There are plenty of times I believe I’m living in paradise. I love Florence and I love being able to travel so easily in Tuscany and around Europe. But Florence in the Summer is basically Hell. While I live like a hermit in the dark, like a mole in search of air conditioning, strategically positioned in front of fans, outside, pavements reflect the unrelenting sun, new asphalt preserves the imprints of passersby and old cobblestones recall the last century in which every 11-12 months or so, the mercury rises to 40 degrees Celsius. As I go to work, I fear for the health and safety of the thousands of tourists swarming into Florence’s piazzas and wonder how they will survive Florence’s Summer. I’ve tried to put myself in their shoes (or their flip flops) to imagine if I had to go outside, how I would organize a summertime itinerary in Florence to minimize heatstroke.
Weather in Florence: the hottest months
The hottest months in Florence are July and August. Sometimes June can be very hot, but this varies. In July, from the way everyone (myself included) complains about it, you’d think it was something exceptional to go up to 39-40 degrees Celsius (over 100F) but really, it does this every year. Temperatures are usually announced as a solid 35 or 36 degrees, but sometimes get hotter than that due to the unrelenting sun, especially on city streets. Every 10 days or so, this is broken by a wonderful thunderstorm and downpour. Sometimes false starts provide greater humidity which evaporates from the hot ground, making it hot and humid hell!
August is traditionally the height of summer; with the Ferragosto mid-August holidays, most Italians head for the beach. But actually, by mid August, sometimes the weather turns, becoming less “certain” and hence more rainy.
The general sensation of the hottest days in the city is that of moving through a hairdryer. You have to squint your eyes and hope your nose hairs can resist the hot air coming straight at you. It’s like the polar (bad pun) opposite of winter in Chicago, where the freezing wind makes it hard to breathe unless you filter it through a scarf.
Cooler places to visit in Florence in the Summer
That said, unfortunately, many people can only travel in the summer – students, teachers, parents in particular. If you’ve gotta be here, how can you make the best of it? While I don’t go outside between 10am and 8pm, you’re going to have to if you want to see anything!
Summer in Florence is a good time to become extremely religious, because churches are generally cooler places thanks to them being big and dark, with thick walls. Some churches are cooler than others. The big basilicas are good candidates – Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella – and they also have a lot to see inside, so you can stay for a few hours. Bring a paper guide or your smartphone, sit down and look up information while you’re there, taking advantage of the pews and the coolness. Smaller churches, which are all free to enter, are another good place to stay cool. I love Santa Trinità, for example, on the piazza of the same name at the end of via Tornabuoni. Once you’re done taking in its Quattrocento altarpieces, nobody can stop you from sitting there and reading a book…
You will be surprised to learn that most museums in Florence do not have airconditioning. Surely that’s not good for 500 year old paintings, you say. Indeed. The Uffizi is slowly but surely renovating its most important rooms, like the new Botticelli rooms in 2016 and the new Leonardo room in July 2018, so in these cases there is mild a/c involved. Paintings are monitored for humidity but I’m not sure how they are kept safe in the heat! However, they’ve gone through it every year for 500 years… Places like the Bargello and the Accademia do not have a/c systems, though you can go right when they open and that makes it pretty enjoyable.
This is where it is clever to visit the newer museums in town: both the new Museo degli Innocenti and the expanded Opera del Duomo Museum have brilliantly curated collections and all the modern comforts.
Fashion lovers will find cool fashions – literally – at the newly reopened Gucci Museum in piazza della Signoria or at the Ferragamo Museum across from the church of Santa Trinità mentioned above.
If you’re staying more than a few days, another idea is to get out of town, maybe visit a winery in Tuscany. You could rent a car for a day and head to the countryside. Wine cellars are famously COLD in order to preserve wine to drink many years. You’ll actually want to bring a cardigan… and then ask your guide a ton of questions while basking in the 16 degrees…
Where to eat in Florence in the Summer
Lately I’ve been having lunch at home with my mother in law, and imitating her way of munching on a lot of vegetables mid-day. We have a big plate with some cucumber, big garden fresh tomatoes, maybe some avocado or lettuce if someone has washed it, and some mozzarella. My colleagues who have an “orto” – kitchen garden – also eat like this at lunch. In restaurants, you’re not going to get half a raw cucumber, but luckily the big bowl food trend has hit Italy. There are a few places now that do exclusively big salad bowls with creative ingredients, grains, proteins and the like. As I’ve been on a diet for a few months, I’m really excited to have these new options around town. On the other hand, the big salad and the caprese salad have always been part of the Italian tradition, so they’re available at just about any place that serves lunch. For some specific ideas this year, I recommend:
- Rooster cafè, via Porta Rossa (next to Palazzo Davanzati, a museum you absolutely should visit) is a newly opened corner of america in Italy. So why should you go there if you’re just visiting? Well, their lunch menu is really well priced and they have some quite creative salads, good a/c and friendly (english) service. They also do the best pancakes I’ve tasted in Italy… This is also the kind of place you can sit in the off-hours with a computer or book and plot your next move.
