Ticking off the tourism top three of fantastic food, pristine beaches and millennia of culture, Italy is as dreamy a vacation destination as ever existed. But anyone who’s crossed the Ponte Vecchio or queued for gelato in Rome knows that visitors can outnumber the locals when it comes to Italy vacations, unless that is, you know where to go. In researching their new guidebook to Italy, boutique hotel experts at Mr & Mrs Smith spent months combing the boot from tip to toe, seeking out stylish, one-of-a-kind retreats and authentically Italian experiences. They sipped espresso in cobbled piazzas, hunted for Renaissance masterpieces in the spectacular galleries, and dipped into the country’s turquoise waters. Now, they’re opening their little black book to share the very best of Rome, Florence and the Amalfi Coast.
For your perusal, an atypical Italy travel guide to the country’s lesser known wonders.
Where to stay
Hop off the tourist trail to check in at Il Palazzetto, a 16th-century palace-in-miniature perched just beside the Spanish Steps. The four-room hideaway is a virtual Roman Holiday of voluptuous fabrics, marble bathrooms (with naughty accents) and blissful privacy. The Wine Academy, housed in the building offers wine courses, private tastings and guided tours of nearby vineyards.
Where to Eat
Taste the future of Italian cuisine at Glass Hostaria. Located in the Trastevere neighbourhood, the wine bar plays with textures and ingredients serving up dishes as delicately beautiful as they are intricate in flavour profile. Want proof that there’s more to Italy than simple wine (delicious as it is)? Sample the evidence at some of the Boot’s microbrews including Bir e Fud, a beer-centric pizzeria on a cobblestone street near the river in Trastevere, where yeasty, thin-crust pies come topped with fresh ingredients such as zucchini blossoms. Stick around the beautiful Villa Borghese after dusk to dine at Casina Valadier, one of the city’s most romantic restaurants, which pours excellent cocktails and offers a panoramic skyline view from its terrace.
Most tourists head to Amalfi for beach time, but Rome’s own Ostia beach is an easy 30-minute ride from town. The nature preserve has quiet beaches, dark sand and a boardwalk where locals gather on weekends. Blocks from Piazza Navona, stop into the Nicotra di San Giacomo shop where you’ll find woven silk jewellery made using 14th-century techniques.
For a peek at one of the city’s stranger sites, poke into Capuchin Crypt, a macabre museum of six chapels housing the remains of 4,000 Capuchin friars.
In summers, the Teatro dell’Opera holds its opera and ballet performances at the ancient ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, and locals take in the performance under the stars. This performance season, patrons will be treated to concerts including Macbeth (November 27-December 11), and a holiday performance of The Nutcracker.
Thirsty travellers looking for quenching entertainment will find sanctuary at La Barrique located in historic Monti. A winding little bar packed with small-production Italian wines, the space hosts live jazz performances on select nights. Bar Necci in Pigneto looks like the setting for a Fellini film. Press your best black dress and silk scarf, and take a seat at a table on the 60s-style terrace for a sample of Italian sodas or a bitter Negroni.
Where to Stay
On a quiet corner of Piazza Santa Maria Novella, JK Place Firenze is a marvel in chic monochrome. Formerly a private home, this 20-room bolthole has been transformed into a wonderful web of design eras. Louis XV fireplaces crackle alongside 18th-century sculptures, art deco furniture and 1960s paintings. Pause in the popular JK Lounge to order a cappuccino or aperitivo, best enjoyed on the piazza-side terrace.
Where to Eat
Take the 7 bus to Fiesole for one of the best bird’s-eye views of the Duomo. From there, descend to Pizzeria San Domenico, an understated trattoria that cooks perfect pies and serves a mean bistecca Fiorentina. Back in Florence, Cantina Barbagianni on Via Sant’Egidio is in an ancient cellar, with dishes as delicious as the location is stunning, it is an ideal spot for dinner à deux, or a great-value two-course lunch. Near the Duomo on Via dell’Oche, Coquinarius is a charming, intimate place. Live like a local and opt for salads and pastas here, popular with area ladies who lunch. For adventurous foodies, try your luck at l Latini on Via Palchetti. The kitchen decides what you’ll be eating — you just name the colour of wine you prefer, and whether you want fish or meat. Or, for the devote epicurean, Thrice Michelin-starred jacket-and-tie joint Enoteca Pinchiorri on Via Ghibellina is set in a Renaissance palace, where Giorgio Pinchiorri himself helps you choose your selection from his 150,000-bottle cellar.
Florence is a spendthrift’s dream at any time of year. Italy’s biggest designers cluster their boutiques along Via Tornabuoni; for one-offs, seek the ateliers on Via del Parione and Via della Vigna Nuova; antique shops line the streets of Via Maggio and Via dei Fossi. To combine shopping and art, visit the museum of Salvatore Ferragamo, where the cobbler to Old Hollywood kept models of his muses’ feet. Visitors who make it to the museum before January 28th of next year will enjoy in a major exhibit dedicated to silver screen starlet Marylyn Monroe.
It’s hard not to notice the Duomo (nor the crowds of snap-happy tourists that surround it), but it’s worth the tight elbow space to check out Ghiberti’s gilded bronze doors to the baptistery just outside.
Set in a 16th-century Renaissance building, Palazzo Strozzi is a foundation for culture and the arts, hosting exhibitions, films and lectures. Pop in on the second Thursday of each month to create your own objet d’art, then catch a concert in the courtyard. Sip drinks under fresco-decked domes at Angels, a cosy lounge on Via del Proconsolo. Odeon Florence on Piazza Strozzi is a regal two-storey theatre screening English-language arthouse films for expats.
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