Florence may be “the Renaissance city,” but anyone who lives here or visits frequently will tell you that, while some things stay the same, every year presents a few worthy new openings and exciting new things to do – and some don’t have anything to do with Renaissance art! The past few years there have been more new museum openings than in the whole time I’ve lived in Italy; this is also a time of major turnover for restaurants, creating ferment on the culinary scene. Add to this the revisiting of a few perennial favourites appreciated even by residents and you’re never at a loss for activities in Florence.
If you’re a seasoned Italy-lover, this list is for you: my shortlist of 17 new and noteworthy must-dos for 2017. But this is also for you, the traveler who researches to find the best local advice before getting on the plane, who’s wondering what to do in Florence. It’s a mix of art museums, experiences and food. Enjoy – and let me know what you like best!
1/ Visit the new Innocenti Museum
If you’re looking forward to a return visit to Florence after a few years away, you’ve probably already marked your calendar with this one – the “new Innocenti Museum” that opened in the Summer of 2016. The Ospedale degli Innocenti, the first foundling hospital in Europe, always had a small museum called the MUDI, showcasing the paintings and a few artifacts from the institution’s long history. Few people visited it. They made the bold move to close for a major restoration and to open up a brand new museum of social more so than art history (as well as a conference centre). The museum’s researchers pulled out stories of the “innocentini” or children who were raised by the institution, which make for heartbreaking reading on the provided multimedia devices. Extra bonus points: kids’ activities are available in English upon reservation and some do not require adult supervision. I had the fortune of visiting this museum during the press preview – read my full review here.
2/ Eat at the Mercato Centrale
In Spring, 2014, after a long closure for renovation, the second floor of the San Lorenzo Market opened under the name “Il Mercato Centrale di Firenze”. Essentially a gourmet food court, it touts the best of Tuscan producers for cheese, meat, fish, vegetables, pizza and wine. It took me a while to warm up to this place that seemed maybe a bit too tourist oriented, but now I like it and go regularly. It’s not cheap, but the quality is good, and I highly recommend it to any visitors to the city. It’s also a good place to go with a group of people who want to eat different things (and pay for them separately).
Of particular note, the Chianti Classico Consortium runs a wine tasting bar where you can sample different labels by the glass to get to know one of Tuscany’s most famous exports.
3/ Climb the (other) tower
View from halfway up ? Tour + amazing views up Torre San Niccoló, open for a limited time only and for just a few hours in the afternoon ? #architecture #medieval #mediovale #torre #torremediovale #medievalarchitecture #oldwallsofflorence #torresanniccolo #sanniccolo #medievaltower #firenze #florence #florenceitaly #italy #italia #tuscany #toscana
The Torre San Niccolò – in the Oltrarno area of the same name – provides a different (high) viewpoint on the city. It’s open only in the summer, from June through September, in the late afternoon until sunset – ideal, in fact, for sunset-watching. Avoid the hottest days as you will be walking up. Entry is timed and in small groups and there is an interesting framed view halfway up (see embedded Instagram), and then an open view of the city from the top.
4/ View on high
An oldie but goodie, and free: walk up to piazzale Michelangelo and watch the sun go down, turning the Arno to gold (it’s such a nicer colour from up here!). Whenever my husband picks me up from work on the Vespa, which I try to make happen most days in order to avoid the bus, he asks me if we want to take the “high road or the viali”. The high road takes us to our part of the city via piazzale Michelangelo, and since there are lots of trees, the air is cleaner but also a bit cold, so we favour this in the Summer and when it’s not raining. I love the view I get glimpsing between the trees as we whiz up the street, and often if the sun’s setting and the sky’s pink, I ask him to stop so I can take a picture from the piazzale. It’s a bit touristy (avoid buying gelato or anything up here), but it’s unquestionably beautiful. There are steps off to one side that are popular for picnickers and buskers, and there’s nothing wrong with picking up a sandwich and a bottle of Chianti and calling that dinner with a view.
