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Florence, Italy: Elegant & Historical Coffee Houses to Visit

Updated on May 20, 2019
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C. De Melo is a Renaissance Art Historian & Author specializing in historical novels set in Italy. Please visit cdemelo (dot) com

Gilli Commemoration Plate

Coffee Culture in Europe Still Thrives.

What exactly is coffee culture? Well, I really like the way Wikipedia defines it as: a social atmosphere or series of associated social behaviors that depends heavily upon coffee , particularly as a social lubricant . People who meet at coffee houses do so to get a caffeine fix, but also to meet with others for stimulating conversation. It's a place to relax, people-watch, and simply soak in the culture and everyday life around you.

Many believe that coffee culture began here in Europe with the French. While it is true that during the 19th century Paris boasted the world's trendiest cafes, the entire concept of a coffee house society originated much earlier- and not in Europe.

In 16th century Turkey, coffee houses were considered social hubs for artists and intellectuals. This trend spread westward and by the 17th and18th centuries, coffee houses in London attracted artist, writers and socialites. Mediterranean countries also picked up on this trend and built some of the most beautiful coffee houses that also serve as Tea Rooms and restaurants.

Discover the Florence ruled by the Medici


The elegant coffee houses of Florence

These establishments are literally dripping with elegance- glittering crystal chandeliers, marble floors and counter tops, gleaming brass fixtures, carved and polished wooden embellishments, and attractive, smartly dressed baristas. One would think that such a place was created only for pleasure, but this is not the case. Some of these coffee houses were the sites of serious political movements like the Giubbe Rosse in Piazza della Republica. During the Fascist regime of the 20th century, this literary coffee house was a meeting point for underground Communists. This is fitting since Giubbe Rosse literally means red coat .

While many historic coffee houses in Florence date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the oldest one in the city is Caffe Gilli (established 1733), which flaunts a beautiful salotto , or salon. European salon culture of the 18th century took place in actual salons inside the elegant homes of high society. These great rooms were usually full of art, sculptures and musical instruments (like a piano or harpsichord). The lady of the house, usually a cultured woman of refined taste, would invite friends and members of society to discuss topics such as art, philosophy, science and politics. Sometimes she would feature new talent like a musician, poet or artist- much to the delight of her guests.

This idea was eventually manifested in the great European coffee houses, and the establishment itself became a kind of salon for the middle class (since most people did not have great houses with big salons for entertainment).

These historic establishments are also production houses for other products. For example, Rivoire Caffe in Piazza della Signoria is also a chocolate factory and offers an array of chocolate products (and very good hot chocolate- be sure to ask for whipped cream on top).

Pasticceria Sieni advertises their fine Italian pastries first and foremost (although all of the establishments mentioned in this hub serve amazing pastries). At Sieni, however, the dedicated pastry chef has been there for decades and uses traditional marble counters to make pastry and copper vats to mix custards.

Caffe Donnini proudly advertises its actual establishment date (1894) on the floor as you walk inside and feature excellent pastries and coffee (try the wonderful multi-grain brioche filled with honey).

All of these establishments serve more than just coffee and tea. They also serve freshly squeezed citrus juices (spremuta ), cocktails, light lunches, etc. In the evenings, they offer the traditional Italian Aperitivo with a cocktail, which are free tasty snacks that you can much on while enjoying your drink. Be aware that if you sit at one of those fancy tables on the piazza you will pay much more for whatever you consume vs. standing at the counter inside at the bar. These establishments charge for table service, but you will be waited on by an elegant server in a nice suit and feel like a movie star. While the difference is considerable, think of it as renting prime real estate. No one will rush you as you enjoy your pricey cappuccino. You can show off your new leather boots and Italian sunglasses as you write out your postcards or simply sit back and relax.

My advice: if you come to Florence, be sure to visit one of these historical coffee houses. Go ahead and splurge on some decadent pastries and fine coffee or enjoy a refreshing drink in the sunshine. Thanks for reading!

C. De Melo

Sieni Pastries


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