A Brief History of Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio in Florence
What is Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio?
Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio is a market that preserves the quintessential Florentine spirit: quality items at reasonable prices and simple but delicious street food.
Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio History
The lesser-known cousin of its San Lorenzo counterpart – the Mercato Centrale – the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio is one of those rare, hallowed spots in Florence’s historic centre where residents still shop with any true continuity. The main building’s interior is a meeting point of some of the city’s finest butchers and bakers, and vendors offer all manner of bric-a-brac. In the wraparound stalls outside the main pavilion, you’ll find second-hand clothing, weathered books and household items, in addition to bountiful fruits and vegetables, house-friendly plants and harder-to-find herbs and spices.
The pavilion and surroundings trace their origins to the brief period that Florence spent as capital of a freshly united Italy, between 1865 and 1871. Architect Giuseppe Poggi, the mastermind behind most of the city’s expansion efforts during that period, was also behind the planning of the market, taking inspiration from Les Halles in Paris. (The general train of thought during Poggi’s large-scale overhaul of the city was that Florence should include more of the trappings of an industrialized capital, including modern markets, with fewer nods to medieval times.)
It’s not just contemporary conjecture to call Sant’Ambrogio the ‘less famous sibling’ of the San Lorenzo market; this was by design. Poggi envisioned one major ‘hub’ (San Lorenzo) with secondary locations in San Frediano (now defunct) and Sant’Ambrogio. Though a revamp of the building is planned, promises have been made to maintain its historical integrity. In any case, Sant’Ambrogio is more functional than flowery, with a cast-iron and glass structure and brick walls divided by grey cast-iron columns supporting the upper part. The building’s outline defines the neighbourhood landscape and represents the soul of the district: a place for commerce and daily camaraderie.
Today, said camaraderie, and the best deals, tend to be found early in the morning. Stalls open around 7am, but you’ll probably see vigilant shoppers lurking even earlier. Seasonal produce and sustainable practices aren’t just used as marketing slogans, they’re fundamental to the whole operation. In addition to the bounty of fruits and vegetables outside, you’ll find artisanal cheeses, cold cuts, olives, bread and more. Don’t miss the small but eye-catching stand that sells both fresh and dried flowers, including Florence’s signature iris.
Once inside the pavilion, the north side is lined with butchers and fishmongers, while the south side is packed with small stalls offering typical Florentine food and dried goods. Here you can find students from the nearby university – fittingly, Florence’s architecture faculty is just across the way – along with locals indulging in lampredotto sandwiches or deep-fried fish. If you fancy a non-threatening local delicacy, order a spuma bionda at the buzzing central bar. It’s a fizzy soda with a hint of lemon and spices that Florentines love to drink during sunny, hot summer days.
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