neighborhood crawl: sant’ ambrogio

Although we don’t like to admit it, there are moments in Italy when we question the authenticity of the scene around us. In cities where tourism is so tightly intertwined with everyday life, it can often be difficult to separate the sincere from the staged. Now don’t get me wrong, I am the first to jump in a picture with a man dressed as a gladiator in front of the Coliseum, but every once in awhile I crave an unadulterated Italian experience…and I find that in the Sant’ Ambrogio neighborhood.

view of the sant’ ambrogio neighborhood from my apartment

Sant’ Ambrogio first captivated me while studying abroad as an undergrad. My apartment was on the top floor of a palazzo on Via dei Macci, in the heart of the neighborhood. The rickety shutters of my kitchen window perfectly framed the cupola of the Duomo. Cats often jumped through the open windows of our non air-conditioned apartment, and Italian men yelled obscenities to us from the street below as we hung our laundry out the window. From the kitchen table, I was able to go full-out Rear Window. I spent hours mesmerized by my eccentric Italian neighbors. The large, loud and thoroughly delightful family met for dinner on their terrace every night at nine. An old woman cared for the most beautiful hanging flower garden I had ever seen. The opera singer practiced his range at least twice a day, windows open. An old man who liked to cool off on hot summer nights strutted across his open-windowed apartment in nothing but his birthday suit. This was Florence, and it was everything I had hoped it would be. An easy ten minute walk from the Duomo, Sant’ Ambrogio sits just far enough from center to filter out most tourists, yet remains close enough to be a vibrant part of the city fabric and easily accessible.

click for interactive map and enter your starting location

Distance: 1.7 km from city center (about 1 mile)

Time: till your heart’s content

Cost: $0

From the Duomo head east on Via dell’Oriuolo. In about five minutes you will come to a small triangular piazza. Continue straight along the side of the gray building (the Post Office). In a moment you will notice that the road forks. Go left (Via Pietrapiana). On your right you will pass a large freestanding loggia with reliefs of fish adorning the top (take note because I’ll take you back here). Go about one more block and find yourself in Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio. You are now in ground zero of what, in my opinion, is Florence’s best people watching – admit it, you love it too.

church of Sant' Ambrogio

church of Sant’ Ambrogio

The Church of Sant’ Ambrogio In front of you is the namesake of this neighborhood – la Chiesa di Sant’ Ambrogio. Although you might be tempted to make friends with the “oh so cool” Italian hipsters rolling their cigarettes on the steps, save it for later and go inside. { Tip: Churches are usually only open in the morning until around noon and won’t reopen until around 4. Go during these hours and you won’t end up like Meg below. }

Step inside the church and breathe a sigh of relief as the large, dimly lit shelter shields you from the hot and hectic piazza. The original structure is rumored to have been constructed in the 4th century to honor the place where St. Ambrose stayed while in Florence. Of course, it has been remodeled significantly since then. The main skeleton of the church you see today was built in the 10th century, and the interior design reeks of the Renaissance. If you’re an art lover, you’ll be giddy to find Renaissance’s celeb artists like Andrea del Verrochio (Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher), Pollaiuolo, and Granacci (one of Michelangelo’s BFF’s) buried here. After paying homage to these boys, look up and check out the walls to see some pretty impressive works of art. Madonna Enthroned with Saints John and Bartholomew by Andrea Orcagna is one of the more well-known works. The church also sports the handy work of Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, Fra Bartolomeo and Cosimo Roselli. As you leave, take one last moment to consider this – you are standing in a building with Roman roots, medieval paintings, and lots of Renaissance men who helped build the glorious city you are in today! Via dei Macci When you leave the church turn to your left and head down Via dei Macci.  At the head of the street, pause to take note of some famous Italian eats around you. To your left is the oh-so-famous Via dei Macci street vendor. I will be 100% honest and tell you I never tried the food, but Florentines rave about it. It is now on my life bucket list of things to do…so add it to yours, too. If you are in a pizza mood try out Pizzaioulo to your right (this place is always bumpin’ so reservations are a must  – 055 – 241171). If you are feeling extra adventurous, like Meg and I once thought, order their famous deep-fried pizza. It’s exactly what it sounds like. If you can finish a whole pizza, please let us know so we can appropriately praise you. windows on via dei macci Mercato di Sant’ Ambrogio If you’re in the mood for something a bit lighter, continue down the street and take your first left. It will spit you into the Sant’ Ambrogio Market. When most tourists want a market experience in Florence they will go to the Mercato Centrale. While the Mercato Centrale does offer a great selection, I find the Sant’ Ambrogio market a bit more authentic. You won’t find tourists loading their backpacks with Italy-shaped bottles of Limoncello here. Instead you’ll find Italian mothers and grandmothers bartering with butchers and buying produce for dinner that night. Take a loop around and acquaint yourself with another big reason why we love Italy  – the FOOD! Sample some cheeses, ogle at the pastries, and buy some fruit grown right in Tuscany.

delish!

