I’m always on a nature hunt. If I don’t get out of the cobblestone jungle and into somewhere with more foliage and freshness from time to time, I’m start to lose it. Because I lose myself if I don’t get in touch with nature! Growing up in a place with rivers flowing through our backyards, bears occasionally wandering across your porch, lakes and ocean water a stone’s throw away, and with acres upon acres of forests and fields open and free to the public even in the cities, will do that to you (I’m Canadian if you didn’t already know or guess). Sometimes I yearn for it so badly that when I see it I let loose a little too much…If you’re with me, be cautioned that you may be hit in the head with my shoes being launched off my feet so I can prance barefoot in grass, and ears may need to be covered to avoid being pierced by my childish squeals. I couldn’t even resist at the tower of Pisa. At least there I could just be a tourist.
We often voyage into the countryside with the car (which many tourists don’t do when they visit Florence = HUGE mistake), but sometimes we are stuck city-dwelling. That means I need some nature time all the more so.
When I first moved to Florence I thought there were no parks. It’s a foreign concept to me (then again, what’s not around here?) that you can’t just walk to a school or neighbourhood and find playgrounds and grass and trees open to any passersby. Honestly, I just don’t think it’s really fair that many of the few green spaces in this city are private and closed off to fresh-air starved humans like myself.
It’s also very foreign to not have grass and gardens of your own at your house. Even apartments. Here in Italy, a giardino at home could be this (see photo)…
A garden doesn’t necessarily have to have flowers in it. Nor does it really even need grass. It could be a pebbly space maybe with some trees around it, and be called a “garden.” For me, that’s a more of a garage than a garden! I’ve learned that even in British English, a garden is what we North Americans would call a “yard.”
Maybe since parks here are often more like “secret gardens,” you’ll appreciate them that much more. Something else that I love about these solaces is that they have stories too. Everything does living in such a historically rich country!
Italy is finally modernizing a little even in the sense of opening nature’s doors to people. Florence’s city hall has added a “Green on web” online portal where you can input what you’re looking for on a map and locate spaces available. You might be looking for a garden, dog park, playground…select what you want and find the pins on the map! (In Italian)
In the meantime, here are some good places to start. Let’s commence with two of the most famous gardens in town, Boboli and Bardini, where non-residents pay an entrance but residents are admitted for free. Those listed thereafter are parks that even locals don’t know about, and are all FREE ENTRY!
Boboli Gardens – Florence’s most famous park and one of the most important historically, here you can wander the same steps of grand dukes of Tuscany. Boboli was the Medici’s former backyard. A girl I can relate to, Cosimo I’s wife Eleanora decided the old palace in the city centre wasn’t spacious enough and she wanted a garden. So they went “out of the city” (really a 10 minute walk!) and took over the Pitti Palace, evicting the bankrupt Pitti family who originally owned the palace. At the time this space was more of a wild woodland area, which is where the name Boboli comes from: it refers to a ‘wooded space’ in Tuscan lingo. The Medici transformed the classic 16th century garden into a Renaissance garden, which opened to the public in 1766, made to impress global visitors.
Maybe you’re expecting flowers everywhere when you hear “gardens” in Boboli’s name. I don’t want to disappoint you, there are some, but not many colourful blossoms here so much as you’ll find trees and bushes with fountains and statues speckled throughout this garden. But you will still be happy to forget that you’re in the middle of a city in this large, classic Italian garden.
The Grotto by Buontalenti is a sight to see, and imaginably would have been more so in its time. Constructed to create the sense of being in water, Buontalenti intended on suspending a crystal fish basin from the skylight, but it proved too difficult to keep the fish alive due to the temperature changes.
