Guide to Florence and its surroundings
Things to Do
Towns and Sites
Food and Wine
Florence bejewels Tuscany, bringing its special beauty into full flower. The Arno river, a bright ribbon running through its ancient centre, and verdant garden hillsides frame the historic monuments that demand admiration. Yet this is a city to savour slowly, for Florence was enough to leave Stendahl, among others, breathless for good reason. It is a city overlaid with extravagance – so many masterpieces in the galleries, so many architectural wonders that stop you in your tracks, so many elegant shops and exclusive boutiques to choose from, so much noise and bustle.
That said, its historic centre is emminently walkable and spots that welcome a weary tourist are around every corner. As the centre is closed to traffic, the easiest way to visit Florence is to travel to it by bus or train – the station is a short walk away from the Duomo and the centre of of the city. Once there, wander, rather than race, and leave plenty of time to duck into the peace of a church interior or the pleasure of a gelateria.
History of Florence
Not quite as old as some of its Tuscan neighbors, Florentia was founded as a Roman military colony in the 1st Century B.C. Traces of its Roman heritage are seen in its grid layout and the vast Piazza della Repubblica, once the ancient forum. Throughout its history, aided by it navigable river and the rich lands surrounding it, the city grew from a small city of moneylenders and cloth makers to become a powerful republic, the seat of the Duchy of Tuscany and for a brief period (1865-70) a capital of Italy. It held preeminence in commerce and finance, learning and the arts.
Florence’s history is stamped with the names of the men who contributed to it – men of towering wealth or artistic genius such as the generations of the Medici family, its most-renowned rulers, and artists such as Dante, Machiavelli, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo. Together such leaders contributed to the Renaissance itself and the city’s distinctive skyline.
Events in and around Florence
Calcio Storico in Florence – 24 June & two other days in early June
This 16th C. form of football, played in a giant sand pit in front of Santa Croce, has teams of 27, the vigor of rugby and a fairly lax set of rules. The four teams are: Santa Croce (blue), Santo Spirito (white), Santa Maria Novella (red), and San Giovanni (green).
Piazza Santa Croce, fronted by the Church with the same name, has always been the place to play this game, known as “giuoco del calcio fiorentino” or more simply just as Calcio (which means “kick” in Italian). The square is covered in dirt to soften the falls and blows - and to return it to its original state, when the original games were played. Nowadays banches and seating are also set up for specators to better enjoy the game.
Festa dell’Uva in Impruneta – last Sunday in September
Impruneta’s autumnal grape celebration of the bounty of its vineyards fills its streets with allegorical wagons and the piazza with merriment. Events begin early in September: the four districts (rioni) of the town, represented throughout the year by flags prominently displayed, compete in a culinary contest to determine which neighborhood makes the best peposo, Impruneta’s signature peppery beef stew, known as its signature dish. The stew was traditionally prepared by brickmakers in a terracotta pot, put into a kiln to slowly cook all morning. The events continue over the weekend, with concerts, carnival floats and more food and of course, plenty of wine.
Estate Fiesolana in Fiesole – June to early August
This music and dance festival is the hills overlooking Florence places performers and spectators in its ancient Roman theatre. The festival takes place between June and August and has a calendar of classical concerts and not, as well as theatre and comedy shows.
Fiesole, a short distance from Florence, was originally a Roman town and still has its splendid Roman theatre which is used for these events, held under the stars. It truly is a very special setting. Parking however can be difficult so it's a good idea to look at moving around with the public transport system (ATAF bus line number 7, leaving from the center of Florence).
Festa della Rificolona in Florence – 7 September
This festival of large colourful paper lanterns in the square dedicated to Mary, Santissima Annunziata celebrates the birth of the Virgin Mary. The trip into the city for this celebration was once taken as an opportunity to sell their goods by the local farmers and cratsmen - this tradition continues today and the celebration is also a market day in the square of Santissima Annunziata.
Display of the Virgin’s Girdle in Prato – 8 September
In a city famous for its textiles, one accessory is considered a holy relic. The Virgin Mary’s girdle, or better, belt, given to St. Thomas and carried from Jerusalem in 1141, is displayed from the external pulpit of St. Stephen’s. The venerated object is an 87-centimetre-long strip of fine material made from goat's hair dyed green and embroidered with gold thread.
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence – May to early July
Opera is the highlight of Florence’s popular music festival, but additional concerts also offer sample of modern musical trends. The festival occurs between late April into June annually, typically with four operas. Founded in 1933, it was the first music festival in Italy and its goal was to offer the public new or forgotten operas in a visually dramatic form. Such was their success that performances have taken place every year, apart from the period of World War II. Venues include the Teatro dell'Opera di Firenze, the Piccolo Teatro and the Teatro della Pergola.
White Truffle Fair in San Miniato – last 3 weekends in November
Wholesale buyers and curious tasters alike make their way to this charming town to honor the precious white truffle harvested nearby. The Fair gives visitors the chance to traditional recipes based on this costly white tuber and learn how they are 'hunted' with the assistance of well-trained dogs or pigs. In 2020 the beautiful town of San Miniato will celebrate its 50th annual event.