Fish Market Loggia and Antiques Market After feasting your eyes and mouths at the market, head back to the neighborhood hub of Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio. With your back towards the church, continue out of the piazza the same way you initially came on Via Pietrapiana. When you get to the large fish loggia I mentioned earlier, halt! Alright, so what the heck is this, why is it covered in fish, and why do used-book salesmen love to sell old Italian “Hustlers” and romance novels under it? Well I can’t answer the last one but I’ll do my best with the first two. This is the loggia of the old fish market that originally stood in the medieval central market (now where the glamorous Piazza della Repubblica is located). Florence became the capital of Italy in 1865, only four years after the country was united. They decided that, in order to be the spokes-city for this neophyte nation, a bit of clean up was in order (they really just wanted to feel as cool as Paris). The central market was one area of town that had become, well, a little sketch. So the market was taken down and the fish market loggia was moved to where we see it today. Can we say that the fish are self-explanatory now?

fish market loggia

fish market loggia

Follow the scents of dust and must through the loggia and into the antiques market. Shopping here is like digging through your grandma’s disheveled closet. Dealers present stacks of just … stuff. You can find anything here from those porcelain dogs that old ladies seem to love to vintage Ferragamo purses. Even if you’re not an interested buyer, poke around so you can tell your friends at parties about “that one time you browsed an Italian antiques market.”

antiques market in piazza dei ciompi

antiques market in piazza dei ciompi

Jewish Neighborhood Once more head back towards our neighborhood hub, Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio. Alright, put your back to the church again and this time take off to the street at one o’clock, Via dei Pilastri. You are instantly enter the small but vibrant Jewish center of Florence. If you have been scouring the city for a good kosher meal, look no further. Take a right onto Via Farini and let the palm trees and majestic green domes of the Synagogue greet you. I would encourage you to go inside, but it costs 5 euro – and 5 euro is not free, thus defeating the purpose of this blog. BUT if you have a few extra euro coins jingling in your pocket knock yourself out! After a stroll through the neighborhood, make the final trek back to Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio.

the great synagogue of florence

the great synagogue of florence

Cool Bar Alright. You’re back in the Piazza, your dogs are barkin’, and the sun is setting. What now? Well, as I mentioned earlier, you are in ground zero for people watching, and, as true with any city, the later it gets the more interesting the people become. Find yourself an empty step on the church and take a good look around. This piazza gets a lot of traffic at night because of Caffe’ Sant’ Ambrogio, or as my friends and I have so aptly named it – Cool Bar. Italians LOVE Cool Bar and it seems as though Americans have yet to discover it, or, if they are like me, not felt cool enough to try it (took me 3 years!). At night, the bar spills out into the street offering you, the people-watcher, the opportunity to watch cool people, with their cool dogs, sipping their cool drinks, in their cool outfits. If you are adventurous, or just really cool, venture in for what is a very coolaperitivo. So you spent your day like a REAL Italian and your wallet is as fat as it was this morning! Thank you Sant’ Ambrogio! It feels great! Oh and if you hear any rogue opera coming from a window on Via dei’ Macci or look up and find a naked old man walking around his apartment, please tell them that Hannah says “ciao.” For a printable guide to take with you click below! sant’ ambrogio neighborhood crawl

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5 comments

  1. […] designed-the-Duomo fame) built a loggia to cover a marketplace to sell grain – similar to the fish market near Sant’Ambrogio.  His structure was expanded on and improved upon, taking on the tall, square structure we see […]

  2. […] The mother of all food markets. Both indoor and outdoor, everything from local produce to gourmet meats and cheeses are up for sale. One of the harder fairs to browse without buying something – don’t say we didn’t warn you! […]

  3. Awesome blog! Cheers Hannah 🙂

  4. […] chains: Centro, Conad, Coop, Despar, Esselunga, Metà, Sidis Daily food markets: Mercato Centrale, Mercato Sant’ Ambrogio (no sandwiches here) *Know of another? Leave the address in the comments and we’ll be sure to […]

  5. […] that makes me sad. but continue reading up on sant’ambrogio market on this cool blog called florence for free – they rave about it […]

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