You’ve waited in line to see Michelangelo’s David and you’ve sighed over Botticelli’s Birth of Venus – so what else shouldn’t you miss in Florence, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance? Tour leader Dr Kathleen Olive, who lived and studied in this beautiful city, has some suggestions.
“As long as you avoid the major tourist sites, you can very much have Florence to yourself,” says Kathleen. “You just need to watch your program on Mondays, when most of the state-owned museums are closed, and plan to do most of your touring in the morning, as a number of the minor museums close at lunch and don’t re-open.”
1. Florence’s neglected history
The Museo Archeologico is a great place to appreciate Tuscany’s earliest history: don’t miss the wonderful Etruscan chimera, dug up in the sixteenth century in Arezzo, or the early Roman statuary. The garden, particularly lovely in spring, has reconstructions of Etruscan tombs.
Outside the museum, in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, the Museo degli Innocenti recently re-opened inside the Foundling Hospital designed by Brunelleschi in the fifteenth century. It’s a fascinating insight into the organisation of Florence’s long-running orphanage, and also contains some stand-out artworks by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Piero di Cosimo.
The rooftop café – which you can enter without visiting the museum, if you prefer – has wonderful views over the cathedral and out to Fiesole.
2. Medici Magic
The Museo di San Marco, not far from Piazza Santissima Annunziata, was once a Dominican convent which architect Michelozzo redesigned at the Medici family’s expense. It is now a museum dedicated to the art of Fra Angelico, the “angelic friar” who lived here and frescoed the monks’ cells with his quietly beautiful masterpieces.
A few hundred metres down the road is the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, once the family home and now used as state offices. A ticket gains you entry to the palace’s glittering jewel, the Cappella dei Magi, entirely frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli with the procession of the Wise Men.
3. Something completely different: Museo “La Specola”
Just beyond Palazzo Pitti is the Museum of Natural History, known as “La Specola” for the observation room that housed Galileo’s instruments.
It has a dusty collection of flora and fauna (the butterflies are wonderful), but the real highlight is the collection of wax anatomical models. They offer a fascinating insight into medical history of the Enlightenment, so I’d recommend it for anyone with this interest.
4. Beyond church fatigue
Not everyone has my tolerance for popping into every church I pass, looking for new treasures! But some of Florence’s churches offer just as much insight into the masterpieces of the past as museums like the Uffizi or Accademia do, and they’re rarely crowded.
I particularly recommend Santa Trinita (the Sassetti Chapel is a real highlight), Santa Maria Novella (now entirely a museum, and with wonderful works by Masaccio, Filippino Lippi and Paolo Uccello) and Orsanmichele (for early masterpieces by Ghiberti, Donatello and Giambologna).
5. Find the green spaces
Head up to the hillside above Florence, at Piazzale Michelangelo, not just for the stunning views over the city, but also for some of the best springtime gardens. The Iris Garden, where competition-winning blooms carpet an olive grove, is open in April and May only.
The Rose Garden, on the other side of the square, is open year-round but its blooms are best in May and June. It’s a lovely place for a picnic lunch, has a wonderful view, and is dotted with quirky sculptures donated to the city by Folon.
6. Take an artisan walking tour
Florence’s fortunes were based on the expertise of its craftsmen, and you can still visit many artisan workshops today. A lot of the leather you see in Florence now is imported, but if you go to the official Scuola del Cuoio (Tuscan Leather School) behind Santa Croce, you can see where the region is still training leatherworkers.
For paper, Il Torchio on Via dei Bardi makes paper and leather-bound books on the premises, and is a short walk from Alessandro Dari’s workshop – he’s a self-described “alchemical jeweller” whose amazing creations are displayed like fantastical artworks inside vitrines.
And for perfumes and toiletries, don’t miss the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella (which now has a sweet tea room inside), Aqua Flor on Borgo Santa Croce, or Monastica (a monastery shop inside the Florentine Badia).
7. Shop with the locals
Florence’s Mercato Centrale recently underwent a facelift, and now boasts a chi-chi gourmet foodhall on its upper floor. But for a more authentic experience, head near Santa Croce to the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio and spend a morning browsing with the locals.
Once you’ve had your fill of checking out the produce, you can have an inexpensive lunch inside at Trattoria da Rocco, which is a train-like compartment selling classic Tuscan fare based on the market produce outside. You’ll be seated alongside locals – lots of professors and students from the nearby university – and it’s a great experience.
8. Quirky museums
Very few people visit the Museo Stefano Bardini – he was an antiquarian (and, just quietly, a bit of a shyster) whose taste for displaying ancient artworks and modern recreations inspired Isabella Stewart Gardner back in Boston. His house museum in Florence has some wonderful pieces and is an interesting place to ponder the “rediscovery” of the Renaissance.
There’s a very inexpensive and sweet Shoe Museum under the Ferragamo shop on Via Tornabuoni, which tracks the company’s history making pieces for the great and the good, but which also hosts thoughtful contemporary art exhibitions.
And if you’ve never been to the Bargello museum, a treasure trove of sculpture (both large scale and small decorative objects) awaits you!
9. Get a different perspective
Queues to climb the cathedral’s dome are now very long and require advance bookings. Fewer people climb Giotto’s belltower, which enjoys the same view (and has less steps), and fewer again know that you can climb to the top of Orsanmichele in central Florence, free of charge, on Mondays.
To get a good view with even less exertion, head to the rooftop café on top of the Rinascente department store in Piazza della Repubblica.
10. Enjoy yourself!
I love a special glass of wine and nibbles at Volpi e l’Uva, just alongside the church of Santa Felicita, or at Cantinetta dei Verrazzano on Via dei Tavolini (right in the centre of town).
It’s a bit further out – near Santa Croce – but the young guys who run Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo have real verve and the food is a fantastic interpretation of classic Italian cuisine. Olio et Convivium is an intimate restaurant that specialises in Tuscan products – you’ll never look at bruschetta in the same way again!
And for a sweet treat, I head to Robiglio (tucked away near the cathedral on Via dei Tosinghi, or over near Santissima Annunziata) or Caffé Pazkowski in Piazza della Repubblica, where they still make their own pastries and cakes on the premises.
Dr Kathleen Olive
Has more than 15 years’ experience leading tour groups. She is one of Academy Travel’s most respected tour leaders, and is known to Academy Travellers as a skilled and sensitive presenter. Kathleen has a PhD in Italian Studies, speaks fluent Italian and lectures on the art, history and culture of Europe and Japan.