For those seeking a leafy refuge in a beautifully sculpted garden, chances are you probably already know the big names that dominate Florence: Boboli and Bardini, Cascine and of course the Rose Garden that blooms every May near Piazzale Michelangelo. However, go a little further out of town and you’ll be surprised at the hidden gardens on the surrounding hills.
Most people opt for the Etruscan hilltop town of Fiesole in lieu of places like Settignano, but it is these scenic hills in the city’s northeast that served as the stomping grounds of Michelangelo’s youth as well as that of Desiderio da Settignano, inspiring generations of artists for its rolling jaw-dropping panoramas and sweeping views of the Arno valley. Even writer Mark Twain took inspiration here during a stay from September 1892 to June 1893, as he wrote 1,800 pages including a first draft of Pudd'nhead Wilson. Nowadays, it happens to be home to one of the prettiest gardens and best kept secrets near Florence, the lovely Villa Gamberaia.
The Villa itself dates back to the early 1700’s with ownership passing hands from Florentine nobles to royalty with a meticulously manicured garden that has retained parts of its original Renaissance design while constantly being improved through the course of four centuries. The intimidate yet grand gardens play perfectly with the surrounding landscape, you’ll be in awe of the fountains, a nymphaeum, and a lemon garden, and four ornate and symmetrical stairways.
To reach the villa from Florence, you will want to catch the number 10 bus to Settignano from Piazza San Marco in Florence, continuing until the last stop in Settignano. After that, it is a 10-min. walk to reach Via del Rossellino, 72.
I would also double the garden visit with a stop for lunch in the tiny enclave of Settignano proper, life centers around its main square of Piazza Tommaseo. For those who don’t mind a vigorous walk, the Sentiero degli Scalpellini offers a six-kilometer scenic path from Fiesole to Settignano along the ancient link between the medieval villages where the best stonemasons and the famous quarries of "pietra serena" and "pietra forte" once lived.