fresco of a monster devouring a woman's head in hell from the Santa Croce museum

Florence: Personal favorites from John & Giny- Part 1 of 3

Friends have asked us to share some of our favorite things to do in and around Florence, Firenze, with the idea that we wouldn’t recite well-known highlights. Guidebooks are best for making strategic use of limited time. Perhaps an idea or two from our experience will grab you.

A couple of the biggies:

Giny’s favorite museum—The Bargello, via del Proconsolo 4, Florence’s oldest public building and with typical medieval features, is filled with sculpture, mainly from the 15th & 16th centuries. Giny doesn’t get too excited about large museums. The family joke is that her memory of the Uffizzi was her tired ooo-feetsy. But she likes the Bargello, maybe because it is laid out rather loosely, not a sequence one must follow. You can simply go this way or that.

John’s museum highlight: Museo dell’Opera del Duomothe Museum of the Works of the Duomo, is at Piazza del Duomo 9. There’s a nice write-up at the VisitFlorence site. Historic elements from the duomo complex—the baptistery, the campanile and the Duomo (cathedral)—are displayed and preserved along with related historical displays. My pick for the most powerful sculpture in Florence is Donatello’s sculpture of Mary Magdalene. Its traditional home has been this museum, and I believe it is back there after some time in the Bargello and in restoration. Michelangelo’s unfinished Pietà supposedly features his aged face as Nicodemus. An easy read about the development of the Renaissance is Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King. It will enhance your enjoyment of this museum. The operai, the lay institution in charge of everything, is an ongoing group.

Less well-known spots in Florence:

Palazzo Davanzati, Via Porta Rossi 13. This home has been restored to its medieval style—a step further back in time from famously Renaissance Florence. Decorative and colorful, with period furnishings, this will be especially interesting to designers and architects.

“Original language” movies in English are regularly offered at the Odeon, Piazza Strozzi, 2, a classic old theatre/performance hall where a plush if faded seat is always available, along with wine and beer at concessions.

My soul was stirred at the modest Oratorio dei Buonomini di San Martino, located where via de’ Magazzini meets via Dante Alighieri. This is only a single room with frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio (or his workshop). The Oratorio is on no one’s list of things to see. It continues its charitable work—buonomini is from buon uomini, good people.


Some folks may only occasionally step into a church, but we advise you get your ass in there! Entry is free (coin boxes are plentiful) and each has something to offer—the architecture, of course, and historical tie-ins, and often a masterpiece or two. A mark of a good guidebook is that the highlights of the churches are covered. When accessible, the interior courtyards offer a bit of greenery. The masterpieces may have coin boxes nearby that trigger a few minutes of illumination, and maybe you’ll get lucky and encounter a tour group receiving a talk.

David Byrne made the point that “Heaven, heaven is a place…where nothing, nothing ever happens.” Whereas depictions of hell, often found in the church frescoes, show bodies consumed in multiple ways and where no human orifice is safe. Hell provided an especially creative spark to many an artist’s imagination.

Grander churches have museums attached with entry fees, and these are not overwhelming and generally terrific. I’ll highlight Santa Croce for over-all grandness. On a more intimate scale, nothing compares with the Fra Angelico frescoes in the small individual monks’ cells at San Marco.

This post was updated in 2017.

Florence: Personal favorites 2: Walks, a bus ride, more favs

It is a fine walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo, on up to San Miniato al Monte, and downhill through a nice residential area. The stairway up to Piazzale Michelangelo starts at Piazza G. Poggi, located on the south side of the Arno exactly midway between the bridges Ponte Alle Grazie and Ponte S. Niccolò. You’ll naturally linger, enjoying the famous vista from the piazzale, big piazza. Che bella veduta!

Then continue up the main street, viale Galileo, past one church to the next one, the richly decorated San Miniato al Monte. The church design, with a crypt below and the choir above is in a style pre-dating the Renaissance called Tuscan Romanesque. Across the wide street viale Galileo and a bit down from the church, take the stepped section, called via di San Salvatore al Monte, though maps may show only a few serpentine lines to depict it. You’ll find yourself heading downhill, back toward the river, on via del Monte alle Croce. I wonder if the cat houses (small houses for real cats, that is) are still in the fenced off wooded area? As we approach the old wall, we stop for wine at the enoteca Fuori Porta, Outside the Wall, at via del Monte alle Croce 10r.