Child and adult alike find a whimsical statue quite unlike the others you will see in your European trek, the “fountain of Bacchus” or better known as Nano Morgante. Cosimo’s household dwarf Braccio di Bartolo was not just an entertainer as most were in his era, but indeed a confidant. It must have been true, if he had a statue mortalize his small friend for whom he had a big heart. Nano was also given a retainer, land, and the right to marry. In his drunken merriment riding his turtle along, he is chilling right beside the entrance to the Vasari corridor. There are plenty other interesting bits to this special garden in the city.
Boboli is free to residents of Florence but the 7 euro entrance fee is a small price to pay if you take a picnic along with you and enjoy the day in the shade of the trees of royalty. The ticket price is also valid for entrance to the Museo degli Argenti, Costume Gallery, and Porcelain museum in the Pitti Palace, as well as the Bardini gardens.
Piazza Pitti, 1
Hours: 8:15am– 4:30pm (November-February), 8:15am-5:30pm (March), 8:15am – 6:30pm (April, May, September, October), 8:15am – 7:30pm (June-August). Entry is permitted up to an hour before closing time. Closed on the first and the last Monday of each month, New Year’s Day, May 1st and Christmas Day.
Bardini Gardens – In Boboli’s shadows but not in beauty, Bardini gardens are attached to Boboli. Bardini offers a fine example of historical urban landscaping. After many rounds of digging and restructuring over eras dating back to the 16th century, Bardini is classified as an English style garden, while Boboli is of the traditional Italian style. This is my personal favourite in the city centre, providing a panoramic view, and a great bar and restaurant to take a load off in nature without leaving the city. A dramatic baroque staircase and a tunnel sheltered by wisteria (especially enchanting in the Spring), this place has a more romantic feel than neighbouring Boboli. What a sensational pleasure it was when I was caught in the rain in this garden one afternoon. The scent was superb and the view mystifying. To think that this gorgeous solace was neglected after Bardini’s son passed away in 1965 and was only reopened to the public in 2005 after restored to its splendor.
Residents of Florence are admitted for free, entrance is otherwise 8 euro, or you can get a ticket to Boboli at Pitti Palace, which is 7 euros and is valid for both gardens and parts of the palace.
Costa San Giogio 2
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday 8:15 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. (November-February), 8:15 a.m – 5:30 p.m. (March)
8:15 a.m – 6:30 p.m. (April, May, September, October)
8:15 a.m – 7:30 p.m. (June-August). Ticket offices close at 6:00 p.m. Tickets 8 euros
Cascine Park – yes, this one is a PARK. Not just a European style “garden” this park runs along the Arno river. It’s always open and always free. Historically it was a Medici hunting ground in the 1500s and has been a public park since the time when Napoleon was in power. Bring a picnic and spread out in the open grass areas where you can also find others sunning, or setting up soccer or volleyball nets. Plenty of other activities can be enjoyed here too: cycling, rollerblading (you can rent them from the Paviaonne where there is also a swimming pool) walking, running, and exercising with the bars and beams placed throughout the park. I’ve seen yoga, judo, and of course, classic games of tag happening in these ramparts. Every Tuesday morning there is a market open along the long, flat strip.
Villa Strozzi Gardens also called “Il Boschetto” Boschetto meaning “grove” or little forest, this is a lovely little haven in the city. There are paths that wind upward into a mixture of many types of trees, natural playground structures for kids, even trampolines! There is a small roller-rink at one of the entrances where rollerskating courses are offered. Its landmark limonaia, a greenhouse structure which once was an essential element of a Tuscan garden, is now used to house cultural events, especially in the summer months. There is not much signage to indicate entrances to the garden (same goes for plenty), but that just makes it feel more “secret” doesn’t it? The sixteenth-century Villa Strozzi is a very pretty place for some fortunate design students to study at. This park provides a nice diversion from the crowds in centro.
