On our self-guided walking tour of Florence, you'll get an inside look at several interesting places that were prominent in Florence's history with a few food stops along the way. We'll visit an interesting museum inside a former monastery, the central market, an inexpensive trattoria across the river, a good gelato shop, Florence's oldest building, and the Piazza della Repubblica.
Florence Walk Introduction
Our Florence walk starts in Piazza San Marco. If you're coming from the train station, walk on Via Nazionale to Piazza Independenza, then turn right on Via Ventisette Aprile. From the Duomo and Baptistery, walk on Via Martelli and continue straight on Via Cavour. (Find the Accademia on this Florence map and zoom in to see Piazza San Marco just above it.)
Piazza San Marco is a major bus hub so it's pretty easy to get there by bus from anywhere in Florence. The number 7 bus from Fiesole stops in Piazza San Marco, too.
When you arrive at the square, have a coffee (standing at the bar to save money) in the Grand Caffe San Marco. Then we're ready to start our tour - continue to page 2, Museo di San Marco.
Note: Although we'll cross Ponte Vecchio and go into the historic center, this tour does not include the Top Things to Do in Florence.
Piazza San Marco and San Marco Museum in Florence
Cross Piazza San Marco to the San Marco church and look inside to see the altar crucifix by Fra Angelico. Then go into the Museo di San Marco beside the church. This is not your usual church museum, in fact, we found it to be one of the more interesting museums in Florence. Inside are frescoes by Fra Beato Angelico, relics of Savonarola, and artifacts from medieval Florence.
The San Marco Museum is housed in what were the cloisters of the monastery, taken over in 1437 by the Dominican order and funded by Lorenzo de Medici. Fra Angelico was one of the monks who lived there and he painted frescoes in many of the monk's cells. Upstairs is the Annunciation, one of his most famous works, and cells along the corridors where you can see frescoes.
Another famous resident was Savonarola (the righteous monk who decried the decadence of Florence's art to end the Renaissance period) and you can see his cell and relics. The large library with an exhibit of important manuscripts was where Savonarola was finally arrested in 1498.
Downstairs are paintings and frescoes by Fra Angelico and other 15th century artists, including a large Last Supper in the bookstore. A long hallway holds interesting relics from what was once Florence's medieval center, destroyed to make way for modernization and the Piazza della Repubblica in the 1860's (more about that when we get to Piazza della Repubblica at the end of our walk, page 7).
Next, we'll make our way to the central market. Turn right at the exit and walk past the Galleria dell' Accademia, then turn right on Via degli Alfani and left on Via Sant Orsola.
San Lorenzo Market, Florence's Central Market
As you approach Piazza del Mercato you'll see stalls outside selling leather goods, clothing, and souvenirs. Continue through the stalls until you see a door into the large building that houses Florence's central market, San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale.
The central market was once the main shopping center in Florence for fresh foods but as supermarkets sprang up and more people had cars, the market became less important. Recently foreign immigrants, tourists, and a renewed interest in fresh, local foods have helped the market stay busy.
Even if you don't want to buy anything, it's worth taking a look around the market. You may see foods you've never seen in a market before, like several kinds of cow stomachs and intestines at the Tripperia. There are stands selling all kinds of fowl, meats (including wild boar), and fish.
Of interest to the tourist are shops selling local Tuscan products including wine, biscotti, cheeses, and salami. One of Florence's best-known delicatessens is Perini, where you can taste samples and stock up on picnic items.
If you're hungry and an adventurous eater, stop by Nerbone for an inexpensive lampredotto (cow's stomach) sandwich, a specialty of Florence.
Next, we'll walk across the river for lunch at an inexpensive trattoria. Walk down Via Sant Antonino toward the train station. Along the street watch for La Norcineria (at number 19), an interesting store specializing in pork products. Turn right toward the station, continue in front of the station on the road that curves to the left and heads to Ponte Vespucci, the bridge you'll take to cross the river.
Lunch at Trattoria Sabatino
Our friend Kyle Philips, took us to one of his favorite restaurants in Florence (where he lived for many years) - Trattoria Sabatino. But before we get there, let's take another look at lampredotto at the Lampredottaio di San Frediano, one of Florence's best lampredotto stands (and a good place for a really cheap street food meal).
Cross the Arno River on Ponte Vespucci and go straight to Borgo San Frediano (the third street). There you'll see a white cart with a few tables outside. Besides lampredotto panini (sandwiches) they serve pork, tripe, and sausage panini and even a few pasta and meat courses. This is traditional Florentine street food.
