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Florence vs. Rome, Yahoo City Smackdown

This originally appeared in Yahoo Travel on Wednesday,  August 27, 2014.

City Smackdown: Florence vs. Rome

Each week, Yahoo Travel pits rival destinations against each other to determine once and for all which one is the best. Today, an Italian-flavored Smackdown: Florence vs. Rome. 

THE CASE FOR FLORENCE

By Nicky Swallow 

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In this corner: Florence (Photo: Andrea Zanchi/E+/Getty Images)

One of the world’s great art repositories, Florence proudly holds its own against Rome in spite of its diminutive size. Florence is so much more than just museums and monuments, and foodies, fashionistas, and fans of the good life will all be blown away by this compact gem of a city. You can walk almost everywhere that’s worth going, and thanks to our ex-mayor (now prime minister) Matteo Renzi, central Florence boasts one of the largest traffic-free urban areas in Europe, so you don’t have to contend with the fume-belching buses and bumper-to-bumper jams that are a constant in Rome. And if you want to combine your city break with a day in the country, a 10-minute drive will have you surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. It can take hours to escape from Rome…

Population: 377,000.

Famous Faces: The Gucci family. The Ferragamo family. Roberto Cavalli. Matteo Renzi (Italian PM).

Related: 67 & Dumped: Photo Bombing in Florence, Italy

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Piazza della Repubblica, one of the architectural marvels you’ll see in Florence (Photo: Glowimages/Getty Images)

World-Class Art: Often dubbed “The Cradle of the Renaissance,” Florence has a concentration of fabulous art packed into a small space that is second to none. The Uffizi Gallery houses one of the world’s greatest collections of paintings (think iconic images such as Botticelli’s “Primavera” and Rosso Fiorentino’s lute-playing putto);the Galleria dell’Accademia is home to “David,” the most famous nude statue on the planet; and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo lists Ghiberti’s great bronze “Doors of Paradise” among its treasures. The churches are stuffed full of fabulous frescoes, and the streets and piazzas are lined with elegant palaces and architectural masterpieces such as Il Duomo, the Ospedale degli Innocenti and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. You could stay in Florence a month and still not see it all.

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Looking at art on a scooter: there’s nothing more Florence than that (Photo: Sofie Delauw/Cultura/Getty Images)

Popular Way to Get Around Town: On foot. Florence is a small city, and you will find that nearly everywhere you want to go is contained within the compact Centro Storico. Bicycles are another good option (pick one up at Santa Maria Novella train station). But if you want to do it the Florentine way, rent a scooter from Alinari. Tired feet? Hop on one of the Lilliputian, eco-friendly bussini specially designed to negotiate the narrow streets in the center of town. Tickets cost €1,20 and are available from newsstands, bars, and tobacconists’ shops.

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Go ahead and call the Four Seasons “palatial.” It’s in a palace (Photo: Firenze CB/Flickr)

Sleep Tight: It may be small, but the Renaissance City has a wide variety of accommodation options that range from five-star hotels offering in-your-face luxury to B&B gems in family-owned palazzi. Top-of-the-pile options include the Four Seasons, housed in a Renaissance palace and set in the largest private garden in the city, and the St. Regis, which boasts rooms overlooking the Arno. Then there is the new, immaculately stylish riverside Ferragamo Portrait Suites, which is set to give the other top boutique contender, J.K. Place, a run for its money. The Rocco Forte-owned Hotel Savoy is a good choice if you want a supercentral location, and the Helvetia & Bristol offers old-school service and a retro atmosphere. For something a little more intimate, try Palazzo Galletti or the Loggiato dei Serviti, which occupy old palazzi. Or to get away from it all, book into the funky, minimalist Riva Lofts, a complex of converted artisan workshops on the south bank of the Arno, a 20-minute walk from town.

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Sorry, Milan. Florence takes a backseat to no Italian city when it comes to style (Photo: Thinkstock)

Fashion Pulse: Milan may grab the headlines when it comes to the catwalk, but Florence is traditionally the home of moda Italiana. Italy’s first fashion show was held in Florence in 1951. The Florentines are proud of their long artisan heritage, and their fashion sense is based firmly on quality and craftsmanship. During your time in the Renaissance City, you will be surrounded by beautifully dressed men and women oozing an innate sense of style and elegance, even when they are dressed in their sweats. It’s no coincidence that some of Italy’s top labels are Florentine: Gucci, Roberto Cavalli, Pucci, and, of course (by adoption), Ferragamo.

