TRAVEL

To Florence, With Love

Three reasons you’ll fall for Tuscany’s capital.

Photo: Erica Firpo

Colpo di fulmine, that’s what Italians call love at first sight—a ground-shaking thunderbolt that shocks you from the first look. It’s hard not to feel that bolt when you set foot in Florence, partly because of the sheer beauty of the city, with its tangle of parks and piazzas, and partly because it fuses the past with the present. Even as Florence embraces renewal, the metropolis holds steadfast to the ideals that helped lead Europe out of the Middle Ages during the Renaissance long ago, including a commitment to the arts. Is it any wonder that Tuscany’s capital fascinates travelers, who come for a glimpse only to find themselves falling hard? Read on to get the lay of the land and discover three sides of the storied city.

Lay of the Land

Long considered the cradle of the Renaissance, Florence believes itself to be the heart of Italy. Geographically, it lies about halfway between Venice and Rome, in the region of Tuscany. Reachable by North American air carriers via connections through Rome, Milan, and other European cities, Florence is also a major hub for railway transport. While exploring Tuscany requires a car, for Florence, one needs only a great pair of walking shoes, as the main attractions lie within about two square miles.

Building on the site of an Etruscan settlement turned Roman military colony, the Medicis (a political dynasty that once ruled Florence) created a graceful city of piazzas, palaces, and promenades. Today’s urban layout is almost identical to that of Florence’s 16th-century heyday. The Centro Storico, or historic center, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and straddles both sides of the Arno River in a gorgeous knot of medieval- and Renaissance-era streets that subdivide into niche neighborhoods. These tiny districts are often anchored by the piazzas they’re named after and are usually within a 5-to-10-minute walk of one another, so wandering around the city feels like a kind of historical-piazza hopscotch.

Most of the Centro Storico lies north of the Arno River. But if you cross the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone bridge spanning the waterway, you’ll enter the residential neighborhood of Oltrarno, which has been home to Florence’s artisans since the early Renaissance. Explore Oltrarno’s Piazza di Santo Spirito or Via Maggio to view the newest generation of Florentine craftspeople, from traditional goldsmiths and jewelry makers to clothing designers and street artists.

The Culture

There are not enough days in the year to enjoy each of the cultural sites of Florence, which span all corners of the city and range from Renaissance masterpieces and Roman antiquities to contemporary art, fashion, and design. Begin north of the Arno and work your way south, starting on the narrow Via Ricasoli, where the Galleria dell’Accademia (58/60 Via Ricasoli; 011-39-055-098-7100; site in Italian; admission, $18*; reservations recommended) houses Michelangelo’s David along with a small collection of his unfinished sculptures, as well as works by other Renaissance artists.

About a five-minute walk away lies the emblem of Florence: the Piazza del Duomo. Its centerpiece is the encrusted marble Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Piazza del Duomo), also known as the Duomo because of its famous dome by master architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Once you’ve seen your fill, head to the Palazzo Strozzi (Piazza degli Strozzi; 011-39-055-264-5155; admission, $15), a few blocks southwest, for a different perspective on the city’s artistic legacy. The museum hosts blockbuster temporary exhibitions highlighting everything from the art of the ancient world to works by today’s superstar artists, such as Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović and Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei.

Follow the sightseeing crowds to the L-shaped Piazza della Signoria, the political center of the city and an open-air museum. Here you’ll find an exact replica of Michelangelo’s Davidin front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Piazza della Signoria; 011-39-055-276-8325; admission, $11), a 700-year-old fortress that today serves as Florence’s city hall and mayor’s office in addition to being a museum open to visitors. The standout room of the Palazzo Vecchio is the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred), a monumental meeting space with larger-than-life frescoes by Renaissance painter Giorgio Vasari. Immediately adjacent to the building is the Loggia dei Lanzi (Piazza della Signoria; 011-39-055-23885; admission, free), an arcaded open-air gallery showcasing Renaissance sculpture.

Nearby is the Gallerie degli Uffizi (6 Piazzale degli Uffizi; 011-39-055-294-883; admission, $25 in high season, $15 in low season), a lavishly decorated multilevel building designed by Giorgio Vasari as the offices of the Medici family. Known fondly as the Uffizi, it holds one of the world’s greatest collections of Italian Renaissance art yet still manages to constantly upgrade its offerings by establishing new rooms to appreciate the greats, such as Raphael, or by hosting epic exhibitions, such as the one last year commemorating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death.

Yet despite the many wonders these museums hold, Florence’s greatest work of art might be its landscape, and to fully appreciate it, you have only to cross the Arno. South of the river lies the Giardino di Boboli (1 Palazzo Pitti; 011-39-055-294-883; admission, $11, including entry to Giardino Bardini), a park that was once the Medicis’ playground, and the Giardino Bardini (1r Via dei Bardi; 011-39-055-2006-6233; admission, $11, including entry to Giardino di Boboli), a tiered garden in the Oltrarno. In the latter, Michelin-starred restaurant La Leggenda dei Frati (6/a Costa S. Giorgio; 011-39-055-068-0545; site in Italian; classic tasting menu for two, $240) looks out on the lush grounds.


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The Food

In Florence, the cuisine is subtle and elegant, and simple dishes are proudly made with mostly local ingredients. Restaurants such as Trattoria Sabatino (2r Via Pisana; 011-39-055-225-955; site in Italian; dinner for two, $23), which lies south of the Arno, cheerfully dole out heirloom Florentine recipes such as minestrone di fagioli e riso (rice and bean soup) or trippa alla fiorentina (tripe, a dish made with cow stomach, is an Italian specialty) at affordable prices.

