Google any travel guide on Florence and you’ll get a long list of some of the world’s most beloved structures and artworks that you must see: Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Italy’s largest duomo), the Uffizi, the Galleria dell'Accademia, Ponte Vecchio and the list goes on. After all, Florence was once the economic hub of the world being home to the Medicis; and the birthplace of the Renaissance and it’s stars Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli.
It’s dizzying the amount of art in this city.
There’s an actual disorder associated with this very fact called Stendhal Syndrome - where one experiences a wooziness, faintness even confusion, panic attacks and in severe cases, hallucinations and/or psychotic episodes that can last several days from looking at too much art, particularly classical art - no joke! Aptly named Florence Syndrome after the astounding number of cases (interestingly a high percentage of American tourists) of the psychosomatic illness were recorded at Santa Maria Nuova Hospital during or shortly after sightseeing in the city.
If you think the well-trodden tourist track of Florence could potentially be hazardous to you, or you yourself could become a hazard to others, then don’t hesitate to check out the list below of alternative things to do... in the name of health and safety.
Regardless of whether you’re immune to Stendhal or not, Florence is a relatively easy city to ‘do’. Unlike places like Rome, London or Paris, it doesn’t really require any preparation. You could simply turn up, walk around and tick off all of the major tourist attractions in a (exhausting) day and a half without relying on any guides, taxis or public transport. Don’t even THINK about renting a car. So you could very well still have time for these extra activities during your trip…
Tip: Take the Italo train rather than Trenitalia to Florence and anywhere you possibly can around Italy. I’ve found it to be much cheaper and much more comfortable. The second class seats on Italo are just as good as first class in Trenitalia in terms of comfort - good air-con, free WIFI (that actually works) and something Trenitalia doesn’t have which is movies (both Italian and English) so remember to BYO earplugs. The only difference is the Trenitalia snack service on first class which isn’t great anyway, it’s just a drink and kid size pack of crackers or sweets. I haven’t done first class on Italo but I’d imagine it would be exceptional. Book online at least a few days ahead as these trains are almost always full on major routes between Florence, Rome and Milan especially June - August.
Shop till you drop at The Mall
This isn’t just any mall, this is THE Mall. A one stop shop for thousands of discounted luxury designer items (and some non-luxe) spread across several different buildings within one massive designer outlet complex *gasp*.
There are several other designer outlets throughout Italy and even around Florence but this one definitely has the best range of high end designers with the most up to date inventory. According to one staff member at Tom Ford, some items are currently in-stock at the proper boutiques of their respective designers so shouldn’t really at the outlets let alone discounted.
You should allocate a whole day here for obvious reasons. Don’t worry about getting hungry, Gucci has a beautiful terrace cafe on its roof and there’s a general cafe for the complex as well as an amazing ‘healthy’ granita, ice cream and ice block stand near Saint Laurent. If you’re keen on Gucci and Prada, aim to get there in the morning because these stores always have waiting lines after lunch time.
Ask your hotel to arrange a shuttle taxi to get there if there’s a group of you which should cost around 70EUR one way. Otherwise it’s dead easy to catch the bus which takes about 50 minutes to get there and costs only 13EUR round trip. Buses depart regularly year-round from the main bus station right next to the central train station, SITA Bus depot (Via Santa Caterina da Siena 17, Florence) and drop you right inside The Mall. They’re lovely spacious double decker air-conditioned buses toilets on them but don’t get caught out eating on the bus because I heard just recently that someone got thrown off for this.
Hang in the ‘hood of Santo Spirito
Many people visit Florence and never spend time in Oltrarno AKA the other side of the Arno River. Here is the REAL Florence - where all the Florentines hang. You might see a few unsavoury characters… maybe a couple of young druggos or hussies but what you won’t see is hoards of tourists or unreasonably priced menus like you would on the other-other side of the river.
Named after the beautiful basilica it’s built around, Santo Spirito is one of the residential neighbourhoods in Oltrarno that has some of the most lively night spots, cafes, restaurants, quirky little shops and contemporary art galleries the city has to offer.
If you're after local flavours, you can’t really go wrong in any of the eateries around here. Gusto Pizza, Cingghale Bianco, Osteria Santo Spirito and PopCafe are all popular, but don’t be afraid to get lost in this area, you’ll enjoy it.
Every morning there’s also a fresh food and clothing market in the piazza by the basilica. Some Sundays a flea market, antique market and organic goods market are included.
Discover the fountain of youth at Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
You will absolutely ADORE this place. I find myself drawn time and time again to its mysterious beauty and intoxicating aromas. Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is the oldest (known) pharmacy in the world still operating, with origins dating back to the 1200s when Dominican monks first arrived in Florence. These monks grew their own herbs and flora to create all types of elixirs for healing ailments and maintaining good health. Word spread far and wide about them and it wasn’t until centuries later in the 1600s that the pharmacy finally opened for commercial sales.
It’s a fascinating place to wander around with various rooms holding different product ranges. Each room decorated with artworks, some with ancient frescoes, old books, charts, various prestigious awards and displays of original machinery.
You can find anything from perfumes, cosmetics, home fragrances, soaps, teas, liqueurs, sweets, even treats and remedies for your fur-babies so it’s the perfect place to buy gifts and souvenirs. There’s a tea salon towards the back with an ever-changing floral arrangement where you can sample some of the herbal teas and liqueurs.