Pistoia Blues in Pistoia’s Piazza del Duomo – 9, 11 & 12 July 2020
For three days in 2020 Pistoia will draw some of the big names in Blues and beyond to its piazzas, filling them with sound, street food & movement to music. Staged in the center of the city in the large square of Piazza del Duomo, the atmosphere is relaxed and the acoustics are excellent. Surrounded by architecture which reflects centuries of history, this is a great venue for an outdoor concert and the musicians worthy of the crowd they draw. For tickets and information
International Ceramics Festival in Montelupo Fiorentino – mid-June
Known for a ceramic tradition rooted in the Middle Ages, Montelupo becomes an international atelier with demos and unique pieces. Thanks to its clay-rich surroundings and resident artisans who have produced the famed majolica pottery for centuries, Montelupo is the natural venue for such a festival. There will be live demonstrations as well as exhibitions of ceramic artists from around the world.
Festa di San Lorenzo in Florence – 10 August
San Lorenzo is one of Florence’s two patron saints, the other being St. John the Baptist. This festival, centered around the Piazza that bears his name, offers a bit of everything, from parades, to church visits to music to free food on the ‘night of the falling stars’. Centuries past the 'Company of Bakers of San Lorenzo' distributed bread free of charge to citizens on this day, followed by an evening feast of watermelons. Flash forward and bread has been replaced by lasagne, but the watermelon slices still come out on large trays and all is free for anyone who shows up.
Things to do in & around Florence
Enjoy a spa day in one of Montecatini Terme’s four spas. Mud, massage, baths and beauty treatments await to help melt the stress of touring perhaps one too many museums. The city has an extensive thermal park dotted with splendid fountains and thermal centres whose architecture is predominantly art nouveau, but not only. And once you come out of the centre, cleansed and refreshed, restaurants, theatres and shopping await.
Celebrate the genius of Leonardo da Vinci. In 2019 Italy celebrated the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death with exhibitions of his life’s work. If you head to the Museo Leonardiano in his hometown Vinci, you will find that the celebration continues. But without leaving Florence the whole family can appreciate his genius in the Leonardo Interactive Museum where more than 50 life-size machines modeled after Leonardo's designs.
Venture into the Boboli gardens to enjoy a peaceful retreat from the bustle and noise of the city. Located directly behind the Pitti Palace, the vast Italian garden whose layout became the model for many European courts is literally a breath of fresh fragrant air as well as an open-air museum of statues, grottos, terraces and fountains. A wonderful antidote to crowds and concrete.
Hop on a Vespa and tour the hills around Florence. Use this iconic means of transport to get out of town and explore the green surroundings. And should you wish to avoid city traffic, some rental companies take you out to the Chianti countryside to begin your tour. Beginners are welcome and provided lessons in the safe operation of this classic means of transport. Whether you head out on your own or follow the lead of an experienced guide, this is the way to experience the Tuscan hills up close.
Follow your appetite through the Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo. Purchasing the quality ingredients or lunching in the food court, a hungry visitor will think this heaven. The present market is located on the first floor of the historic iron and glass marketplace built in 1874. Stalls in the market are manned by shopkeepers that knows their produce well and who often demonstrate to the public what to do with it. Lunchtables abound and make a great venue for a meal with friends.
Climb to San Miniato al Monte which sits on one of the highest points of the city. San Minato al Monte‘s decor, inside and out are lavish and its history dating from the 3rd C. is fascinating. The basilica is considered one of the finest Romanesque structures in Tuscany and its hilltop position certainly makes it one of the most scenic. From the 13th century renowned artists of the day contributed to the sumptuous interior designed to honour St. Minias.
Raft the Arno River either under Florence’s historic bridges or out in whiter waters. Touring from the water level which give you new perspective of this ancient city & its surroundings.
Rafting the Arno toward the Ponte Vecchio bridge
Nearby towns & sites
This ancient hillside town 300 meters above Florence is easily reachable and filled with elegant villas, stately gardens and historic monuments such as the Roman amphitheater which hosts the summer music festival.
Sitting atop three small hills overlooking the lower Arno valley, San Miniato had a strategic position on the Via Francigena. Prized for its well-preserved medieval centre and the white truffles harvested locally.
Known historically for its textile industry, Prato is the 2nd largest city in Tuscany. It has a striking Cathedral, an important contemporary art museum and, as the centre of the Slow Food movement, delicious food.
Twenty kilometres SW of Florence, Montelupo Fiorentino‘s Renaissance ‘golden age’ was linked to Florence’s largely due to its successful maiolica pottery production. For ceramics-lovers, this is a place to visit.
One of the major ‘spa towns’ in Italy, Montecatini Terme is famed for its healing waters. In addition to its 9 thermal centres the town impresses with splendid fountains, historic buildings & a 19th C. funicular railway.