We take the #7 city bus up the hill to Fiesole. The steep-ish street off the main piazza (and end of the bus line) affords one of the famous views of Florence. We dawdle, and have visited artisan shops and once hit a great market day. I led us on a walk back down via Vecchia Fiesolana. I was thinking I had got us lost (again), especially when some other walkers turned right, and I convinced myself we should head left. We all came onto the same street below. We walked to the church San Domenico, then caught the bus from there into town.

Some short recommendations

Giny recommends Ponte Vecchio at set-up time—0900.

I Due Fratellini, the two little brothers, via del Cimatori 38/r, for wine and panini. If you always wanted to drink some wine on a Florence sidewalk, action all around you, and have a numbered slot where you can set your wine glass, you’re there!

At the Pitti Palace, a ticket to the fabulous Boboli Gardens includes entry to the Costume Museum, Galeria del Costume. Giny learned about the tutta, a one piece overall type of clothing that suited the visionary Italian Futurist era. And did you know that the Italians originated bluejeans? Yep, that’s from blu de Genova. 

Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, the Office of the perfumery-pharmaceutical of Santa Maria Novella (but you knew that) near the train station at via della Scala 16. It is a store for their soaps, perfumes, candles and elixirs, it’s free, with great spaces and a glimpse into the Santa Maria Novella courtyard. A perfumery with style and history.

Il magazzino La Rinascente, the department store The Renaissance, at Piazza della Repubblica 1, has an eating area and veranda overlooking the piazza off its 4th floor.

This post was updated in 2017.

Florence: Giny & John’s recommendations 3:
a focus on art history

The Capella Brancacci, Brancacci Chapel, in Santa Maria del Carmine church on the south side of the Arno at Piazza del Carmine, features a frescoed story cycle begun by Masolino and Masaccio and completed much later by Filippino Lippi. It is Masaccio’s talent and story that is central. For painters, his work on this fresco heralds the arrival of the Renaissance. At 22, he began the project as the older Masolino’s assistant. Masaccio’s flesh and blood portrayals outshone Masolino and inspired, among others, Michelangelo. His Adam and Eve expelled from the garden is, in my book, not so realistic, but achieves on another level a timeless heightened expressiveness. Masaccio died three years later.

Cenacoli, dining rooms, refectories, (cena means dinner) are the old dining rooms connected to the living quarters at various church complexes. They feature a central painting, often a well-done version of the Last Supper, and usually include additional displays. One needs to track down these interesting spaces during their limited open hours.

When we visited the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, via Cavour 3, there was, on the entry level, an interactive screen display of Benozzo Gozzoli’s (cool name– 4 z’s) painting in the palazzo’s chapel. Dialing in a language and standing under a metal umbrella, one could point at various parts of the screen and hear the story of the individual depicted or something more about the painting. It didn’t work perfectly, could only serve a few people at a time, and was rather comical when folks kept pointing, then pointing harder, to get it to work, but I cite it here for exhibit designers. Having written this when the technology was new in 2010, does anybody have an update for me on the entry area?

Not only does the Salvatore Ferragamo store, via Tornabuoni, 2, feature our favorite window displays, but we enjoyed a special exhibit on color in shoes at the store’s shoe museum.  We sprang for it and enjoyed not only the show but the inspiring rags to riches life history of Salvatore himself. Call it modern shoe history, with plenty of celebrity stories along the way.

Art Store

Inspired by all those frescoes? Supplies are available at the art store Zecchi.

This post was updated in 2017.

Basic planning for Florence and nearby

To maximize any short stay in Florence, consult the many fine guidebooks. I list some useful web guides and we look at official tourist pages for Florence and Tuscany.

General information:

A fantastic rundown of the coming month’s events is at the Pitcher & Flaccomio newsletter. The newsletter comes out at the beginning of the month and covers the coming month’s events- street events and otherwise.  A back issue of any given month may list festivals and fairs, in or out of town, that are likely to re-occur when you visit.

