It’s difficult to know where to start when writing about Florence (Firenze) and Fiesole.
I fell in love with the city the first time I came, following a bike trip, and have returned 10 times since then. One of my favorite memories from that trip was walking down a narrow street from my hotel on Piazza Santissima Annunziata towards the Duomo. The street itself was filled with people marching and carrying banners and signs. I was standing watching the marchers when a guy came up to me and asked, ‘Do you know why they’re marching?’ ‘No.’ ‘They want a longer lunch break.’ I’m not sure if that was true but it seemed so quintessentially Italian, it made me smile. The street I was on brought me out to the Piazza del Duomo shown in the picture below.
And it’s one of the many reasons I love Firenze which leads to the theme of this post. What I love best about Firenze is walking and people watching. Even though Firenze can be crowded, crazy, hot and occasionally dirty, it still made a connection that has stayed with me to this day.
You can read about the major museums of Firenze and Fiesole and the Firenze Duomo in my Museums, monuments and interesting sights and Cathedrals and Abbeys posts. This post will focus on some of my favorite outdoor spaces. As I said in my Museums and monuments post, the streets and piazzas of Firenze and most cities in Italy are wonderful museums in and of themselves. I highly recommend the visitflorence.com site for walking itineraries.
I. Piazzas and interesting walks
Walks to Piazzale Michelangelo
On my second trip to Firenze, I foolishly returned to see a guy I’d met on my first trip (not a good idea), finding he lived in an apartment on the Piazza del Duomo. One day I walked from the apartment, across the Arno along the Lungarno to Piazza Guiseppi Poggi and up the winding road, viale Guiseppi Poggi to Piazzale Michelangelo. Like most visitors I loved the spectacular view over Firenze and also what I know now is the view over parts of the Bardini Gardens. I also enjoyed stopping along the viale and sitting on the embankment doing my favorite activity of people watching.
I don’t recall taking the walk to Piazzale Michelangelo the next time I was in Firenze (2000) but I clearly did since I have several (albeit less than great) pictures showing that I took the same route.
In 2014 I came to Firenze several days ahead of meeting my sister, niece and her friends and stayed in an odd little B&B on the far side of the Oltrarno near Piazza Tasso. I had flown into Milan and then taken the train to Firenze, sitting on my suitcase since it was SRO. I was a frazzled mess when I got to the B&B and here’s what I wrote in my journal:
I think I’m the only one staying here and while it’s very clean and the owner is nice (NOT), it’s definitely out of the way and a little odd. The owner insisted on going over a map with me and when I said I was thinking of walking to Piazzale Michelangelo, she gave me a bus ticket saying it was too far to walk. By the time I took a long hot shower and changed and dried my hair, she and her husband had disappeared.
Sooo, I walked to where she told me to pick up the bus but seeing nothing in sight, I started walking and ended up doing the stairs to Piazzale Michelangelo, then came back down and stopped @ Fuori Porta, a little wine bar, where I’m having a white wine and crostini.
Even though I was a hot sweaty mess by the time I sat down at Fuori Porta, I wrote that ‘right now I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Last night as I struggled to find a position where I could rest, I said, ‘never again.’ But now I could live here. All it took was one cypress.’
On that walk I started near Piazza Tasso, zigzagged past Santa Maria del Carmine and Piazza Santo Spirito to Borgo San Jacopo. I took that street past the Ponte Vecchio to the Lungarno, then cut off at via dei Bardi to via San Niccolo through the porta and up Via del Monte alle Croce. Whew!! It was a hike.
But at the same time I decided it was a great cure for jet lag so when my sister, niece and I were planning our 2016 trip which was to begin in Firenze, I suggested the same walk our first afternoon. As I wrote in my Where to stay post, we were staying in an apartment in Piazza Santo Spirito and once we finally got in and dropped our bags, we headed out using the same route from the piazza as I did in 2014.
2016 Journal: After we finally got in the apartment, in took 45 minutes for everyone to change and then we headed out, taking Borgo San Jacopo to the Ponte Vecchio then the street along the Arno to our turn on via dei Bardi towards the Porta and the street up to Piazzale Michelandgelo. Before we could do that we stopped so Rachelle could have a gelato.
