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5 Free Things to Do in Florence, Italy

I fell in love with Florence at the age of 10 and have travelled widely since, but somehow I always return to this most magical of cities.

Ah, Florence (c) A. Harrison

Ah, Florence (c) A. Harrison

1. Visit the Duomo

No matter how often I visit, I am always drawn to the Duomo. Since her construction, the cathedral has been the heart of Florence. Free to enter, by midday the queue snakes around the sides of the building to blend with the crowds filling the Piazza Duomo.

For me, the wait is well worth it. Entry numbers are limited, and much of the cathedral was cordoned off to visitors, so that the spacious majesty of the cathedral dominated. Everyone spoke in hushed tones, which echoed around me in fluttering whispers.

It is easy to miss the patterns of coloured marble on the floor when lost in awe at all around me. Standing beneath Brunelleschi’s dome, I stared up at Vasari’s masterpiece, where devils and demons swirl beneath a triumphant Christ in The Last Judgement.

Many medieval houses still line the Piazza Duomo; Donatello’s studios were at No. 28. A plaque marks the spot where Dante once sat watching the cathedral rise to the sky. Banished while it was still under construction, he was never to see the Duomo completed.

Florence's Duomo (c) A. Harrison

Florence's Duomo (c) A. Harrison

2. Tour Europe's Oldest Pharmacy

Beginning life in a monastery in 1212, the Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is the oldest still-functioning pharmacy in Europe. Age hasn't diminished her beauty, and amazing aromas followed me as I walked through room after room with ornate marble floors and high vaulted ceilings. One room was entirely covered in frescoes, another filled with old pharmaceutical equipment (including a piece which looked remarkably like a medieval Dalek).

Using the herbs growing in their medicinal garden for creating healing salves and lotions, the monks were also the first to use alcohol as a base for their perfumes (rather than oil). They were even commissioned to create a perfume for Catherine de Medici upon her marriage to Henry II of France: Acqua della Regina (Water of the Queen).

The Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is at Via della Scala,16, not far from the Cathedral Santa Maria Novella. Once I had been, I kept seeing other old pharmacies as I walked around Florence. The arches where the monks of San Marco once sold their wares are still visible in the outside wall, each decorated with a carving of what was for sale.

My medieval Dalek (c) A. Harrison

My medieval Dalek (c) A. Harrison

3. Walk the Streets

Florence is perfect for walking. I might set out with a destination in mind, but I always find so many other things along the way: a side street that just begs to be explored, an entrancing shop, an unexpected view.

Some of Florence's oldest streets are down by the Arno, near the tourist-packed Ponte Vecchio but mostly missed by the throngs. At the beginning of the Via della Terms (which takes its names from the Roman baths once here) is a medieval Torre, or tower; another is at no 13. The Via dei Neri follows the bend of the old Roman port. Many streets around here have plaques marking the height of the floods of 1333 and 1966.

In the nearby Piazza del Limbo stands the Santi Apostoli, said to have been founded by Charlemagne in 786. Beneath the cobbles of the square is an old cemetery where babies who died before being baptised were buried.

I was in the heart of Florence’s shopping district when the sound of music called me outside; a parade was passing, everyone decked out in medieval finery and carrying flags. I could hear the music for the next hour as they wound their way through the streets.

Such is Florence.

Just another day in Florence (c) A. Harrison

Just another day in Florence (c) A. Harrison

4. Enjoy the View at the Piazzala Michelangelo

A short bus trip, or a steep walk, leads to the Piazzale Michelangelo. From here is the classic panorama over Florence. Bridges arch gracefully over the Arno, and the Duomo and Baptistry dominate the skyline. In the distance, small towns dot the hills surrounding Florence.

The square is crowded not only with tourists, but with buskers and markets stalls. No matter how crowded, it always feels a happy place. Jazz fills the air from nearby cafes, and there is always a place to buy a gelato, or to sit and sip on a prosecco and enjoy the view.

Another short walk away is the church of San Miniato al Monte. Begun in 1018, this is one of the city's hidden gems. The outside façade of green and white marble belies a simple, dark interior. At the far end, steps lead up to a raised choir, or down to a crypt, where a sung mass is often in progress. Delicate frescoes cover the walls, befitting the simple but stunning architecture. In a city overflowing with impressively beautiful places, San Miniato al Monte is not to be missed. After visiting, I feel I am leaving a past world to re-enter my own.

An easy downhill walk leads to the backstreets of the Oltrano, via the Porte San Miniato, to a cluster of cafes and restaurants in the San Niccolo area. I was staying near here, and each night I felt spoilt for choice, each was so delicious.

View from the Piazzale Michelangelo (c) Anne Harrison

View from the Piazzale Michelangelo (c) Anne Harrison

5. Visit Free Art Galleries

Despite the queues outside the Uffizi, there are other museums in Florence, many of which are free. The most obvious examples are the churches, all decorated with amazing art. The Duomo may be an obvious example, but there are others in abundance.

Above the altar in the Chiese di Ognissanti is a Madonna and Child by Giotto, as well as a crucifix recently attributed to him. There is a Last Supper by Ghirlandaio, while his Madonna della Misericordia boasts a portrait of the young Amerigo Vespucci, who was to give the new world its name. In 1571 the Franciscans brought to the church one of their most treasured relics, the habit worn by St Francis when he received the stigmata on Mt Verna in 1224.

The Basilica della Santissima Annunziata boasts a painting finished by an angel, the face of the Madonna completed as the monk-artist slept. A few minutes from the Ponte Vecchio is the Chiesa di Santa Felicita. When finished with the 16th-century artwork, walk to the altar then turn to see the Vasari Corridor. It runs through the nave and enabled the Medici to attend Mass unseen by the great unwashed.

The Piazza della Signoria has been the centre of political activity in Florence since the Middle Ages. The imposing façade of the Palazzo Vecchio, (which still functions as the town hall) has remained virtually unchanged since it was built (1299–1302). Its bell was used to summon the population to the Piazza della Signoria in times of trouble.

Various statues line the square, and in the covered Loggia to one side. Most impressive of all is a copy of Michelangelo's David (the original once stood here). It is a great place for a quick art fix; crowded with tourists, performers, and the occasional policeman in impressive uniform, it is also a great place for people watching.

Statues in the Piazza della Signoria (c) Anne Harrison

Statues in the Piazza della Signoria (c) Anne Harrison

So Much To Do In Florence

There are many free things to do in Florence, from people watching to walking along streets once known to the Romans. Many museums are free on the first Sunday of the month—simply keep an eye on their websites. Then there are markets and festivals . . . almost too many things to do!

© 2019 Anne Harrison