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Alexander Meddings

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As one of Italy’s ‘big three’ artistic cities, alongside Rome and Venice, Florence deserves its spot on every Italian itinerary. But rising accommodation prices make staying there expensive. A basic double room or self-catering apartment will set you back on average €100 per night. But if you’re travelling on a budget, monastery accommodation in Florence might be the answer. 

Staying in a monastery offers a safe, serene and budget-friendly alternative to hotels or Airbnbs. And at €80 per night, it will leave you with more euros to spend on cuisine and culture. This article looks at two top choices – Antica Dimora Sant'Anna and Foresteria Valdese – and shares some insider recommendations for what to do in their area.
Where to Stay in Florence’s City Centre
Nestled on a quiet street a short walk from Florence’s main station of Santa Maria Novella, and conveniently connected to the city’s airport via a recently opened tram line, Antica Dimora Sant’Anna offers a great budget accommodation option in Florence’s city centre. 

The convent is run by the Franciscan sisters of Saint Elisabeth and offers more than just comfortable and convenient accommodation. Antica Dimora Sant'Anna comprises 22 tastefully decorated rooms (16 doubles and 6 singles, available as basic accommodation, with breakfast included, or as half board) which blend rustic charm with modern amenities. Guests can enjoy free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, and ensuite bathrooms as well as access to a tranquil courtyard garden – an oasis of calm just 200 metres from Florence’s main train station.

What to do near Santa Maria Novella
Florence is very small, its centre covering just 505 hectares. Its world-famous Duomo, Uffizi Galleries, and Accademia all fall within this area, and are all worth visiting (the Uffizi, more than the others). But since these sites are saturated with visitors year-round, we’ll be sharing some more ‘off-the-beaten-path’ suggestions to give you a real sense of the Renaissance city. 
Visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella

Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella is curiously overlooked by visitors who instead dedicate their limited time in the city to standing in line for the nearby Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo). Built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, this Dominican church houses works by Giotto – regarded by many as the grandfather of the Renaissance – Masaccio, and Ghirlandaio amongst others, and is home to arguably the city’s most stunning frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel.

You can book your tickets in advance here, but since the basilica is never too busy it’s easier just to purchase them at the entrance on the day. 
Check out a medieval pharmacy-turned-perfumery
Turn right off the main square of Santa Maria Novella and you’ll soon stumble across the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, whose history is almost as long as its name. It dates back to the thirteenth century when Dominican friars founded the convent of Santa Maria Novella and began to cultivate a garden on its grounds. This garden was the site of experiments in pharmacopoeia over the centuries, and over time this experimentation would broaden to include the worlds of cosmetics, fragrances and wellness products.

Its ornate interior and stunningly preserved frescoes are reasons enough to visit this pharmacy (don’t leave without checking out the fourteenth-century frescoes in the Chapel of Saint Niccolò). But if you’d like to splash the cash you’re saving through monastery accommodation (or treat yourself to hand-crafted perfumes and wellness products), you’ll find helpful English-speaking staff to help you find your fragrance. 

Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella

Check out the events at Fortezza Da Basso
Antica Dimora Sant’Anna is situated just a couple of minutes walk from Fortezza Da Basso, a sixteenth-century fortress that serves as one of Florence’s main events and exhibition venues. In June, the annual fashion show Pitti Immagine takes place within its Renaissance walls while in September it welcomes the Earth Technology Expo

Make sure to check out which events coincide with your visit. 
Take a Day Trip to Siena
As the former financial capitals of medieval Europe, Florence and Siena share a longstanding rivalry that endures to this day. For a brief time during the mid-thirteenth century it was Siena rather than Florence that was the dominant power in Europe. But a bad case of the bubonic plague known as the Black Death (1346 - 1353) saw its fortunes fade and Florence’s prosper. 

Siena’s must-see sites are the Campo (the main piazza) which the sixteenth-century French philosopher described as the most beautiful in Italy (still today, it’s hard to disagree) and the imposing 97-metre-high bell tower at its head. The Campo still constitutes the beating heart of Sienese life, and at no time is this truer than on July 2 and August 16 when it accommodates the famous bareback horse-riding event known as the Palio di Siena.

Siena’s other must-see attraction is its Duomo. Easily rivalling Florence’s with the appearance of its façade (and infinitely more impressive in terms of its interior), the Duomo would have been Italy’s largest church outside Rome had plans for its extension not been rudely interrupted by the plague. Even as it stands, however, its remarkable marble flooring and awe-inspiring array of artworks (including statues by Donatello) make it well worth the visit.
Cross the River Arno and explore San Frediano
Voted among the world’s coolest neighbourhoods by Lonely Planet, Borgo San Frediano is a small artisan district spanning the western side of Florence’s Oltrarno district. Once a working-class warren of artisan workshops (botteghe) and artists’ studios, San Frediano has gradually undergone a process of gentrification while maintaining a cool, bohemian vibe. 

Start your evening with cocktails at Mad Souls & Spirits before indulging in an authentic Tuscan dinner at Alla Vecchia Bettola. The speciality here is penne alla vecchia bettola – pasta in a rich creamy sauce with tomatoes, cream, and vodka, which is simply to die for – but make sure to save space for bistecca alla fiorentina (t-bone Florentine steak, served rare and lightly seasoned). Oh, and the Chianti wine at your table is all yours for just €5.
Where to Stay in Oltrarno
If you’d rather base yourself away from the hustle and bustle of the centre, check out the artisan district of Oltrarno. Situated across the River Arno (Oltrarno means beyond the Arno in the local dialect), Oltrarno offers a range of comfortable and affordable budget accommodation in Florence, the most popular of which is the 17th-century Foresteria Valdese.