Birthplace of the Renaissance man par excellence Leonardo da Vinci, the charming small town is perched on a hill and surrounded by a countryside that appears in many of his paintings. The Museo Leonardiano is a must.
San Miniato al Monte
Easily seen thanks to its green and white marble facade, the splendid medieval abbey has a frescoed Romanesque interior. Sitting high over Florence, San Miniato al Monte has a sweeping view of the city. It may take a few steps to reach it, but you will be glad you did.
Medici country houses
Over the centuries generations of the Medici family created impressive country villas: Poggio a Caiano (pictured), La Ferdinanda, Villa La Petraia, Villa di Castello, Villa Careggi, and the Villa Poggio Imperiale. These country villas have the splendid gardens their city palaces did not allow.
Food and wine
The food of Florence adheres to the Cucina povera or ‘poor kitchen’ style found in much of Tuscany, one which utilizes every part of everything found in the kitchen or farm. It is generally hearty, seemingly simple and usually very delicious. In the hands of Florentine cooks, the staples of life become quite special – bread becomes Focaccia, a fragrant flat bread, dimpled and salted, with extra ingredients spread on top or tucked into a slice. The June Festa di Pane or Bread Festival, held in Prato, is a good place to sample variations of Italy’s daily bread.
Pasta dishes often make use of wild game for their sauces, e.g., Pappardelle alla lepre, wide pasta noodles and hare, or al cinghiale, wild boar. Tortelli mugellaniare are little pasta parcels filled with potato and flavoured with a bit of cheese or meat.
Foremost in the meat department is the famed Fiorentina, a thick T-bone steak from the beautiful white Chianina cattle, but even the humble Florentine meat ball, Polpette all’uva passa, is elevated with the addition of raisins and pine nuts. Protein could also come in the form of organ meats: Fegatelli di maiale, fennel-flavoured pork livers wrapped and basted by a fatty net, Cervello e zucchine, which pairs brains and zucchini, and even Trippa or Lampredotto, the lining of a cow’s stomach, considered a speciality of Florentine street food.
Vegetables might be fried, such as Fritti misti di carciofi that features artichokes, or even stuffed, such as Sedani ripieni alla pratese, celery filled with a mix of ground veal and mortadella and served with a tomato or meat sauce.
For those with a sweet tooth there are the sugar-sprinkled Cenci biscuits that appear during Carnival season or the Brigidini anise-flavoured wafers from Pistoia. However, the most Florentine dessert is its Zuccotto, a domed semifreddo dessert first served in the 16th century in honor of Caterina de’ Medici. Essentially it is a liqueur-soaked sponge cake dome filled with mousse or sweet ricotta, bits of chocolate and candied citrus, though every pastry shop will have its own variation.
Wines: Florence is so close to the Chianti region that the full-bodied sangiovese grape Chianti is an obvious choice. Also to try are the Brunello of Montalcino or the red wine from Montepulciano. And to finish, the Vin Santo or ‘Holy Wine’ a sweet or dry semi-dried and aged white wine that accompanies Cantucci biscuits.
Naturally, one can order a glass or bottle in a restaurant or enoteca, but in Florence there are other places to sample the best local wines: A Fiaschetteria where you bring your own wine bottle, fiasco, or barrel and refill it with a preferred wine which is not bottled or a Vinaio, a tiny shop selling wine by the glass along with Florentine street food.
NB: The city of Florence will have a market somewhere every day of the week.
MONDAYS – Fiesole, Vinci, Montespertoli, San Casciano in Val di Pesa
TUESDAYS – San Miniato, Montelupo Fiorentino, Empoli, Pontassieve
WEDNESDAYS – Impruneta, Vinci, Barberino Val d’Elsa, Bagno a Ripoli
THURSDAYS – Prato, Montecatini Terme, Tavarnelle in Val di Pesa
FRIDAYS – Montaione, Pontassieve, Signa, Calenzano
SATURDAYS – Montelupo Fiorentino, Castelfiorentino, Sesto Fiorentino
Cantinetta di Verrazzano– Florence, Tel: +39 055 268590
Trattoria Carmine– Florence, Tel: +39 055 218601
I Latini– Florence, Tel: +39 055 210916
Osteria i Quattro Leoni – Florence, Tel: +39 055 218562
Enoteca Pinchiorri– Florence, Tel: +39 055242757
Le Cave di Maiano – Fiesole, Tel: +39 055 59133
La Reggia degli Etruschi – Fiesole, Tel: +39 055 59385
Borgo Allegro– Vinci, Tel: +39 0571 567866
Papaveri e Paolo– San Miniato, Tel: +39 0571 409422
Ristoro del Grillo– San Miniato, Tel: +39 0571 409379
La Pecora Nera– Montecatini Terme, Tel: +39 0572 70331
Osteria di Fuori– Montelupo Fiorentino, Tel: +39 0571 518847
Osteria su Santa Trinita– Prato, Tel: +39 0574 604899