If you are looking for a hidden gem in Florence, then you should hop on a bus (it’s not as scary as you think) and visit the beautiful Villa La Petraia and its surrounding gardens. I’ve visited the villa several times between March and the end of May and there always was just a handful of other visitors around. Catch this “unknown” treasure before mass tourism discovers it.
Villa La Petraia is one of in total twelve Medici villas in the Florence area that were inserted onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in June 2013. The splendid villa is built on a panoramic terrace on the outskirts of Florence in the small hamlet of Castello just north of the airport.
In the 14th century, it was no more than a humble country house owned by the famous Brunelleschi family. The property changed ownership several times over the following two centuries until Cosimo I de’ Medici bought the villa in 1544. In the second half of the 16th-century, the property was expanded during extensive remodeling works by building around the fourteenth-century central tower. The surrounding park was completely transformed into a magnificent garden with three large terraces. From the highest terrace, you can enjoy a unique view over Florence, and you can even spot Brunelleschi’s Dome.
The Villa La Petraia was the perfect getaway country residence to leave the busy city life behind and enjoy some fresh air with family and friends. We think our big cities are smelly, but in the old days, the towns especially had an overwhelming stink to them. All the wealthy families owned several country houses to spend the summer and flee to when an epidemic of the plague or some other ghastly disease sowed death and destruction in the city. Throwing lavish parties also was a favorite pass time of the rich and an excluded country resistance offered the necessary privacy. If the tapestries on the walls could talk what tales they could tell…
The garden of Villa La Petraia is best visited in the spring or early summer. During a visit a couple of years ago in March, I found the gorgeous red tulips in bloom.
Entrance to the garden and the villa is free (!) and every hour you can visit the villa accompanied by a guide. Some guides speak English and are happy to tell you stories, others don’t say a word and merely make sure you don’t touch anything. In every room, however, you’ll find information (in Italian only) about the function of the chamber and its former residents.
After the Medici’s, the villa was owned by other illustrious families who played important parts in the history of Florence and Italy, such as the Lorraines and the Savoys (Italy’s royal family). The latter decorated the villa with expensive furniture and created the grand ballroom by covering the open courtyard with a glass roof. During the Lorraine period, Cosimo Gaddi painted the frescoes in the ballroom, while Volterrano depicted the scenes that told of the various achievements of the Medici family.
All the rooms are richly decorated with precious furniture, art, and tapestries. The music room holds a rare piano harmonium built in Naples in 1868.
The lovely blue room was the boudoir of Rosa Vercellana, Dutchess of Mirafiori and morganatic wife of the king Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoia, when Florence was the capital of Italy (1865).
A wooden precedent of the pinball machine can be found in the game room, where the guests were entertained with board games, pool, and roulette.