neighborhood crawl: santo spirito

If you manage to fight through the downtown crowds and slip over a packed Ponte Vecchio, you’ll encounter a much easier, even more delightful Florentine experience. We’ve explored part of the San Niccolo neighborhood on our San Miniato hike, but this crawl is dedicated to my favorite city quartiere  – Santo Spirito.

Piazza Santo Spirito, Florence by Scottiddle, on Flickr

Piazza Santo Spirito by Scottiddle

This walk will take you past a famous palace built for decadent rulers, through one of the greatest open-air hangouts in the city, to a piazza named for prostitutes. And if you have a bit of dough to spend, the area is home to some of the city’s hippest and most satisfying bars and restaurants.

santo spirito walking map

click for interactive map and to enter your starting location

Distance: 2 km (about 1.2 miles)
Time: 25 minute walk in total, plus time (up to a day!) for leisurely exploring
Cost: $0

Start out by crossing the Ponte Vecchio. At the bridge’s end, walk straight ahead, looking for a small piazza on your left with a church tucked in the back corner. Welcome to Santa Felicita, one of the oldest worship sites in the city, although the current structure mostly dates back to the 18th century. Head here when open in the early morning and venture in under the Vasari Corridor (the arch-shaped interruption in the church’s facade), which also doubled as a private balcony the Medici could worship from without mingling with ordinary plebs.

Piazza Santa Felicita by Pavdw, on Flickr

Piazza Santa Felicita with view of the Vasari Corridor by Pavdw

The inside is certainly inspired by the style of Renaissance heavyweight Brunelleschi – the man who solved the riddle of the cathedral dome. He even designed the chapel immediately to the entrance’s right, today known as the Capponi Chapel, which features two masterpieces by Mannerist favorite Jacopo Pontormo. If you like trippy colors and twisted bodies, this chapel is a don’t miss.

Peruse the other artwork lining the side aisles before stepping back out onto Via de’ Guicciardini, which soon opens up into Piazza de’ Pitti. The palace’s monstrous façade rises above a stone slope where you’ll find many visitors soaking up rays. Find your own place on the hill and enjoy prime people watching.

Palazzo Pitti

Palazzo Pitti via Wikipedia

{ While not free, Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens might be Florence’s greatest one-two punch. The palace is the second home to Duke Cosimo I de Medici and his wife Eleonora (who couldn’t take the roar of the lions in this piazzaso she moved her home across the river – seriously). Skip the lines at the Uffizi and opt for this more palatial experience with Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, and other Renaissance giants before wandering the serene grounds out back. }

Once you’ve adequately warmed your soul on the stone hill, head further up the road towards Via Romana. You’ll pass the small church of San Felice on your right, and eventually La Specola on your left. Take note of this zoology museum – it’s stuffed with specimens and unusual creatures. It does have an entry fee (embalming is apparently expensive), but there are some nights you can sneak in for free – we’ll keep you posted!

Turn right down Via del Campuccio and make the next right again at Via Caldaie. Soak up a charming Italian neighborhood as you make your way into Piazza Santo Spirito.

{ Detour – If you’re craving American treats, especially bagels, take a quick left down Via della Chiesa to Mama’s Bakery. It’s the saving grace of all U.S. explorers in the area. }

Piazza Santo Spirito

Hanging out in Piazza Santo Spirito

The main attraction is always the charming, genuine gathering spot in front of Santo Spirito. Here, Italian hipsters and European ex-pats can partake in some of the country’s most celebrated traditions – sitting quietly, chatting with friends, and enjoying the view, food and drink. Neighborhood characters constantly come out of the woodwork to contribute to the piazza’s vibrant evening life, which sometimes features free concerts.

Depending on what day and time you happen upon the area, you may run into any number of markets. Each second Sunday morning of each month there is a farmer’s market teeming with fresh produce and local products. And every third Sunday morning of each month there is a lively antiques market brimming with treasures and trinkets. Needless to say, both are free to browse – just try not to drool on the merchandise.

But even if you miss the markets (or an eccentric busker or two) the unadorned façade of the church is enough to make you take pause – preferably on the church’s steps, where a number of other visitors will be camped out, just because.

Santo Spirito facade

Quite literally jumping for joy in front of the church

Santo Spirito itself is a vital, complex church worthy of its own post (it’s another Brunelleschi treasure), but here we would be remiss to mention that it offers free entry daily from 9:30am – 12:30pm, and in the evenings from 4-5:30pm. Avoid visiting on Wednesdays, when the doors are closed for good.

{ Another aside – this piazza is home to some of the most fun and affordable eateries in the city. Volume pours a mean glass of prosecco and offers a free aperitivo that rivals any other in the area, Borgo Antica serves some of the largest fresh seafood platters I’ve ever seen, and Gusta Pizza creates heart-shaped Margaritas for customers they like the looks of. Casalinga is also a neighborhood favorite and famous for its large portions at low prices. Needless to say, if you are looking to enjoy good Italian food on a budget, don’t wander too far from this Piazza. }

If you can stand it, tear yourself from the church’s steps, fighting the urge to feast at a Gusta outpost, and head towards Via Maggio. Once there, turn left until you reach St. Mark’s English Church. (You’ll know it by the very white, very new statue of St. Mark on the wall).

Turn right across the street and continue until you happen upon one of Florence’s most enchanting little piazzas – Piazza della Passera, of the Sparrow, or [insert word for lady’s unmentionables here].

Vespa PX by PegaPPP, on Flickr

Diners enjoying the piazza’s modern-day evening charms by PegaPPP

Now we’ve already discovered that Italians are simultaneously very poetic yet matter-of-fact in their naming conventions (Cloister of the Barefooted, anyone?), but this may take the cake for best square nickname. Legend has it that the right person could find a quality brothel nearby, lending the area its unofficial title. Today, the only half-dressed ladies you’ll see are women enjoying sunshine at one of a few charming cafes – Caffè degli Artigiani, 5 e Cinque (a delicious vegan-friendly spot), or perhaps the most famous, 4 Leoni. Anthony Hopkins frequented the last establishment when he filmed Hannibal in Florence, and while I can’t vouch for his favorite fish dish, I can confirm that the cheesecake is unparalleled.

buontalenti fountain face oltrarno

Buontalenti fountain on the Oltrarno

So we’d recommend soaking up some of the (surely scandalous) history that haunts the piazza before making your way out on the diagonal of Via dello Sprone. You’ll know you’re at the right place when you reach a funny angular corner with a wonderful Buontalenti fountain face spurting its stream at you.

Ponte Santa Trinita and Ponte Vecchio at sunset

Sunset photos on the Ponte Santa Trinita

Take a right to retreat back to the river and over Ponte Santa Trinita. If you’re here in the evening hours, this bridge is the ideal place to take sunset photos with the Ponte Vecchio as your scenic backdrop.

The bustling city center beckons – but we won’t tell anyone if you turn around to take refuge in Santo Spirito’s nooks and crannies.

One comment

  1. Nice! Looooove me some Gusta Pizza!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: