That’s why we’ve put together this list of hidden gems in Florence as told to us by Italy tour guides. Not only are you guaranteed to see some amazing sites by following their suggestions, you also won’t have to fight the crowds to see them. Florence’s tour guides are packed with knowledge of their city’s colourful past and they jump at the opportunity to share their secret sites, watering holes and venues for entertainment.
Without further ado, here’s the guide-given lowdown on what to see and where to go in Florence if you’re in the market for more than the usual.
Vegetarians and vintage furniture-fanatics rejoice: Amblé, a hybrid café and furniture shop located in a quiet corner in central Florence, will meet your every need. After ordering a sandwich made with locally-sourced and super fresh ingredients on hearty vegan-friendly 5-grain bread, be sure to check out Amblé’s items for sale that range from vintage chairs and beach loungers to novelty items and upcycled tables. Carnivores who aren’t into furniture shopping, rest assured Amblé welcomes you too: meat salads and filets of fish ensure you’ll be left belly-happy, and the vintage furniture will simply provide a comfortable resting spot in the midst of a busy sightseeing-filled day.
Gelateria della Passera
Gelato-goers in Florence no longer need to fight the crowds for their iced treats on hot days: artisanal Gelateria della Passera sits on a quiet piazza just outside the city center where people-watching is still aplenty, minus the hoards. Here, the preservative-free gelato is made in small batches from quality ingredients and in-season fruit (blueberry gelato being a feature of the summer), and the owners, who are loyal to creating rich and oh-so-creamy delicacies, aren’t afraid to branch out: try their “Flavors of the Orient,” a caramel-colored concoction with hints of lemon, orange, anise, vanilla, ginger and cinnamon.
Although it would be hard to tire of authentic Italian pizza, pasta, and prosciutto y meloni, nobody can turn down a trip to Florence’s one-of-a-kind American-style coffee shop where the owners – an American and Italian husband-and-wife team – bake up some killer bagels (don’t be alarmed by the lack of a hole; at Mama’s, they’re made more roll-like to allow for easier sandwich-eating), as well as other treats like cheesecake, apple pie, cinnamon rolls, and red velvet cupcakes. Bonus: if you’ve finished your holiday-reading book, you can bring it with you to the café and swap it out in their library. Without a doubt, this is the place to carbo-load before a cycling trip that will show you spectacular views of Florence before heading into the Chianti wine region.
Markets are central to European life, and while visiting the home of award winning tomatoes, it’s important (but, more than important, fun) to visit a food market. Introducing the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, a part open-air, part in-a-building-dating-back-to-1873 market that sells everything from cheeses, olives, and cold cuts, to soaps, honey, and freshly baked bread. At the butchers’ stalls, keep your eyes peeled for Florentine specialties like horse steak and small birds that are not found elsewhere.
Officina Profumo-farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
After visiting a bustling Firenze go-to like the Academia Gallery that houses Michelangelo’s David alongside in-the-know local guides, be sure to pop into the Officina Profumo-farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, a pharmacy founded by Dominican friars in 1221. This hidden gem is hard to find – the only branding is its name etched lightly into the glass panels of the entry door – but the history, architecture (the location: inside a Catholic church), and unique products for sale make it 100% worth your while. Who wouldn’t put a trip to a perfumery that started out as a pharmaceutical workshop for the adjoining convent at the top of their list of must-sees? Word of advice: bring plenty of cash; between the extracts and essences, soaps, potpourri, cosmetics, fragrances, candles, and more, you are sure to leave laden with memorable goodies, each of which has its own story (for example, the Queen’s Water essence was created specifically for Catherine de’ Medici!).
La Specola (Museum of Zoology and Natural History)
There’s no better time to check out the world-famous wax anatomical models (that date back to the 18th Century!) at La Specola than before escaping into the wine country. Located in the former Palazzo Torrigani, La Specola houses a stuffed hippopotamus, which, by the way, was one of the Medici’s pets in the 17th Century (he lived in one of the Boboli gardens!), as well as a collection of anatomical waxes so accurate and (creepily) realistic for teaching medicine.