Via Pisana 77, Via di Soffiano or Via Monte Uliveto
Hours: 8am-5pm (November, December, January), 8am-5:30pm (February), 8am-6pm (March), 8am – 7pm (April), 8am-8pm (May-August), 8am-7:30pm (September), 8am-6pm (October)
Giardino dell’Iris – only for a special, short time of year when the iris flowers are in bloom, the garden can be found where Viale dei Colli meets Piazzale Michelangelo. Only for the merry month of May can you immerse yourself in a pretty prato of irises, the symbol of Florence. With over 2500 varieties of the iconic flower, you can flower-lust in a wonderland of natural and historic ties to the city the garden watches over.
Piazzale Michelangelo (on the right side, if looking out in the direction David is at the city)
Hours : 10am-12:30pm, and 3pm-7pm Monday – Friday and 10am-7pm on Saturday from May 2-20th
Giardino delle Rose – hide away in this rosy oasis on a hill with a view of the city skyline. Not only roses are in bloom here. You’ll be surrounded by other plants and herbs – lemons hewing yellow and waterlilies white in the ponds of fish and frogs. This garden’s prime is usually the month of May and early June when the roses are at their prettiest, but still a marvelous hideout that allows you to spy on the city below. It’s quite lovely when someone brings their guitar, so if you can play a pretty tune, do as locals do and serenade other picnicking park-goers with a song.
Viale Giuseppe Poggi, 2 or Viale Galileo (just below Piazzale Michelangelo on the left side if looking out at the city)
Hours: 8am to sunset, year round.
Gardens at Villa Sitbbert – This is actually three parks in one. There is that of Villa Stibbert, Villa Fabbricotti, and the Baden Powell garden. You scouts and guide alumni will recognize the latter name! The Stibbert garden is another that was transformed from the more simple Italian to more romantic English form. There are many types of trees that are very old and beckon deep refreshing breaths. I particularly like how this park settles the city soul in its stillness. There’s even a small Egyptian temple on a pond occupied by swimming birds and turtles. Federico Stibbert was English but his mother, Florentine. Fede himself loved to collected armoury. The villa is now a museum, a very particular one worth visiting. It contains weapons and armour from medieval times onward, and also boasts the largest collection of Japanese armoury outside of Japan itself.
The ajoining Baden Powell and Fabbricotti gardens host a small play area for children, grassy spaces, paths and picnic tables. My elementary school students love this park, as well as the next on the list, which is nearby.
Via Stibbert, 26 Entrance Parco di Villa Fabbricotti: Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 24
Hours: 8am-7pm (April to October) – 19:00, 8am – 5pm (November – March) Closed every Thursday, January 1st, Easter Sunday, May 1st, August 15th, December 25th
Giardino dell’Orticultura – This great green space was established in 1862 specially by the Horticultural Society of Tuscany to share the knowledge and love for plants and horticulture with Florence’s public, and is still serving that purpose! One of my favourite ways to welcome Spring in Florence is to shop for new plants at the annual Flower Fair held here in May. The gorgeous cast-iron and glass greenhouse was constructed in 1880 to celebrate the garden’s hosting of the First National Horticulture Expo. It later became a butterfly farm (which I sometimes wish it still was) and is now used for various events. Another interesting structure is up above the greenhouse: a dragon that snakes up a set of stairs guiding you to a sweet, and free, view of Florence. It’s a perfect place to read or rest, where there are benches in front of a fountain that flows from the top of the stairs all the way down the dragon’s mosaic spine, made of pieces of stone and glass.
Come have a picnic, a nap, or kick a ball around. There’s a great playground for children, a bar that hosts many performances through warmer months, and a small library in this park.
Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 4 or Via Bolognese 17
Hours: 8:30am-6pm (January – March), 8:30am-7pm (April-May), 8:30am-8pm (June- August), 8:30-7pm (September), 8:30-6pm (October- December)
Area Pettini Burresi – this park answered prayers for me (seriously) because it’s a quick jaunt from my front door, so I consider this one to be my “yard.” There’s a decent children’s playground but still more than enough space for me to plot myself somewhere on a grassy knoll and watch the scene of all ages around me between pages of a good book. You’ll find some playing sports: soccer as usual, the sounds of rackets whacking tennis balls at the courts on the other side of the fence, and the swish of the basketball hoops now and then. Frequently used for picnic gatherings and other events, this park sets the scene beautifully with seating areas surrounded by olive and cypress trees and the sweet sound of church bells intermittently ringing. There’s also a youth centre on the property, plus a cafe, pizzeria, and gelateria right outside of the entrance.