North of the river, Florentine elegance is epitomized at the Piazza della Repubblica, the city’s center in the time of ancient Rome. On its northeast corner is Caffè Gilli (1r Via Roma; 011-39-055-213-896; cocktails for two, $18), the oldest café in the city. Two other piazzas—Santa Croce and Sant’Ambrogio—are foodie musts. Both are residential areas with squares flanked by a parish church and streets lined with butcher shops, bakeries, electricians, hair salons, and the like. Here you can expect quiet mornings, post-school chaos, and early evenings filled with dog walkers—as well as some of the best food in town.

In the Santa Croce neighborhood, Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo (3r Piazza dei Peruzzi; 011-39-055-217-919; dinner for two, $100) prepares heritage dishes that are made from hard-to-find and often foraged regional ingredients and are therefore on the verge of extinction. Meanwhile, chef Fabio Picchi, the city’s culinary emperor, demonstrates Florence’s spirit of innovation with his suite of restaurants in the Sant’Ambrogio neighborhood. Cibrèo Ristorante (8r Via Andrea del Verrocchio; 011-39-055-234-1100; dinner for two, $140)Cibrèo Trattoria (122r Via de’ Macci; 011-39-055-234-1100; dinner for two, $52), and Cibrèo Caffè (5r Via del Verrocchio; 011-39-055-234-5853; dinner for two, $90) all focus on Picchi’s signature dishes, while Ciblèo (2r Via del Verrocchio; 011-39-055-247-7881; dinner for two, $90) adopts a Tuscan-Asian fusion approach, mixing Italian ingredients and recipes with Korean, Chinese, and Japanese traditions.

The Shops

Florence is as much about shopping and people-watching as it is about sightseeing. On the northern end of Centro Storico, the small square of Piazza San Lorenzo has a vibrant market, Mercato di San Lorenzo, that’s best known for its leather goods. The piazza gets its name from the Basilica di San Lorenzo church, which used to be a parish church of the Medici family.

Since the 14th century, the Via de’ Tornabuoni has been a runway for beautiful palaces and people. International brands keep a foothold here, from the Piazza degli Antinori to the Ponte Santa Trinità. The city’s side streets also hide treasures. Along them sit two time capsules: the flagship store of the nearly 300-year-old porcelain manufacturer Richard Ginori (17r Via dei Rondinelli; 011-39-055-210-041)—an exquisite showroom with vaulted frescoed ceilings—and Aquaflor (6 Borgo Santa Croce; 011-39-055-234-3471; site in Italian), an intriguing custom perfumery that feels like vintage Florence.

For a more contemporary spin on the city’s crafts scene, visit Florence Factory (6/8 Via dei Neri; 011-39-055-205-2952; site in Italian), which showcases goods made by artisans from the Oltrarno neighborhood. Or check out Cuoiofficine (116r Via de’ Guicciardini; 011-39-055-286-652), whose leather purses and wallets combine 17th-century marbling patterns and contemporary leather-tattooing techniques to create designs that are reminiscent of centuries past. (All leather goods can be customized.) Take the time you need to find a memento that’s just right—after all, it would be a shame to leave Florence without your own piece of la dolce vita.

This article first appeared as a feature in Endless Vacation, Summer 2019.

Andiamo! A Local’s Guide to Island Hopping in Venice

This article first appeared in Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, March 2019.

The Island of San Giorgio. Photo: Getty Images

With 118 islands making up the Venetian archipelago, there is far more to see in Venice than St. Mark’s Square. Whether an afternoon or a weekend affair, island hopping is the best way to get to know Venice and its 1,500-year-old culture. Here’s a guide to some of Venice’s most must-see islands.

San Giorgio Maggiore

The emblematic San Giorgio Maggiore is one of those islands that is always photographed but rarely visited. Dominated by the San Giorgio Maggiore church, a multilevel marble landmark designed by Renaissance phenom Andrea Palladio, San Giorgio Maggiore seems to float impossibly in the middle of the Venetian lagoon.

Today, exhibition spaces Le Stanze del Vetro, a former boarding school, and the Fondazione Giorgio Cini showcase contemporary arts projects, while the rest of the island remains green — impeccably pedicured gardens hiding mazes and more.

Discover the art of glass blowing. (Photo: Getty Images)

Murano

For centuries the tiny island of Murano produced the world’s most beautiful glass pieces behind closed doors. Its reputation seeped out of the lagoon, and now Murano is the most popular of the Venetian islands.

Master glass artisans open studio doors to give tourists a select glimpse into their secretive workshops with organized, behind-the-scenes experiences at historic fornace (furnaces) like Seguso. The key to best experiencing Murano is to get past the souvenir shops and explore deeper into the island. Visit the Museo del Vetro to learn Murano’s glassmaking history.

Catch the colors of Burano. (Photo: Getty Images)

Burano

Of all the Venetian islands, Burano is the one most remembered. Here visitors find a mini version of Venice, with a rainbow of brightly colored houses lining picture-perfect canals.

Burano, like most of the outlying islands, is a microcosm of locals who have grown up with one another for generations and for generations have been making its famous lace products by hand. The Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum) chronicles Burano’s more than eight centuries honing lace craftsmanship.

