INTRODUCING OLTRARNO: AN ARTISAN NEIGHBOURHOOD IN FLORENCE
The historic centre of Florence is a world renowned site with the Duomo, the Accademia, the Uffizi dominating it’s skyline and pulling in the masses but have you heard of the quieter, less touristy Oltrarno? Allow me to introduce you to my most favourite part of Florence and the best bit, it’s still within the historical city boundaries.
Oltrarno in Italian means ‘beyond the Arno’ and that is exactly where it is located. In my opinion, it’s one of Florence’s most authentic, hip and trendy neighbourhoods and comprises three historic quarters, San Niccolo, Santo Spirito and the coolest San Frediano.
One could describe Oltrarno as a myriad of artisanal workshops and showrooms interspersed with galleries, manicured gardens, a lively al fresco dining culture and the hub of Florence’s after dark drinking scene.
Getting to Oltrarno couldn’t be easier, you simply walk across the famous Ponte Vecchio (‘Old Bridge’) past the vast prestigious goldsmith’s and jewellery shops and as you alight, you’re in Oltrarno.
Here are my personal recommendations for Oltrarno and why you really should venture to the other side of the bridge.
WHERE TO STAY
Personally, to position yourself away from the vast crowds, stay in one of the many beautiful residences located in Oltrarno. One of my favourites is SoprArno Suites and you can read all about this creatively designed, unique antique-filled, abode below…
SoprArno Suites Via Maggio 35 50125 Florence Website
WHAT TO VISIT
As I mentioned before, you probably know the Uffizi and Accademia but if you’re an art lover like yours truly, you need to make a beeline for the Pitti Palace. The palace originates from the Renaissance era and belonged to Lucca Pitti, a Florentine banker. The Medici family bought the palace in 1549, when it became their main residence. Today the palace houses the Palatine Gallery, boasting over 500 paintings, most of which are from the Renaissance era.
Pitti Palace. Piazza de’ Pitti, 1, 50125 Florence. Website
The Gardens cover 11 acres and make up the biggest green space in central Florence. Laid originally in the sixteenth century, the gardens are attached to the Pitti Palace and are thus the formal gardens of the palace. There are many outdoor sculptures including ancient Roman and Baroque works. There is also a stunning rose garden together with beautiful lakes and ponds.
Early morning visitors are treated to a stunning sunrise and panoramic views of the city awaking with the backdrop of the Duomo.
Pitti Palace. Piazza de’ Pitti, 1, 50125 Florence. Website
Four hectares of stunning landscaped gardens, a beautiful villa, six fountains, wisteria (when in season), boasting sixty varieties of hydrangea and some Anglo Chinese gardens, you could spend the whole day here. Much of the fruit is a true representation of Tuscan gardens. There is also a coffee shop with a view.
Costa S. Giorgio, 2, 50125 Florence Tel. +39 055 2006 6233. Website
At sunset your going to want to grab probably the best view of Florence around. You know that iconic postcard, picture perfect panorama you see of Florence with the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio? Well Piazzale Michelangelo is the place. It gets crowded so go early to bag your spot, get your shots and leave as soon as you do is my advice. Additionally it’s a 20 minute uphill walk but your efforts will be rewarded for sure.
Piazzale Michelangelo 50125 Florence Website
SAN MINIATO AL MONTE
Personally, an even better view in my opinion, is from the quieter church of San Miniato al Monte. An absolute gem of a church, the basilica dates back to the 11th century and is one of the finest Romanesque churches in all of Italy. The monks also make a pretty good ice-cream, which is sold in the shop at the top. The creator of Pinocchio is buried in the cemetery outside the church alongside many important Italian figures.
Via delle Porte Sante, 34, 50125 Florence. Tel. +39 055 234 2731 Website
SANTO SPIRITO CHURCH
This fifteenth century church was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, who also bought us the Duomo, may look perfectly proportioned from outside but is a total contrast inside. It houses an array of artworks by the likes of Fillippino Lippi and many others. Definitely worth a visit if you like your Renaissance arts.
Piazza Santo Spirito, 30, 50125 Firenze. Website
The Brancacci Chapel is located in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine and allows you to see the development of the Renaissance through art. That’s because Masaccio, often called the father of the Renaissance, began frescoing the chapel in the 1420s at just 21 years of age. He died at 27, with the frescoes left unfinished until the 1480s. Filippino Lippi completed the frescoes, 60 years after they’d begun.
The frescoes are a great way to see how Renaissance art developed from its earliest years to the midway point. That’s not to mention that the frescoes are simply stunning: Masaccio’s “Tribute Money” is one of the most famous pieces of the early Renaissance and his frescoes were so important, the great Michelangelo was thought to have trained by copying them.
Piazza del Carmine, 50124 Florence. Website
SANTO SPIRITO SQUARE
Right in front of the church is the beautiful Santo Spirito Square. During the day it’s home to flower and food stalls but at night this is the heart of the restaurant scene and nightlife. Also a fab place to people watch with a traditional Tuscan dish or glass of wine. Choose from a variety pf restaurants and mingle with the locals.
