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Every summer I have a friend or two who has rented a villa in Tuscany and finds herself on either leg of the trip with a free day in Florence. As a travel editor, they automatically ask me how they tackle the city in 24 hours. I tell them you can’t and to come back in late fall when the crowds have thinned out. Summer in Florence means one thing: mosh pit style crowds everywhere. The best time to go is September.
I tell my friends that the first thing to do is check yourself into the Villa La Massa, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, just 20 minutes north of the city along the Arno. It’s the perfect spot to prepare for (and later repair from) a day of touring Florence. The 16th-century villa was a private house for a prominent Italian clan until 1948, and as you enter the gravel drive you immediately feel your inner Medici coming out. Today, the 41 rooms are spread out among the four buildings. The Noble Villa is the main house which features a great hall decorated with coats of arms as well as more traditional rooms: think canopied beds and lots of boiserie, and heavy swaths of silk curtains. Then there’s the Villiino building and the Mill which houses the restaurant and a world-class wine cellar as well as a cluster of rooms. On my last visit, I stayed in the newly refurbished Casa Colonica, a 6500-square foot farmhouse with four suites, a dreamy country kitchen, and a courtyard blooming with jasmine. I was tucked away in a second-floor suite, which was done up in a handsome palette of greens from the silk rugs to the heavy drapes to a series of sketches depicting forests that I wish I could have taken home with me.
From my window I looked out to the 22 acres of gardens filled with rosemary and lavender bushes as well as lemon, quince, and olive trees. There’s an al fresco fitness path if you desire to work off the traditional Tuscan meal from the Il Verrocchio restaurant the night before. There are also bikes on the premises if you feel like touring the countryside. But there’s a languid air about the place which makes you want to just sit back and relax. You can sit by the pool eating a bowl of fresh fruit in the morning for breakfast or that perfect bowl of pasta at lunch and watch a lone sunbather relax next to the Arno, which I did one morning. There is also a chapel on the premises if you feel like being more contemplative. And if you can drag yourself away from this perfect pastoral scene, the hotel provides a frequent shuttle to the Ponte Vecchio, which is only 20 minutes away.
Florence can feel like a bit of a shock after a mellow morning at Villa Massa so you need to know how to approach your afternoon in the city. I say skip trying to take in the works of all the great Renaissance masters—Botticelli, Michelangelo, da Vinci—and instead turn this into a trip of exploring the city’s other great creatives, the artisans of Florence. The city has some of the most exquisite crafts you’ve ever laid eyes on and some of them are still being made in the very same botteghes (original ateliers) from centuries ago.
If you can navigate the milling hordes with their selfie sticks on Ponte Vecchio, it’s worth browsing the windows of the tiny jewelry shops that line the bridge. Temple St. Clair’s boutique, which opened in the summer of 2018, is a sliver of a space offering up noble-looking amulets and elegant gold cuffs. The Virginia native studied art history in Florence during college, and when her mother visited and wanted to turn an ancient coin into a necklace, St. Clair started to research Florentine goldsmiths. Today she works with some of the same craft families who have been plying their trade for over five hundred years.
Santa Maria Novella is one of the world’s oldest apothecaries where Dominican Friar monks have been making botanical-inspired scents, soaps, and various elixirs since 1222. (Acqua Delle Regina, with its citrus and clove notes, was created in 1547 for Catherine Medici on the eve of her wedding). The shop doubles as a museum so you can check out the antique bottles and pottery as well as books on the art of alchemy. The crowds can be a bit much at times—but surprisingly for Italy—the store management keeps the lines moving in an orderly fashion at the cash registers. Don’t miss the digestives and rosewater spray which has been a best-seller since it debuted centuries ago as a salve against pestilence.
Founded in 1735, the ceramic manufacturer Richard Gionori has made tableware for Italy’s aristocratic families well as for the Vatican. Later on, the company collaborated with artists and designers like Gio Ponti and Paola Navone. But in 2013 it was nearly bankrupt. Enter Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, who breathed new life into the moribund house. The flagship showroom in Florence looks like a sleek design gallery showcasing various collections from a modernist riff on chinoiserie (Oriente Italiano) to hand-painted insect objects. If you are not looking for a formal set of china there are scented candleholders, small jewelry boxes, and decorated trays.
Loretta Caponi has been selling hand-embroidered nightgowns, lingerie, and household linens out of this charming shop decorated with frescoed ceilings and wooden cabinetry for almost a century. The floral cotton nightgowns have been a secret among fashion editors (Kate Young, Amanda Brooks) and Madonna ordered a traditional layette for her son Rocco from the family-run shop. Lucia Caponi, who took over from her mother Loretta when she passed away in 2015, recently launched a collection of resort dresses and separates.
After a day of shopping and touring around Florence, the best part is returning to peaceful Villa La Massa. Head to the tiny, jewel-like bar and order an expertly-mixed Negroni. And toast yourself to a perfect day in Florence.