Mazzorbo

Linked to Burano by the Ponte Longo, a wooden bridge, Mazzorbo is a quiet island of less than 400 inhabitants and was once an important political and commercial scene in medieval Venice.

Mazzorbo’s draw today is that in the midst of Venice’s tourist-laden streets, it remains untouched and out of the way of clutter and kitsch. Charming residential areas line up with stretches of cultivated land, including vineyards such as Venissa, a walled-in vineyard reviving heritage dorona di Venezia grapes. The 13th-century Chiesa di Santa Caterina, the island’s last remaining church, has a bell tower with one of Europe’s oldest bells and is also worth a visit.

San Michele

Within a gondola ride from the fondamenta nuova, Venice’s northern waterfront, you’ll find the mysterious San Michele. Beautifully landscaped with tall cypress trees and surrounded by a pedicured redbrick wall, San Michele has served as the city’s official cemetery ever since a Napoleonic decree banished burials from Venice churchyards.

Serene and tranquil, San Michele is the final resting place for Venetians and famed outsiders, including American poet Ezra Pound, Italian painter Emilio Vedova and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Lido di Venezia

Everybody loves Lido, the large Venetian island best known as the home of the Venice Film Festival, the august cinema fest where the world’s best directors and actors celebrate their films.

What most people don’t know is that all year round, Lido remains a charming community of families. The seven-mile-long Lido is also a jewel box of art nouveau and art deco architecture — including villas, hotels and ornamental gardens.

In the warm months, Venetians from all over the islands head to Lido’s stabilimenti balneari, beautifully coiffed and colorful waterside establishments on the island’s six miles of uninterrupted beach.

Torcello

Located on the northern edge of the lagoon, Torcello is one of the most remote islands in the Venetian archipelago and the oldest that has been continually populated — in fact, its origin story predates Venice.

Once a busy settlement, today Torcello is sparsely populated. What remains from its resplendent past are a few structures, including the seventh-century Cathedral of Santa Maria dell’Assunta with its beautifully preserved Byzantine mosaics and a head-spinning bell tower that overlooks Burano. It’s definitely the place to clear one’s head.

Find your way to remote Torcello. (Photo: Getty Images)

How to visit the islands

The only way to travel the islands is by water. A network of vaporetti (waterbuses) zigzag the Venetian Lagoon, connecting the islandsThe best option is the ACTV tickets offering unlimited travel within a 24-hour period at 20 euro. Less economical and far more efficient is a motoscafo, a sleek, wood-paneled water taxi, which can privately arranged through Consorzio Motoscafi.

Back to Los Angeles {Photos}

I used to live in Los Angeles, and when anyone asks me what I liked about the City of Angeles, it is easy: I love the architecture that sneaks up on you when you aren’t looking. I thought I’d share a few scenes from 24 hours in Los Angeles.

Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood Boulevard

Poolside at The Ace Hotel

Poolside at The Ace Hotel

Inside the restored UA Theatre

Inside the restored UA Theatre

An Art Lover's Guide to 36 Hours in Milan

Photo Credit: Erica Firpo

Fashion, food, finance and all-round fabulousness. Here’s how to spend an inspired 36 hours in Milan, Italy’s “It” city.

10am: Check in at Hotel Indigo Milan – Corso Monforte and you’ll find yourself in the centre of an art-focused crossroads, from Milan’s illustrious Baroque to its contemporary cultural kingpin vibe. Step into modern Milan of the 1930s at the Villa Necchi Campiglio, in park Villa Campiglio directly across the from the hotel.

Named for socialite sisters Gigina and Nedda Necchi and Gigina’s husband, Angelo Campiglio, the Villa Necchi Campiglio was the centre and centrepiece of Milan’s mid-twentieth century social scene. Architect Piero Portaluppi combined his unique rationalist flair of sleek lines and materials with Frank Lloyd Wright’s functional sensibilities (including custom pieces and built-ins). His 1930s design was innovative in details both inside and out. In 2000, Gigina bequeathed the property to FAI, Italy’s national trust, which opened the villa as a museum in 2008.

Photo credit: Villa Necchi Campiglio.

12pm: For lunch, the villa’s solarium doubles as a charming cafeteria and features favourite Milanese dishes including a green risotto and traditional veal cutlets. Wondering why the Villa Necchi Campiglio looks familiar? The iconic home was setting for the 2009 Italian movie I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton.

3pm: Make your way to Fondazione Prada. This 205,000-square-foot complex is home to an intense collection of contemporary art works by 20th and 21st-century Italian and international artists—from Giacomo Balla to Francesco Vezzuoli and Damien Hirst. Its 2015 Rem Koolhaas/OMA design includes a cinema.

Photo Credit:  Fondazione Prada.

Photo Credit:  Fondazione Prada.

6pm: Stop for aperitivi at Fondazione Prada’s cocktail hub Bar Luce, the Art Deco–inspired bar designed by director Wes Anderson. And then make your way up the newly opened Torre, a nine-story modernist tower, with art galleries that eventually lead to the rooftop terrace bar.

8:30pm: After drinks, stay for dinner at Ristorante Torre, the Fondazione’s tower restaurant. The illuminated cityscape of Milan sprawls away beyond its floor to ceiling windows, and the views inside are equally good with art work including custom wall-hung plates and midcentury design pieces like Tulip tables, and executive chairs by Eero Saarinen. The menu features regular new tasting dishes created by a rotation of Michelin rising star chefs from the CARE’s Chef Under 30 project.

Ristorante Torre. Photo credit: Fondazione Prada.