The climb hasn’t become any easier but we all made it, then strolled around the piazza taking pictures.
We started up the steps to San Miniato then realized it was closed. So we walked back to Fuori Porta and sat outside having crostini, 2 bottles of water and a ½ liter of wine. I paid for most of it ‘cause I owed Sue for the taxi.
Post trip comment: In addition to enjoying the view and the photo ops, we had a good laugh over a pigeon sitting on the ‘David’s’ head and took several pictures of the statues in the piazza. Even though we were, as usual, hot and sweaty by the time we descended from the piazza, both my sister and niece loved the views and agreed it’s a great way to power through jet lag.
Walks to Ft. Belvedere
Prior to the 2014 trip, when I came in early, I had read that the views from Ft. Belvedere were as good if not better than those from Piazzale Michelangelo. So after moving to Hotel Silla, which is located on via Renai, just the other side of via San Nicoolo, I decided to make the hike, writing afterwards:
After unpacking, I walked up to Ft. Belvedere, finding it closed, then took a very circuitous route back down to via Romana which eventually goes past the Pitti Palace. I double checked the location of Il Quattro Leoni and also found a little lithographer shop that I think Rachelle will like.
And it’s at least as strenuous of a hike as the one to Piazzale Michelangelo but the views are spectacular plus there’s usually some type of interesting modern art or sculpture on the area in front of the fort.
In 2015, my sister and I spent our last 5 days in Firenze and stayed at Villa Betania (see Where to stay post) which is located on viale del Poggio Imperiale, in a lovely residential area about a mile and a half from the centro. The afternoon we got in and settled I talked my sister into taking the back way from Villa Betania to Ft. Belvedere. We took the street in front of the hotel to Piazzale Galileo where I got us going the wrong way. I finally got us turned around and we found the narrow street, via di S. Leonardo that winds down to the fort.
By then we both were close to heat prostration so we sat in the shade for a while then Sue took pictures of the city as well as the fort itself. That year there were sculptures by an artist named Antony Gormley whose exhibit was called Human. See the article at https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/antony-gormley-human-fort-belvedere-florence-322554.
We took the very steep via Belvedere down to the porta and cooled off at our favorite wine bar, Fuori Porta.
As an aside, if you head through Porta San Giorgio and down the street on the other side, you will come to the side entrance to the Bardini Gardens, which we discovered on the same trip and that you can read about in the Gardens section of this post.
I revisited that walk in September 2016, when we came back to Firenze with our walking group. Sue wanted to stay with the group but I wanted to stroll the city and after visiting Palazzo Vecchio, I crossed the Arno and walked up via Belvedere to the fort, enjoyed the views, then back down to the wine bar. In 2016 the sculptor whose works were being exhibited all throughout Firenze including the Fort was Jan Fabre.
You can see his sculptures at this link http://www.theflorentine.net/news/2016/03/jan-fabre-florence/. I didn’t really care for them, especially the gold sculpture in Piazza della Signoria which we dubbed Elvis on a Turtle. I liked the ones in 2015 much better and felt that they were more harmonious with the existing art.
Beautiful city squares
I remember being totally enthralled with Piazza della Signoria the first time I saw it; the jutting tower of Palazzo Vecchio, the Loggia dei Lanzei along the side of the Uffizi Galleries, the numerous sculptures particularly the Nettuno (Neptune Fountain) and the Rape of the Sabines, although some of them are replicas. There are many good discussions of the sculptures but I like this online article at: http://www.italyguides.it/en/tuscany/florence/signoria-square.
I’ve never stopped for a drink in the Rivoire or one of the other restaurants that mark two sides of the piazza but I still hope to one day.
What has become less pleasant over the years is the ever increasing hordes of tourists taking selfies.
It’s become almost impossible to take a picture, especially in 2016. The sculpture we dubbed Elvis on a Turtle was a magnet for the selfie takers.
Piazza della Signoria
Piazza della Signoria
Still I always come back even if it’s just to see the beautiful tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. And every once in a while you get the perfect picture.
In September 2016 my sister, niece and I walked from the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo to the Piazza della Signoria stopping in the narrow side streets to see Casa di Dante, stumbling on a small church with lovely cloisters, which goes back to my introductory statement, that it’s wandering that I love best.