More current information is available in the English-language publication The Florentine.

Following is a list of the main sites that I link to in these posts. There may be a bit of selling going on  but the information is useful:

APT, the official tourism board of Florence

Here is the English language version of APT (agenzia per il turismo Firenze), the official Tourism Board of Florence.

There is plenty to look through; I’ll highlight the utilitarian Useful Information page.

For travels in the area, there is the Visit Tuscany website.

Favorite Florence neighborhoods: Santo Spirito

Santo Spirito is our favorite piazza and quartiere, neighborhood, and the area we like to stay.  Named for Brunelleschi’s last church which stands with an unadorned facade in the piazza, Santo Spirito is one part of Oltrarno, the area across the Arno from the historic center.

The movie and musical Light in the Piazza uses the Santo Spirito church profile in the set.

(Editor’s Note: I wrote the following around 2010. I wonder if it is the same.) Weekdays start with produce booths arranged around the center and household goods and clothes sold from booths at the south end. Church bells announce a service at Santo Spirito church.

There’s an “Antiquarian Market” one weekend per month, and an “Herbs and Tools Market” another—most likely the 2nd & 3rd Sunday of each month, but not in August. I’m not clear about the winter months.

We remember one day when the home goods market was set up as usual, a television soap was being filmed in another corner, and a student demonstration filled the church porch and steps!

If you have time for a visit to Piazza Santo Spirito:

Caffè Ricchi serves a well-regarded cappuccino and good gelato. Giny read that Faith Willinger, known for her books including Eating in Italy and for her cooking classes, is a regular here. In The Monster of Florence, Douglas Preston’s real-life investigation and adventure begins at Bar Ricchi. The interior eating area is adorned with fantasized images of the unadorned front of Santo Spirito church, images inspired by local resident and artist Mario Mariotti’s 1980 art project consisting of amazing projections onto the church’s facade.

Put together a picnic in the shops along  Via Serragli and come back to the piazza, where the likely vantage point is the steps in front of the church. There are also a couple of benches and the fountain.

Casalinga, at Via Michelozzi 9/r, makes it into many guidebooks as a reasonably priced trattoria. I like it best at lunchtime—it’s just off the piazza heading east from the front corner of the church. The link is in Italian, as is the menu, but you’ll probably recognize many of the items.

Cabiria Café opens up for lunch, and is a favorite pre-dinner aperitivo spot. For dinner, Borgo Antico is humming, and the other restaurants try to match the buzz.  At night and until the wee hours, the church steps are a popular, sometimes raucous, hangout.

Santo Spirito church, dome-builder Brunelleschi’s last design and completed after his death, is open most days. The Santo Spirito church has a cenacolo, dining room, with a varied but interesting display and, on the wall, an Orcagna fresco. I wish I could be clear on when the Cenacolo is open, perhaps only on Saturdays. The cenacolo’s Fondazione Romano collection of 11th century sculptures and fragments is often described as haphazard; I love these kind of peculiar groupings, the collected work has heart and often reflects pre-Renaissance times.

On the piazza’s southeast corner is a palazzo featuring an upstairs porch, a loggia. Earlier house forms required a defensive front, but this was built at a time of changing needs and styles, and was a prime example of what would become a common feature throughout Europe.

You may spot a low-relief sculpture on the east side of the piazza commemorating the site of the death of WWII partisans.



Oltrarno comprises five neighborhoods along the south bank of the Arno. Arrayed west to east, these are Pignone, San Frediano, Santo Spirito, Pitti, and San Niccolò.

The Comune di Firenze, Council of Florence, calls the area Diladdarno, which translates as something like “That part across the Arno over there.”

Firenze-Oltrarno is a site with good intentions but not kept up. It does have snippets of information about the neighborhood. Wandering around, I am moved by the tabernacoli, or what I call “street shrines.” The link is in Italian, but has pictures.

Walking along the river to Piazza G. Poggi puts one at the base of the steps up to the grand Piazzale Michelangelo.

Oltrarno is the antiques center of Florence and the home of numerous workshops of all sorts. There are schools where art and craft techniques are taught. The neighborhoods are active with artisans and exhibits.

