A 13-step journey through Florence

29 April 2024
Written by
Sara Magro

with our insider Stefano Tozzi

Stefano Tozzi is an architect, with experience in renowned international studios such as Natalini and Arata Isozaki, who has designed several buildings in Italy. A deep connoisseur of Florence, where he lives in a state-of-the-art house and example of contemporary architecture. Stefano will walk us through Florence in 13 stops, unveiling some of the hidden and top rated treasures of the city.

It’s easy to talk about Florence, a splendid city rich in artworks and monuments. Here, I’ll walk you through 13 iconic stops in the city. A piece of advice: during the walk, always look around to spot beautiful, hidden details, such as the knockers on the doors, which are sometimes real works of art.

Let’s start. First stop, venture to the Romanesque basilica of San Miniato al Monte, on the hill south of the city. The view is stunning. The geometric facade is decorated with white and green marbles, with a mosaic of Christ between the Virgin and San Miniato made in 1260. Inside, you can visit Michelozzo’s Crucifix Chapel and the 11th-century crypt, decorated with frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi from 1342, Giotto’s pupil. Exceptional are the 38 capitals from Roman ruins placed above the columns, the mosaic of the apse, the Romanesque marble pulpit, and the floor with fantastic animals.

Descend the wide panoramic staircase and walk along Viale Galileo to take Via dell’Erta Canina. It doesn’t seem like Florence but rather a quaint, small village. In the middle of an olive grove, suddenly you’ll find yourslef facing the entire city. As you continue to descend, you’ll stumble upon the Fuori Porta wine shop, an excellent place to taste a traditional dish with a glass of wine. After passing through the San Miniato gate, you’ll be in the heart of the San Niccolò neighbourhood. Here, you breathe an atmosphere of yesteryears.

Continue along Via dell’Olmo, then Via de Renai, Piazza de’ Mozzi, via dei Bardi and end up at the exceptional Bardini gardens, a combination of three styles: an Italian-style garden with a magnificent Baroque staircase; the woods, representing a rare Anglo-Chinese model and the agricultural park with an orchard and a splendid wisteria pergola. Stroll among centuries-old trees, exotic species, and sweeping views of Florence’s monuments.

View across Florence
Giardini Bardini, Firenze

After leaving the highest part of the gardens, you find yourself in Costa di San Giorgio. Walk until the end, pass under the Vasari Corridor, pass Piazza di Santa Felicita, leaving Ponte Vecchio behind, and walk along Via Guicciardini to Via dello Sprone: on this corner is a beautiful example of post-war reconstruction by the Florentine architect Giovani Michelucci, a reinterpretation of a patrician palace in a modern key. The building continues along Via dello Sprone to the corner of Via Toscanella. Here we find a curious work by Mario Mariotti, an eclectic and brilliant artist who, in 1984, placed a small Madonna holding her nose in a shrine in front of a garbage bin that stank up the street. It’s the “Madonna del Puzzo”, thanks to which the bin was eventually removed. A dialogue between medieval tradition, contemporary art, and rightful protest.

We continue to Piazza di Santo Spirito overlooking the basilica by Filippo Brunelleschi (his last work started in 1444 and finished after his death), inside of which there is a wooden crucifix attributed to the young Michelangelo. The tree-lined square is never empty. During the day, there are local markets, craft, ethnic, and fruit and vegetable markets, in the evening restaurants, bars, and cafes fill up with Florentines and tourists, and often small concerts are improvised on the square’s steps. We are in an authentic neighbourhood with artisanal shops and grocery stores, such as the Enoteca Divin Boccone, which sells delicious cold cuts and cheeses, such as pear pecorino. In the surrounding area, there are stone carvers, silversmiths, shoemakers, restorers, lacquerers.

Buchetta del Vino, Firenze

At Via dei Serragli 47 you’ll stumble upon a small, stone window. These ‘wine shrines’, ‘little windows’, or ‘windows’ are the terms Florentines have used since the 12th century to indicate these wine outlets on the ground floor of noble palaces (Antinori, Frescobaldi, Rucellai, Verrazzano, for example) through which wine was sold. This tradition was revived during the lockdown. It started with Vivoli (best known for it’s affogato) on Isole delle Stinche and became so successful that many other shopkeepers immediately adopted it. Today there are 155 of them throughout Florence.

At the corner with Via Santa Monaca, we find first the Sbrino ice cream shop (try the orange Campari flavour), and around the corner, Sforno, for a special breakfast, lunch or ‘merenda’.