The perfumes are beautiful with many unique scents and there’s an entire range named after Medici family members. You can even have a custom blend of their ancient essences created for personalised soaps and perfumes.
The most interesting of all might be their range of ‘ancient preparations’. Lotions and potions for almost any affliction or state of being you could think of, including lethargy, menopause, hair loss, sex drive, PMS, constipation, insomnia, bloating, acne, weight loss etc.
Acqua di Santa Maria Novella is an example of this, made using the same ingredients and method as when it was first concocted in 1614 by Friar Angiolo Machissi. A teaspoon of this tonic mixed into a glass of water is diagnosed to cure hysteria in women. Matt throws a glance my way then back to the salesperson asking if he could buy a crate of these. Jokes aside, this old fashioned remedy is better known nowadays for soothing anxiety and aiding digestion.
Make sure you chat with or at least admire from a distance (hard not to) the quiet-spoken salespeople. They’re extremely good looking, tall, lean, youthful looking with a peculiar old-world wisdom and kind of pale…all but adds to the mysticism of this place and my personal obsession with vampires.
Decide for yourself if this is a living man of the Renaissance
It was purely by chance while walking back from Piazzo Michelangelo we stumbled into this… I guess you could call it a shop? But it’s so much more than that - part studio / art exhibition / museum / science-lab / guitar jam-sesh.
Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos at all. The ones below are from his website but the pieces at the shop are NEXT LEVEL.
Not that there were any ‘No Photo’ signs. It just felt kind of disrespectful to while the master of the lair, Alessandro Dari was sitting with a couple of his assistants right there in plain sight. He toils away at a new masterpiece under an enormous bright crystal ball that I later learn is another of his creations to emulate the sun without the heat.
From far, the ‘shop’ window display looks very gothic and medieval in style, like a miniature set of dungeons and dragons albeit a pretty one. Then a sparkle caught my eye and being the magpie I am, I had to investigate.
My jaw hit the ground when I discovered the most spectacular pieces of jewellery I’d ever laid eyes on. Those who know me will realise how big a statement this is because I’ve had a life long affair with jewellery and it’s fair to say I’ve inspected a fair amount. So intricate were the designs and each finely crafted with such expertise I lost my breath. Same with everyone else visiting, all walking around in stunned silence.
Influenced by Gothic, Etruscan, Classical and Renaissance periods, there are rings, crosses, crowns, necklaces - many ofd which are oversized statement pieces - as well as clocks, musical boxes and statues. A lot of them also have working mechanical parts (for example a piece by the door called ‘Perception of Time’ that incorporates sound and light) and all are covered in precious gems, pearls, corals and different metals, each more extraordinary than the last. The theme of alchemy runs throughout all the collections while some are more focused on anatomy, religion, architecture, history and nature.
There are so many awe-inspiring pieces, it would be impossible to list, you just have to go and see them for yourself. But there’s one piece that struck me above others. It was a type of clock (I think) or some type of mechanical device with cogs whirring everywhere and a small waterfall trickling from a pond, which held a pearl sized orb that appeared to have a tiny bolt of lightening strike it (an actual electrical spark) methodically from a metal object above; all encased in a large glass bubble… hmmm this is a terrible description, but you get the idea - mix of art and alchemy and detailed!
Along the back of the shop is a gigantic pile of magazines, books and other publications that all sing his praise. Dari, who was formally educated in pharmaceuticals and also studied fine arts boasts an impressive list of accolades. Many of his works are displayed in exhibitions and museums including the Museo degli Argenti in the Palazzo Pitti and the Cathedral of Fiesole. In 2006 he was appointed by the Vatican as their artist of choice. He's also a musician and is often playing guitar at the shop. Is there anything this guy doesn't do?
I heard he was once offered a blank cheque for an entire case of his work and he refused, wishing the pieces to be enjoyed by many not just one. If that’s not a true artist, I don't know what is.
He’s now teaching courses so if you’re inspired to learn from the master, click here for more info.
Take a break from Italian food and head to Chinatown
Don’t hate me for this! I know it's a controversial one, since it's a sin not to relish every morsel of Cucina Italiana in Florence but Chinese food here is surprisingly REALLY good.
No it’s not just because we’d eaten our way through a lifetime worth of pasta, pizza and bread in a matter of weeks… the Chinese food in this small slice of Florence is considered authentic and delicious to actual Chinese people standards!
I'm not sure if this part of the city is officially a Chinatown but it's a few interlinking streets crammed with Asian restaurants and grocers right between the San Lorenzo Market and Mercato Centrale.
We absolutely loved Chongqing restaurant (Via Sant'Antonino, 34r, 50123 Firenze, Ph: 055 290010), so much so that had two lunches and considered a third in the space of a week. The spicy fish soup is their specialty and my personal fave is the stir fried eggplant.
Like any authentic Chinese restaurant, you get real bang for your buck. Larger than life portions and as much rice as you desire. We didn’t need dinner afterwards. The downside? You can forget about any sightseeing plans after eating here #foodcoma
Florence is a world class walking art and history museum but it has so much more to offer. These are just few of my favourite things to do. Have I missed anything? I would love to hear what you like to do off the beaten track in Florence or other cities.