Meg had the worst day of her entire life in Piazza San Marco. A few summers back, the girl with the worst case of ornithophobia (irrational fear of birds) that I have ever seen, found herself face-against-wing with a neurotic pigeon. After three years of crippling flashbacks, and excessive face-scrubbing, Meg is still recovering. Not to stir-up the memories, Meg, but such an anecdote seems the only way to kick off the San Marco Neighborhood walk. Despite the traumatic, tragic events of that summer morning in Florence, the San Marco neighborhood remains one of our very favorites in Florence. Quiet streets abound, open unmarked doors leading to Renaissance masterpieces await discovery, and secret gardens are tucked behind the towering palazzi. Not to mention, Meg and I called this neighborhood, for some time, home. Located on the far north end of the city center, tourists almost all peter-out before reaching Piazza San Marco, allowing you to take in the neighborhood all to yourself – well yourself and a few hundred sassy pigeons.
Start your walk off right with one of our top choices for a cappuccino in town, conveniently located in Piazza San Marco at Gran Caffé San Marco, and study your route.
Time: 3 hours
Distance: 4 km
Piazza San Marco
After a relaxing beverage at the bar, head outside to the traffic and commuter-filled Piazza San Marco. So yes, at first glance we may not feel the heart-soaring romance of its sister piazze. However, the importance of the piazza today (and over the past several centuries) plucks at our history-minded heartstrings. Carefully cross the street to the center of the square and grab a bench. For most, these benches serve as a convenient spot to await their bus, leaving little time to admire the strapping bronze man towering above them.
Meet Manfredo Fanti. Fanti was a war hero during the Italian unification, and after the war, organized the first national army of Italy. If you’ve been sharpening your artist’s eye since you arrived in Florence, you may notice that the statue of Fanti is reminiscent of a statue in Piazza della Signoria (wow, we’re impressed if you noticed that!). The same artist who created the oh-so-dramatic The Rape of Polyxena for the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria, Pio Fedi, is also the sculptor of Signor Fanti.
Chiesa di San Marco
Now that you have a fact in your pocket that pretty much nobody else in Florence knows, let’s move on to the crown of the Piazza – the Church and Convent of San Marco. In the Renaissance, the churches and politics of Florence were one in the same, and the convent of San Marco was no exception. The Dominicans moved into the convent in 1435 and made one smart move by quickly befriending the original Cosimo de’ Medici. The banker-turned-indirect-tyrant of Florence funded a renovation of the entire complex and insisted that his own private cell (room) was built amongst the monks’ for his personal prayer and meditation. Cosimo loaned the Medici architect, Michelozzo, for design, and asked Fra Angelico (one of Florence’s most renowned Renaissance artists, and a recent addition to the Vatican’s to-do list for Saint canonizations) to adorn Michelozzo’s walls with his masterpieces.
Not all members of the convent were saints though. Fra Girolamo Savonarola caused quite a stink at the end of the 15th century with his radical teachings on materialism. In a golden age of art, music and indulgence in life in general, it is no surprise that Savonarola’s encouragement to (quite literally) burn it all were not well received by the aristocracy. Savonarola’s dynamic sermons caught on like wildfire (pun intended) and even engulfed artist Sandro Botticelli, who contributed some of his masterpieces as fuel for the Bonfires of the Vanities. [Insert mega cringe here]. The feisty friar was eventually executed (by fire, to continue on with the theme I suppose) smack dab in the center of Piazza della Signoria for all of Florence to see. Suddenly, the community which avidly followed his teachings was cheering on his death. Man, those Florentines, they’ll turn on you like that!
You can check out the Dominicans’ cells, each decorated with a fresco by Fra Angelico, for five euro in the Museo di San Marco, which occupies the old convent. OR you can save your money and check out the church for free. Although most are drawn to see the masterpieces of Fra Angelico in the convent, the church isn’t exactly thirsting for impressive Renaissance art. The magnificent altarpiece features another talented brother, Fra Bartolomeo. Make sure to say a quick hello to poet and true Renaissance Man, Agnolo Poliziano, buried in the church, while there.
As you head out of the church, turn to your right and then take another sharp right around the side of the building. In about 20 meters notice the entrance to the old Pharmacy of San Marco. The pharmacy was known for stomach elixir and its rose water, a wrinkle preventing agent.
Il Chiostro dello Scalzo
Now that we’ve noted the obvious, let’s find the gem hidden in the shadow of San Marco. Cross the street and find a door ajar at 69 Via Cavour. Past the threshold lies the fantastic gray-scale frescoed cloister by Andrea del Sarto. Hidden masterpieces such as this are pretty much the reason why Meg and I dedicated a few years of our lives to Art History. Hours are limited (Monday, Thursday, and Saturday from 8:15am – 1:50pm), so make sure to plan your walk accordingly. Do a little pre-reading with Meg’s informative article about the cloister here. Oh, and per usual, it’s free.