Via Faentina 145
Hours: 8:00am – 6pm (November, December, January – March, 7:30am-7:30pm (April, May, September October), 7:30-11pm (June-July), 7:30am-8pm (August)
Villa Demidoff in Pratolino. This park is on the hills above the city and definitely merits the bus trip, as it is much larger than the other parks and a more rustic escape from city life. Formally a Medici property, rich Russian prince Paolo Demidoff acquired the land in 1870. It’s said that originally the Grand Duke originally purchased the land for his wife Bianca to live a fairytale in its groves and trees. Unfortunately the park and villa as the Medici family knew it was neglected and deteriorated over time. It is quite different than it was in the 1500s, but is nonetheless charming and beautiful. The colossal statue of Apennines, also known as “the giant,” made by Gianbologna in 1579-80 was recently unveiled after restoration. It’s possible to see fauna as well as flora, as deer, fox, and rabbit scamper about this area.
Across the street Via Bolognese there is an Adventure Park where you can do obstacle courses in the trees. There are different ones respectively for all ages and ability levels. http://www.parcoavventurailgigante.it/?lang=en
ATAF Bus 25A (it must be 25A not just 25!) will take you to Pratolino from Piazza San Marco. You can also take a CAP bus from the train station to Pratolino.
Via Fiorentina, 276, 50036 Vaglia FI
Hours: Friday – Sunday, from 10am-8pm from April 25th– November 1st
Villa Il Ventaglio – I discovered this place not too long after moving to Le Cure neighbourhood. Parco Ventaglio sits between Le Cure and Campo di Marte. Like the Cascine park it was founded back in the sixteenth century but it’s a much lesser-known green area. It has a few short trails that wind up hill, offer a good little workout for walking or running between the trees. There is a bit of a view at the top where you’ll find the villa, sadly closed to public. People relax and play in the grass around the pond at the bottom of the hill.
Via Aldini 12
Open: 8:15am – 4:30pm November – February, 8:15am -5:30pm March – May, 8:15am – 7:30pm June – September, 8:15am – 5:30pm in October.
Orti Dipinti – Across from Four Seasons, this is more of a courtyard garden than a park, but worth mentioning for its central location and for its concept; it’s a community garden that educates about urban horticulture and sustainability. Visitors are welcome anytime, but there are opportunities to also volunteer to care for the garden, take part in workshops or other events, or even become a part of the community garden’s board of directors! This is cozy hideout to perhaps read a book, unwind a moment, or get your hands dirty as you get tangible with nature during volunteer hours.
Borgo Pinti 76
Open Monday till Saturday 10 am – 6 pm, Sunday 10 am – 1.00 pm, Volunteer times: tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 10:30am-1:00 pm.
If you’re interested in getting involved in other volunteer opportunities in Florence as well as taking care of the nature of the city, look into working with the Angeli del Bello.
It irritates me like crazy to see invaluable buildings, monuments and streets tainted by graffiti and litter. I come from one of the most “green cities” on Earth (Vancouver, Canada) so you can imagine my fury when I see our planet poorly treated. There are a number of ways you can volunteer with this “Angels of beauty” organization so that Firenze can be enjoyed in a more environmentally respectful way. Throughout the month on weekday afternoons, these urban angels volunteer precious time to give TLC to community spaces in Florence. Fresh air high-fives to you, beautiful angels. Their website is also in English, so you can get in on making this city shine!
As emphasized, I’m always on the lookout for garden and park areas in Florence, so if you discover some in your own nature walks, then please do share them! What garden is your favourite in Florence?