Ristorante Torre. Photo credit: Fondazione Prada.

Day 2

8.30 am: Build up an appetite with a stroll through the historic Giardini Pubblici, established 1784 and considered the oldest city park in Milan. Then find a counter spot at Pasticceria Marchesi, the posh cafe on via Montenapoleone in Milan’s Fashion Quadrilateral. A city landmark, Marchesi is the perfect scene for morning coffee, and has a mouthwatering line up of pastries, traditional pralines and savoury treats. Take a look around the Fashion Quadrilateral, an oasis of haute couture. Via Montenapoleone and its side streets are lined with beautiful boutiques representing some of the world’s most admired fashion houses.

11.30 am: Milan’s designers all know that contemporary style comes from centuries of culture. Catch up on Milan’s history at the Galleria Arte Moderna, a late 18th century villa whose Baroque trappings are the backdrop to an enviable collection of Italian and European artwork from the 18th to the 20th century. The rise of modern Milan is shown through key work by Balla, Boccioni, Canova and Segantini, which sit side by side with Van Gogh, Manet, Cezanne and Gaugin.

1pm: For lunch, head to LuBar, the galleria’s on site cafe for creative Sicilian street food in a whimsical fin-de-siècle setting.

 

3pm It’s time to go back to the future by visiting the Pirelli Hangar Biccocaa free-entry contemporary complex on the grounds of a former Pirelli tire factory. This is now one of Europe’s largest exhibition spaces, with three buildings covering 100,000 square feet. It’s dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions featuring works by Italian and international artists. Guides are on hand to help you navigate around the vast complex.

8pm By early evening, you’ll want to grab an outside table at Iuta BistrotHangar Bicohcca’s onsite gourmet restaurant where the city’s cognoscenti congregate for stylish conversation and aptly-mixed cocktail.

10pm Ready to head home to the hotel? Before you do, make a pit stop at Bar Basso, a cult classic popular with the fashion and design crowd, known for introducing the world to “aperitivi” hour and its own take on the negroni.

This article first appeared in Belong Magazine, June 2018.

Why We Are Going to Amsterdam This Spring

This article originally appeared in Forbes Travel, February 2018.

Rijksmuseum. Credit: Koen Smilde Photography

Amsterdam has always been pretty high on the travel bucket list for backpackers and studying-abroad weekenders, thanks to an epic party scene just as colorful as its tulip varietals. But it’s time to forget that old reputation. The capital city of the Netherlands is in the midst of 21st-century Golden Age, which is why we’re headed there this spring.

A culture time warp

Though often eclipsed by its other European counterparts, Amsterdam is a must-visit destination for art aficionados. The Netherlands was the center of the 17th-century art scene, immortalizing painters like Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals, and laying down the foundation for modern masters like Van Gogh and Mondrian.

The city is lined with museums and galleries that are filled with beautiful Baroque still lifes and landscapes, but the best place to start is the Rijksmuseum, the queen mother of Amsterdam’s museums for its impressive collection of works by the Dutch Masters.

Once you’ve completed your introduction to the capital’s cultural past, simply walk out the front door to explore the famed Museum Quarter, a microcosm of art with a choose-your-own-genre vibe. On either side of the boulevard, you can step back in time.

The futuristic Van Gogh Museum brings you into the world of The Starry Night painter and his contemporaries, while Moco keeps you firmly in this century with its rotating collection of Banksy works and complimentary exhibitions. For more modern pieces, stop by the Stedelijk Museum, which focuses on contemporary art and design.

Shopping in Amsterdam. Credit: Merijn Roubroeks

Shop till you drop

You know that perfect pair of seamless leisure trousers or the timeless end table you’ve been looking for? They are both in Amsterdam, a city of industrial and inventive creatives who are helping to transform it into the next global shopping destination.

If you only have a weekend, start out in the De Negen Straatjes (the Nine Streets), a hamlet in the historical center lined with beautifully curated boutiques and galleries filled with vintage to cutting-edge items. Must-visits for fashionistas include the sustainable denim shop DenhamRain Couture for fabulous wet-weather gear and the nearby Museum of Bags and Purses.

Other stylish shops along this popular retail avenue include Mendo, a bookstore for all your coveted artsy editions; The Frozen Fountain for one-of-a-kind Dutch design; Lekker for luxury retro bicycles; and the self-explanatory Likestationery.

Flower Power. Credit: Keukenh of Holland

Color Me Spring

Amsterdam in the spring is all about color. From March 22 to May 13, nearby Keukenhof is a flower frenzy with more than 800 varieties of tulips — totaling more than 7 million bulbs — exploding in full bloom across one of the largest gardens in the world.

On April 21, the flower parade of Bollenstreek heads out for a 25-mile road trip from Noordwijk to Haarlem, stopping in Keukenhof. Think of it as the floral answer to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, where colorful floats decorated with hyacinths, daffodils and tulips (of course) promenade through the gardens. Go Dutch and take the train — Keukenhof is an easy 50-minute ride from Amsterdam’s central train station.

Spring progresses from a technicolor explosion to a single-hued celebration with oranjegekte (orange madness) on April 27 for Koningsdag, the city-wide party also known as Kings Day. Europe’s largest open-air festival, King’s Day celebrates the birthday of Dutch King Willem-Alexander with concerts, parties, events and street markets, all day and night.

