Spending The Winter Holidays In Florence
Of all the seasons to spend in Florence, winter is by far my favourite. Free at last from the multitudes that throng the city all spring and summer, Florence slips quietly into a state of hibernation. It’s left up to the locals to provide the faint pulse of everyday life, as short, crisp days fade into frosty evenings and brightly lit nights. But this they do well: commuting through deserted piazzas, mulling around half-empty wine bars and stoically keeping to the tradition of the evening passeggiata.
Piano piano, slowly but surely, Florence starts its gradual meander towards Christmas quite late by our standards – on December 8th, the Day of the Immaculate Conception. To mark this advent, the annual terracotta Nativity Scene makes its appearance in the Piazza del Duomo, standing in the shadow of the city’s towering, giglio rossoadorned Christmas tree on one side; the gothic pink, white and green marble façade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (or Duomo) on the other.
|Photo credit: Luceonline|
All across the historic centre, Christmas decorations light up Florence’s main streets and pedestrianized boulevards, competing only, in terms of their ornate brilliance, with the annual Festival of Lights. This citywide show, running from December – January 8th, illuminates Florence’s many squares and landmarks, projecting stunning high-res images onto the Palazzo Vecchio and Ponte Vecchio and transforming them into canvases fit for a city with such artistic renown.
The warm glow of these lights brings welcome respite in the otherwise chilly months of December and January. But for those of us who hail from milder climes, spending winter in Florence is sometimes preferable to sweating your way through the sweltering summer heat of July and August. So wrap up warm, venture into the centre, and you’ll see that this is the most beautiful time of year to explore the renaissance city. Let us at Roman Candle Tours share with you some suggestions how.
Explore Santa Croce’s main Christmas market
For two years I lived on Borgo Santa Croce, the street running adjacent to the eponymous piazza and church. So it goes without saying I got to know Santa Croce’s Christmas market pretty well. Exactly the same stalls return each year, so I can tell you precisely what to expect – German food and mulled wine stalls; a stand shifting puffer-jackets; cute, child-centred bric-a-brac shops; a quirky British tea and jam stand; Central European chocolate stalls; and a delightful stall displaying glass bottles and bottle-caps crafted into quirky little figurines.
Food pilgrims rejoice at the Polish food stall, which serves up a steamy selection of decently priced sausage and sauerkraut centred meat dishes. At the opposite corner of the market is something a little more Italian (though no less meaty): a stall selling panini con la porchetta, “roasted-pork focaccia sandwiches”, well washed down with a beer or mulled wine from Soul Kitchen’s small neighbouring stall and polished off with a sweet chimney cake from the Hungarian stall just opposite.
Wander Piazza Santissima Annunziata’s “Fierucola”
Opening on December 8th, on the day vast crowds gather in the adjacent Piazza del Duomo to watch the lighting of Florence’s main Christmas tree, the market “Fierucola” springs up on Piazza Santissima Annunziata – one of Florence’s most charming squares. Made up of a handful of humble, agricultural stalls selling quality rural foodstuffs, the market runs throughout the weekend. For more information, on this and other food and craft markets in Florence, check out our blog post about Florence’s markets.
Piazza Santissima Annunziata is perfect for a short walk around, not least because of the remarkable side view it gives of the Duomo. When you’re finished, why not check out the Museo degli Innocenti that borders it – Florence’s first orphanage, still in operation as a regional care service and UNICEF headquarters and since converted into a powerful interactive museum and, upstairs, an awe-inspiring art gallery.
Go dancing on ice at Florence’s Obihall
Your typical Italian Christmas may not conjure up images of ice-skating, but come to Obihall this winter and you’ll see how Florence always defies expectations. Running all day, every day until February 24th (excluding Christmas) Firenze Winter Park will be offering you the unique opportunity to go ice-skating with friends and family.
The perfect activity if you’re visiting Florence with your kids, each three-hour session at the Firenze Winter Park costs just €6 per person. Fridays see Obihall become the scene of the “aperidance” – a quintessentially Italian combination of aperitivo and dancing – for the cost of just €15.
Catch a concert at Teatro Verdi
Conveniently situated just a couple of minute’s walk between Piazza Santa Croce, Palazzo Vecchio and Duomo, Teatro Verdi is one of Florence’s main cultural events hubs. This year’s festal calendar features Raymond Brigg’s nostalgia soaked “The Snowman” (Il Pupazzo di Neve) on December 8th and the classic Dirty Dancing on December 21st and 22nd (you’ll have the time of your life).
For anyone fortunate enough to be in Florence for Christmas itself, Teatro Verdi will host its own Christmas conert, Il Concerto di Natale, at 17:00 on Christmas Eve. Tickets for any of Teatro Verdi’s performances can be purchased online or in person at the theatre’s ticket office.
Cross the river and explore Oltrarno
When crossing over from Florence’s historic centre to Oltrarno, don’t miss the focal points of the Festival of the Lights – an opalescent laser display projected onto the medieval Ponte Vecchio. Living in Florence, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this the last three years, and every time feels like the first. Its beautifully designed themed scenography captivates everyone who passes by. A word of advice though – don’t bother filming it as the lighting never does justice; just sit back, admire and enjoy.
