Among Florence’s heavyweight tourist attractions hide an array of lesser-known gems and off-the-beaten-track destinations. Often hiding in plain sight, these places may not be as famous as icons of the city, but they’re no less historically important or impressive because of it.
Here, you’ll find museums housing the collections of eccentric businessmen, thousand-year-old churches, and philanthropic works commissioned by the city’s once powerful guilds. It’s all here waiting for you to explore.
Continue reading to discover the best Florence hidden gems!
The Best Florence Hidden Gems
This is one of Florence hidden gems that truly is in plain sight. Standing at almost 95 meters (311.7 feet), this tower takes its name from its architect: Arnolfo di Cambio, who was particularly important during Florence’s medieval age. Construction on the entire Palazzo Vecchio, of which the tower is a part, was completed in 1299. The tower itself was intended for defense purposes, while the palace housed the captain of the people, a sort of civil leader.
Most people in Florence climb Giotto’s Bell Tower or even Brunelleschi’s Dome for views, but this is actually a great alternative.
Indeed, it’s still possible to walk the 233 steps to the top of the Arnolfo Tower, where you’ll be rewarded with great views out over the city. On the way to the top, you’ll pass by two bell chambers and a prison cell. At the top, you’ll also be able to glimpse a large weather vane, too. Needless to say, the tower is something of a symbol of Florence and should not be missed. You can easily pair it with a visit to the Palazzo Vecchio, and in fact can get a cumulative ticket.
Head over to my post How To Get Palazzo Vecchio Tickets.
Piazza San Marco
In the historic center of Florence lies the elegant Piazza San Marco, a square edged by architectural gems such as the late 18th-century Palazzina della Livia, home to military offices, and the Accademia della Belle Arti, a building of the University of Florence. At the center of the square stands an imposing bronze monument to General Manfredo Fanti, erected in 1873.
On the north side of the piazza, you’ll find the San Marco Museum. Housed in a 15th-century church, this cultural center is home to several works by Beato Angelico, a friar and painter of the Early Renaissance. Overall, the square is less busy with tourists than other areas of Florence — but just as busy with traffic. It’s a good spot to have a rest and take in the scenery.
Another place to visit in Florence off the beaten path that is actually in the historic center!
The Badia Fiorentina was founded as a monastery in 798 and remains one to this day. Once it was built, the area surrounding the abbey became a center for the production of books, especially binding (a task undertaken by the monks). Although over the years much of the complex has been changed and developed, there’s still much charm at Badia Fiorentina and even some original parts of the 8th century building remain.
Alongside the congregation of monks and nuns that call the abbey home, there are also several artworks here, too. These include pieces by Renaissance artist Filippino Lippi — most famously the Apparition of the Virgin to St. Bernard — and ornate tomb monuments by Mino da Fiesole.
Away from the overflowing halls of artworks in Florence, the Bardini Gardens offers up a space to wander amongst nature and to soak up some city views from up high. The gardens belong to the Villa Bardini, which was originally built as a home for a wealthy Florentine family. Designed between the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the garden sits on a hill that was once cut through by the medieval walls of the city. Originally, the garden was used for agriculture, but over its history it was gradually transformed into a refined Italian garden.
Today, there are three distinct parts to this clipped green space: the Italianate garden, a symmetrical affair centered around a Baroque staircase; the English garden, which features an interesting use of Anglo-Chinese design; and the agricultural park, where you can find the orchard and masses of wisteria.
You should also read my post 13 Best Views In Florence.
Buontalenti Grotto in Boboli Gardens
Also called Grotto Grandi in Italian, the Buontalenti Grotto is like no other grotto you’ve ever seen. This elaborate artificial cave, situated in Boboli Gardens, was commissioned by the Medici family and the wealth spent here definitely shows. Here you’ll find stalagmite-esque statues depicting figures from Roman mythology in a tangle of carvings, with a hidden nymphaeum at its center — hung, of course, with the Medici family crest.
Designed by architect Bernardo Buontalenti between 1583 and 1593, it’s a magical place to enter, where you can experience an otherworldly space that reflects an idealized version of a natural cave. It would have once had a pond and water features running through it, but unfortunately, these are no longer in operation.
You should also read my post How To Get Tickets To Boboli Gardens.
Officina Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
This is one of my favorite Florence hidden gems!
One of the oldest pharmacies in the world still in operation, the history of Officina Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is intrinsically linked to Dominican friars. These religious men arrived in the city in 1221 and founded the pharmacy the same year, stocking the store with balms and tinctures made from the medicinal herbs grown in their monastic gardens.
