Where to Stay in Florence: Oltrarno
By now, most of our readers have likely figured out which is my favorite city in the world. I talk about it a lot and spend much of my time there, or plotting ways to get back there to visit again or to live for a while. So now I want to focus on where to stay in Florence — The Oltrarno.
Oltrarno refers to the “other side of the Arno,” which is the river in Florence. Anyone who’s been to Florence knows that most of the well-known tourist attractions of the city are situated beyond the north end of the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge. But cross over in the other direction and you will find a completely different side of Florence, where tourists are relatively sparse and local life flourishes along with new artisanal shops, galleries and eateries. I really love the older establishments there as well.
When I spent a summer in Florence several years ago with my husband and very young kids, I knew little about which neighborhoods to target for our 6 week stay. We stumbled by complete luck upon a great apartment in the Oltrarno, and got to know our surroundings pretty well. Many of my favorite restaurants, bar/cafes and shops are still there and I’ll gladly tell you all about them.
Un-hip as we were with our toddler and preschooler in tow, we lived in a very hip Oltrarno neighborhood called San Niccolo, named for the nearby bridge. The epicenter of this neighborhood is a small, triangular intersection that is home to what was once our clear favorite restaurant, Il Rifrullo. We dined on its candlelit patio on our first night in town, and returned for any special occasion, if we had a visitor in town, or if it had been more than a week since our last visit. I’ll never forget the antipasto platter, the balsamic steak dish I ordered every time, or the waitress that loved the kids and ushered them into the back to visit the kitchen each time we walked in the door. The nostalgia is palpable when I think about that place. I can still picture 2 year-old Eve wandering back up the street toward our apartment with a gelato cone from the nearby stand dripping down her arm.
Now, however, the restaurant has changed and it’s more of a hang out for young people seeking an aperitivo (pre-dinner drink and snack) rather than a full meal. But they still have their cafe/bar downstairs where possibly the best cappuccino in town can be found.
Several other eating and drinking establishments occupy this same intersection. One I really like is just up the street, on the other side of one of Florence’s ancient city walls, called Fuori Porta. This is a true enoteca (wine bar), and the perfect place to visit for lunch or an aperitivo. The wine list is divine and equally matched by the bruschetta, salami and cheeses.
From the San Niccolo area, head west along the south side of the river toward the Ponte Vecchio and, if you’re lucky and it’s the right time of day and year, a pop-up bar will emerge in a lovely little park where you can sit and enjoy a cold beverage. Because who can be expected to walk all the way to the center of town without a Prosecco break? Next to this little park is a chic, modern and spacious restaurant called Zoe, another great spot for an aperitivo.
As you get closer to the Ponte Vecchio, the tourist crowd swells a little but the neighborhood is no less charming. My favorite clothing boutique in Florence occupies 4 or 5 successive storefronts along the street Borgo San Jacopo. Some have signs and some do not, but they are all Jasmine, named for the owner’s wife. I could spend hours (and a lot of money) perusing these shops, where they carry obscure and up-and-coming designers with slightly lower prices than the big names.
Keep heading west along Borgo San Jacopo and you run into Via Maggio, a street best known for its antique shops but now also occupied by several beautiful contemporary art galleries. Also on this street is Atelier Via Maggio, a retail collaboration of four Florentine craftswomen that sell hats, handbags and other accessories for adults and children, along with upholstered furniture, much of which is made in house. I have yet to personally visit this store but it’s high on my list for my next trip. In my next life, I intend to come back as a Florentine craftswoman with a boutique in the Oltrarno.
Just around the corner is the gigantic spectacle that is the Pitti Palace, which does attract a fair amount of tourism because the enormous building houses some popular museums. Around back begins the lovely and vast Boboli Gardens with its beautiful statues and peaceful walking trails. I find the history of this building fascinating. Originally belonging to a wealthy family named (you guessed it) Pitti, in the 16th century, a Grand Duke of the Medici family that ruled Florence acquired the palace for his home, and ordered a private, elevated walkway (the Vasari corridor) to be built, connecting the palace to his offices north of the Arno river. Those offices (“Uffizi”) are now the most famous museum in Florence. The half mile-long corridor, which crosses right above the Ponte Vecchio, has been closed to the public for centuries, other than restricted access granted to small, professionally guided groups of tourists willing to shell out big bucks. My family and I splurged on the experience a couple of years ago and loved the adventure, as well as the enormous, breathtaking collection of self-portraits by famous artists that graces the corridor’s walls. I recently read that the new head of the Uffizi museum intends to open the corridor to the public as a part of the museum tour. He also may relocate the self portrait collection for its protection (not sure where, perhaps into storage?) and display other works in that space. While I think that this is a very positive development for art and history buffs desiring access to this unique place, I’m also glad to have seen the corridor as it was.
Meanwhile, back in the Oltrarno, another hangout popular with locals is the Santo Spirito neighborhood, which derives its name from the beautiful basilica that dominates a lively open air piazza. Here you will find local hipsters enjoying a leisurely chat with friends or partaking in a cappuccino or meal in one of the eateries in the area, many of which are surprisingly affordable. The same cannot be said of restaurants in piazzas on the north side of the bridge, which know that they’ve hit the tourism jackpot. Cruise by in the evening and there’s a good chance you’ll catch a free concert or even just some neighborhood characters that contribute to the vibrant night life of the piazza. Swing by during the day, and you might catch an open air farmers market, or the vast antique market that occupies the space on the 3rd Sunday of every month. There’s never a dull moment in Santo Spirito.
And finally, I can’t leave the Oltrarno without mentioning what is perhaps the most beautiful and famous viewing point of the city of Florence- Piazzale Michelangelo. If you begin in the San Niccolo neighborhood that I mentioned, and start trekking uphill and slightly southeast, up a walking trail that leads through a beautiful upscale residential neighborhood, your efforts are soon rewarded with a world class view of Florence’s skyline from a large, wide-open piazza. Now, this does not qualify as one of Florence’s best-kept secrets. Everyone knows about it, including the street vendors ready to sell you a miniature David or an I-Heart-Italy shirt. But just ignore the crowds and take in the shapes and colors of what is truly a special city.