Visit Florence’s attractions while the numbers are down
Florence is world-famous for its galleries and museums. And as this is lost on none of its visitor, the best time to visit them is out of season. So whether that involves taking our Accademia tour and coming face-to-face with Michelangelo’s magnificent marble David, his unfinished Slaves, or any other of the gallery’s world-renowned works of art, or visiting the Uffizi Gallery with its repository of masterpieces by Botticelli, Leonardo, Caravaggio and Raphael, make sure to come during the winter holidays and take advantage of having them (almost) to yourself.
Seek out some traditional Florentine Christmas cuisine
Italy might be best known for its pasta and pizza, but these world-famous staples are done better in their cities and regions of origin – Bologna, in the region of Emilia-Romagna and Naples in the region of Campania respectively. Florentine food, by contrast, focuses mainly on the mains: rich, meaty dishes like bistecca alla fiorentina, trippa alla fiorentina (Florentine tripe; don’t knock it till you try it) and – where pasta forms the basis of the dish – thick, freshly prepared pappardellesmothered in a wild-boar (cinghiale) or wild-hare (lepre) ragù.
Perhaps because of this culinary culture revolving around main dishes, Florentine Christmas food is fairly typical of Christmas food in Italy as a whole. Starters tend to consist of patè-smothered canapés and tortellini soup while the main might be roast pork, seasoned with garlic, rosemary, fresh sage, salt and, of course, extra virgin olive oil. A popular Christmas dessert, though originally from Florence’s historical rival of Siena, is panforte (or “strong bread”, so-called for reasons that’ll become immediately apparent once you try it).
When it comes to where to eat at Christmas, our top recommendations for fine Italian dining are Trattoria 4 Leoni in Piazza della Passera – a charming, traditional restaurant one of the city’s most characterful squares – or, a little further outside the centre, a quintessentially Italian gourmet experience beloved by locals: Ristorante Perseus.
A Spanish tradition, which spread to Italy in the nineteenth century, sees white grapes make a special appearance on traditional Tuscan tables around New Year. Their consumption, accompanied by the proverb, “Chi mangia l’uva a capodanno, conta i quattrini tutto l’anno, or, “Whoever eats grapes at New Year can count their coins for year to come,” is seen as a symbol of wealth and good fortune. Perhaps because, historically, few viticulturalists could have afforded to save some grapes from the harvest and keep them until December 31st.
Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Florence
Florence might not be renowned for its nightlife, but New Year’s Eve always proves an exception. Throughout the Tuscan capital and in the surrounding hills and villages, friends and families unite to usher in the New Year (capodanno, in Italian) together. Often in the radiant glow of festive fireworks. Always in a convivial atmosphere of flowing wine. Wherever you go out in Florence, you’ll be spoilt for choice on New Year’s Eve. Nevertheless, here’s a short list of our top recommendations.
Anyone wishing to start their evening in the lap of luxury should make a Gala dinner reservation at the Relais Santa Croce, a five-star hotel between the Basilica of Santa Croce and the Duomo. From 8:30pm, they’ll be welcoming you into one of their many sumptuously furnished eighteenth century rooms for a celebratory glass of champagne or prosecco. Then from 9:00pm, their team of distinguished chefs will be serving up an eight-course dinner accompanied by select cellar wines.
After dinner, where better to count down to the stroke of midnight than in one of Florence’s many piazzas. Each square will be putting on its own event as part of the annual parties in the piazzas. Announced so far is a classic concert at Piazzale Michelangelo, which boasts a panorama par excellence over the entire city and beyond, a performance by the Philharmonic Orchestra of Vraza, Bulgaria, at Piazza della Signoria, and a New Orleans style marching band at Piazza del Carmine in Oltrarno.
For a guaranteed great night out, either before or after the stroke of midnight, head to Florence’s most famous club, Tenax. Featuring three world-class DJs, this year’s event, Nobody’s Perfect, runs from 10:30pm on New Year’s Eve to midday on the 1st, so high energy reserves are a must. Tickets cost €10 – €15, depending on whether you book in advance or pay on the door. Oh, and be aware that Tenax is quite far from the centre, near the airport, so you’ll need to get a taxi.
Experience winter in Florence with Roman Candle Tours
If you’re coming to Florence in winter, we at Roman Candle Tours have written this article just for you, to suggest some of the city’s best festive events and things to do in Florence around Christmas and New Year. If you want to discover more, you can do so by visiting our best of Florence blog, which covers everything culinary, cultural and otherwise in the Cradle of the Renaissance, and by checking out our range of tours in the Tuscan capital.
If you want to get out and explore the Tuscan countryside, we also run a day trip to Siena and San Gimignano, which while much smaller than the Tuscan capital are just as – if not even more – stunning. And if during your time in Florence you want nothing more than to head straight for the Leaning Tower, we offer a trip to Pisa that lets you climb up the slanting structure before exploring the other highlights of the Piazza of Miracles over which it looms.
It’s not just in Florence that we operate. Roman Candle Tours runs a range of acclaimed fixed and tailored itineraries across Italy’s other main cities: Rome, Venice and Naples. In the last of this three-part series, we’ll be taking you through how to spend the winter holidays in the Eternal City, the caput mundi – Rome. We can’t wait to see you there.
If you liked this article, also read “The Definitive Guide To The Best Day Trips From Florence“