5 Fantastic Things to Do When in Florence, Italy

by Christopher Atwood


Florence is a Renaissance jewel in the heart of Tuscany – home to Brunelleschi’s dome, Michelangelo’s house, and the Medici’s palace. Almost 20-million tourists visit Florence’s top sights each year. So, when you travel to Italy, what are some things to do in Florence to experience the city's non-touristy side?

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One of the easiest ways to find the real Florence is on a walking tour of the old town.  Your expert guide will shares with you the scenic side streets and the best gelateria in Florence. As an added plus, Florence’s historic center is closed to car traffic—perfect for a slow, honk-free stroll.   

Explore below 5 hidden gems in Florence that you might discover with a local guide

                                5. SCUOLA DEL CUOIO / LEATHER SCHOOL (Santa Croce)

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Tucked behind the Santa Croce Basilica (finished in 1442), you’ll find the family-run Scuola del Cuoio / Leather School.  This boutique school is housed inside a Franciscan monastery that dates to 1294.  After World War II, the friars and a local leather craftsman, Marcello Gori, founded the school—with the aim of teaching orphans a trade they’d use to earn a living. To this day, the Gori family runs this singular school. Fashion students from across the globe come here to master the art of handmade leather – including the creation of elegant purses, coats, bags and wallets.  When you explore the Scuola del Cuoio with our guide, you’ll meet the artisans who shape, emboss and stitch Florence’s finest leather goods. You can even participate in a hands-on class – learning how to make a leather book-cover or satchel. After touring the workshop, visitors have the chance to purchase some of the Scuola’s one-of-a-kind masterpieces.

4. MERCATO CENTRALE – CENTRAL FOOD HALL (San Lorenzo)

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Florence’s San Lorenzo quarter is famed for its huge open-air leather market.  ((For ‘Made-in-Italy’ leather goods, you should head to Florence’s smaller Mercato del Porcellino)). If you’re hungry in Florence, San Lorenzo area is a must-try – beloved by locals for the less-famous Mercato Centrale. Located right behind the leather vendors, the Mercato Centrale is Florence’s largest and most historic food hall. It’s brimming with authentic cheese shops, butchers and fruttivendoli (fruit sellers).  Strolling among the stalls here, you’ll spot legs of prosciutto dangling overhead and wheels of aged pecorino toscano cheese perched in glass cases.  On the ground floor, you can nosh on a traditional Florentine panino at Da Nerbone (founded in 1872) or try a plate of pasta (the menu changes daily). Head upstairs for the bustling modern food court – a maze of Italian yumminess.  Our Florentine guides' favorites here include: Il Tartufo (specializing in truffle-flecked bites), Pasta Fresca (handmade pasta, spanning sweet and savory options), and Il Fritto e Le Polpette (fried snacks and homemade meatballs—including vegetarian ones).

 3. BOBOLI GARDENS – (Oltrarno)

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Every city in Italy has a color. Rome is a sea of red-orange. Ostuni vaunts white-washed homes. And, Florence’s facades boast dark green shutters. But, apart from these pine-hued windows, Florence isn’t the greenest of Italy’s city’s – it’s better known for magnificent buildings than tree-lined promenades. With one glorious exception—the Giardino di Boboli, or Boboli Gardens. Located “on the other side of the river” in Florence’s quiet Oltrarno district, the Boboli Gardens are hidden from view – just the sort of thing that most tourists walk right past, never knowing what they’ve missed. Spanning 111, the gardens are exquisitely-landscaped -- more a lush open-air museum than a simple park.  This calming space was constructed over the course of four centuries —begun in 1418 and not completed until the 19th century.  These elegant gardens are located, inconspicuously, behind the grand Pitti Palace—once home to the Medici family.  Inside, you’ll stroll past Renaissance fountains, stone sculptures and a series of tree-shaded terraces. One of the walls here was even built by Michelangelo himself!

 2. VIEWING FLORENCE FROM THE RIVER (Arno)

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Florence is often criticized for feeling too touristy – packed with crowds of pushy visitors. But, there’s one place where you’re guaranteed never to be pestered by hordes of tourists – in the middle of the Arno River.  Imagine yourself gliding under Ponte Vecchio, as the terracotta sun dips behind Renaissance palaces. You’re riding a traditional wooden barchetto -- the flat-bottomed boats once used to transport goods up and down the Arno River.  As the city is draped in golden light, you take a sip of Prosecco with your amore.  No crowds. No lines. No stress. You’re relishing this magical moment—drinking in a view few tourists will ever get to experience.  

1. MICHELANGELO’S HIDDEN MASTERPIECES

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Immerse yourself in the hidden masterpieces of the Renaissance genius Michelangelo Buonarotti -- going beyond The David. Your private guide will take you on a walking journey through the marble masterworks of Florence’s own son, Michelangelo. We begin in the Bargello Museum, a historic building housing some of the city’s most extraordinary sculptures. You will learn how Michelangelo’s hand was influenced by masters such as Donatello.  Next, we will walk to the Medici Chapels – hearing about the tumultuous relationship between Michelangelo and his patrons, the Medici family.  Along the way, your guide will point out Michelangelo's secret graffitti -- on the side of Palazzo Vecchio.  Once in the San Lorenzo district,  you will visit the New Sacristy -- begun in 1520 by Michelangelo, who also designed the extraordinary Medici tombs herein.

For more insider tips on travel through Italy, check out our recent article on Rome's historic cafés:

Rome's Top 5 Cafés

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