When you think of Florence, you probably think of the Renaissance. But there are a lot of unique things about Florence beyond the Duomo. From cool shops to out-of this world food experiences, Florence is a place where you find surprises around every corner. Here we look at some experiences that give a window onto the city’s soul.
Discover 7 Unique things about Florence
1. Get lost in the Oltrarno, Florence’s ‘southbank’
Cross the river Arno and see the other side of Florence, the Oltrarno. Explore the neighbourhoods of Santo Spirito and San Frediano, with their narrow streets, artisan workshops and hidden squares. Until a few years ago the only reason tourists would get to this side of the Arno river was to see Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens.
But recently this whole place, a working class area often bypassed by tourists, was given a complete facelift, clearing the squares of car parks and encouraging new bars and restaurants to open.
As a result the area has today been slowly ‘gentrified’ (some say too much) but still retains a feeling of the ‘old Florence’ and a more genuine local feel. You won’t find a Mc Donalds here (at least not yet!), so find a hidden bar or trattoria where locals go for lunch, or take a peek inside an antique shop.
⇒ Check out the best places to go for an aperitivo in San Frediano, Florence’s coolest neighbourhood according to Lonely Planet.
2. Walk to San Miniato al Monte Church for the best view ever
Get ready for a hike that will lead you to discover a very special spot just above Florence. If you stand on the Ponte Vecchio, facing the side of the Uffizi Gallery, you’ll spot a church up on the hill, with a white luminous facade and a brick bell tower. That is San Miniato al Monte Church, one of the oldest and more beautiful churches of the city.
It will take you between 45 minutes to an hour depending on your pace. From the Ponte Vecchio you leave the crowds behind and hike along the steep back streets that merge with the verdant hills. You pass the viewpoint Piazzale Michelangelo and finally after the steep staircase you reach the church where you can enjoy the best view ever of Florence. Unforgettable.
3. Sink your teeth into a Bistecca alla Fiorentina
Not one for the vegetarians. One of the glories of Florentine cuisine is the famous t-bone steak, grilled on a wood fire. The real ‘Fiorentina’ is served rare, and a bit burned on the outside. It speaks of a land that is proud of its products – the prestigious local Chianina breed of cattle – and the quality of its meat.
How to serve it? Sizzling hot, with a bit of salt and a slug of Tuscan olive oil added at the end. No sauces, just simple, mouthwatering, Florentine flavour. Shamelessly… bloody good!
4. Leather goods for every taste
Visiting a city means enjoying what it’s good at, and Florence is no different. Artisans have tanned leather in Florence since time immemorial, using the river Arno as a natural basin. So when you’re here, pick up some leather products from the market and take home a piece of history.
Santa Croce was the centre of leather production and today the Scuola del Cuoio, just behind the Church of Santa Croce, is proudly keeping that tradition alive. You will find yourself plenty of leather gifts from 5 euro specials, to more expensive items. In our globalised world, the real artisan experience is not easy to find, but luckily there are still some brave ones that keep this priceless tradition going.
⇒ In the fun and popular San Lorenzo Market you find plenty of stalls and shops that sell relatively cheap leather goods of all kinds, from wallets to bags and jackets, but the majority are factory made goods.
5. See some art in the Cradle of the Renaissance
You can’t leave Florence without seeing some art. It’s part of Florence. Some people call it ‘an open air museum’. You can simply step into Piazza Signoria and admire the statues under the Loggia dei Lanzi without paying a cent, or even queueing.
Or you can devote two precious hours to admiring the details of the frescoes in the S.M. Novella Church or the amazing collection of statues in the enchanting Bargello Museum. These are your best options for an art experience without the crowds.
The Uffizi and the Accademia, with their world-famous masterpieces like the Statue of David and Botticelli’s paintings, are another story. Prepare to book in advance if you don’t want to stand in the queue. This book that is an indispensable companion if you’re an art lover travelling to Florence.
6. Get to know the Medici family
Florence wouldn’t look the way it does today if it weren’t for the Medici. They were the rulers of the city, first unofficially then as the Gran Dukes of Tuscany, from 1434 to 1737. They invested their money in shaping the city, making it as beautiful and impressive as you see it today, filling it with Renaissance palaces, renovating churches, financing projects and artists like Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and Botticelli.
To get an idea of where and how they live, you can visit the Palazzo Medici Riccardi which was their first proper palace in Florence, or their villas on the outskirts of Florence such as the elegant Villa Petraia.
⇒ Check out this itinerary to see how the Medici family shaped Florence.
7. Aperitivo time in the home town of the Negroni
Did you know that the popular, and deliciously strong, Negroni cocktail was born in Florence? This bitter bright red cocktail, the “older brother’ of the popular Spritz, was invented at the Caffé Giacosa in Florence a century ago.
This historic cafe’ in Via della Spada has since closed, but you can sip a Negroni at one of the many bars and trendy places in Florence. This cocktail was invented by a barman trying to please a client, Count Camillo Negroni who asked to have his drink (of vermouth and bitter) topped with gin instead of soda water.
The Aperitivo rite is an experience to savour in Italy, and what could be better that trying the iconic Negroni in the town where it was born in? It’s strong and it’s bitter, bright red and daring, and if you’re not used to the taste it might a while to get used to it. But it’s a must. Warning: eat something with it if you don’t want to lose your bearings.