Travel

Florence Is the Magical Escape You've Been Waiting For

Here are all the spellbinding adventures to have now.

Tu xa Ha Noi/Moment/Getty Images
Tu xa Ha Noi/Moment/Getty Images
Tu xa Ha Noi/Moment/Getty Images

There’s something dreamy about Florence’s aristocratic palazzos, the medieval streets lined with artisan boutiques, loggia arches and columns on buildings, and belvedere spots overlooking the Ponte Vecchio bridge. Just strolling around the city makes visitors feel like the hero of a Renaissance tale… or a protagonist of The Medici TV series… or a character in a Dan Brown book. Pick your fictional poison. With old stories of plotting and conspiracy befitting the city of Machiavelli, Florence is spellbinding.

But Tuscany’s cultural heart is more than just a lovely walk. Beyond the Duomo and the Uffizi galleries, less trod paths offer unique experiences that will make you feel like a real Florentine. You could sleep in Machiavelli’s lavish family villa, paddle-board along the Arno River at sunset, treat yourself to platefuls of pici pasta, and get the chills by staring at ancient paintings of satan feasting on damned souls.

Plus, what with this being Tuscany, the day trip options from Florence are #travelgoals. Near the city lies a maze of picturesque medieval hilltop towns surrounded by green rolling hills and pristine meadows dotted with fortresses. Or the Val d’Orcia valley will mesmerize you with its neat country roads lined with cypress trees, premium vineyards, and unexpected silence.

Whether you venture further afield or spend all your time in the city roaming its narrow, crooked streets, an Italian adventure is calling. From the classics to the new releases, here are all the twisty plots you can find yourself in while in Florence.

Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Moment/Getty Images
Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Moment/Getty Images
Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Moment/Getty Images

Soak in some Renaissance beauty

Going to Florence and skipping the art is a no no, even if museums aren’t really your thing because you’re more of an adventurous or foodie or lounging or fill-in-the-blank type.

So first stop is the Duomo cathedral and the climb up to its panoramic loggia for an expansive city view. Right out front, check out the octagonal Baptistery basilica for its engraved bronze doors and green-white marble walls. Next, hiking up Giotto’s campanile (bell tower) is great for stretching muscles.

Then prepare to get lost at the Uffizi gallery, your head spinning with so many masterpieces, including Botticelli’s the Birth of Venus, which will give you an idea of the Renaissance ideal of female perfection. To get a glimpse of what the sexy male prototype was like, Michelangelo’s Davide at the Galleria dell’Accademia will leave you breathless. His abs, and even his veins, are perfectly sculpted.

Truba7113/Shutterstock
Truba7113/Shutterstock
Truba7113/Shutterstock

Stare at the devil and rub shoulders with legendary ghosts

Get ready for some gore. If you want to actually see Dante’s Inferno and stare at the most imaginative depiction of Lucifer, head to the refectory of Santa Croce church. There you’ll find the frescoes of The Triumph of Death by 1300’s painter Orcagna. A bloated three-faced Satan is shown devouring souls, their legs sticking out of his many mouths, while demons torture others along the sides. It’s a hoot.

If being in the company of majestic spirits inspires you, Santa Croce is also an indoor cemetery with many an impressive tomb. You’ll find the final resting place of astrologer Galileo Galilei, who was the first on record to claim the Earth was round and rotated upon itself; the revered artists Michelangelo; and the mischievous Niccolò Machiavelli, supporter of the doctrine “the means justify the ends.”

Trattoria baldini
Trattoria baldini
Trattoria baldini

Eat handmade pasta and rare beef like a real Florentine

Escape the touristy eateries charging you an arm and leg for limp pasta and head instead to I Due Fratellini. This minuscule shop has been open since 1875 and offers some excellent street food to go: panini sandwiches with premium Colonado lard, fried cow tripe, and Siena pecorino sheep cheese. Gulp it all down with heady Montepulciano red wine.

As Florentines are addicted to chianina-a huge, thick steak from local beef, usually eaten by two people and served rare-one favorite spot is Perseus, just outside the city walls. Don’t be shy about the plate of meat you’ll get served here.

But if you crave for traditional ‘granny’ recipes, historical tavern Parione serves typical antipasto with crostini neri ai fegatini (crispy bread topped with chicken liver paste), short handmade pasta called pici, and ossobuco (oxtail).

Just a few blocks north, Trattoria Baldini is a temple for iconic ribollita soup, made with bread, white cannellini beans, and vegetable leftovers.

