I recommend that you open this LINK in a separate tab and then return immediately to this page, so that you can listen to Puccini while you read this post.
Piazza della Signoria used to be the political center of medieval Florence, and it’s my favorite piazza in the whole city. It is especially beautiful early in the morning (when it’s quiet and bright) or late in the afternoon (when the sunlight makes shadows on the old Palazzo Vecchio.) There is a great fountain featuring a very cranky-looking statue of Neptune and some long-necked nymphs. The Uffizi is on the south side, towards the Arno River. The Piazza is dominated by the Loggia dei Lanzi, with a Gothic roof that covers 15 statues (including Perseus holding up the head of the Medusa, which is fun.) If it’s a hot day, you can climb up into the loggia and sit in the shade next to some beautiful statues, although there are strict policemen who will keep you from eating anything in there. (The Uffizi Café is on the roof of the Loggia but is only accessible from the museum). Theoretically, someone could toss down a piece of very expensive cake for you to eat inside the loggia, but it would probably be intercepted by one of the aforementioned policemen, so be good and don’t eat near the art.
Piazza della Repubblica was once the city’s forum, and then the city’s marketplace. Now, it’s a good place to find a post office or a bookstore! There’s a carousel in the center of the square, which is fun for kids. The Giubbe Rosse cafe has been a meeting place for famous artists and writers, and the square still has a bohemian feeling at night. There are often musicians busking in this piazza and aspiring artists making impressive chalk drawings on the ground.
Piazza Santa Croce is another lovely square facing the church of Santa Croce. Note the big statue of Dante outside the church, if it’s not still under scaffolding. I used to meet my friends next to the statue’s pedastal, just so that we could say, “Let’s meet at the foot of Dante.” But this once backfired on me – when I arrived at Dante, the square was full of protesters. Not the best meeting place, after all, if the Florentines happen to be on strike.
The Piazzale Michelangelo overlooks one of the most famous cityscapes in the world. Sometimes, brides and grooms will stop here to have their picture taken in front of the Florentine skyline. There is also a café nearby with good banana splits! But the walk up the hill is a steep one – try to find a bus unless you want some real exercise.
Piazza Santo Spirito was once an open-air theatre for the monks to preach, but it’s been used more recently for rock concerts and flea markets. It’s the “hip” part of the city, full of pubs and parties on a Saturday night. As I recall, part of the church dates back to the 14th Century. I used to sit on the steps of that church with my friends – we formed a group called the Zanzara Artists Network that is still making beautiful art today.
Piazza Santa Maria Novella is near the train station, just outside the Church of Santa Maria Novella. There are some lovely benches near a fountain. Beware of hungry pigeons.
PARKS & GARDENS
There is a lovely green park on the north side of the Arno, up by the Ponte San Niccolo. It’s very romantic.
List of great gardens open to the public in and around Florence:
1. Boboli Garden (my favorite, great labyrinthine place behind the Palazzo Pitti with good views of the city)
2. Botanical Gardens
3. The Garden of Palazzo Medici Riccardi
4. Giardino dell’Orticultura
5. The Garden at Villa della Petraia
6. The Garden at Villa di Castello
SAFETY TIPS: While walking around Florence, be aware that street vendors and poll takers will approach you on the street and ask you for money/food/signatures, etc., in a variety of languages. Be friendly but firm, and don’t let them harass you. If you are in a crowded area, stop making eye contact and stare at people’s hands – the pickpockets will try to distract you, but it’s very hard for them to steal without using their hands! When crossing the street, listen for vespas (motorcycles) that are speeding around the city at record speeds – you will hear them before you see them. And if all that motorbike noise is irritating you, seek refuge in a restaurant or a park.