Cinema Teatro Odeon
After exhausting yourself on an excursion that takes you to the city’s most famous squares, the Ponte Vecchio (a historic bridge lined with vendors of all sorts), and other hidden corners, nothing will sound better than an evening at the Cinema Teatro Odeon. The Odeon came to life in 1922, but the history runs deeper than that as it is located in an Italian Renaissance style building from the 15th Century. Though watching a movie may be the last thing on your agenda while vacationing in Florence, this venue should not be overlooked: bronze statues line the walls of the theater, a glass and wrought iron dome takes center stage above, and viewers sit on gold-colored velvet seats.
If you’re looking to burn some steam before committing to a road trip through Pisa and Florence, head to Cascine Park, the Medici family’s former game-reserve-cum-land-for-bovine-farming that opened to the public for recreational purposes during the Napoleon period. Situated on the Arno River, the Cascine Park – the largest park in Florence – is popular among locals for picnicking, running, strolling, and more. The park can be reached by public transport from the city center, but if you have the time and energy, it’s also just a short run away.
The Open Window at Palazzo Budini-Gattai
To experience something truly secretive in Florence, head to the Palazzo Budini-Gattai where, on the second floor at the far right, you’ll find a window with its shutters half-open. But there’s more to the window than that; it’s what lies behind the shutters that is so intriguing: somebody wants to look out on the square, but doesn’t want to be seen, and who is that somebody? As the story goes, a beautiful young Florentine girl spent her life peering out the window in hopes of seeing her husband who was sent to war reappear, but this never happened, and she died, still by the window, still looking, still hoping. The crazy part is, when someone tried to close the window following her death, all chaos broke out: lights flashed on and off, books went flying, pictures fell from the walls, and other objects moved all by themselves. The kicker: when the freaked-out residents reopened the shutters, all went still. The shutters have not been closed since!
The Bees at Piazza Santissima Annunziata
Though veteran Florentine guides will show you around the city’s finest piazzas, one place worth taking a detour to is the Piazza Santissima Annunziata. Here, you will find a bronze equestrian monument of Ferdinand I of Medici, Grandduke of Tuscany, on the back of which is a swarm of bees surrounding a queen that symbolizes the central position of power in a harmonic and laborious community. The real fun comes in trying to count the bees without pointing to them, a task many believe to be impossible. Go on, challenge yourself!
The Innocenti Wheel
Another hidden gem at Piazza Santissima Annunziata is the wooden wheel located under the left side of the porch of the Innocenti Hospital. This wheel is a significant part of Florence’s history because it is where mothers who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) keep their babies would leave them. Until 1875, mothers were able to place their babies inside the wheel, which, when turned, took the babies into the orphanage, no questions asked.
Davanzati Palace Museum
For special insight into the workings of a typical Florentine noble house of the fourteenth century, take a side trip to the Davanzati Palace Museum. Here, you’ll find richly decorated rooms like the Hall of Parrots and the Hall of Peacocks, as well as furnishings dating back to the 1300s, and a valuable collection of traditional artisan lace from Tuscany.
Oratory of the Buonomini of San Martino
When asked for her favorite place in Florence, Francesca says, “I don’t think twice, I answer: ‘Sure, the Buonomini Confraternity!’” Francesca calls the oratory “a gem of rare beauty” owing to its history: Francesca dictates that this is “the place in charge of making the charity to ‘the poor and ashamed of Florence,’” who “were wealthy people, who for reversal of fortune, had lost all their riches, and were ashamed of begging on some church steps like normal mendicants since it was not appropriate to their social state.” At the Buonomini Confraternity, these men of riches-to-rags “were welcomed anonymously and helped,” as the stunning frescoes inside depict. Of the oratory, Francesca says, “I bet you will remain open-mouthed,” but she also boasts about the Gelateria dei Neri some five minutes by foot away. Francesca says, “Now, if you crazily love gelato just like me, this is the right place. I think this is the best gelato in the whole city centre, and it’s confirmed by the fact that you always find many locals there. Try the Modica chocolate, the Mitica cream, the croccantino and the semifreddi. Attention, it can give addiction!”