Villa Machiavelli - Ristorante Albergaccio dal 1450
Villa Machiavelli – Ristorante Albergaccio dal 1450
Villa Machiavelli – Ristorante Albergaccio dal 1450

Visit Machiavelli’s unknown lair

There’s a secret spot in Florence few people know about: the hidden retreat of Machiavelli. It’s said that in this house, located on the Florentine hills, the statesman found inspiration for his infamous book The Prince. What was once his humble home is now the Villa Machiavelli museum, where you can see his bed and kitchen table-and an underground passage that connects to an old tavern. Old Nick used the dark tunnel to sneak away unseen from his lodgings to gamble and go hang out with women of the night.

On the opposite hillside, his rich family built a lavish frescoed mansion called Villa Mangiacane, today a luxury resort and exclusive wedding venue, which is said to have been partly designed by Michelangelo.

Westend61/Royalty-free/Getty Images
Westend61/Royalty-free/Getty Images
Westend61/Royalty-free/Getty Images

Sail or paddle-board along the Arno River

Here’s an alternative, less crowded, but way more entertaining way to explore Florence: on a traditional painted wooden boat along the Arno River.

Local canoe guides from The Renaioli will be eager to share their story about how a group of friends brought new life to these vessels previously damaged by floods. You can book exclusive day and sunset boat trips with live music and aperitivo evening drinks featuring Florence’s iconic Negroni cocktail, made with gin, aromatized Vermouth wine and Campari.

If you want more action and a solo thrill, opt for paddle-board tours and glide right beneath the crowded Ponte Vecchio-during the day or at night under a starry sky.

Guido Cozzi/Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images
Guido Cozzi/Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images
Guido Cozzi/Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Go on a leather and jewelry hunt

At each street corner in Florence, you’ll find stands and boutiques selling premium leather jackets, belts, and bags of all kinds. Leather artisans are a trademark of Florence and it’s impossible to suggest any one in particular. So just feel at ease browsing around, cause you’re sure to find some of the best.

Same goes for the many Ponte Vecchio jewelers who have been selling their superb gold and precious stones creations for centuries, locked behind the small doors of tiny, historical wooden boutiques. All you need to do is stroll around and stop when you see the best deal. If you want to feel like a true local, give it a shot at negotiating the price.

Villa Cora
Villa Cora
Villa Cora

Sleep like a Medici lord

If you want to be far from the madding crowd but a few minutes from the famed Ponte Vecchio bridge, stay at the Villa Tolomei Hotel & Resort. What was once an abandoned convent has been turned into a luxury resort. The hotel is in Florence, though it might not look like it at first glance-surrounded by rolling hills and olive trees, Villa Tolomei is a 10 minute drive from the city center and offers gorgeous views of where the Tuscan countryside meets the old city. Find yourself strolling amid frescoed suites with marble walls and a panoramic pool.

Villa Cora hotel is also on the city outskirts. This lavish villa from the 1800s is like a country home meets luxurious mansion. Many of the ornate rooms have regal four-poster beds and way more interesting ceilings than found in, say, the US. Roam the gardens where you’ll find balconies and sphinx statues, and don’t miss the heated pool or spa.

And if you want to sleep like a real Medici, stay at the aristocratic,1500’s Palazzo di Camugliano. Owned by a marquis, it has parquet floors, just 10 frescoed rooms, and beautifully antique furniture. Best part? It’s about a five minute walk from the Piazza del Duomo.

thekovtun/Shutterstock
thekovtun/Shutterstock
thekovtun/Shutterstock

Visit the surrounding Tuscan countryside

Florence is surrounded by adorable villages worth a day trip. Car-free Certaldo di Castro is one of them, made up of a maze of reddish alleys and low dwellings enclosed by medieval walls. It’s also the hometown of epicurean poet Boccaccio, author of the Decamerone tales (he’s a bit of an Italian Chaucer). His family home-turned-museum, Casa Boccaccio, is not only a beautiful house with a verdant courtyard, it also showcases everything from Boccaccio’s slippers, pajamas, and even his toilet pots.

Craving utter bucolic silence? Tiny Rocca d’Orcia village is the jewel of the pristine D’Orcia Valley. There’s just one Renaissance tower and a bunch of houses where 34 people live, overlooking a nearly-fluorescent green sea of meadows.

If you’re a fan of old furniture shops, the quaint village of Anghiari, stage of a bloody battle in the middle ages between Florence and Milan, boasts an impressive castle worth oohing and aahing.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Silvia Marchetti is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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