Foresteria Valdese, Florence
Its 40 rooms are simple yet comfortable and equipped with essential amenities such as air conditioning and Wi-Fi. The real charm of Foresteria Valdese lies in its communal spaces, meeting halls, and private enclosed garden, where travellers from around the world meet, share stories, and create lasting connections.

What to do in Oltrarno
Spanning the southern riverbank of the historic city, Oltrarno is home to a wealth of galleries and artisan workshops that attract visitors by day and a buzzing bar and al fresco dining scene that draws diners by night. Here are our tried-and-tested top things to do across its three historic quarters: San Niccolò, Santo Spirito, and San Frediano.
Explore Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens
Formerly the resplendent royal palace of the Medici, Palazzo Pitti briefly became the Italian power base of Napoleon Bonaparte and the court of Italy’s king before being transformed into the largest museum complex in Florence.

Its collection easily rivals those of Florence’s more famous Uffizi and Accademia, only with shorter lines and far fewer crowds. And while the Uffizi and Accademia can feel a little samey with their overwhelmingly Renaissance collection, Palazzo Pitti features collections to suit every taste, including the Gallery of Modern Art, the Medici’s treasury, and the Museum of Costume.

You can purchase tickets either online or at the ticket office onsite. If the sun is out (and since this is Italy, it probably will be), it’s worth getting a combination ticket that includes the adjoining Boboli Gardens. These royal gardens are among the largest and most ornate in Florence, masterfully adorned with fountains and statues dating as far back as the sixteenth century.
Marvel at the treasures within the Basilica of Santo Spirito
While you’re on the piazza, take 20 minutes to explore the church of Santo Spirito at its head. The fifteenth-century church might lack the facadal grandeur of Santa Croce or Santa Maria del Fiore, but don’t let this put you off. The church of Santo Spirito was the brainchild of none other than Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect responsible for the Duomo.
Basilica of Santo Spirito

The church’s simple, perfectly proportioned exterior stands in stark contrast to the splendour of its interior. Santo Spirito houses an array of artworks by the likes of Lippi and Andrea Orcagna, but it’s the small wooden Crucifix carved by the great Michelangelo Buonarotti that is the collection’s highlight – dedicated to the Augustine friars who had provided Michelangelo sanctuary after the death of his patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1492.
Indulge in gelato in the city where it was invented
Not many people know that the creamy stuff of dreams was invented in Florence by a sixteenth-century figure called Bernardo Buontalenti (this man of many talents has a flavour named after him which you’ll find all over Florence made from milk, sugar, cream, and eggs). 

Florence Gelato
While gelato is good wherever you go in Florence, three gelaterie are exceptional – Gelateria Santa Trinita, Gelateria la Carraia, and Gelateria della Passera – and they’re all located in Oltrarno. Some general advice: avoid gelato near the Ponte Vecchio or Florence’s main monuments, and steer clear of anything that looks too colourful or too plumped up as it’s bound to be packed full of additives. 

Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo
Chances are that you have already seen Piazzale Michelangelo’s picture-postcard panoramic view over Florence crop up on your Instagram feed. But believe us when we say that nothing compares to the real thing, and that watching a sunset bleed over the Tuscan hills truly is a sight to behold.

The most direct route up to Piazzale Michelangelo takes you on a steep walk through the medieval gate of Porta San Miniato and up past the beautiful Giardino delle Rose (Rose Garden), which is open and flourishing from May through to October. The more leisurely, scenic route starts at the river at the foot of the imposing medieval tower of Porta San Niccolò and takes you up meandering paths lined by fountains and flora.

Sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo

If you’re here during the day, check out the church of San Miniato al Monte. As Florence’s most impressive example of Romanesque architecture, the fourteenth-century church is serene if not rather solemn from the inside; stark contrast to the sublime view that greets you as you leave.
Tuck into authentic Tuscan cuisine
You can’t really go wrong wherever you eat in Oltrarno, but some restaurants really stand out. One is Quattro Leoni (Four Lions) on Piazza della Passera – just across the square from Gelateria della Passera. Their pear ravioli in a taleggio cheese and asparagus sauce is simply divine, as is their typical Tuscan pappardelle pasta (broad, flat pasta, similar to lasagne) coated with a delicious wild boar ragù. Booking ahead is advisable.

Another great place for hearty Tuscan food is Osteria Santo Spirito, at the far end of the eponymous piazza. It’s a busy place, constantly packed with a mix of locals and tourists who are fortunate – or foresighted – enough to have made a reservation. Try its house speciality of cheesy gnocchi in truffle oil and you’ll soon understand why. 
Book your monastery accommodation early for peace of mind
Securing your accommodation in Florence early is essential. You might have heard that the city is fighting back against Airbnbs: securing much-needed central housing for locals and students, but putting a squeeze on the availability of accommodation. 

Monasteries and religious guesthouses offer convenient, community-centred, budget friendly accommodation in Florence, with Antica Dimora Sant'Anna and Foresteria Valdese rooted in the ethos of hospitality and simplicity – allowing you to enjoy the Renaissance city at a more thoughtful and reflective pace.

Bookmark this page for later, and enjoy your trip to Florence! 

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