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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
… intriguing modern art …
… the Pinocchio shop for toys and souvenirs …
… a Florentine wine window …
… and a sculptural ode to Bacchus.
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.
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.
It was great fun to wander around and look for delightful vistas …
And strange creatures.
Not too far uphill from the Boboli is the Rose Garden.
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.
The audience was small, but passionate.
And we definitely didn’t need to understand Italian to recognize universal mansplaining.
And from the other side of the patio, we caught this 21st-century scene.
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.
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.
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.