Cenacolo of Sant’ Apollonia
Time to move from one hidden surprise to the next (you’re starting to see why we love San Marco, right?). Head back south on Via Cavour and take your first right on Via degli Arazzieri. One block down the road, just past Via San Gallo, and on your left is the entrance to the Cenacolo of Sant’ Apollonia. What’s a cenacolo you say? While Meg provides a much more interesting definition here, in a nutshell, it’s a Last Supper depiction usually on the wall of the dining hall of a convent or monastery. And in Renaissance Italy, these dining halls were a big deal. At most convents and monasteries, the sisters or brothers were not allowed to communicate during the meal. Eating in silence is pretty awkward unless you have something great to look at. The result? Some of the most notable Renaissance masterpieces (ahem, anyone heard of da Vinci’s Last Supper?). Although it’s no da Vinci, you can see a much brighter, preserved and more economical masterpiece for free here at Sant’ Apollonia. Castagno’s Last Supper scene was for no eyes but the nuns until the 19th century, when the government took over the grounds. This means you are one of a select few of the public that has had the opportunity to since indulge. Learn more about Castagno’s illusionistic tricks and secret symbols from Meg here.
University of Florence
Head back to Via San Gallo and hang a left. The further you stroll, notice how souvenir shops swap out with more practical business, such as hardware stores and laundromats. You’ll likely pass a hip bar or two and notice a younger, more local crowd. That can only mean one thing – you’re at the heart of the University of Florence. If Florence had a “college-town bar district,” (it doesn’t) this might be it. Also, you didn’t hear it from us, but you might be able to sniff out a secret bakery if you’re taking this walk at 3 am.
Let your walk take you all the way to the busy Viale, which delineates city center, and push just past to…
Piazza della Libertà
This spot marks the former Porta San Gallo, an important northern city gate of medieval Florence. Piazza Porta San Gallo, as it was formerly called, was originally constructed in the 14th century; however, it has since undergone many renovations. One such renovation was the tearing down of the city walls, and another, the construction of the Triumphal Arch celebrating the arrival of the Lorena dynasty in Florence.
Cross back across the Viale, but this time turn left instead of entering back into the city center. Walk along the strada until you reach Piazza Donatello. Stop and smell the roses at the English Cemetery if you are so drawn in, or turn right onto Borgo Pinti. To your left you will find yourself quickly at the entrance to the Four Seasons Hotel. Wait, is Florence for Free really taking you to one of the most expensive hotels in the city? Yep, you bet.
Giardino della Gherardesca
The great thing and the terrible thing about the Giardino della Gherardesca is that it is owned by the Four Seasons. The hotel preserves these remarkable Renaissance gardens while weeding out (pun intended, again!) any and all crowds. By default of its high-brow owners, the garden has maintained a certain prestige that makes you feel like a true principessa once inside. The gardens are open to the public, but if you want to feel sneaky (like me), play the part of “celebrity in Florence” and pretend you’re staying there. Casually stroll into the gardens (easy to find from the lobby) as if you are a guest waiting for your party to come downstairs. Once you’ve slipped in, you’re golden. You are in your very own secret, delightful, magical garden. But where did such playful gardens pop up from? Originally the property was home to Bartolommeo Scala, who built the garden for simple recreation. In his plan he included a garden, nursery, and even a grove that was designed in such a way that it would catch small birds for Scala’s delight. The garden was redesigned to be more classically English in the eighteenth century.
When your royal fantasies come to a close, head south on Borgo Pinti. Turn right on Via Giuseppe Giusti and then take a left of Via Gino Capponi. In a hop and a skip, arrive at…
Piazza Santissima Annunziata
We’ve brought you to this Piazza many times before to tell the tale of its fascinating history, warn you of the ghosts who roam the square, and visit Florence’s best hipster hangout north of the Arno. Well, guess what, we’ve brought you back. Because every time we walk through this piazza, we seem to appreciate Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti even more. We learn a bit more about Ferdinando de’ Medici standing proudly on his horse, and we can’t resist popping into the church of Santissima Annunziata when we’re craving a little crazy Baroque. If nothing else, grab a seat on the steps of the Ospedale and do a little people-watching in this pedestrian piazza.
Galleria dell’ Accademia
Head west out of the Piazza and find yourself right back where we started – Piazza San Marco. But don’t worry, this walk isn’t over yet. Take an immediate left on Via Ricasoli. If you chose to take this walk in the middle of the day, you’ll notice throngs of tourists bottle-necking outside of a rather bland looking building. Ah, that’s right. You’re at the Accademia. We won’t take you inside (trust us, we have free museums tips to save you from the heavy tourist traffic). But it wouldn’t be a FFF tour if we didn’t swing you by at least one celebrity home, and this one is home to Michelangelo’s David himself. To learn more about David’s whirlwind adventure to Via Ricasoli, check out Meg’s walking tour in the footsteps of il Gigante here.
Continue down Via Ricasoli and hang a right on Via degli Alfani. In one block you’ll see…
The Golden Arches of Hope
…also known as McDonald’s. Hey, we heard that scoff! But odds are by now that cappuccino is catching up with you, and guess where some of the only free bathrooms in all of Florence are? Oh, yeah, you’re welcome.
In conclusion, yes, Meg did have the worst day of her life in the San Marco neighborhood, but she, and we, also had our very bests. With peek-a-boo art, quiet streets, a taste of real residential Florence within the old city walls, glamorous gardens, and historical piazzas, San Marco simply does it for us.
And our very favorite San Marco space? A little terrace off of Via Micheli that Meg and I used to call our very own. We cry over that terrace everyday. EVERYDAY.