The 24-hour extravaganza keeps the city at a standstill, both on land and in the canals, so the best way to avoid the pedestrian crunch is to hop on a party boat. If you’re staying at the nearby Pulitzer hotel, take advantage of the revelry by reserving a few hours on the property’s wood-paneled vintage saloon vessel.

Conservatorium. Credit: Conservatorium

Where to Stay

There are so many incredible hotels in Amsterdam that it’s hard to choose. But if the focus is a weekend of full art immersion, book a room at the Conservatorium, a neo-Gothic red brick monument and former music conservatory. Along with the ideal address near the Museum Quarter, this luxe lodging is an Instagram-perfect mash-up of Italian design and Dutch minimalism.

After a day of exploring the city’s cultural highlights, be sure to treat yourself to some time in the Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre, the hotel’s subterranean spa.

Culture may be king, but if your ideal weekend is all about Amsterdam, drop your bags at Pulitzer, a canal-side hotel in the Nine Streets neighborhood. Made up of 25 restored townhouses from the 17th and 18th centuries, the property is the most stylish labyrinth you’ll set foot in. Escher-like staircases transport you through the hotel to jewel-toned rooms of indigos, emeralds, garnets and amethysts.

When you’re ready to explore beyond your personal space, check out the see-and-be-seen scene at the gorgeous, street-side Pulitzer’s Bar, a sultry art-deco-inspired speakeasy. 

Day Trip: Venice

"Where should I go for a day trip out of Rome?" That's probably the most popular question question people ask me when planning a trip to Italy.  Tivoli, Napoli, Cività di Bagnoreggio, Bomarzo, Caserta, Spoleto, Siena... so many sites, towns and cities up my sleeve and all within reasonable distance.  But here's one I never, until now, bothered to suggest:  Venice.

Venice? Impossible, you say.   Not at all. . .

Door to door Roma Termini- Venezia San Lucia is a 3 hour 45 minute train on the Alta Velocità (high speed) trains.  Double down for the return and you're only 7.5 hours seated where you can contemplate time travel by catching up on most of the entire first season of Dark.  To make the most of a Venice day trip, you're going to have to get up early.  The best Rome departure is on the Italo 6.15am train*, arriving in Venice at 10am with a return train at 7:00pm- that gives you nine full hours to do whatever you want in La Serenissima.  And to make the day trip evening sweeter, Italo Treno offers day return fare at great prices, the kind of incentive if you are competitive and thrifty like me.  

Whether meandering or must-see, if you're really going to day trip to Venice, have a plan.  Or better yet, download a Google map for an idea of where you want to go and how you will need to get there- your choices are walking, water bus (see below) and water taxi.  If you want to be clever, customize a My Maps by dropping pins on cultural and food sites and download it onto your phone.  It's going to be a long day, so I suggest powering up on protein and excitement or coffee, and wear your most comfortable (and waterproof) walking shoes.    

Most importantly, know where you're going to eat.  For the daytripper, my only suggestion (and latest mantra) is get thee to a few baccari..  Baccari are those  no-frills bars overflowing with people queued up for cicchetti, whimsical appetizers like creamed cod, pickled onions or braised artichokes on a bread, usually accompanied by a glass of wine. Service is quick, once you are front and center at the counter, and the cod (bacalà mantecato) is an excellent protein solution to fuel you through Venice.  My go-tos are Da Fiore (San Marco/San Stefano), Cantine del Vino già Schiavi (Dorsoduro) and Osteria da Carla (San Marco).

And the best tip? Keep spare euro in your pocket for cicchetti and also the vaporetto, Venice's water bus public transport system.  The 1-Day fare costs 20 euro, while a single 75-minute fare is 7.50 euro (and can be bought on board). Again, cash is king and makes everything go faster.

Is a day trip to ambitious and frivolous? Yes, just like Venice and at times, just like me.

*Daytripping from Florence is even easier: just 2.05 hours by train, and you don't have to get up in the dark. Departure: 7.54 am.

La Biennale is the perfect excuse to visit Venice for the day. A heptathlon of cultural events, the Biennale's big draws are art, architecture and cinema. Every odd numbered year, the islands are inundated with contemporary art  for the international art festival, a six-month art fest from  May through November.  Architecture and design lovers head to Venice in even number years as the Biennale Gardens and Arsenale transform into the very cutting edge for the Architecture Biennale May through November.  At the end of every August, Venice's Lido island illuminates with a galaxy of silver screen stars at the annual Film Festival, an eleven-day affair which is both the both the worst and best time to book a reservation at a five star hotel.

My latest day trip to Venice was an intense attempt to visit all 120 artists and 86 country participants in the *57th International Art Exhibition - Viva Arte Viva in less than 8 hours. My take? Christine Macel's curation for Viva Arte Viva was more introspective, and had more humor and human interaction than biennales past.  The Italia Pavilion was finally something to talk about and at times, amazing like a Neil Gaiman story, whereas Russia was a disappointment. The USA Pavilion was somewhere in between, but that was artist Mark Bradford's point.  The Biennale's roster of artists was solid-  enough new entries to make you feel like the art world's wheels are moving more aggressively.

PHOTOS FROM THE 57th INTERNATIONAL ART EXHIBITION

Venice.JPG

There's Something About Florence

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A version of the article appeared in Forbes Travel, October 2017.