Fabulous Food: Simple, earthy, and satisfying, traditional Florentine cuisine is based on seasonal local ingredients prepared with lashings of peppery Tuscan olive oil. Meals start with hearty bread, bean, and veg combos such as ribollita and pappa al pomodoro or pasta sauced with hare or wild boar. Next up is the city’s famous signature dish, bistecca alla Fiorentina, a vast T-bone eaten almost raw. Family-run Il Latini and subterranean Buca Lapi are good places to sample traditional dishes. In a hurry? Street food Florentine style means tripe and lampredotto (cow intestines), so man up and join the locals at one of the mobile trippaio stalls in the city center.

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Lampredotto is not vegan (yzhelen/Flickr)

Great Escapes: The classic day trip from Florence takes you south into the famous wine-growing region of Chianti. Need more art? Siena, Arezzo, Lucca, and Pisa all have magnificent churches and museums and are within easy reach of Florence. Beach bums should head west to the strip of coast known as the Versilia, where neat rows of deck chairs, sun beds, and parasols occupy the wide swaths of sand.

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The vineyards in Tuscany are a great detour from Florence (Photo: peter zelei/E+/Getty Images)

The Aperitivo Trail: The pre-dinner aperitivo craze hit Italy (and Florence) some years ago. The coolest way to start an evening out here is to head for one of the city’s buzzy bars, order an Aperol spritz (a Venetian cocktail of Aperol and prosecco), and dig into the buffet spread. In some places this just means a variety of nuts, chips, and olives, but others lay on a feast of hot and cold dishes. Up-market bars such as the East-West Fusion at the Gallery Hotel and the superelegant Atrium Bar at the Four Seasons bring an elegant selection of nibbles to your table; at rooftop bars SE.STO at the Westin Excelsior and La Terrazza at the Hotel Continentale, you get 360-degree views of the city with your drinks; Oltrarno shabby-chic stalwart Cabiria serves up a particularly generous buffet, while at Negroni, you get art and photography exhibits with your lethal Negroni cocktail. Favorite hang-out in laid-back Piazza Santo Spirito is Volume, an ex-woodcarver’s workshop, where the food offerings include delicious buckwheat crepes.

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Start your evening off right with a Aperol spritz (Darren Milligan & Brad Ireland/Flickr)

City on Celluloid: “I Vitelloni” (Federico Fellini, 1953), “Obsession” (Brian de Palma, 1976), “A Room With a View” (James Ivory, 1986), “Tea With Mussolini” (Franco Zeffirelli, 1999), “Hannibal” (Ridley Scott, 2001).

Born in London, Nicky Swallow moved to Florence for three months in 1981 to play the viola in the opera orchestra and never left. She has been writing about travel, food, wine, and life in Florence and the rest of Italy for 15 years, contributing to guidebooks for Frommer's, Time Out, Dorling Kindersley, and Insideout. She is the Florence expert for Simonseeks.com and Afar.com and a regular contributor to Condé Nast Traveller (UK) and The Guardian.

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A Room With a View (Photo: Mary Evans/Merchant Ivory/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

THE CASE FOR ROME

By Erica Firpo

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And in this corner: Rome (Photo: John Harper/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Everyone loves a weekend visit to Florence, but what everyone really wants is to live in Rome. Rome is a chaotic convergence of beauty, history, culture, and conflict. For nearly 3,000 years, the city has fostered an amazing roll of artists and architects, actors and scientists, poets and politicians, with just the necessary amount of humor to make the good, bad, and ugly practically perfect. And within the last decade, Rome has worked to reinvent itself into a mecca for 21st-century culture and culinary delights, unveiling new contemporary museums, opening new restaurants, and renovating historic spaces. Its undeniable and best personality trait is independence, reflected in all its niche neighborhoods, like Testaccio, Monti, Trastevere, and even the historic center and Borgo.  And for that, Rome embraces you like a small town. In other words, it’s a 21st-century capital city with a hometown vibe.

Population:  2.8 million.

Famous Faces: What more could you want than the pope and Francesco Totti? After that, everyone else is just an extra. Other fabulous Rome residents include fashion’s Fendi sisters, Gucci’s Frida Giannini, and Valentino. The silver screen’s Willem Dafoe, Ralph Fiennes, Raoul Bova, Gabriele Muccino, Sophia Loren, and Paolo Sorrentino also live here.

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Rome has Sophia Loren. Game over (Photo: isifa/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

World-Class Art: While masterpieces and monuments may be on almost every corner, church, and piazza, Rome is definitely not stuck in the past.  The city has an endless amount of museums, collections, and cultural sites covering a range of eras and genres from ancient to avant-garde.  Off the bat, Rome has bragging rights to underground first-century houses, a chapel decorated by Michelangelo, a tiny villa by Raphael, a collection of Caravaggio paintings, and a 21st-century climbable monument by the Starn Brothers. Must-sees include the Vatican Museums,Capitoline Museums, and Palazzo Massimo. Contemporary art and architecture aficionados will want to walk through Richard Meier’s Museum of the Ara Pacis, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI (21st-century art), and the neoclassical National Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery.  And that’s just the beginning.

