Let’s spend the day at a slightly slower pace. We’ll start by crossing the Ponte Vecchio to the other (south) side of the Arno River – Oltrarno, to the locals and expats who live here. The Ponte Vecchio may be one of the most romantic spots on Earth, with its river views, amazing skylines, and cobblestone thoroughfare. It’s lined with jewelry stores, which may or may not add to the romance. (These were originally butchers’ shops, but the Medicis kicked them out in favor of a shinier, cleaner, less foul-smelling retail environment.)
The current bridge was finished by 1350, built after a catastrophic flood carried away its predecessor. Its most interesting feature may be the Vasari Corridor that runs over it. The Corridor was a private walkway built in 1561 so the Medici family could move between the Palazzo Pitti (on the south side of the Arno) and the Palazzo Vecchio (on the north side), safe from risk of assassination in the streets below.
Now that we’re across river (at its narrowest point, by the way), we’ll start our trip with a bit of a stroll: To the Piazzale Michelangelo for some exercise and a spectacular view of the entire city. (We’ll be walking to the lower, far right side of the map.)
We’ll be (obviously) heading uphill. The piazzale, or square, at the top was built in 1869 when Florence was the capital of Italy. It has bronze copies of some of Michelangelo’s marble works found in Central Florence: the David and the four allegories of the Medici Chapel of San Lorenzo (see the posting on the City Center). The road to the top is windy and steep, with plenty of stairs to keep you alert. It’s not arduous, just a bit strenuous. You can also bike or take a cab.
Now that you’ve successfully climbed up, take a look around. It should look like the photo at the top of this post. (I took it at the corner right along the railing.) While you’re here, enjoy a cup of coffee from one of the vendors. Walk over to the restaurant and check out the menu. Let the kids wander around the touristy souvenir stalls. (Statue of David or Duomo snow globe, anyone? Noah chose the latter.)
Now, let’s head back to the Ponte Vecchio and grab a bite to eat. There are a few different routes we can take. The one down the backside of the Piazzalle, by the steps across from the restaurant, is the most interesting. You’ll see a wooded area on the left that’s actually an animal shelter. (Look for cats dining on small bowls of spaghetti.) You’ll also notice the ancient walls guarding the city, lots of locals going about their day, and a more relaxed attitude than what’s typical on the north side of the river.
We’re going to find our way (and follow the signs) to the Piazza Santo Spirito, and the basilica of the same name. The building of this church began around 1443, and was designed by our very old friend (and Duomo builder) Filippo Brunelleschi. While the church doesn’t look like much on the outside, the inside is stunning. The church is free to visit, but there is a small fee to enter the museum.
Right across the square is one of our favorite pizza places, Gusta Pizza. The Napoli-style pizzas are amazing, and cooked right behind you in a very hot, wood-fired brick oven. It’s crowded, but lines move quickly. The last time we were here, we took Noah and shared a large table with happy locals and tourists. Prices are reasonable – around €8 for a pizza that serves two. Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Monday.
If anyone has room for gelato, it’s a quick walk right up the street (Via Maggio) to the Gelateria Santa Trinita. Recommended to Paige by our Florentine friend, Giovanni, it has built a great following and reputation among locals and tourists alike. Since it’s across the river from The Main Event, prices are much cheaper, too. They also sell good Chiantis here and other Tuscan specialties for snacking or bringing home. (And, if you love their business model, they’ll help you bring home your own franchise.)
Now it’s time for the short walk to the Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens. If you’ve just eaten gelato, walk back about half a block, turn left onto Borgo San Jacobo, and head towards the Ponte Vecchio. Make a right onto the main thoroughfare – Via de’ Guicciardini – and walk the few blocks to the large and imposing Palazzo Pitti on your left. (If you’re coming straight from lunch, simply turn right and walk down the Sdrucciolo de’ Pitti until you come to the Palace.)
The Palazzo Pitti (or Pitti Palace) and Boboli Gardens showcase the power and wealth of the Medici family at its heyday. Designed by Brunelleschi (of course!), the Palace was built for the Pitti family in 1457. It was the largest in Florence, and was meant to “show up” the Medici family, which was headquartered across the Arno in the Palazzo Vecchio. When the Pitti family fortunes declined, the Medicis bought the property in 1549, making it their primary residence. (This is why the aerial walkway was built over the Ponte Vecchio, as described above in the second paragraph. The poor Medicis now had two royal residences to care for.)
The Palace houses some of the most important museums in Florence. The Palatine Gallery contains a broad collection of 16th and 17th century paintings. The Royal Apartments contain furnishings from a remodeling done in the 19th century. The Silver Museum (Museo degli Argenti) displays a vast collection of Medici household treasures, and the Gallery of Modern Art holds a collection of mostly Tuscan 19th and 20th century paintings.
The Gardens are some of the first and most formal 16th-century Italian gardens. The style, as it was developed here, includes long (rather than square) developments, wide gravel avenues, lots of statuary and fountains, and semi-private and public spaces that include grottos, nympheums, and garden temples.
Once inside, you realize that this is not just a garden – it’s the largest park in Florence. It is also multi-leveled, with museums sitting among tree-lined walkways and flower beds. The openness of the garden, with its expansive view of the city, was considered highly unconventional. (My uneducated guess is that the Medicis were willing to give up a bit of privacy and safety in order to show off the size and beauty of their recently acquired and renovated prize.)
One of the main features of the garden, and loved by Noah, is the Fountain of Neptune. He has good taste, as it is considered by locals to be quite charming and entertaining:
At €7, the cost to enter the Palace, museums, and Gardens is extremely reasonable. Lines are short and move quickly, so the staff advises that you simply buy tickets when you arrive. (We waited less than 10 minutes.) Plan to spend a half a day at the complex.
Leaving the Palace, we can stroll the streets. If we turn left on the Via Romana we’ll come to the Porta Romana, the largest and best preserved of the city gates. It is part of Florence’s original ancient walls, dating back to the 14th century. The entrance still has its original iron doors and a marble slab depicting the Medici coat of arms.
If we turn right instead and head toward the Ponte Vecchio, we’ll pass plenty of shops carrying shoes, bags, linens, souvenirs, etc. As we get closer to the bridge, notice how prices and touristy establishments increase. (Most likely, you’ll also find vendors selling fake watches and handbags. Be careful, because in Italy both sellers and buyers can be ticketed.)
When ready to eat, there are many restaurants in the area for you to consider. Here are three traditional ones that serve very good Cucina Tipica Toscana. All are kid friendly and have attentive staffs. They’re also very close to each other, so stop by, check out the menus, and pick the one you like best.
Try to book ahead as this area is quickly becoming better known by American tourists. Also, we’ve heard of people making reservations online, only to be turned away at the door. You will be better off to stop by or call. Your best bet is to ask the concierge at your hotel to do it.
- Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco – I can’t speak for Paige, but this one is my favorite. (Make sure the staff knows that you’re not in a rush, as they understand that Americans expect to eat and pay quickly. If you are in a hurry, tell them that, too!) Open every day: Monday – Friday for lunch, Saturday and Sunday for lunch & dinner. (Read the Trip Advisor Reviews)
- Trattoria Mamma Gina – It’s right next store to the osteria above, and has opened a sister restaurant in Palm Desert, CA. Open for lunch and dinner everyday but Sunday. (Read the Yelp Reviews)
- Trattoria 4 (Quattro) Lioni – The restaurant is large, but is really a series of cozy, small rooms. Open for lunch and dinner, every day. (Read the Trip Advisor Reviews)
Buona notte e ciao!
Masthead photo: View from the Piazzale Michelangelo (Bob)