Casa di Dante
Casa di Dante
Piazza della Repubblica tends to be a piazza I wander through on my way to some place else.
But on one of my first trips someone told me that having a Campari in the Piazza della Repubblica was a rite of passage and I remember sitting at one of the restaurants that border the Piazza doing just that.
So in September 2016 I suggested stopping there on our way ‘home’ (our apartment on Piazza Santo Spirito) from Fiesole. It was unusually hot and we had been walking from Piazza San Marco and were frazzled and sweaty. I think dawdling over Campari spritzes and snacks for more than an hour was the high point of the day for my niece.
And speaking of Piazza Santo Spirito, I’ve read that it is one of the more ‘authentic’ piazzas, meaning less touristy I presume, and it’s definitely worth a visit. Having an apartment there wasn’t the greatest experience, however, because of the constant noise until very late. But on weekends there’s an interesting mercato with everything from food to clothes.
On my first visit to Firenze I stayed at a hotel on Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. The hotel, Le Due Fontane, is named after the two lovely fountains in the piazza. However it is the massive statue of Ferdinand I de’ Medici that immediately catches the eye, followed by the loggia and the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata.
The national archaeological museum is also located on the square as well as the Ospedale degli Innocenti, originally a hospital for abandoned children and recently restored as a museum. This past September 2016 as I was walking around Firenze before meeting up with our group, I walked through Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, sitting there for awhile, enjoying the beauty. I planned to go back at the end of our trip but we didn’t have time.
The Bridges and Walks along the Arno
The Ponte Vecchio is the most well known bridge across the Arno and on any given day during tourist season, it looks like an ant hill. It can be a fight for your life just to walk across but it’s still worth seeing. Certainly it makes for a beautiful photo.
In recent years I’ve more or less avoided the Ponte Vecchio but I still like to walk up and down the streets next to the Arno, admiring the Ponte Vecchio from afar and crossing the river at Ponte alle Grazie, Ponte alla Carraia or my favorite Ponte Sante Trinita. There’s always plenty of people watching, interesting sculptures plus the view down the Arno is spectacular.
Along the Arno
Along the Arno
II. Gardens and outdoor spaces
I’m not sure how I discovered the Boboli Gardens, probably from a travel book. I don’t have my journal from my first trip but in going through old trip pictures I found some nice ones of the Boboli Gardens.
I spent several days in Firenze after my second bike trip in Italy (2000) and wrote this in my journal: Sitting in the Boboli Gardens. I was one of the first people here (9:15 am) and only have about 45 minutes before I have to finish my shopping and check out. It’s beautiful here, completely silent for the moment. This may be my best moment in Florence. Unfortunately the quality of my pictures leaves a lot to be desired but I’m including them to show how the gardens have changed over the last few years.
From those two trips the Boboli became my ‘go to’ place to find peace and quiet from the craziness of Firenze. What I like to do is a morning of museums and then an afternoon of the garden.
I brought my sister here in 2010 and have some nice photos but didn’t write anything in my journal.
Bardini (and Boboli) Gardens
In 2014 when I came to Firenze before the rest of the gang, the B&B owner told me the Boboli Gardens were closed because of a hail storm. She did recommend the Bardini Gardens which I had missed on my previous trips. I didn’t have a chance to go that year but did some research on them before our 2015 trip when we spent 5 days in Firenze.
While I did not care for the B&B owner, I’ll be forever grateful to her for mentioning the Bardini. My research indicated that you can get combined tickets for both gardens, although I didn’t realize until our first time at the Bardini that you have to use them on the same day. I also read in my guide book that there’s a small café at the top of the garden. So in 2015 we stopped at the Bardini after visiting Palazzo Vecchio and the Bargello. I wrote after that first visit: We had a delicious lunch in the gardens with a beautiful view of the city then walked back via the route from Belvedere.
The Bardini Gardens and the view from the cafe.
The Bardini Gardens and the view from the cafe.
On our second full day of Firenze we went to the Brancacci Chapel and then to the Boboli. I wrote afterwards: From there we went to the Boboli which–like some of my other favorites was disappointing–crowded and almost barren. But we walked to the top, all the way to the terrace area. I’d not been there before and it has beautiful views. I realized then that you automatically get a combined ticket to the Bardini with the Boboli ticket so we hiked all the way back down to check out the book store, then all way back up through the back entrance to Belvedere and down the street to the Bardini entrance where we had lovely and leisurely walk through the gardens to the street that leads to Antica Mescita.