But we're heading to the other side of the wall, through Porta San Frediano (the gate) to Via Pisana, 2/r. Here you'll find Trattoria Sabatino, filled with locals.
Trattoria Sabatino has been around since 1956. They serve inexpensive lunches and dinners on weekdays (closed Saturday and Sunday). Three of us ate lunch for 42 Euros (fall, 2008) that included a pasta course, meat course, and side dish along with a half liter of wine and mineral water.
There's a new menu daily that includes dishes they almost always have and a few seasonal dishes. Our first course dishes were a black cabbage and rice soup, tortelli stuffed with potato, and an unusual pasta, pasta sulle rigaglie di pollo, a sauce made with chicken giblets and cockscombs. Pasta and soups were priced at 3.50 to 3.70 Euros. Portions aren't huge but two courses were plenty filling. Meats and fowl ranged from 4.50 to 5.10 Euros. There are a few basic antipasto dishes and several tempting desserts, too. Although nothing fancy, the food was excellent.
Save room for gelato, our next stop. Go back through the wall and walk along the river to the next bridge, Ponte Carraia.
Gelato, Ponte Vecchio, and the Historic Center of Florence
Our next stop is Gelateria La Carraia in Piazza N. Sauro by Ponte Carraia. They serve excellent homemade gelato in a variety of flavors. My cone with two flavors cost one euro. They also have another store, Gelateria La Carraia 2, at Via Benci 24/r.
Walk on the street that continues along the river until you get to the Ponte Vecchio, or old bridge, lined with shops. Built in 1345, this was the first bridge in Florence to cross the Arno River. It's also the only medieval bridge to survive the bombings of World War II.
Cross the river on the Ponte Vecchio and continue walking straight to Piazza della Signoria (slightly off to the right). This square is the heart of Florence's historic center. You'll see lots of sculptures around the square and in the loggia, including a copy of Michelangelo's David.
Next, we're going to see what is probably Florence's oldest building. Exit the piazza on the north and walk up Via dei Cerchi.
The Oldest Building in Florence
What's believed to be Florence's oldest building is a tower dating from the ninth century, Torre Bizantina della Pagliuzza. From Piazza della Signoria, walk up Via dei Cerchi. Cross Via del Corso and continue straight on Via Sant Elisabetta, then look for the Hotel Brunelleschi on the left.
The restored tower and the medieval church, San Michele in Palchetto, are now part of the hotel. Inside the tower part of the hotel is a private museum with medieval ceramics found during the restoration and the remains of a Roman bath (one of the few Roman remains in Florence).
Next, we're heading to Piazza della Repubblica so backtrack to Via del Corso and turn right.
Note: If you want to see the Duomo now, continue on Via Sant Elisabetta until it ends, then take a left and a quick right. This will put you in Piazza dell Duomo.
Piazza della Repubblica
In Piazza della Repubblica we've come full circle. Remember those remains of medieval Florence we saw in San Marco Museum? Here's where they came from.
As you enter the piazza, you'll see a big arch with an inscription on top (shown in the photo). It refers to this area of Florence as squalor that had to be cleaned up and given new life. What was once an important market center in medieval times became the modern Piazza della Repubblica when Florence was the capital of the newly unified country of Italy (1865-1871).
Piazza della Repubblica is ringed with cafes with outside tables (with high service charges) used mainly by tourists. Florentines still frequent the cafes but you'll find them inside where prices are lower, according to Kristin Stasiowski of Context Florence.
Two cafes on the square are major cultural monuments. Donnini Pasticceria has the best coffee in Florence (and great pastries), according to Kristen. It's one of the historical cafes where intellectuals and writers used to hang out in the late 19th century. Inside you'll see old pictures of Florence.
Next door is Giubbe Rosse, filled with contemporary art. It's stocked with newspapers, magazines, and news of cultural events. Inside, the popular lunch buffet is 5 euro and in the evening there's an antipasto buffet that comes with the price of a drink, 4 euro for a glass of prosecco (prices as of fall, 2008). There's no service charge at either place for sitting inside but remember that you'll pay a hefty price for outside service.
Our walking tour ends here. You can go inside Donnini for a coffee or if it's late enough, go into Giubbe Rosse and enjoy an apertivo.
To return to Piazza San Marco, exit the square the way you came in. Turn left on Via dei Calzaiuoli, pass through Piazza San Giovanni and continue straight. This becomes Via Cavour and leads to Piazza San Marco.