It’s Christmas Market time again, and here in Italy, no matter how many times you’ve visited the famed markets, they never get old — neither for tourists nor locals. Florence especially boasts some of the most amazing markets, from Piazza Santa Croce to San Donato and a host of others. Each one is uniquely essential to the city’s annual festivities. But one market in particular, the biggest open-air market in Florence, deserves special recognition—and it’s not even a designated “Christmas Market.” Il Mercato delle Cascine is my hands-down favorite for holiday, and any day, shopping – the caveat being that you can’t shop here any day, because it’s only open on Tuesdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
That’s right, only one morning per week.
But, once you get an idea of the tremendous effort it takes to set up and take down this massive bazaar, the limited schedule makes more sense. It is one kilometer long, with hundreds of stalls and a seemingly endless variety of goods.
Stunning setting on the Arno
The advantages of a non-Christmas Market are many. For one thing, you’ll find mostly locals here. Possibly due to its limited schedule, or maybe because of the abundance of markets and shops throughout the city center, tourists don’t make it here in droves. But the setting is so stunning, they’re really missing out. The market is located in Cascine Park, along the beautiful Arno River.
At 395 acres, Parco delle Cascine is the largest park in Florence, situated on the bank of the Arno just west of the historic center. In this city dominated by busy piazzas and narrow, dingy streets, the immense open green space is a welcome respite. While navigating the length of the market, it’s always inviting to take a breather on a bench along the river or under one of the park’s thousands of trees.
A popular running and biking spot, there is spectacular flora and fauna, a pool and an open-air theater hosting summer concerts and festivals. In many ways, Cascine is an all-around, go-to destination any day of the week, even for those not doing their Tuesday morning shopping. The park is also home to the Club Sportivo Firenze, with a tennis center dating back to 1898; and, steps from the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino opera house (where I recently caught Puccini’s “La Boheme.”)
A special Christmas treat at Cascine Park this year is the addition of the famous Florence Eye, the towering, 55-meter-high Ferris wheel known throughout Italy. Having been located in the more central Fortezza da Basso for the last two years, it will now be the focal point of a Christmas village at the park’s entrance piazza.
The planned village will include a skating rink, Christmas tree and family activities, and the Florence Eye will remain at Cascine through June of 2024.
Besides so much to see and do in the park, another obvious plus side to the Tuesday market is its abundance of goods and their prices. Try to imagine another venue where you can find the freshest and widest varieties of fruits and veggies; cheeses, breads, nuts, herbs, olives, pastries and oils, prosciutto and other meats; all manner of leather goods, shoes, coats, sweaters, jeans, suits, pajamas and more; jewelry, cosmetics and toiletries; housewares including dishes, pots and pans; tools, bedding, books, and on and on and on.
High quality, low prices
When it’s time to stop for a bite to eat, there are stalls selling street food, including panini, pizza, coffee, beer and wine. Many of the vendors here are local farmers, selling their own herbs, honeys or homemade marmellata. Theirs are some of the smallest booths, but also some of the highest quality products.
The selection is endless, but the prices are even more impressive. Cascine’s vendors sell both new and used items, and it’s not uncommon to find big-name designer brand clothing or purses for twenty or forty euros.
Of course, everyone is mindful of the season even though it’s not a Christmas Market, so there are Christmas gifts and decorations galore. Not being a typical tourist destination, you won’t find designated “souvenir” booths, but you will find an amazing gift selection. Locals not only do their weekly shopping here; they also come for Christmas.
So, who knows … with the addition of the Florence Eye and Christmas village, Il Mercato delle Cascine might just become a tourist destination after all.
Read more about Italy here in Dispatches’ archives.