Many summers ago, I took a train from my then-home in Switzerland to Tuscany, where I’d booked a week’s stay for a culinary retreat. I had visited Florence, Italy, the “cradle of the Renaissance,” before and dreamed of returning. Florence was a logical stop on my way to San Quirico d’Orcia, but was it a smart thing to do in high season? When I could book a centrally located, reasonably priced hotel without difficulty, surely that meant I would arrive in time to beat the hordes of tourists that descend on Florence in summer.

What on earth was I thinking?

Summer in Florence, Italy: Plan B

Conventional wisdom has always suggested that the best time to travel to dream destinations like Rome or Florence is in spring or autumn, and with good reason. I realized the error of my ways almost as soon as I had settled into my hotel.

I could not get tickets to The Ufizzi or l ’Accademia. This was not my first or only time in Florence, and I had seen these magnificent collections on my earlier trip. Still. Although I was able to visit the marvelous Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, queues to get into the Duomo and Giotto’s Campanile were dispiritingly long. I soon abandoned plans to revisit them.

A short pigeon story

After abandoning plans to visit the most high-profile sights of Florence in summer, I decided to stroll around and seek out the Renaissance atmosphere of Florence in neighborhoods I had not seen before. Plan B, my decision to step out of the tourist queues, got off to a shaky start.

I was jostling along the city’s narrow sidewalks, when a pigeon achieved a direct hit on my head, and on the buttons and dials of my camera. I popped into a café and tidied up. An hour later, as I rounded a corner near the Medici Chapels (closed several Mondays per month, this was one of them), the unthinkable happened: another poop attack. This was not exactly the Florentine feast of the senses I’d envisioned!

The second time, the target was the camera’s filter ring, flash attachment, and the hand holding the camera. I confess to a bit of a meltdown on the cobblestones, but it did not last long. Snit over, I spritzed with sanitizer and the last of my tissues, then headed for my hotel and proper cleanup.

My room at the Hotel Pensione Pendini was plain but comfortable and quiet; the bath towels were plush. A place of refuge was just what I needed in a city chock-a-block with tour groups…and home to pigeons with a terrorist bent.

Florence, Italy above the fray

My second and last day in Florence was a treat from beginning to end: a bus ticket got me out of the city center. A leisurely stroll afterward introduced me to a new neighborhood, and to wonderful art in an uncrowded venue.

The #12 bus from Santa Maria Novella station in Florence circled the Fortezza da Basso, crossed the Arno River and wound upward through affluent suburbs to San Miniato al Monte. Nipping past the Porta Romana and the upper entrance to the Boboli Gardens, the #12 bus deposited me at Piazzale Michelangelo and its breathtaking view of the city. Silhouetted against sky and trees, a replica of the artist’s David was oblivious to the tour buses and souvenir vendors at his feet.

Delights of the Oltrarno

After taking in the unbeatable view, I walked downhill to the city, following a shaded path sided by benches. City views from the path were welcoming under the heat of Florence in summer. The walk took me to the Oltrarno, a neighborhood filled with art, craft and good food.

At the bottom of the hill, the 14th-century tower in Piazza Giuseppe Poggi signals the entrance into the working-class district of the Oltrarno at its easternmost end. Some of Florence’s most compelling sights are here: the incomparable Pitti Palace, once the principal residence of the Medicis and today home to the Palatine Gallery. The beautiful Brancacci Chapel, a masterpiece of the early Renaissance, is here too. The artisans of Oltrarno produce handmade paper, Murano glass mosaics, handmade jewelry, and more.

It’s a short walk from the tower along the river to the Museo Bardini and another five minutes to the Museo della Fondazione Horne, after crossing the Arno via the Ponte alle Grazie. Both museums were built around the bequests of private collectors: Stefano Bardini, an early 20th-century art dealer, and Herbert Percy Horne, an English architect and Renaissance scholar who moved to Florence at the end of the 19th century.

The Bardini was closed when I passed by, but the Horne proved a wonderful place to pass the hottest part of the day. I stopped to visit the museum’s lavish collection of domestic objects, paintings, and sculptures, including works by Giotto, Botticelli, and Bernini.

Savoring Florence in summer

My previous trip to Florence had been in the middle of winter. The foods I had eaten then were hearty, warming dishes, protection against winter chill. This time, at the height of summer,  was quite the opposite. Here are some of the foods I enjoyed in cafes, and when exploring neighborhoods I’d missed the first time around.

Schiacciata is the Florentine version of focaccia, and comes in a host of neighborhood variations. Oven-hot and wrapped in paper, this lightly salted and crispy bread is redolent of olive oil. Sometimes it’s flavored with rosemary or other herbs. It quickly became my go-to snack in Florence.

Budino di riso is a Florentine tradition. The rice-based tart is bright yellow, thanks to eggs and lemon zest and coated with powdered sugar—more purely sweet than flavorful—but a fine foil for a coffee or tea.

  • At Osteria de’Benci, an easy stroll southwest of Santa Croce, I enjoyed an unexpectedly refreshing strawberry risotto.  Crushed strawberries sweetened the rice and gave it a soft, rosy hue; parmesan and slivers of fresh basil added a bit of tang.
  • At Borgo Antico, facing the church of Santo Spirito in the Oltrarno, local olives came with unsalted Tuscan brown bread, peasanty and sturdy. My main course was a sea bass filet cooked in foil with cherry tomatoes, tiny shrimp, and basil leaves. The fish was served atop an edible garnish of mallow flowers with a side of perfectly roasted potatoes.

If you go

  • Visit off-season if you can, especially if you are keen to see fabulous art and don’t want to compete with hordes of other visitors to Florence in summer.
  • Seek out specialty venues and special collections, such as the Horne, the Bardini, or the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum, in the Palazzo Spini Ferroni. The Museum of the Innocenti Institute, originally an orphanage, has been promoting the rights of children for six centuries(!).
  • ­­­For all kinds of good advice, check out the Florence Guide from Wandering Italy.
  • Italy’s efficient train system can take you to any number of wonderful places for a day trip or overnight excursion. Personally, I vote for Bologna (35 minutes!) or Lucca (1 hours 13 minutes). Bologna’s historic center is easy to navigate, its Genus Bononiae museums perfect for a cultural and artistic itinerary. Laid-back Lucca is small, its medieval heart encircled by a broad wall topped with a pedestrian and cycling park.


    • Glad you enjoyed it…must admit it was not my finest (Italian) hour, though! Thankfully, the moment passed. Florence became all it should be, once I had well and truly abandoned my lofty expectations.

  1. Maybe another essential item for a stroll around the city: Take an umbrella to ward off pigeon attacks . Thanks for the post, very refreshing!


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