Ok, ok ok ok. I know. Fiesole isn’t Florence. But there are so many things right about Fiesole, that a post about a free afternoon in this history-packed, pinch-its-cheeks, view-booting village that I am willing to compromise the name of this blog. Sue me.
Also, it’s on the Florence bus line so we’re calling it good.
Annnddd…..compromise number two – unless you want to hoof it to the top or bribe a bus driver (both conceivable options), you’ll have to cough up some euro cents for a bus ticket to tote you from Florence to Fiesole.
Ok, now that we’ve cleared the air on those accounts, start your walk by checking the 10-day forecast and picking the perfect sunny afternoon. Grab a bus schedule and head to Piazza San Marco. From here hop on Line 7. The bus ride to the top is half the fun so grab a window seat (right side of the bus to optimize views). The windy road will take you up the side of the hill that lies north of Florence. Olive groves, villas dotting the hillside, convents, monasteries, and a bird’s eye view of Florence makes the 20 minute ride the best public transportation experience on this side of the Atlantic. One of my least favorite feelings is stressing about missing my bus stops, especially when there is a great view to enjoy. Conveniently, the ride up to Fiesole is worry free, as the main square of town is the last stop on the line. So you can’t miss it – literally, the bus driver will kick you off.
As you switch back and forth up the hillside, let’s talk history. When it comes to ancient history, Fiesole smokes Florence. Evidence of civilization dates back to 5,000 BC and ruins from the advanced Etruscan settlement on the hillside date to the 3rd century BC. While the Etruscans really started the party in Fiesole, the Romans (as they do) swooped in and took over around the year 0. The Romans added their typical touches – a forum, a few pagan temples, planned streets, and the like. The Romans loved this Tuscan oasis and even made it a religious center of the empire, where young boys were sent to learn divination and begin training as augurs.
The town became an important center for Christians as the new religion began to spread throughout the empire. In the 1st century St. Romulus, an apostle of St. Peter, made his way to Fiesole and converted just about the whole bunch before the Romans had enough of him. Romulus’ influence was vast in the area and the city remained an important religious center throughout the middle ages, even warranting its own bishop.
Today, practically considered a suburb, it is hard to believe that Fiesole once loomed over little Florence. However, over the years, the people of Fiesole watched, often in fear, as the city below expanded.
Competition brewed between the adjacent towns as their borders crept closer. By the year 1125 tension came to a head and Florence officially overtook Fiesole – a chip that Fiesolans (?) still wear on their shoulders. The formerly political and religious stronghold of Fiesole quickly became the equivalent of the Hamptons for wealthy Florentine families. The Medici were obviously all over the real estate and other prominent families were quick to follow. Throughout the centuries many others found similar relaxation, reprieve and inspiration in the city such as Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Frank Lloyd Wright, to name a few.
And with that, the bus driver is now probably hassling you to get off the bus, and it’s time to start your walk!
Jump off and take in Piazza Mino da Fiesole (Fiesole’s most famous sculptor and second most famous artist on a whole – Fra Angelico beat him out). If your adventure happens to land on the first Sunday of the month, then step out and enjoy a piazza bustling around the antiques market. Go raid your nonna’s closet and check out the vintage records, costume jewelry, trinkets, furniture and more. If your visit falls any other time of the month however, don’t despair as the piazza never fails to charm. Children run freely around the square, an elderly couple relaxes on the bench, and if you’re like me you’re probably thinking, “I could live here, like live live with a real family and all.” Although the people of Fiesole may not see it this way, it seems to me that the Florentine triumph was actually a blessing in disguise, as it kept the city quaint and it retained a certain calm that is scarce to find in the bustling city below.
Ok, enough picturing your life in Fiesole with your half-Italian bambini, let’s take a stroll. The Cathedral is the most prominent structure in the piazza, so let’s head there first. While the unassuming façade indicates “just another run of the mill church in Europe” the interior is worth a peak.
If you happened to visit San Miniato prior, you will find the cool, cavernous, classically Romanesque architecture familiar. The Cathedral was constructed almost a solid 1,000 years ago in the year 1028 BC, over the site where St. Romulus was believed to have been martyred by some angry pagans. His relics can be found in the crypt of the church. For the art lovers, feast your eyes on some original Perugino, Giovanni della Robbia, and Mino da Fiesole himself.
Heading back into Piazza Mino da Fiesole, gravitate toward those two bros on horses exchanging a friendly high-five (or something like that). Here we see Victor Emmanuel II (the first King of Italy) and Giuseppe Garibaldi (an important Italian general who helped create the monarch of Italy) in their famous meeting in October of 1860. Did this happen in Fiesole? No. Were either of these men ever even in Fiesole? Maybe? It’s just a nice centerpiece ok, so don’t ask us too many questions.
Behind the statue lies, what many have called, the most impressive Etruscan museum in the world. Yes, admission is charged at the door, but enough artifacts decorate the outside of the museum that we think, for the non-Etruscan history buff, you can steal a pretty good peak.