Boboli and Bardini Gardens
Boboli and Bardini Gardens
Prior to our 2016 trip, my niece and I went over my proposed itinerary and agreed to go to the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo Sunday morning and then go to the Boboli and Bardini gardens in the afternoon. I had read on the web site referenced above (visitflorence.com) of a walk through the Boboli Gardens that went in the foot steps of the main character in Dan Brown’s Inferno.
Given the heat of the day both my sister and niece nixed that idea and we went in through the main entrance that also leads to the Pitti Palace exhibits. But it was still a great afternoon. Here’s what I wrote in my journal: We went to Boboli first and had a laugh buying a postcard for Brian in the bookstore (where I bought another map). R seemed to like the Boboli and we zigzagged our way to the top stopping to take photos.
[Post trip comment: I think if you look at my earlier pictures of the Boboli compared to 2015, you’ll see a difference. Granted it had been raining non stop my first trip but the gardens looked green and lush up until the 2015 trip. Climate change? Or damage from the hail storm?]
I led us out the back way to Ft. Belvedere but once again got myself and the others turned around trying to find the back way out of Belvedere to the street where we could go in the Bardini side entrance. We were pretty hot and sweaty so went directly to the Kaffeehaus and ordered prosecco and water.
Sue and I got the giggles about something led to Rachelle saying we were like a clown car but at least it was aimed at Sue too. After I’d smoked a half a cigarette, Sue and I got the giggles again (earlier I think it was about almost lighting my hair on fire) and I said “God I’m high’ which led to more giggles. Around 3:00pm we paid and walked down through the gardens to via dei Bardi, stopping @ the supermarket for bread and prosecco, making it back to the apartment without incident.
Both my sister and niece got some phenomenal pictures on that visit as we walked through the Boboli, Ft. Belvedere and the Bardini Gardens.
The Bardini Gardens
The Bardini Gardens
III. The Oltrarno
On my first few trips to Firenze my exposure to the Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno or perhaps the equivalent of the Rive Gauche in Paris) was pretty much limited to the Boboli Gardens, the Pitti Palace and Piazzale Michelangelo.
Before our 2014 trip, when I knew I was going in to Firenze a few days ahead of the gang, I did some research and came across this article: An Artisan Walk Through the Oltrarno Quarter which talks about the artisan shops plus some trattorias in this area.
I brought the article with me and I think it was the day I walked to Ft. Belvedere from Hotel Silla and then down viale Niccolo Machiavelli to Porta Romana that I started exploring some of the side streets. From Porta Romana I followed the directions to the various artisan shops and restaurants mentioned in the article. My favorite was the Sarubbi Brothers shop. Their prints were beautiful especially the antique maps.
My niece had mentioned that her husband wanted a print of a map drawn in the 15th or 16th century and I knew right away she would like this shop. After I picked up everyone from the airport the next day and we got checked in, I talked them into walking along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio and up via Romana to the little street just off the Piazza dei Pitti. She loved the shop and we came back the next day so she could buy some prints.
In 2015 when my sister and I were in Firenze for 5 days at the end of our trip, we wandered these same streets, stopping at the Sarubbi Brothers again as well as several other shops. We also had lunch one day in the Caffe degli Artigiani mentioned in the article.
That was also the trip when we went to the Brancacci Chapel which is in the Oltrarno, next to the piazza shown to the left.
I’ve written about the Chapel in my Museums, monuments and interesting sights post and it is definitely worth the visit.
When I told a friend that I was going to Italy for the first time on a bike trip and would spend some time in Firenze afterwards, he recommended going to Fiesole. He had been there while visiting his son who was attending the University of Firenze and explained how to pick up the #7 bus in Piazza San Marco.
I think I was in Firenze a couple of days before I tried his instructions and found my way to Fiesole. I was so taken by the town that I think I’ve gone all but one time when I’ve been in Firenze. For me it’s always a wonderful respite from the heat and crowds in the city and I love the views out over the valley. Except for one time when I rode up on the back of a motorcycle (Yikes!!) I’ve always taken the #7 bus from Piazza San Marco.