There’s something about Florence.  Birthplace of the Renaissance, Dante’s hometown, font of the Italian language, and constant ranking in the top three places to visit on the Grand Tour, or better yet, the Bucket List.  Florence has had it going on for centuries, and it relishes in its rep as the Cradle of Modern Culture for nurturing homegrown artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as earning the title as the fifth fashion capitol thanks to bi-annual Pitti Uomo and several pioneering tech meets fashion/luxury summits. Maybe it's the proud Roman in me, but for years, I've written off Florence as a "mausoleum" or "cute tourist town", a necessary stop on your whirlwind Italy tour and a great place for a photo op, giving it only a bit of cred for its awesome art collection. Lately, however, I''m thinking otherwise-  Florence is fabulous. 

What changed my mind? Well, a little bit of handholding by local champions Georgette Jupe-Pradier, GirlInFlorence and Coral Sisk, CuriousAppetite, and here I am,  celebrating the town the Medicis built because of its, here we go, 21st century incarnation.  To the visible eye, nothing has changed in Florence but what is makes the city so invigorating is its community of artists, makers, creators and entrepreneurs who are putting a new perspective on a charming town.  According to Jupe-Pradier, who dedicates her blog GirlInFlorence  to the city’s contemporary stories and makers, there is a palpable city revival the “celebrates the past with a willingness to evolve and inspire especially in new contemporary spaces and artisans”.  Is it a 21st century Renaissance? I don't know but I'm liking the vibe.

Window Shopping

It took me a while to learn that Florence is far more than Via Tornabuoni and the Ponte Vecchio.  Jupe-Pradier's favorite area of the city is her backyard-  the Oltrarno, the river Arno’s left bank.  Ever since she started her blog, she encouraged exploration of the literal “other side” and her Oltrarno love concentrates around San Frediano which she brought to the pages of Lonely Planet as one of the world's coolest neighborhoods. I tagged along as she made afternoon rounds, stopping in to personally talk with every shop owner and artisan in the area.  Favorites include & Company a beautifully curated boutique for design lovers where you can find vintage furniture, hand-crafted stationery, Blackwing pencils and original creations by calligrapher and co-owner Betty Soldi.  Officine Nora, a working studio for a collective of jewelry makers where I picked up a handmade silver necklace by Valentina Carpini whose filigree work is divine,  Il Torchio- bookbinder studio and shop filled with luscious handcrafted books, restorer Jane Harman's  eponymous boutique Jane H where she features her original wood designs , and Albrici, a decades-old antiques shop with wing devoted to vintage clothing and accessories.

Earthly Delights

Catherine de' Medici, the woman who upgraded French cuisine by introducing Italian, in particular Florentine,  recipes and the fork to France, would be proud of her native city.   A collection of sturdy stalwarts, including  Cibreo and the century-old Trattorio Sergio Gozzi, are stewed in Florentine tradition, as long as you can get a table.  Perennially positive Jupe-Pradier loves the family Trattoria Sabatino in San Frediano, Oltrarno for its sixty-year-long dedication to serving seasonal, local dishes. .

Tradition aside,  intrepid food writer and culinary guide Sisk says “the city is responding to a demand for a more dynamic food scene”.  Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo ranks high on her list of Florentine eateries for its strong ethos on ingredient sourcing and traditions. And she loves modern bistrot-bar Zeb Gastronomia for its daily home made pastas and cool modern design, while her contemporary/creative dining picks are Michelin starred Ora d'Aria and Cibleo, Cibreo's Asian-Tuscan fusion.

For a taste of Florentine luxury, Il Locale is the spot- a restaurant and bar in a Renaissance palazzo designed as a modern Medici court with decoupage walls and velvet damask, sandstone columns in sandstone, vintage design pieces and contemporary sculptures. (Note:  I had great drinks but service was delayed, so I opted out of dining.) Charming Bar e Cucina is modern retro.  Designed by Paolo Capezzuoli, (aka Zero T, who collaborated the  Rock Steady Crew!), the vibe is a Golden age diner meets Florentine caffè, the perfect pit stop during those days at Pitti Uomo.

Just desserts at Trattoria Sabatino.

Eye Candy

Along with the usual suspects (we’re looking at you, David), Florence likes to keep you entertained with exhbitions and museums that traipse between traditional and unexpected.  Opened in 2005, Palazzo Strozzi, a fabulous example of 15th century palazzo architecture is a dynamic cultural foundation whose exhibition line up includes the ongoing Radical Utopias (design and architecture movement from the late 1960s), as well as previous blockbuster ringers like Bill Viola, Ai Wei Wei.  A blast from the past and my personal meditation is Museo di San Marco, a former Dominican convent now museum with the most extensive collection of in situ Fra Angelico frescos, and Jupe-Pradier loves the Museo del Novecento, a museum dedicated to 20th century Italian art.

Radical Utopias, courtesy of Palazzo Strozzi.

View from the Hotel Savoy.

Pillow Talk

Where you rest your head in Florence is just as important as what you do. For a stunning Renaissance-meets-modern stay, head to Four Seasons Hotel Firenze. This gorgeous urban resort complex features two refurbished buildings in which you can drift off to sleep — the 15th-century Palazzo Della Gherardesca or the former 16th-century convent, the Conventino.  For center stage its Hotel Savoy is Florence’s grande dame, whose timeless elegance yet au courant chicness redefines the meaning of “historic.” Savoy’s enviable Piazza della Repubblica location puts in the very center of everything.  Hotel Brunelleschi captures the best of Florentine architecture in a labyrinth of Renaissance-era palaces and medieval towers. And if it’s good enough for an overnight stay for Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s prolific The Da Vinci Code protagonist, it should be an adventure.