Finally, to the right of the museum is tucked the teeny tiny, 10th-century church (but really this is almost just a shrine) of Santa Maria Primerana. It is here that the people of Fiesole believed to have seen apparitions of Mother Mary herself. Today the pocket-sized chapel attracts more art enthusiasts than pilgrims however, as the small space is packed with big names such as Francesco da Sangallo, Andrea della Robbia, and Ludovico Buti.
Step out of the Primerana to get a picture perfect elevated view of the piazza from the museum and church’s terrace.
Then, do a 180 and head up Via Giuseppe Verde which runs along the south side of the piazza, located to your right when facing the church. Brightly colored homes, a park or two, and window boxes of flowers that will make you want to run to the nearest flower market, will most likely distract you from the intense grade of the hill.
Just when you start to feel those glutes burning, you’ll come to a break in the buildings that opens up to a breath-taking view of the valley and Florence below. An old stone wall will keep the Arcophobic (those with a fear of heights – yes I had to google it) feeling safe and sound.
Just below, an olive grove slopes down the hillside and the rich and famous boast balconies to drool over. In fact, the one that splits the road ahead, belonged to Frank Lloyd Wright. With this view, no wonder the guy was a creative genius.
Frank’s yellow Tuscan cottage creates a fork in the road. For this walk, peel to the left of the house on Via di Belvedere. Enjoy more quaint and quiet streets until the road forks once more, again peel left on Via A. Mari. Follow Via A. Mari for another 10 minutes or so, enjoying views along the perimeter of the town.
When you come to Via Giacomo Matteotti, take yet another left, looping you around the city. In about 5 minutes, notice Via Bargellino merge with Matteotti from the right. Jump off the path for a moment and make a pin hair right down Via Bargellino to see, one of our favorite things and yours, ruins! And Etruscan ruins at that. Signs will direct you to a small grassy patch with preserved Etruscan tombs, a glimpse into the city’s ancient past.
Head back up to Via Giacomo Matteotti. In a hop and a skip you’ll be at another lovely overlook and even find a charming little park with a playground to rouse the inner child (when my 25-year-old brother was visiting he just couldn’t resist riding that little toy caterpillar while looking out over his Tuscan domain – hey, he gets his kicks where he can).
When you’ve gotten your fill, jaunt across the street to the small Piazza Ghirlandaio named after the miracle working image of the Madonna completed by Ghirlandaio. Neat, right?!
Follow the road down, back to Piazza Mino da Fiesole. If you think this walk is done then you have something else coming to ya, because we saved the best for last! So grab a gelato and kick your feet up for a few in the piazza if you feel your energy flagging.
When it strikes, let your second wind take you up Via San Francesco, which exits the piazza from the due west side, near the Cathedral. Head up up up the cobblestone road surrounded by tall stone walls.
After a sharp left crook in the road, find steps to your right which lead to a beautiful park. Sure, the park is nice, but the real reason Meg and I brought you here, was that from the east side, looking down towards town, you can get an entirely free glimpse into the impressive Roman theater and excavation site. Unlike Florence, you don’t have to use your imagination to see the city’s Roman past.
Head back to Via San Francesco and continue up for another minute two. After 120 seconds at that steep of a grade, you will be thanking us for pit-stopping you at another charming park, this time to your left. The breathtaking views from this park are why we love it, but also what makes me venture to say that this is perhaps the most PDA packed park in all of Tuscany (and if you have been in Italy for more than a day, you know that’s sayin’ a lot!). Romance thrives in this little park. So if your ragazzo or ragazza ever tries to impress you with a view that you “surely, haven’t seen ever before,” don’t burst their bubble and tell them we took you here first.
Once you’ve had enough of the PDA, hop back on Via San Francesco and keep heading up. Where the road ends look to your left for another picture-perfect view and to your right at the Monastery of San Francesco. The picturesque church challenges you with one more set of steps, but we promise, it’s worth it.
I am ashamed to admit that I never made it to this little slice of heaven until my thesis research brought me here to check out a painting in the summer of 2011. Since then, I visited often finding the serenity of the grassy cloister, the unassuming church, and the thin crowds to be a relaxing and refreshing reprieve. The Franciscan Monastery was built here in 1399. Today not only can the church be viewed, but also the missionary museum (sporting souvenirs that the Franciscans brought home with them from all over the world) as well as many of the monks’ private cells.
After you’re full from binging on the visual feast of Tuscany from the monastery, take a delightful stroll down into town – this time, gravity is on your side. The bus swings by every 15 minutes, so no need to wait too long.
If you completed that whole walk, give yourself a high five because that is totally a Meg and Hannah thing to do. If you were only up for half of it, no judgment here. Fiesole is a town that you simply can’t visit just once, so we have no doubt you’ll get back and see it all and maybe more! Happy hiking!