Wandering Beyond the Renaissance

Florence, Italy

The Renaissance may take pride of place in Florence, but there’s only so much I can absorb. After two or three concentrated visits, museum fatigue sets in. The same for churches. Some of the finest art in Italy is contained in its churches, but like museums, they can become overwhelming.

Street art based on Botticelli's Venus, with the words, My Body My Choice, Florence, Italy

Instead, I love wandering the streets. Walking aimlessly helps me find my way in a new city. I sniff out fun places to shop and enticing places to eat. Random street art. Amusing pets.

Two cute white dogs in a bike basket, Florence, Italy.

I check out what people are wearing. In Paris on our way to Florence, I discovered that everyone was wearing athletic shoes. Sneakers with sequins and gold tips for the symphony or flamboyant colors in artier ‘hoods. There was hardly a high heel in sight.

Florence: A shopper’s paradise

Shopping can be a reticent traveler’s best friend. Shops are open. You can walk in without reservations (unlike museums and many restaurants) and be curious. It’s easy to talk to people; many speak English. And you might pick up a treasure or two to take home.

Acqua Di Rose shop window with bottles on steps and pillars of roses on the side, Florence, Italy

One of the most enticing shops in Florence was just across from our hotel. Brightly decorated with pink roses, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella was founded in 1221 by the Dominican friars of Santa Maria Novella, where they cultivated pharmaceutical herbs and plants in the church’s garden. As time went on, they expanded their wares from the original ancient preparations to include fragrances, cosmetics and wellness products. The Medici ladies might have shopped here.

Customer shopping at the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Walking into the sales hall, formerly a gothic chapel almost as beautiful as the church around the corner, was like entering a magic garden and gentle historical museum all in one. We enjoyed seeing the old formula books and the pitchers used to decant scented waters.

Ancient formula book and pottery perfume jugs at the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

When it was time to buy some of our own treasures—soaps, face cream and hand lotion—we stepped into the grand hall where we could test the various scents. Our luggage never smelled so good!

Sniffing scent at the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Refreshed, we set out to wander. It was time to set aside the itinerary and see what we could find. We wandered by a clock shop, people enjoying gelato on the corner of the Piazza della Signoria, and numerous stationery stores with notebooks almost too beautiful to write in.

Two men on the left and five women sitting on a stone bench in front of a huge column and a stone lion, Florence, Italy

Passing by a glove shop, a Florentine specialty, I treated myself to a pair. I didn’t really need any since I haven’t worn the last pair I bought years ago, but I wanted the experience of buying a pair that fit perfectly. I love being in expert hands when I’m shopping.

Woman selling gloves, Florence, Italy

The Ponte Vecchio and beyond

The Ponte Vecchio, a medieval bridge over the Arno, is one of Florence’s iconic landmarks. Although not as grand as the imposing Renaissance churches, it was the only bridge in Florence spared from bombing during World War II. When I visited with my father decades ago, its shops were known for leather goods. I bought a tailored brown purse there, somewhat more sophisticated than my teen self was used to wearing. Today the shops on the Ponte Vecchio generally sell jewelry and souvenirs. It’s not the most interesting place to shop, but it’s still an entertaining way to walk across the river to the more laid-back Oltrarno district.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy

That’s where we found artisan shopping and delightful caffes rimming Piazza Santo Spirito. On a sunny day at lunchtime, it was hard to choose between the pizza place and the sandwich spot, but Gusta Panino, with its delicious fresh Florentine-style sandwiches won out.

Piazza Santo Spirito, Florence, Italy

Although we didn’t go into the basilica across the plaza, we learned that Santo Spirito was the place where 17-year-old Michelangelo mastered anatomy by studying corpses from the convent’s hospital. In exchange he sculpted a wooden crucifix which can still be seen.

Instead we continued wandering, past an ancient fountain …

Fanciful fountain. Florence, Italy

… intriguing modern art …

Party scene street art in the Oltrarno district, Florence, Italy

… the Pinocchio shop for toys and souvenirs …

Pinocchio shop, Florence, Italy

… a Florentine wine window …

Couple getting wine from a wine window, Florence, Italy

… and a sculptural ode to Bacchus.

Bacchus statue, Florence, Italy

Boboli Gardens

The Oltrarno is also home to Giardino di Boboli, located next to the Palazzo Pitti, a grand edifice once owned by the Medici grand dukes.

Fountain in corner of Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy

Now more public park than refined garden, it is a playground of intriguing sights. It’s large, like Golden Gate Park, and definitely worth an afternoon.

Walkway in the Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy

It was great fun to wander around and look for delightful vistas …

Reflections of orange trees and clouds, Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy

And strange creatures.

Man looking at a creature with curled wings in the Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy

Not too far uphill from the Boboli is the Rose Garden.

Rose Garden, Florence, Italy

And from there, a few more turns uphill took us to a grand view and an amusing scene. A book reading was taking place in front of a suitcase-shaped frame of Florence.

Book reading in front of a suitcae frame overlooking Florence, Italy

The audience was small, but passionate.

People sitting on a bench with a statue, Florence, Italy

And we definitely didn’t need to understand Italian to recognize universal mansplaining.

Man talking intensely to women at book reading, Florence, Italy

And from the other side of the patio, we caught this 21st-century scene.

Girl in long white dress sitting on a bench with a cell phone with two other young women stand with their cell phones, Florence, Italy

Piazzale Michelangelo

Our goal at the end of the afternoon was to reach Piazzale Michelangelo before sunset. We were not alone in our plans. It is clearly the best sunset spot in Florence.

Crowd on steps of Piazzale Michelangelo waiting for sunset, Florence, Italy

In addition to the Duomo and the spire of the Palazzo Vecchio, we were able to pick out the green dome of the Great Synagogue of Florence. Built between 1874 and 1882, in the years after Jews were given the status of free citizens of Tuscany, the Sephardic-style synagogue is one of the largest in south-central Europe. We toured it on another day of wandering in a different Florentine neighborhood.

View of the Grand Synagogue from Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence, Italy

Finally we turned our gaze west along the Arno, past the bridges to the hills beyond. The next day we would be driving south to the Val d’ Orcia in the Tuscan countryside and to more discoveries.

View of sunset over the river Arno from Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence, Italy

To enjoy updates from Hidden-inSite, sign up here.



  1. What a fabulous story of your experience wandering the streets of Florence! Love the photos!

  2. Thanks for reviving my own memories of Florence in such a vivid way

  3. Well-done, as usual. Learnt a lot, as usual too! MB

  4. Thanks for the thumbnail sketches of these interesting spots! Time to get my traveling shoes on.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.