A Fashionable Packing List for the Venice Biennale

This article originally appeared in Fathom on April 28, 2017.

Highlights from the most recent Biennale. Photo by Erica Firpo.

Every other spring, the contemporary art world flocks to Italy to celebrate art, dance, architecture, cinema, and theater at the Venice Biennale. Fathom contributing editor and Biennale regular Erica Firpo gives us a peek at what she's packing in her suitcase.

VENICE – Flashback to the 1999 Venice Biennale, a time where I spent many months covered in red powder. Anne Hamilton, an artist representing at the U.S. Pavilion, made a crimson snowfall cascade down the walls for her installation Myein, and it was my job, as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection assistant, to make sure the powder and everything else flowed smoothly. There was nothing glamorous about the long hours, often spent alone, in a bone-chillingly cold pavilion, occasionally greeting guests and explaining the installation — but the full immersion into contemporary art was unforgettable, and every 24 months, I return to the Biennale for that very same pleasure, though now as a journalist covering the art.

Over the decades, the press preview for the exhibition has evolved from a quiet industry event for artists, gallerists, and journalists to 72 solid hours of art and hobnobbing with the Pantheon of Glitterati — art, fashion, literature, and film folk from all over. As soon as I arrive in Venice, I have to be ready for nonstop exhibitions, openings, and cocktail parties. Style, efficiency, and fun are my goals — and the same can be said for anyone visiting the Biennale. My suitcase is a balanced mix of form and function, organized Matryoshka-style. Here's a peek inside.

Mophie Juice Pack Air

The Biennale is more than an all-day affair — I'm out the door by 8 a.m., photographing Venice street scenes, perusing every pavilion in the Venetian Arsenal and gardens, visiting collateral events, and partying late into the evening. The Biennale doesn't just kill my feet, it quickly and painfully kills my phone, a.k.a. my life source. Because there is nothing worse than trying to find a free outlet in Venice, I always bring an extra battery pack, and lately it's been a pretty rose gold case that snaps right onto my phone. If I'm feeling extra gamey, I bring two. ($100)

Insta360 Nano Video Camera

The Biennale is not just freeze frame art, it's panoramic performance. For the rare times I broadcast on Facebook Live, I love giving the full 360-degree experience so viewers can choose what they want to see. ($199)

Kasia Dietz Nice Clutch

My handbag has to be stylish and easy to carry. I love Kasia Dietz totes for her choice of vintage fabrics, which are perfect for the exhibition's artsy vibe. I also make sure to have one of her clutches, for a quick switch to evening glam. (€70)

 

Opening Ceremony Silk-Satin Bomber Jacket

Venice is tricky. Misty mornings burn into hot days, while evenings are chilly and humid. The only solution is a satin bomber jacket and the reversible nature of this one makes it easy to do a quick outfit change. ($525)

 

Moleskin Ruled Reporter Notebook

The first time I ever purchased this notebook was in Venice, and I have carried one in my handbag ever since. The hard cover makes me feel like Lois Lane scooping the art world. ($13)

 

Hydaway Water Bottle

I don't like feeling the weight of a water bottle in my purse, but I don't want to be dehydrated either. My solution: a lightweight, collapsible water bottle introduced to me by my friend Livia's 90-year-old nonna. ($20)

 

Tom Smarte Panama Fedora

Most of my time is spent outdoors, walking from one exhibition to the next. I love a good hat with a little charm to protect my face and lift up my outfit. ($449)

 

La Roche-Posay SPF 50 Sunscreen

My London BFF introduced me to the French sunscreen. It's light, non-greasy, and the best way to protect my skin from the Venetian sun, which never seems as potent as it really is. ($34)

 

MSGM Jumpsuit

I love Italian brand MSGM and would wear anything they put in front of me. The fun, striped number would work well for artsy selfies at cocktail parties. ($700)

 

Tod's Tattoo-Inspired Sneakers

If there is one lesson it has taken me a while to learn, it's that style should take second place when it comes to shoes for an event like the Biennale. Comfort is everything when you're standing on your feet all day. Thank god these sneakers are chic. ($845)

 

Herban Essentials Peppermint Towelettes

You definitely need antibacterial hand wipes. Added plus: These smell amazing. ($7)

Olloclip Core Lens Set

I use this set of lenses to up my Instagram story game and love playing around with the fisheye and wide angles. ($100)

The Factory: Milan's Pirelli Hangar Bicocca

Don't laugh, but Milan is my Breath of Fresh Air.  My Mind Clearer and my Get Back to Reality. As much as I love Rome and its ever-permeating chaos, every now and then,  I need to get of my head, literally and metaphysically, and I need Milan like some people need that morning meditation, coffee, workout, cigarette or shot.    Just 2 hours and 55 minutes on the FrecciaRossa and I've got my fix.

Grab your Milan map and head seven or so kilometers slight northeast of the Duomo.  Likely a lot of the city's outer-lying neighborhoods, Bicocca is a Vonnegut setting -  town build up up on the remains of Borgo Pirelli (Pirelli Town), Italy's early 20th century City of Industry. Back in the day, Bicocca was the headquarters and hub to some of Italy's top automotive and mass transit companies- tires, trains, engines, cars, war machines and more made the hamlet an industrial landscape of  factories, warehouses, and workers' housing.  80 years later, the landscape has evolved into Tetris of low, red brick building, midsize angular hangars to form a mini, gridform city of administrative and financial offices, factories, state university, shopping malls and Pirelli Hangar Bicocca.

