippo de Pisis and Ottone Rosai.
Learn the art of aperitivo with a local expert
For an evening you’ll never forget, join locals in one of their favourite pastimes, the aperitivo – pre-dinner drinking taken to the next level. To help you find the choicest spots, Coral Lelah aka the Curious Appetite will take you on a personalised journey through Florence’s bustling craft cocktail culture. All the drinks are perfectly paired with delicious nibbles like sizzling grilled crostini (sliced bread) topped with salty Tuscan sausage and mild Asiago cheese, served with a generous portion of gastronomic backstory.
Try your hand at making or painting your own pottery with local artist Enzo Formisano at the Officina Laboratorio Ceramica (officinalaboratorioceramica.blogspot.com). The loft-like space covered with items made by former students provides the perfect inspirational backdrop for learning traditional Maiolica painting methods or how to shape a pot on a wheel. Beginners are welcome to book in for a single session, making it a great experience for visitors to the city. What could be more Tuscan than creating your own Renaissance-style pottery in while sipping wine with friends?
Custom book binding with a twist
On the backstreets between Oltrarno and San Niccolò, Canadian Erin Ciulla innovates on the traditional Florentine art of book binding and paper marbling at Il Torchio (legatoriailtorchio.com). A warm, inviting space where she focuses on Italian raw textures in a contemporary context, the shop is lined with diaries, journals and photo frames which can be personalized and make great souvenirs. Ciulla’s latest creations include square-shaped hand-marbled leather cases bound with magnet closures and hand-sewn pages. She is also working on a series of uniquely shaped books that take the form of musical instruments – so far a piano and a violin, and soon to come a whole orchestra.
Looking for something original? Let the Lonely Planet locals introduce you to up-and-coming neighbourhoods around the world with unique culinary and artistic subcultures.