Santo Spirito Square. Oltrano. Florence.
GIARDINO DELLE ROSE
Created in 1865 by Giuseppe Poggi, this is a lovely garden just below Piazzale Michelangelo and is perfect for a short walk with views of the city.
The garden houses a collection of roses, lemons and other plants, as well as a Japanese garden, donated to Florence by the twin city of Kyōto and the Zen Kodai-Ji temple. In particular, it contains about 400 varieties of roses made up of a collection of 1,200 plants.
Viale Giuseppe Poggi, 2. 50125 Florence. Tel +39 055 234 2426 Website
ST MARKS CHURCH OPERA
If you’re a culture vulture and into your opera, then St Mark’s church is your place. They have five performances a week and you can purchase tickets online. All shows are extremely intimate and performed by a small cast of very talented opera singers. The shows are in the beautiful main church and trust me this is a special performance you won’t forget.
Via Maggio, 16, 50125 Florence. Tel. +39 055 294764 Website
You didn’t think I would leave the street art out did you? Strolling the streets of Oltrarno, you will no doubt come across the talents of the local street artists. You’ll have to wander the little hidden alleyways and streets to come across some of these so make sure you take a few little detours too!
WHERE TO EAT
This hole in the wall pizza serves up the most authentic Tuscan pizza I’ve had for a fraction of the price of restaurants. The queues wrap around the street and that was all the convincing I needed to grab one of their small selection of pizzas. We took the pizzas back to our hotel and cracked open a bottle of red. And the rest as they say is history!
Via Maggio, 46r, 50125 Florence. Tel, +39 055 285068
If you’re a lover of urban al fresco dining, you’ve found your place at Santarosa Bistrot. Outdoor and indoor dining with a great selection of drinks and a fab lunch, dinner and evening drinks menu, there’s literally something for everyone here, including great coffee in that mix!
Seating is casual and relaxed and the vibe is very much chilled and the food well, the photos probably just speak for themselves. I would totally recommend the hazelnut tiramisu. Santarosa is only open spring-summer and closes at this spot in the winter.
Lungarno di Santa Rosa, 50142 Florence. Tel. +39 055 230 9057 Website
LA BOTTEGA DEL BUON CAFFÉ
A Michelin starred restaurant situated overlooking the San Niccolò Tower at the foot of the Arno. Chef Erez and his team cook up a storm in the open kitchen and the theme is very much farm (they have a hotel and farm near Siena) to kitchen. Check out the full review below…
Lungarno Benvenuto Cellini, 69R, 50125 Florence. Tel. +39 055 553 5677 Website
WHERE TO DRINK COFFEE & APERITIVO
LE VOLPI E L’UVA
A definite favourite of the locals in Oltrarno is this small wine bar tucked away in a small square off the main road to the Pitti palace. Booking is recommended to avoid disappointment. They even do wine tasting but we were here for aperitivo and opted for a couple of glasses of red with a cheese and ham board. There’s a lovely bustling atmosphere in the square and the wines are exquisite.
Piazza dei Rossi, 1. Florence 50125 Tel. +39 055 2398132 Website
CAFFÉ DEGLI ARTIGIANI
This little café is tucked away behind the Piazza della Passera in Santo Spirito and serves some great coffee, cakes, aperitivos and other sweet treats. As the name suggests it was a place for craftsman to stop by and grab a quick coffee and chat not much has changed since 1945 as it still very much has that vibe. They also serve sandwiches and salads and let me just add, the toilet is a stand up one, hole in the ground-just so there’s no nasty surprises!
Via dello Sprone, 16r, 50125 Florence
LIBRERIA CAFÉ LA CITÉ
Located in San Frediano, this was one of my favourite bookshops with great Espresso to match. Quirky and fun with deliberately mismatched furniture and a piano, this place is great to relax with a good book. All books are in Italian-just to note!
Borgo San Frediano, 20/r, 50124 Florence. Tel. +39 055 210387 Website
A lovely cute café adjoining SoprArno Suites is this little space serving pastries and a great variety of coffee and drinks. Think cute French bistro styling with the owner’s collection of world menus on the walls. Very Kitsch.
Via Maggio, 35, 50125 Florence. Tel. +39 055 046 8719
BE-LAVIE TOP TIPS
Buy tickets for the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens online and if you’re an early bird go early, around 08:30-09:00 and you can enjoy the place all to yourself and take in the grandeur before the crowds and tour buses arrive.
Book popular restaurants, especially for aperitivos as you may not get a seat that night especially in peak season.
Staying Oltrarno is a lot quieter and a little more cost effective than on the other side of the river. The hotels are old residences and full of character.
The pace of life in Oltrarno is a lot slower and relaxed away from the noise and crowds that you encounter on the side of the Ponte Vecchio.
I hope you enjoyed my guide on one of my personal favourite areas in Florence. Let me know below if you’ve visited Oltrarno and whether you’d add it to your Florence trip. You can easily spend a day meandering the quiet hidden streets and artisanal workshops interspersed with cultural sights.