Elena Ghisellini is the high-heeled queen of the Florentine cobblestones. The Genoa-born, Tuscany-based handbag designer — never to be caught dead in a paltry pair of flats even on the notoriously stony streets of her adopted town — recommends one thing: “see Florence by foot!”
Florence, the architectural wonderland and jewel-of-the-Tuscan-countryside is the Italian renaissance version of a weekend at Disneyland. Every few steps the attentive visitor will, without question, come crashing headfirst into a new miracle of the middle-ages with every corner they turn (if you haven’t had your eye poked out by a selfie-stick wielding tourist first). The Uffizi, Michelangelo’s David, Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, and the too-many-to-name private palazzos Florence’s fabulously rich families created to outdo each other 600 years ago in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses show of extravagant wealth, all compete for space in the compact marble-laden town centre.
Our girl on the ground, Ghisellini, is understandably passionate about her adopted town. A craftsperson at heart — she’s a master leather-worker and has been the brain behind accessories at Trussardi, Ferragamo, Givenchy and Tod’s, in addition to her own eponymous line — she chose Florence for its history and lineage as a centre for artisanal design. “When I’m there,” Ghisellini says, “I think of all the talented artists and craftsmen that have succeeded each other down the centuries and that puts my work into perspective.”
From her perch in the historic Palazzo Rucellai — the 15th century palace designed by Leon Battista Alberta and headquarters of her handbag empire — Ghisellini has kindly proffered some superbly sought-after mega-insider tips for our treasured La DoubleJ readers to get the lay of the land in the most romantic city on earth.
But first, we’re desperate to know: how do you tell the difference between a Florentine and a Milanese? “The Florentine is a gifted craftsman artist who adores the great past that he draws inspiration from. The Milanese is an innovative entrepreneur with business in his soul. What would we do without either of them?” As for the tourists that famously crowd the cities in the summer months? “I don’t avoid them,” offers a diplomatic Ghisellini, ”everyone has the right to enjoy beauty.”
The Best View: “On a street called Via Ricasoli, at the junction with Via de’ Pucci: there is an incredible view with a staggering take on Santa Maria del Fiore.” — Via Ricasoli & Via de’ Pucci
For Golden Hour: Make your way to the Hotel Excelsior for a cocktail on the terrace — it’s the only place the Florentine sunset should be enjoyed.” — Piazza Ognissanti, 3
If You Must Visit a Museum — “Right behind the Duomo is a brand new museum dedicated to the artwork and construction of Brunelleschi’s masterpiece. Not to be missed!” — Museo dell’Opera del Duomo — Piazza del Duomo, 9
Il Latini — A classic Tuscan Osteria serving typical dishes like Fiorentina steaks as thick as dictionaries, crostini with chicken liver paté and life-changing regional wines. “Choose the gran pezzo,” advises Ghisellini, “as long as you’re not vegetarian.” — Via dei Palchetti, 6R
Colle Bereto — A fine-dining midday option for busy Florentines, Colle Bereto manages to strike a balance between heavy Tuscan flavours and a light, quick lunch. But the real stunner to write home about from the Duomo-side cafe is the olive oil they grow and produce themselves. Which, on the advice of Ghisellini, also makes an excellent souvenir: “you won’t leave without it!” — Piazza degli Strozzi 5/r
Cibreo – “The real Florence experience” Ghisellini stresses, “is a dinner at Cibreo.” Founded in 1979, the Florentine mainstay offers refined takes on classic Tuscan dishes in an informally chic setting. — Via del Verrocchio, 8r
Il Pizzaiuolo — You can’t book but try snagging a table for some of Florence’s best pizza — Via dei Macci, 113
Vivoli – Florence is famously the birthplace of gelato, so of course you’re going to have to get yourself a creamy cone when you’re within the city walls. And, though the competition may be fierce, Ghisellini is firmly on team Vivoli, right next to Piazza Santa Croce.
Via dell’Isola delle Stinche, 7/r
The Best Gifts: Ghisellini recommends that everyone visiting Florence bring back one bottle of Convivium pure extra virgin olive oil and one bottle of body cologne from the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella.
Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella — Via della Scala, 16
A Bit of Bling: “All the jewellers on the Ponte Vecchio offer an infinite array of choice,” Ghisellini says of the one-of-a-kind bridge spanning the Arno made up of tiny stalls selling gorgeous jewels. — Ponte Vecchio
“Otherwise, Lo Spillo, a small independent jewellery shop in Borgo San Jacopo.” — Borgo S. Jacopo
The Best Antiques: In a city bursting with Renaissance-era art and architecture, you’ll be forgiven for wanting to leave with a little piece of history of your own. If you’re keen on bringing home gorgeous Florentine antiques, the best of all is Flair, on Lungarno Corsini, Ghisellini tells us: “it’s impossible to leave without something catching your eye.” — Lungarno Corsini, 24r
The Most Fragrant Flowers: I Fiori della Signoria — “Signora Maurizia will make up a wonderful bouquet for you!” — Piazza della Signoria
Socks and Underwear: “Delcor, in Via della Spada.” The Florence mainstay has been operating since the 60s. — Via della Spada, 14R
Hotel Lungarno — “I like places that aren’t too crowded.” Ghisellini says of her choice of hotels — there has to be somewhere to hide from the tourists, right? “In Florence, the Hotel Lungarno is my favourite option.” Calming rooms, a luxurious spa and a lounge decorated with Picasso paintings? Sign us up. — Borgo San Jacopo
Four Seasons in the Giardino della Gherardesca — Set in one of the largest green spaces in Florence — a renaissance garden populated by heavily scented fruit trees — Ghisellini often spends her Sundays here: “a relaxing massage in the spa is my favourite way to end the week.” — Borgo Pinti 99
“I have two beautiful Whippet greyhounds called Pelé and Ribellino,” Ghisellini tells us of her gorgeous pups, “I take them to the Cascine park, where dogs can run free and make friends” — Piazzale delle Cascine
“Near Florence a trip around Chianti in Vespa is absolutely fabulous in spring! And then a stop at the Enoteca Falorni for lunch is a must for a tasting of wines and Tuscan specialities. In Summertime, Forte dei Marmi is good for a seaside escapade. Try the amazing spaghetti with Arselle — a typical type of clam found only there.”
– Laura Todd