Closed for years, the Villa Bardini has its exhibits and garden open.

There is a free museum in the house where lived Rodolfo Siviero, who tracked and then recovered Italian art looted during World War II. His website says it so well, “His sometimes rather unscrupulous way of doing things and his great success with the opposite sex earned him the reputation as the James Bond of the art world.” The collection of furniture is intriguing, and the art and art fragments are interesting for their variety and for being this expert’s personal favorites. It is on the corner of Piazza Poggi and Lungarno Serristori in San Niccolò.

Useful information & being gracious

There aren’t a lot of public toilets in Florence. Take advantage of museum stops! Bars are required to provide bathrooms, so our basic strategy is to stop for a caffè (espresso) as needed. Or maybe, for my afternoon to be complete, a caffè corretto, corrected coffee, which is a regular caffè with a shot of brandy or grappa. Great idea, amici!

Before you get on the train, you must validate your tickets at a yellow convalidare machine, found on each platform. When boarding a city bus, smaller bus-style convalidare machines are on the bus aisle.

Say you’re moving through a crowd and you want to express Excuse me. Say “Permesso“.

A simple and gracious utterance in numerous situations is Prego; literally, I pray. Say it often, in situations like please, you first, of course, no problem, etc.

In a restaurant, ask the waiter Che ci (mi) consiglia?; What, to us (to me) do you recommend?

To ask What is your favorite, say Che è il suo preferito? Avoid using the “false friend” favorito, which means something like favored in the sense of advantaged.

Random, but still useful, notes

An etto, 1/10th of a chilo, kilo, about a quarter of a pound, is the common unit of measure in the marketplace..

Bio, pronounced bee-oh, means organic.

Use the 24 hour clock to express time, especially for transportation and hotels and the like.

The American month/day/year sequence for dates is, in Italy, day/month/year: 28/2/11 = February 28th, 2011.

When writing numbers, Italians use a period where we use a comma.

20° is a mild 68, 25° is a pleasant 77, 30° is 86, 35° is 95—fa caldo, It’s hot. Centigrade 28° is the palindrome to Fahrenheit 82º. Similarly, Centigrade 16º is close to Fahrenheit 61º, and the high of Centigrade 40º is Fahrenheit 104º!

Sometimes, under a via, street, name, you’ll see già followed by another name. This is the street’s former name.

The country is organized as follows: Regione (pl. regioni, 20 in number) > Provincia (pl. provincie– 110) > Comune (pl.Comuni) > Città. I think that’s right.

Gli Stati Uniti, the United States, may fly the red, white and blue. The Italians honor their verde, bianco e rosso, green, white and red.

Non calpestare l’erba means Don’t walk on the grass. You may see non calpestare l’aiuole, Don’t walk on the flowerbeds. I mention this to observe that aiuole has all five verbs and only one consonant! Other favorite words: cucchiaino, teaspoon; dopo domani, day after tomorrow.

Florence: Buses in the historic center:
the C1/C2/C3/D lines

These are mini-bus lines serving the historic center. Individual stops are shown. They run every 10 minutes, and using them can be a great aid and can save time and energy.

There are four lines- the C1, C2, C3 and the D. We used the D line- shown in green- most often. It departs the train station, crosses the Arno, and runs through the neighborhoods there.

Also shown are the black-circle interscambio, interchange, lines for the various numbered lines of standard-size buses  that continue out of the center. Click here to see the ATAF city center minibus lines map shown below.

Map of the historic center lines C1/C2/C3/D

At the official Florence bus system ATAF site, to see individual lines on a scalable map, go to: plan your route, select lines, then choose a line. At the individual line’s page, go to Detailed route > Show route on Travel Planner. Click the magnifying glass for a scalable map of the line overlaid on the Florence area map. To see other lines, work your way back, or you can click cerca linee, search lines, and enter a line number, or use the menu bar at the top to go to orari e percorsi.

Available here is a map of the full Florence bus system. It may take a while to load.

This map can help you locate the ATAF customer assistance room and the bus lines available at the central Santa Maria Novella train station.

If you’re trying to get around Tuscany beyond Florence, you can try the travel planner.