Florence: Secrets of the City

Florence’s hidden windows, secret towers and streets that follow ancient Roman walls will keep the kids interested as they tour the Italian Renaissance city.

Every city has its secrets, and Florence, Italy is no exception. For kids, looking for these secrets and finding out the stories behind them make up for visiting the many churches and museums that house the city’s greatest treasures and that attract the majority of tourists to vacation in Florence.

On the way between the must-see sights of Florence, kids will love looking for some of the city’s architectural curiosities—and learn a little history, too. After admiring the Giotto frescos and Brunelleschi’s geometric chapel in Santa Croce, cross the piazza and follow Via Torta. Do the kids notice anything strange in its route as it crosses street after street? It keeps curving to the left, until it ends a few yards from the piazza again. The reason for its elliptical route is that the buildings rose out of the ruined walls of a Roman amphitheater from the first century B.C.

Veiled Towers

Via Torta is not the only architectural secret hidden among the city’s crowded buildings. Some structures have been completely swallowed up by later buildings, while others barely show their original shape. This has happened to the medieval towers that were built in the 1200s, when uncertain times made families want a place where they could retreat and literally pull the ladder (doors were on the second level) in after them in case of attack. More than 150 tower houses stood in Florence, but most of them are now hidden inside newer buildings. Look for their tops sticking out whenever you have a view over rooftops. A few towers are still visible on Borgo San Jacobo, which runs parallel to the river near the Pitti Palace. One is decorated by terra cotta panels by Della Robbia. 

Take a closer look at Ponte Vecchio to see if you can find the corridor across its top. It was built for Cosimo I, so the Medici Duke could walk between his office in the Palazzo Vecchio and his home at Pitti Palace. In one place it circles around the last remaining of the bridge’s original towers so as not to damage it.

Family Crests

Cosimo I moved into the Pitti Palace when the Pitti family ran out of money building the extravagant showpiece and had to sell it. The two families had been fierce rivals, and to show his contempt for the fallen Pitti family, Cosimo ordered all but one of their family crests removed from the palace. The lone crest still looks down from its place on a corner of the palace that was their financial undoing.

These crests were common, and identified the owners of palaces and other buildings. Our kids “collected” crests as we walked around Florence, trying to identify the families who had owned various palaces and even to match them with their tombs in churches. Each family had a symbol, usually connected with something in their history or with the source of their wealth. The Medici crest, for example, shows seven pills, based on the name, which refers to doctors.

Individuals in families often had symbols of their own, as did the Medici Grand Duke Ferdinando I, whose statue stands in Piazza Santissima Annunziata. On the base of the statue is a swarm of bees arranged in concentric circles around the queen. Because they are almost impossible to count, when Florentine children ask for something they can’t have, parents tell them they can have it when they count the bees on the Grand Duke’s statue.

Assassination Plots

On the corner of Via de’Servi, near the piazza, look for the crest of the Pucci family on their palace and you’ll notice nearly underneath it a window which has been walled in. Cosimo I used to pass this corner on his way to church each day, and Pandolfo Pucci conceived a plot to assassinate him, hiring two assassins to hide behind the shutters until the Duke passed by. But Cosimo learned of the plot just in time, and Pandolfo was tried and executed. However, the corner always made Cosimo nervous, so he ordered that the window be sealed. And it has remained that way since 1560.

A Hidden Jewel 

Piazzale Michelangiolo is no secret—one of the most popular viewpoints for a panorama of Florence. It’s almost a required stop for tour buses, and independent travelers get there by bus number 12 or 13, or they climb up through the gardens below. But few people continue up the hill past the piazzale to see one of the city’s loveliest churches.

San Miniato al Monte is beautiful inside and out, its façade covered in stripes of marble, and its interior splendid in mosaics and frescoes. It’s never crowded, and it’s one church kids like—not only because of its brilliant colors, but because it’s fun to explore with its raised altar, crypt and painted chapter room. Our kids especially liked the inlaid floor with animals and zodiac signs.

Destinations: Florence, Italy

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Sightseeing