5/ Opera del Duomo Museum
I cannot praise the newly renovated Opera del Duomo Museum highly enough. Directed and curated by the brilliant Monsignor Timothy Verdon, the museum opened in Fall 2015 after a three year renovation and expansion project that annexed the building next to the original museum that housed works made for, but no longer exhibited in or on, the Duomo Complex. The Opera del Duomo is the “building works”, the company that has always been in charge of the building and maintenance of the Cathedral. They are the proprietors of hundreds of works of art that, for various reasons, are not displayed in their original locations. Like the “Gates of Paradise” by Ghiberti: copies grace the Baptistery, and the restored sections were moved one by one into the OPD museum over almost two decades, finally assembled in the door frame itself. Or the many sculptures by Donatello and his contemporaries that were intended for the facade of the Duomo, which was never completed.
The expanded museum has a triple-volume space, that was once a theatre, where they have created a life-size replica of the lower section of the front of the Duomo in order to put these works back into context. Worth entry just for this, you can easily spend a few hours here completing the in-depth circuit. Prepare for your visit with this walkthrough and review, and I also recommend that you download the free museum app and plan your visit on the official website www.museumflorence.com.
6/ Go see a concert at the Opera di Firenze
The new concert hall of the Maggio Musicale, the Opera di Firenze, opened in 2014 in the Le Cascine area of the city. While not by a starchitect, the building – with its excellent and warm acoustics – received a prize the year it opened for the best new architecture in Italy in the previous 5 years. From symphonies to ballets, there are plenty of options starting at only €10 per ticket. See the winter season programme here.
7/ Have a Hipster Aperitivo
My husband’s favourite place to have an aperitivo in centro is Amblè (my mother, on the other hand, hates it). Tucked away in a hidden piazza near the Ponte Vecchio, it’s a jumble of vintage furniture and too-cool-for-school objects you wouldn’t put in your house, tumbling outside on to tables that look like they were stolen from an elementary school or a factory going out of business. The city’s most bearded specimens sit here and look bored but beautiful. Order a standard spritz and a tramezzino tonno affumicato, capperi di pantelleria, citronette, radicchio and mayo (he chose that, not I). Info: www.amble.it
8/ They’ll act out Medici History for you
Go to the Medici Dynasty Show, a theatre piece about the history of the Medici and the legacy the family left the city of Florence. Just over an hour long, the show runs every night in the Summer in the San Lorenzo area and is both educational and entertaining. Read my review.
9/ Bike on Water
You may not be able to walk on water just yet, but you can bike on it. One of the weirdest sports to crop up on the Arno last year is without a doubt water biking. A standard mountain bike is mounted on top of two big floats. The pedals make a little propeller turn, and the handlebars steer the tiller. Steering and accelerating are of course much slowed down by the water. I went out to try this with We Like Tuscany, but frankly I had serious doubts and let my husband do it instead – simply because I am a really lame cyclist and tend to fall off. He said it was really fun to ride under the ponte vecchio. And he’s Florentine…
10/ Get liquored up like it’s 1444
Curious Appetite Gourmet Tours, created by my friend Coral, offers a very curious food and drink tour inspired by the Medieval and Renaissance times. It starts out with the odd monkish preparations at the Farmacia Santa Maria Novella, which is a fantastic place to visit at any time. Then, in their words: “We will imbibe with unique, potent concoctions and food pairings inspired by flavors of the Medieval and Renaissance periods. You will accompanied by a local food & history expert and together with the personal attention of a speakeasy mixologist, and you’ll leave with a deeper understanding of the flavors present during Florence’s most historical eras.”
11/ Art at Forte Belvedere
Every summer, the city sponsors a free installation of contemporary art by a major international artist. Some works usually reside down in piazza della Signoria, while the rest are given room to breathe up at Forte Belvedere, overlooking the city. It’s a bit of a hike up a steep hill to get here, but the entrance is free. Some years’ installations are better than others (I loved this one by Gormley in 2015 but hated the 2016 one). Keep an eye out for a review of whatever comes up in 2017!