I’ve written about the Roman/Etruscan ruins in my Museums, monuments and interesting sights post and will focus here on walking around the Piazza Mino da Fiesole. At one end is the cathedral and on the other end is perhaps a city office. Next to the cathedral, a steep street, via San Francesco, leads to a public park or garden which also has gorgeous views and then to the Convento di San Francesco.
On either side of the main road going through Fiesole are bars and cafes but I always stop for a birra and a panino at Blu Bar. It has fabulous views and they let you sit outside on the terrace for as long as you want.
I think 2000 was the only time I was in Firenze and didn’t go to Fiesole and in retrospect I wish I had, since that trip was a train wreck and I could have used the peace and quiet.
So I made sure to take my sister to Fiesole on her first trip to Italy and Firenze. For some reason we decided against the ruins but we had a lovely afternoon wandering the town.
2010 journal: After getting back from Santa Croce we cooled off, then headed to Fiesole which was as usual the high point of the day. It was a hot, sweaty walk to San Marco to pick up the #7 bus and a bit of a struggle to get a ticket, plus we had to stand for the 20 minute bus ride. But it was worth it to me. It was 20 degrees cooler with a lovely breeze and after walking around the town we cooled off further at what has become one of my favorite restaurants overlooking the valley and Florence (Blu Bar).
In 2014 when I went to Firenze ahead of the gang, I took the bus to Fiesole on a Sunday which I’ve learned not to do since there seems to be a mercato on Sundays. I wrote in my journal: Holy shit!! I was a nasty sweaty mess again when I got back from Fiesole. And after another 6 mile day everything hurts from my feet to my haunches.
Was a bit disappointed in Fiesole; a bazillion people and cars and a really ugly mercato set up in the main square. But I did find a little park above the town that I remembered from my first visit. It was peaceful and cool; although the peace was wiped out after 5 minutes back in the city.
Although it doesn’t sound like it from my journal entry the best visit to Fiesole was in 2015 when my sister and I ended our France/Italy trip with 5 days in Firenze. As I wrote in my journal:
We spent our last full day in Italy in Fiesole. We caught the number 7 bus from San Marco and everything was going well until I got us off about 2 miles south of Fiesole. We only had to wait about 15 minutes for another bus and I was pleased that the town didn’t look too busy so suggested a cappuccino and croissant at a little café, which turned out to be mistake #2. The waiter was surly and they didn’t have croissants so we ordered cheese cake which was uber rich and heavy, then, when we went to the Etruscan museum, we found that they had a pretty café overlooking the site. Sigh.
After the ruins, we walked up a steep hill to a little church/monastery where you can see out all over the valley, then wandered back to our favorite restaurant where we had lunch and enjoyed the views of Florence.
Getting back wasn’t so great. The bus was late and therefore completely packed. It took at least a half hour to get back to San Marco and we were sweaty and about to pass out by the time we got off. We walked to a little print shop and bought some prints then fought our way back to the Oltrarno and up the hill to Porta Romana.
Sue got some gorgeous pictures of the town and the ruins. As mentioned above you can see pictures of the ruins in my Museums, monuments and interesting sights post but below are her pictures of the town and the vistas.
In 2016 I talked my niece and sister into going to Fiesole our last full day in Firenze. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t a big hit with my niece. Here’s my journal entry: From there (the parking garage) we walked to San Marco. There was road work going on in the piazza and the guy @ the news stand said the bus stopped on the street to the right of the piazza. R saw a sign saying 7-25 so we stood there for 15 minutes until I went and asked some women where the bus to Fiesole picked up. She pointed up the street and we tried 3 different buses before finding a #7. R didn’t seem to like Fiesole in general or the ruins. We spent maybe 40 minutes there then went to Blu Bar overlooking Florence and had a sandwich and beer.
I think we were back in the city by 3:00 pm and it was brutally hot. We stopped to cool off with campari spritzes in Piazza della Republica which I told my niece was a prerequisite to becoming a native and I think it was her favorite part of the day.
Still both my sister and niece took some great photos one of which I included in a photo book in part because it reminded me of an impressionist painting.