Related: 67 & Dumped: on Her Own in Rome

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One of the countless lovely sights you’ll see in Rome: the staircase in the Vatican Museums (Photo: Boccalupo Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images)

Popular Way to Get Around Town: Foot, taxi, and even public transportation are the most efficient, while the brave will opt for bikes and scooters.

Sleep Tight: With last year’s opening of the J.K. Place and Gran Meliá,  Rome’s hotels have upped their game. The Hassler unleashed an amazing penthouse suite that rightfully boasts the best view of the city, while the always-desirable Hotel de Russie remains tops for its bonus concierge services and flawless style. I love the more intimate luxe of the Art Deco Palazzo Manfredi, plus its rooftop view of the Colosseum can’t be beat. My wallet adores the charming Locanda San Pancrazio.

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The Palazzo Manfredi isn’t bad to look at, but you can see an even more famous site from its roof ( Photo: Dan Shaw/Flickr)

Fashion Statement: Roman style is all about the three S’s — sunglasses, sparkles, and shoes, for men and women alike. Whatever the walk of life, Romans never leave home without good hair, pressed clothing, bright colors, and an outgoing personality.

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(Photo: 4FR/Vetta/Getty Images)

Fabulous Food: Roman food is best known as cucina povera, a basic “poor” cuisine made from cooking staples and leftovers, giving us unforgettable caciopepeamatriciana, and carbonara pastas that can be found in every trattoria and osteria. Over the years, the city has undergone a food revolution — slow food and street food make table appearances, while the city makes room for a galaxy of Michelin stars, including the three-star La Pergola, two two-stars, and 12 one-stars. My favorites are street-food pick-me-up Trapizzino, fritti from Cesare al Casaletto, and Pipero al Rex for a fabulous carbonara with a Michelin star.

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A street food pick-me-up from Trapizzino (Coso/Flickr)

Related: Avoid the Tourist Traps and Dine at These Mouth-Watering Destinations in Rome

Great Escapes: If you really think you need to leave Rome, hill towns like Tivoli and Frascati; lakes like Martignano and Bracciano; and beaches like Fregene, Maccarese, and Ostia are just a 30-to-45-minute escape.  Most are reachable by local train or bus, but some require a car.

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The hill town of Tivoli, about 20 miles from Rome (Thinkstock)

The Aperitivo Trail:  Florence doesn’t have a monopoly on the aperitivo scene. In Rome, it’s an integral part of Roman daily life. Hotel de Russie’s garden bar is the prettiest location for afternoon aperitivi. If the weather is warm, you’ll want to head to a rooftop, and the best views and great drinks are from the hotel terraces of Dom and the American Bar at the Hotel Forum. For serious drinks, step into the tiny speakeasy Jerry Thomas Project, dressed-up dive bar Barnum (with Rome’s best bartender), and D.O.M.’s ground-floor bar, a sexy and intimate backdrop with amazing and expensive cocktails.

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Enjoy the view at Hotel Forum (Photo: Space Hotels/Flickr)

The Celluloid City: Florence has done okay but it does not match Rome’s status as one of the great film settings. Fellini showed off its never-a-dull moment nature in “La Dolce Vita” (1960), and Audrey Hepburn embodied its beauty in “Roman Holiday” (William Wyler, 1953). From comedic slice of life to picturesque period pieces, and ancient history to sci-fi and mystery, every generation and genre has filmed in the city: “Ben-Hur” (William Wyler, 1959), “Spartacus” (Stanley Kubrick, 1960), “The Conformist” (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), “Mahogany” (Berry Gordy, 1975), “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (Anthony Minghella, 1999), “Gladiator” (Ridley Scott, 2000), “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” (Walt Disney Pictures, 2003), “Ocean’s Twelve” (Steven Soderbergh, 2004), “Romanzo Criminale” (Michele Placido, 2005), “Mission: Impossible III” (J.J. Abrams, 2006), “Angels & Demons” (Ron Howard, 2009), “Eat Pray Love” (Ryan Murphy, 2010), “To Rome With Love” (Woody Allen, 2012).

Rome-based Erica Firpo likes to cross lines between art and culture, writing about art, lifestyle, fashion, and food for a variety of magazines, books, and online publications. She is a contributing editor to Fathom and is a regular contributor to Forbes Travel, Travel + Leisure, BBC Travel, Discovery Magazine, and ANSA.