12/ Stibbert Museum
I recently revisited the Stibbert Museum to make a video for work. Located in a good residential area of the city, this unusual house museum has a crazy collection of arms and armour! But what I didn’t realize is how interesting the house itself is, with orientalizing decorations and patterning that is most impressive. Info: www.museostibbert.it/en
13/ Learn to make pasta
This holiday season I finally taught my dad how to boil pasta. Nothing special, but the real Italian way to cook dry pasta, in a big pot of salted water, until it’s al dente. He is unlikely to replicate it on his own, but for him it was a big step. But for most people, learning how to “make pasta” means “from scratch”, and that’s what they teach you at most cooking schools in Italy. It’s not something you’ll do on a very regular basis (unless you have a LOT of extra time), but it’s really easy and gives you a sense of achievement. There are plenty of cooking classes available – I’ve had a few good ones, but don’t know many in Florence at the moment. If you’re willing to spend the day in the countryside, try learning with the friendly and talented Juls Kitchen.
14/ Pick a church, any church
So often I take the same routes to work or home, or to appointments, and rarely take the time to see something beautiful or different in the city (hey, it happens, wherever you live). The best moments are when I leave plenty of time for an appointment, maybe in another part of the city, so I have time to wander a bit. Not long ago I gave myself ample lead time to get to a class I was teaching near Santa Croce. I walked through the Sant’Ambrogio area, found a great market stand selling cashmere sweaters for €39, had a moment to enjoy that little local church, and 5 minutes to snap a selfie in piazza Santa Croce before arriving, for once, not out of breath. So my tip is to wander, and to go into all the random, small churches you can find. I often forget that some of these house an important altarpiece, or at least something recognizable. And they are all quiet and smell of wax and incense, so even if I don’t pray, I feel like it’s right to sit down and think for 5 minutes and not look at my phone. It’s something I used to do when I first got here, and I ought to find more time to do it again.
15/ A teeny tiny chapel
Ask 100 people who live in Florence if they have ever seen Alberti’s Tempietto del Santo Sepolcro and 99 of them won’t even know what you are talking about. There is a teeny tiny, really a jewel of a structure (I hesitate to call it a building), located inside a chapel, inside an ex-church, that you enter through a museum… which in itself isn’t frequently visited… meaning basically nobody has seen this thing. To see it, go to the Museo Marino Marini (Santa Maria Novella neighbourhood). Built in 1467, it’s a scale copy of a building in Jerusalem said to be Christ’s original tomb which circulated in numerous drawings in the Renaissance. The marble inlay decorations are exquisite. Read more about it here.
16/ The Capital of Culture
My last two “things to do in Florence” this year are outside of Florence, forgive me! The Tuscan town of Pistoia is Italy’s capital of Culture for 2017, so one can expect good things from this somewhat sleepy town with its surprisingly good contemporary scene. Best known for its vast acres of greenhouses, the quirkiest event of the year is when they put grass down in one of the historical center’s piazze. Also home to an important blues festival, there’s much more in store for the year ahead. Info: www.pistoia17.it
17/ Contemporary Prato
Late 2016 saw the opening of the fantastic new wing of the Centro Pecci in Prato, a satellite industrial town that is starting to attract more attention now. The contemporary art museum’s reopening, after a major building works project, has set off a chain reaction of coolness (or maybe it’s just that people are noticing it now?). I just loved the opening exhibit (here’s my review) and the design of the space, and I have high hopes for the future of this museum. The old part of the building has yet to reopen, but there’s already a solid calendar of activities in place and the center is really positioning itself as a must-see in Tuscany. Then, head into the town: there are lots of ex-industrial spaces being converted into galleries, and some local shops that are different than those in Florence. There’s an excellent cathedral with frescoes by Filippo Lippi, and a fascinating textile museum (the Museo del Tessuto) with nicely put on temporary exhibits.
There are of course many more than these 17 things to do in Florence. Here are a few bonus items:
- Check out this extensive list from Georgette aka Girl in Florence, including her favourite artisan shops
- During summer and light hours, visit the Rose Garden for a picnic
- Winter or summer, go to one of the Medici villas (like Petraia), which are UNESCO heritage sites (and also have great gardens)
- The girls at Florence for Free have put together a good list of free things and itineraries in the city.
- Check out Lost in Florence for a select list of classy shops and activities
- And of course when you arrive, always pick up a paper copy of The Florentine, the English news magazine in town (where I also work) and check out the month’s 3-page-long list of daily events and the top choices we publish each month.