Over the centuries, its fame grew. So much so that by the 17th century, its high-quality products had become known outside of the city, and not just in Europe; the shop was known as far afield as China, India and Russia. In 1866, the shop was acquired by the Italian government, and later came into the ownership of a family member of the Dominican sect that ran it. Today, the 800-year-old apothecary is still in business, still selling wares based on ancient monastic wisdom.
Cappella dei Re Magi
Known simply as the Magi Chapel in English, the Cappella dei Re Magi can be found at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. The palazzo itself was built between 1444 and 1485 for the wealthy Medici family — a task undertaken by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi, a favored architect of the Medicis.
The Cappella dei Re Magi was one of the first parts of the palazzo to be fully decorated. This was done by Renaissance master Benozzo Gozzoli, who covered the entirety of its walls in a series of frescoes — all on the theme of the nativity. These include the Angels in Adoration and Journey of the Magi. Other than the rich frescoes, the ceiling of the chapel — a precious artifact made of inlaid wood — and the marble floor with inlaid geometric designs make this chapel an exquisite place to visit and one of the most impressive hidden gems in Florence.
Basilica di Santo Spirito
Construction on this landmark Renaissance church started in 1444, marking it out as an early masterpiece of this enlightened era. Designed by architect Filippo Brunelleschi, and completed by his followers, the church surprisingly remained unadorned until the 18th century.
Inside, the church boasts 38 side chapels, all of which seem to overflow with a long list of notable artworks, the most famous of which are found in the Corbinelli chapels; they include works by Cosimo Rosselli and Andrea Sansovino. Elsewhere, there are altarpieces by Filippino Lippi and Madonna and Child and Saints, an artwork which is attributed to Raffaellino del Garbo.
But most famous of all is Michelangelo’s Crucifix, a wooden crucifix sculpted by the master when he was 17 years old; you’ll find it placed over the high altar.
Check out my post 11 Best Churches In Florence.
Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce
Situated in the former refectory of a Franciscan convent, the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce lies right next to the Basilica di Santa Croce. It’s home to a collection of works today that represents a cross section of Florentine art, but the road to becoming an art museum was a winding one.
Shut down in the occupation of this part of Italy by Napoleon, the refectory space changed to a carpet factory. It was then a public debt office and then a storage space for files; the idea to use it as a gallery was discussed in 1844. By 1900, many of the former pieces of art from Basilica di Santa Croce were put on display here, along with other pieces salvaged from the demolition of Florence’s city center in the 19th century.
Opera del Duomo Museum
This interesting museum is where you can find a wide collection of artworks that once adorned the city’s famous cathedral. The museum was founded in 1891 with a mind to conserve the myriad sculptures, religious iconography and artwork that had been created for the cathedral since its founding in 1296.
There are some particularly noteworthy pieces of art on display at this Florentine museum: Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene; Michelangelo’s Peter; and The Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti. In terms of sculpture, some say that the Opera del Duomo Museum is one of the most important museums in the world.
Make sure to also read my post How To Get Florence Duomo Tickets.
Ospedale degli Innocenti
Commissioned by the Arte della Seta — the Florentine silk guild — in 1419, the Ospedale degli Innocenti is the work of Filippo Brunelleschi. The wealthy guild was able to give back to society through philanthropic works such as this hospital for orphaned children.
Aside from the charitable use of the building, the architecture of the building is particularly interesting due to the time when it was built, being an example of Early Renaissance design. The hospital now displays a collection of Renaissance artworks by the likes of Boticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo. It’s truly one of the best Florence hidden gems.
Basilica di San Miniato al Monte
Sitting up on one of the highest points in Florence, the Basilica di Miniato al Monte is a striking structure. The church, with its mesmerizing black and white facade, was built in 1018 on the site of a much older 4th-century chapel.
Among its layers upon layers of architectural design details is the lower facade, complete with arching arcade; the 12th-century mosaic on the upper portion of the facade; and an unfinished 15th-century campanile. The interiors of the church, equally black and white and with a vaulting wood-beamed roof, have changed little since it was built over a thousand years ago.
Sacred Doors Cemetery
The Cimitero delle Porte Sante can be found behind the defensive walls of the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte. In itself, this church is particularly pretty — if not for its black and white facade, then for its picturesque setting. However, it’s the cemetery that draws curious visitors.
Inaugurated in the mid-1900s, the cemetery provides a peaceful final resting place for residents of the city. It’s become well known for its ornate funerary sculpture, with a number of notable tombs and beautiful architecture throughout. Styles run the gamut from neoclassical to Baroque, inspired largely by Florence’s own artistic and architectural credentials.