At this point, cross the river Arno. From the Ponte alla Carraia, you can admire the Ponte Santa Trinità, considered the most elegant bridge. In truth, it is a faithful reconstruction of the original by architect Gizdulic between 1952-58. Originally built in wood in 1252 and attributed to Bartolomeo Ammannati and Michelangelo, the latter focused on the elliptical curve of the arches to address the problem of flooding. Then in 1608, on the occasion of Cosimo I’s wedding to Maddalena of Austria, statues of the four seasons were placed on the bridge, later fished out of the Arno. Only the head of Spring was missing, which was found in 1961 after a reward of $5000 was offered for its recovery. The episode inspired Spike Lee’s film “Miracle at St. Anna” (2008).

In Piazza del Limbo, we stop in front of the beautiful church of the Santissimi Apostoli. Built in the 11th century in Romanesque style and fortunately spared from modifications in the subsequent centuries. In his Lives, Vasari speaks of Brunelleschi, who was inspired by this church to build the Renaissance basilicas of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito. At the end of the left aisle, there is the painted majolica tabernacle by Andrea della Robbia.

Courtesy Vivoli Firenze

At this point, we enter Borgo Santi Apostoli. We take the Chiasso Misure, passing through medieval buildings and towers and others richly decorated until we reach Piazza di Parte Guelfa. We take Vicolo della Seta, then Piazza del Mercato Nuovo, famous for the Loggia del Mercato and for the bronze boar (actually a wild boar). Here is the tripe vendor’s van, which prepares lampredotto with beans, leeks, spinach, olives, or green sauce. Recipes that are unique to Florence.

Lampredotto sandwiches

Turning left, we enter Via Porta Rossa, and shortly after, we find ourselves in front of Palazzo Davanzati in the eponymous square. Built in the mid-14th century, in 1904 it was purchased by the antiquarian Volpi, who restored it and opened it to the public for the first time. Furnished with pieces from the Bargello Museum and 1950s items, its walls are decorated with geometric motifs and episodes of daily life. In the frescoes of Paolo Davizzi and Lisa degli Alberti’s room, on the second floor, one can glimpse a foreshadowing of Italian opera. Don’t miss the Peacock, Parrot, Impannate, and Vergy rooms.

In Via Calimala, we stop at the church of Orsanmichele. The building looks like a medieval palace with richly decorated triforia and biforia on the facade. The interior is a succession of works, frescoes, details under a system of finely decorated cross vaults. Dating back to the early 15th century are the 14 tabernacles with an extraordinary sculptural cycle by the most important Florentine artists of the time, Ghiberti, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Verrocchio, and medallions made by Andrea and Luca della Robbia. There is also a staircase designed in 1967 by the Archizoom studio that leads to the altana with a spectacular view of the city.

At this point, take a delicious break at I Fratellini‘s counter on Via dei Cimatori for liver pate crostini (a Tuscan cuisine classic) and a good glass of red wine, all in just over 2 square meters. We continue on Via dei Cerchi, Via Sant’Elisabetta, and in Piazza Santa Elisabetta, raise your eyes to admire the Tower of Pagliazza, said to be the oldest building in the city. On the ground floor, there is another small archaeological museum with remains of the Roman baths and daily life (free admission but reservation required).

Exiting the museum, stunned by so much beauty, I assure you, you continue until dell’Anguillara. Suddenly, in front of you, there is Piazza Santa Croce, one of the most suggestive in Florence, with its basilica. Attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, it was built by the Franciscan order and has always been considered the church of the Florentines who paid for its construction at the end of the 13th century. The facade is in Gothic style (but dates back to the mid-19th century). It is a kind of Pantheon, where some of the most illustrious Florentines are buried, such as Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Leon Battista Alberti, Vittorio Alfieri, Ugo Foscolo. Inside, the basilica is decorated with many works, such as the Cavalcanti Annunciation and Donatello’s Crucifix, born from a dispute with Brunelleschi, his only wooden work that has survived to this day.

Piazza Santo Spirito

We exit the basilica and immediately enter the beautiful 14th-century cloister. At the end, we find the Pazzi Chapel by Filippo Brunelleschi. We cross the portico supported by Corinthian columns, in which we notice the dome decorated with glazed terracotta rosettes from the Della Robbia workshop. It is a magical place, a space with rigorous geometric proportions based on precise dimensional modules and above all commanded by perspective. The chapel can be considered one of the most important examples of the Renaissance.

At this point, after nearly 20 thousand steps, I suggest returning to the Arno. It’s probably evening and the street lamps are lit. Finding yourself on Lungarno Alle Grazie and heading towards Ponte Vecchio is another magic moment. Walking along the riverside, you’ll see the Tower of San Niccolò, illuminated in blood red, the hills above the Oltrarno, with the illuminated facade of San Miniato, the Forte Belvedere, the Bardini Garden with its eponymous Palace towering from the hill above the city like a catapult, and down by the river, the rowers training by crossing one bridge after another in the city.

The city at golden hour

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