Contributed by: Elina Rokhkind | Last Date of Travel: October 2009
There are three sources of kosher food in Florence, all of them located in close proximity to the synagogue.
The first is the dairy vegetarian Ristorante Ruth. Since it’s the only sit-down place, you get to meet here all kosher tourists visiting Florence at the time. The menu is not too extensive and rather eclectic, as is the restaurant’s décor. The food itself is decent, but not overly sophisticated; the house wine is pretty good. You can order here fish, pasta and vegetable dishes, as well as soups, pizza, and deserts. The restaurant’s owner, Simcha, is a very friendly and interesting man, who personally serves and gets to know his customers.
Then, there is a small store – Kosher Market, which sells packaged goods and wine, as well as a selection of imported frozen products, so they can prepare pizza or schwarma for you on the spot. They can also serve tea and instant coffee, and there are a few tables to sit while grabbing a bite. The frozen food is not great and overpriced, compared to the US. On the bright side, they sell some local cheeses and deli meats, which are delicious, and a good value too. Order a sandwich to take with you for the day of touring, and pair it with some delectable fresh Italian produce; then come back in the evening for a sit-down meal in the restaurant – this is a good plan in the kosher-limited Florence.
We fell for the charm of Florence in an instant. This amazingly beautiful city surrounded by picturesque Tuscany hills exudes harmony and has a healthy dose of everything. Being the cradle of Renaissance, Florence is loaded with historical sites and grand art, yet the tourist crowds are manageable. For a modern cosmopolitan city with vibrant economic and cultural life, Florence is moderately-paced as Florentines prefer enjoying Dolce Vita to hectic lifestyles. The historical center is quite compact, which allows exploring it entirely on foot.
The heart of Florence is the Piazza del Duomo, where the famous Gothic Cathedral (known as Duomo) with its beautiful multi-colored facade is located. The Cathedral’s enormous red dome, renowned for being the first free-standing dome of its size since antiquity, is seen from everywhere around the city. Next to the Duomo is the Campanile (bell tower), which you can climb (all 414 steps of it) for the breathtaking views of the city and surrounding countryside. The architectural trio of the Piazza is completed with the Baptistery – the oldest Florentine building from the 11th century.
The powerful Medici family that ruled Florence during the Renaissance times was instrumental in beautifying the city, and lots of magnificent art pieces used to stand under the open sky. Nowadays, however, most of them are sheltered inside the numerous museums, and their place in the streets is taken by skillfully made copies. One couple we met during our travels was convinced they saw David’s Michelangelo a while ago in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (the old Town Hall). This was indeed the historical place of the famous symbol of Renaissance, but since 19th century David’s home is under the specially designed dome in the Accademia art gallery.
As it was said, the art is abundant and museums and palaces are plentiful in Florence – schedule carefully what you wish to visit. During our trip we managed to see the above mentioned Accademia (where aside from David you can find several more sculptures of Michelangelo), Palazzo Medici-Riccardi (early Medici residence, most famous for its frescoed private chapel), the immense and luxurious Palazzo Pitti (later Medici residence, complete with beautiful gardens and more art), and the free Palazzo Davanzati (a restored medieval house where you can glimpse into the life well before food-processors and modern bathrooms, and be surprised how ingenious people had been). And of course the Uffizzi – one of the most prominent Europe’s galleries – is an art-lover’s absolute must! Indeed, this surprisingly manageable museum housing the best Renaissance art in addition to classical sculptures, have the highest concentration of masterpieces per square foot we’ve ever encountered. In order not to stand in line for hours, it is highly recommended to use their advance reservation system.
Aside from enjoying its art and architecture, Florence is just a picture-perfect place to stroll. Admire the big castle-like Palazzo Vecchio, and imagine the tumultuous past unfolding on the Piazza della Signoria in front of it. Take a buggy ride on the cobblestones of the city center, or ride a carousel in the dusk on Piazza della Repubblica accompanied by the lively tunes of street musicians. Drop by the San Lorenzo market with its rows of bargain-priced leather goods, and get amazed by the abundance and variety of produce, and design of food shops at the nearby Mercato Centrale. Cross the romantic Ponte Vecchio– the oldest Florentine bridge spared by the Nazi during their retreat, and take a walk down the Oltrarno neighborhood’s winding streets among ancient buildings and artisan shops. Take a mini-hike to Piazzale Michelangelo for some amazing city views from the top of the hill. Finally, peep inside the big-name boutiques in this fashion-conscious city, and have a look at other interesting shopping options like a 600-year-old perfumery.
Although, we did not have time for it, we read the trips to the nearby Tuscan hill towns, such as San Gimignano, are really lovely. Other day trip options from Florence are to the interesting cities of Pisa, Siena or Lucca.
The imposing Great Synagogue of Florence with its green dome distinctive on the Florentine skyline of red-tiled roofs, was built in Moorish style in the end of 19th century. The grand and beautiful building is, unfortunately, mostly empty as minyan gathers for morning services only 3 times a week. The synagogue houses a small museum, and organizes guided tours of its inside, providing some background on the Jewish history in Florence.
Unless you hire a private guide knowledgeable about the Florentine Jewish history and sites significant to it, there is nothing explicitly Jewish to see in Florence. The Ghetto, formerly located on the place of the present Piazza della Repubblica, was completely destroyed in 19th century. Giovanna Bossi specializes in Jewish Florence tours, but we ended up not using her services, which I partially regret. Please refer to Jewish Italy website for relevant contact info.