Only in Milan would you find an incredible art foundation on the grounds of a tire factory, especially when it is one of the world's largest.   10,900 square metres of exhibition galleries with a  California campus vibe mixed with brick warehouses and concrete gardens, Hangar Bicocca is the Pirelli's love letter to site specific art installations.   Comprised of three buildings - the Shed (a series of connected, low brick buildings), the Navata (an amazing and huge hangar), and the Cubo, Hangar Bicocca is free-entry, interactive art space for permanent and temporary exhibitions.  All projects are large scale, and meant to be experienced not just looked at, aside from Efemero, a mural project by Brazilian artist Osgemeous on the external facade of the Cubo.  And Hangar Bicocca is a combination of interior and exterior spaces, whose enclosed garden is playground (on any day there are school visits),  social scene (the caffe has an outdoor seating area) and post-apocalyptic Instagram background - Fausto Melotti's enormous La Sequenza (1981) - a sequence of oxidized iron sheets 22 metres long, 7 metres high and 10 metres wide surrounded by tumbleweeds - is a permanent resident.  The other permanent resident is    Anselm Kiefer's The Seven Heavenly Palaces, an interior landscape within the Hangar landscape and a walk around Kiefer's pysche through seven fragile cement towers and five, large scale mixed-media paintings.

#ARTTOTHEPEOPLE

Appearing every now and then in the dark hued palette of greys, whites and black, are uniformed members of Hangar Bicocca's pit crew, young art monitors wearing Pirelli red jackets with the clever hashtag #arttothepeople, treading on trend as much on Borgo Pirelli's famous 1943 workers' strike.   Off to the side of the shed is Dopolavoro, a beautiful caffe restaurant with chalkboard walls and open seating that seemed as much the hip meet up as the perfect business lunch spot.  It is-- the menu is seasonal,  Italian regional and organically curated by chef Lorenzo Piccinelli.  So yeah, this is how I get my contemporary fix... Milan + art, with a glass of Arneis and tartar.

IMG_9273.jpg

Pirelli Hangar Bicocca

Via Chiesa 2 (+39) 02 66 11 15 73

Thursday through Sundays, 10 am to 10pm

Free entrance

The Last Supper, for the first time

There are a lot of things I've never done, but there are a few things I kick myself for never doing.  In all my travels to Milan, as frequent as once a month or as sparse as one as year, the one thing I 've never done that I kept saying I would ~ nope, it's not glamming it up for a photo shoot,  late night dancing with Giorgio Armani, running in Parco Sempione, hanging out at the top of the Duomo, nor visiting Milan's underground, I've done them all ~ my one thing never done is visit the Cenacolo -Leonardo da Vinci's incredible and impossible Last Supper, a painting that has survived bombings and bad restorations, and whose humble 21st century request is that you book your visit in advance.  And every time I come back from a visit to Milan, I feel guilty but obviously not enough to reserve my 15-minute slot.  That is until two months ago.

Backstory:  December 2016 and I'm sipping wine at Colbert, a special cocktail event hosted by Mastercard for its Priceless Cities subscribers.  The event and setting were lovely and piqued my curiosity as to what else Mastercard thought was Priceless in Italy.  Scrolling through Priceless,  I came across rooftop dinners, cooking courses, gala events, a historic walks, vabbè.... and there it was -  the Last Supper, an hour-long visit to see Leonardo's fresco and walk through the adjacent Chiesa di Santa Maria della Grazie.  22 euro and no navigating through the Cenacolo's website, it was about time to get back to Milan.

Pigrizia cenacolosa, Last Supper laziness, a close cousin of pigrizia sistiniana- living in Rome without having ever been to the Sistine Chapel.  That's what I quickly learned when chatting up the 20 some PricelessCities guests who were waiting with me in Piazza di Santa Maria delle Grazie.  All but one of them had never seen the Cenacolo, and most of them lived in Milan.  No biggie, and I totally I get it, I thought as we lined up single file to enter a hermetically sealed waiting space before the big reveal.  It's not always easy to visit the most important art historical site in your city, much less your country, especially when you live in the neighborhood.

We stepped inside and the 15 minute countdown began.  The room itself is plain, two frescos on both ends of what was once the convent's dining hall.   The Last Supper is incredible.... large ( 29 feet long by 15 feet high) and incredibly detailed.  I loved looking it at from the center of the room- the orthogonals pull you to the table, but the closest you can stand is about 8 feet away. For the first ten minutes, the base of the painting was crowded, everyone looking for Christ's feet and Mary Magdalene.  Me too, but I didn't join the rest as they looked at the second, non-Lenardo fresco, so I enjoyed five minutes of the Last Supper all to myself.   It blew my mind-  the movement, the figures, the details. I started to wonder if the models were his friends, and if so, who?

I walked out of the room kicking myself for not having been there before, every "before" that I've ever had in Milan, and headed to the Bramante-designed basilica and sacrestia, but I'll be honest, it was a beautiful blur since my mind was on the Last Supper.

To answer my three most asked questions:

  • Yes, you must reserve your visit - and I think via Priceless Cities is the best way to do so. Once you sign up (free!), all you have to do is reserve the event on the site, Priceless Cities takes.  PS- rrom what I understand, any Priceless subscriber (in any city) can sign up for events in other cities, so no, you don't have to live in Italy.
  • Yes, photos are permitted but without flash.
  • And yes, those fifteen minutes (plus train ride) were worth it.