If you’ve lived in Arizona for a while, you most likely know that Florence, AZ is the home of one of the state prisons…but it’s so much more than that. When I invited three friends to join me on a jaunt to Florence, they understandably looked puzzled. I explained that my main reason was a desire to visit St Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery. I had heard about St Anthony’s from others who had visited it and remarked on how beautiful it is. It’s a hidden treasure tucked away in the desert a few miles outside of Florence. Historic Downtown Florence is an area that I thought would be interesting to visit too.
We decided to stop first for breakfast at US Egg in Tempe, mainly because I was craving the super delicious and nutritious protein pancakes. It was a fine spring morning with temps in the 70s, perfect for leisurely breakfast al fresco on the patio. Between us, we sampled a variety of breakfast favorites from straight forward eggs and bacon to the hearty Idaho Hot Skillets and the yummy and nourishing protein pancakes. Our appetites satisfied, we were ready to hit the road to Florence, which we affectionately referred to as our FloGo day trip. Check out our Google map for directions and addresses.
Getting to Florence is an easy drive that takes about one hour and 20 minutes. You can choose from three different routes; we went via the US 60 and AZ 79. Once you merge onto AZ 79, the drive is quite scenic with lovely views of the Superstition Mountains and the desert.
We drove straight to St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, which is about 12 and a half miles south of Florence. To get to the monastery, you take Paisano Drive straight to the parking lot. Before entering the monastery grounds, three of us made sure we followed the appropriate dress code. Women are required to wear long skirts, long-sleeved shirts and head scarves. For men, it’s long pants and a long-sleeved shirt.
Visitors are required to stop by the gatehouse first. Here we were greeted by a volunteer who gave us a quick history of the monastery and a self-guided tour map. We learned that St Anthony’s was established in the summer of 1996 by six monks who carried with them the sacred thousand-year history of the Holy Mountain, Athos in Greece, an important center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. The monastery follows the coenobitic rule of monastic life. This entails a brotherhood of monks and novices, holding all things in common, who follow a daily schedule of prayer and work under obedience to the abbot, their spiritual father.
Then we were on our own to explore the lovely grounds, churches and chapels. The grounds are beautifully groomed and lush with gorgeous desert vegetation, fountains and alcoves where you can stop to rest and just enjoy the peaceful surroundings. There was plenty of shade to keep us cool on our walk. With the aid of our map we followed the meandering paths to each church.
Our first stop was St. Anthony’s Church, a traditional Byzantine, domed basilica church which is the largest and most lavish of all the structures. The outside is red with white trim and onion domed spires. The inside is a splendid array of Byzantine style icons and a stunning brass chandelier. Most everything in the church was brought from Greece.
Other structures, though less opulent, are none-the-less distinctive and beautiful. They include: The Chapel of St. George featuring architecture typical of Romania; St. Demetrio’s Chapel, which is an example of rural Russian-style architecture; the Fountain of the Cross; and St. Seraphim’s Fountain Chapel, a lovely outdoor, peasant, Russian-style chapel.
Our tour ended at the bookstore where you can browse and purchase religious items, books, mementos and freshly baked goods from the monastery kitchen. You can also enjoy a refreshing glass of the deep artesian St. Anthony’s water.
We were all pretty hungry following our tour of St. Anthony’s and it was lunch time. So off we went to check out the Florence foodie scene. We decided to try LB Cantina, a well-established family owned and operated Mexican food restaurant. We each ordered something different and shared. We had Mexican pizza, tamales, tacos and a huge burrito smothered in a delicious green chili sauce. Everything was so tasty and the portions were large enough that we had plenty of leftovers to go. The LB Cantina’s charming interior plus our equally charming server, Manuel, plus the delicious food equaled a fabulous dining experience.
After lunch, we took a step back in time as we explored historic downtown Florence. Florence was founded in 1866 and is one of the oldest towns in Arizona. The entire downtown is a National Historic District and is loaded with a mix of architectural styles from early Territorial times through the post-World War II building boom. Some have been re-purposed into restaurants or other businesses. One example is the appropriately named Main Street Vault, a sandwich shop located in what was originally a bank.
We also visited the Pinal County Historical Museum. There are several collections on display, including memorabilia from early settlers and Tom Mix, a famous western movie star back in the early days of film. There are also some grim and kind of creepy exhibits focusing on the state prison like actual nooses used for hangings and the double execution chair, used for the first gas chamber execution in Arizona.
Our time in Florence ended with a stop at the town’s showpiece, the stately Pinal County Courthouse, an impressive example of American Victorian style architecture. Built in 1891, the two-story red brick building was recently refurbished and now serves as the Pinal County Administrative Offices.
We arrived in Tempe in time for happy hour at Culinary Dropout, a super fun gastropub where we enjoyed a variety of appetizers, a round of refreshing drinks and a took few stabs at corn hole and ping pong. Their appetizers are very generous so we decided to share the roasted garlic hummus and an antipasti with a delicious mix of prosciutto, grilled asparagus, almonds, olives and crusty bread.
Everyone agreed that Florence is a dandy day trip from Tempe. It’s close enough that you don’t have to spend hours on the road getting there, but also far enough that you feel like you’ve had a mini holiday. It’s an easy, scenic drive with some surprising attractions. St. Anthony’s is incredible and truly exceeded all of our expectations. Historic downtown Florence is a fun and interesting time warp. And we all would jump in the car any time just for another great meal at the LB Cantina.
You can view our road trip on Google maps to get a glimpse how long our drive was from destination to destination.