- Floret artisan café inside Luisa Via Roma (via Roma, in front of the Duomo) is for the well heeled. The covered upper floor courtyard is a colourful jungle in the city, while the cool indoor nooks make for perfect spots to hang out for a while. At any time of day this is a great place for a cold pressed juice or grain bowl, with ingredients of the highest quality.
- Obika, on via Tornabuoni, is a mozzarella bar that has been around for a good number of years. With courtyard and indoor seating, this is a great place to taste different kinds of mozzarella (it’s where I first learned that there is smoked mozza, and it’s oh so good).
- Carduccio, in the Oltrarno right near Palazzo Pitti, is a tiny shop run by two lovely ladies who truly know good vegetables. Besides their big salads, I love the free flowing “aromatized” water (sometimes mint, sometimes cucumber… it changes daily).
For dinner and additional ideas for August 2018, see this list by Georgette aka Girl in Florence.
Where to stay in Florence in summertime
If you’re coming to Florence in the summer as a visitor, I actually suggest you try to stay centrally, close to the things you want to visit. My reasoning is this: it’s physically damaging to be out in the mid-day heat, so if you have a home base nearby, you can stay inside during the hottest hours (say, noon to 4pm) but still see things and not feel guilty about missing out. Check to make sure that your hotel has air conditioning – this is not something that all places have because buildings are very old. Most of the time there will be a standing a/c unit in the room that you can switch on and off, and that are sometimes noisy. The higher grade hotels will have centralized air, while the lower grade hotels may actually charge daily for the use of the unit.
There are a few hotels in central Florence that have rooftop pools, which are fun both for evening cocktails and to cool off in after visiting museums. Of these, I can recommend the Hotel Minerva in piazza Santa Maria Novella and the brand new The Student Hotel, on the ring road (viale) in front of the Fortezza da Basso, just 10 minutes walk or 2 minutes tram ride from the train station. The latter opened earlier this summer and a double room will run you only around €100!
Get out super early in the day – the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti open at 8:15am, and other sights like the Ponte Vecchio boast beautiful morning light and no crowds until later. This is a good time to go walk around any area. If you are an even more early riser (I find summer mornings are great for getting up at 6!) you could even walk up to San Miniato (or go for a run) in the cooler air.
Next step is to go into one of the cooler churches or museums with air conditioning by about 10am. Nota bene, you need to have your shoulders and knees covered in churches, so pack one or more of those light cotton summer scarves in your bag.
When you emerge at lunchtime, make a beeline for one of the lunch spots I mention, and then do like a southern Italian and take a nap back at your (nearby) hotel. Justify your down time by reading some primary source books about the history of Florence or some fun fiction.
Hydration and other practical tips
I use the ancient Italian trick of opening windows at night, closing shutters and everything during the day, and sitting around with ice packs on my feet (okay I invented that myself) in order to keep cool in my own house. Treat your hotel room or rental apartment similarly – the blackout shutters work wonders against the sun! The bidet makes for a very good foot bath with cold water and salt.
It sounds obvious but when you’re out, you forget to drink water. Buying the half liter cold bottles at bars can add up for you and for the environment, so hit up a supermarket for a 6-pack of larger bottles (usually 40 cents per bottle) and store those in your hotel room (even in the mini-fridge if you can safely move their bottles out of there). Get a refillable thermal bottle and fill it up with your cold water. Whenever you’re in piazza della Signoria, step in behind the Neptune fountain for a shot from the free refrigerated purified water offered by the city.
If you’ve got a headache or sore neck, or sunstroke, you’re going to need heavier solutions. Italians resort to “sali minerali”, mineral salts, rather than Gatorade to replenish their resources in the heat. These powders – the most popular is called Polase – are slightly less bad for you than Gatorade. If you’re sensitive to these ingredients, a solution I use is less common: you can ask for estratti olio-minerali of magnesium (magnesio) and potassium (potassio) which come in little glass vials that you suck back singularly, 1-2 times per day. This will cost you about 35 euros but doesn’t contain any harmful sugars. The pharmacists here are really great so ask them for advice.
Finally, dress appropriately for the heat, but also for the city. Although tank tops are nice, I find that when I’m traveling, I prefer to have covered shoulders that don’t get burned by the sun or rubbed by the straps of my purse or pack. A big hat can look either touristy or dramatic, so that’s your choice, but sunscreen is a must if you’re going outside here. This year’s sundresses with their strategic cutouts and bare backs are not very city-appropriate, so look for things that are light, loose and in natural fibres.
Got any more tips to share? Let us know!