Among the most unusual Florence hidden gems there’s this museum that, unlike many others in Florence, is not concerned with Renaissance art, but instead with historical weapons and armor from around the world. Built by English businessman Frederick Stibbert as his home — and a place to house his collection — in the 19th century, the museum opened shortly after Stibbert’s sudden death in 1906.
Having dedicated his life to collecting antiques and artifacts from as far flung as Japan, Stibbert had to add extra rooms onto the building because his collection grew so much. Today, it’s a treasure trove of weaponry from throughout the history of the world, from the armor of European knights to samurai swords.
Converted between 1380 and 1404, the Orsanmichele church was originally a grain market dating back to 1337. The square structure utilized the original layout of the grain market; on the ground floor, there are 13th-century archways, while the second floor had offices and the third had storehouses for grain, which were used to hold out against sieges or famine.
Towards the end of the 14th century, the guilds began to commission statues of their patron saints to decorate the church. It’s now known for its long list of saintly sculptures that can be found scattered throughout the building. However, many of these are copies, with the originals having been moved to museums. Today, Orsanmichele is a relic not only of religion but of Florence’s once powerful network of trades and artisans that effectively ran the city.
One of the most interesting hidden gems in Florence, the Laurentian Library has a lot of reading material: its collection is made up of more than 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 printed books. The library was created as per the wishes of Pope Clement VII — a member of the Medici family — in a cloister of the Basilica di San Lorenzo.
The library’s initial purpose was to outline the role of the Medici family in society, highlighting their transition from mere merchants and bankers to influential members of the intelligentsia and the Catholic church.
Among its many tomes are an array of manuscripts and books from the private library of the Medici family. Some of them are not just of importance in Italy but globally significant. These include the Florentine Codex, a 16th-century study of the Nahua people of Central Mexico by Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún; the Codex Amiatinus, a well-preserved manuscript of the Bible (in Latin) produced in England in the 8th century; and fragments of poetry by Erinna, an ancient Greek poet writing in the 6th century BC.
But that’s not all. The building itself is noteworthy: it was designed by none other than Michelangelo.
Sadly, the actual house that Dante Allighieri was born (1265) and lived in has long since been destroyed. However, the idea to celebrate the poet’s birthplace — and his life — began to form in the early 20th century. Around this time, the municipal government of Florence decided to commission a house to be built on the site of Dante’s birthplace, to be used as a museum dedicated to him.
Set across three floors, the museum is perfect for any fan of Dante or literature buff. It’s packed full of exhibits and interactive displays, from artifacts of his life to documents on what life would have been like for someone living in 13th-century Florence.
Chiostro dello Scalzo
If you feel like you’ve seen all the iconic artwork and most famous paintings that Florence has to offer, and truly need to see Florence off the beaten path, then a trip to Chiostro dello Scalzo may be a good idea. Once the cloister to a church that no longer exists (Compagnia dei Disciplinati di San Giovanni Battista), this portico — designed by Giuliano da Sangallo — is called “Scalzo” due to the fact that cross-bearers during processions would be barefoot (scalzo meaning “barefoot”).
While this little slice of architecture is interesting enough, it’s the monochrome frescoes by Andrea del Sarto that bring this place to life with yet more intrigue. While the church still existed here, Sarto was commissioned by it to paint 12 scenes from the life of St John the Baptist. They’re still here to this day, striking yet ghostly.
Importuno di Michelangelo
Translating literally to “Nuisance of Michelangelo”, this off-the-beaten-track artwork is not what you’d expect in the fine art center of Florence. Rather, this rough etching on the side of Palazzo Vecchio is said to have actually been carved out by the artist himself. The story goes that, while Michelangelo was talking to somebody, he became bored or annoyed by their conversation, and so absent-mindedly carved their likeness into the old bricks of the palace.
Nobody knows for sure who inscribed this line portrait, but a new theory points to the fact that this rocky illustration resembles a roughly sketched 16th-century portrait by Michelangelo that now hangs in the Louvre. More proof lies in the fact that, around this time, Michelangelo’s David was being placed in the Palazzo Vecchio’s entrance.
San Salvi Church
San Salvi Church was built in the 11th century by the Vallombrosans — a monastic religious order of the Catholic church. Sadly, during the Siege of Florence in 1529, the church suffered severe damage, but it was later restored to its former glory, all except the portico which was renewed later that century.
However, it isn’t the church itself that’s the main attraction but rather what it houses. Here, you’ll find a beautiful imagining of the Last Supper by Andrea del Sarto. Painted between 1519 and 1527, the masterpiece is situated on the back wall of the refectory and appears almost theatrically after approaching from the kitchen area of San Salvi. Miraculously surviving the 1529 siege, the colors are still vibrant to this day.