A Day In Oltrarno: Florence’s Trendiest Neighbourhood
Oltrarno, or “beyond the Arno” as its name means in Italian, is one of Florence’s trendiest and most authentic neighbourhoods. Spanning the southern riverbank of the historic city, Oltrarno’s three historic quarters — San Niccolò, Santo Spirito, and San Frediano — are home to a wealth of galleries, artisan workshops and lush gardens by day and a buzzing bar scene and outdoor dining culture after dark.
Oltrarno owes much of its chic, slow-paced charm to the fact that it’s still relatively undiscovered, especially compared to the far more frenetic historic centre north of the Arno. But Florence is a small city, and as Oltrarno’s reputation grows, so too does the number of tourists (and by extension tourist traps) appearing on the neighbourhood’s streets.
That’s why we Roman Candle Tours have published this guide: to help you discover San Niccolò, Santo Spirito, and San Frediano for yourself, safe in the knowledge that our recommendations are tried and tested all to make sure you can spend the perfect day out in Oltrarno.
Cross the Ponte Vecchio into Oltrarno
Getting to Oltrarno from Florence’s historic centre means crossing the famous Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”) has been rebuilt several times throughout the centuries, most recently in 1345. But a structure has continuously spanned this part of the Arno since Florence was founded in the first century BC.
During the Middle Ages, the Ponte Vecchio was a thriving market for Florence’s butchers, fishmongers, and tanners. Then in 1593, Florence’s duke Ferdinand I passed an edict passing control the bridge over to the city’s jewellers (partly because it could easily be defended, partly because he couldn’t stand the stench).
Many of these prestigious Florentine jewellers and goldsmiths still line the Ponte Vecchio to this day. And while the price tags on their displays might admittedly be a turn off, with the gold and silverware on show ranging from the beautiful to the bizarre, the jewellers on the Ponte Vecchio’s at least make for some fascinating window-shopping.
Stop off for coffee and a cornetto
Keep walking straight from the Ponte Vecchio and within two minutes you’ll see the Via dello Sprone on the right. At the top of this road is Ditta Artigianale, one of Florence’s best spots for a typical Italian breakfast — a coffee and a cream, chocolate, or nutella-filled cornetto — or if you’re particulalry peckish something more substantial.
We’ve featured Ditta Artiginale already in Roman Candle Tours’ guide to the best coffee in Florence – essential reading should you fancy experimenting beyond an espresso! It’s a great place to linger over a late morning coffee, but not until you’ve run down your batteries doing some nearby sightseeing.
Explore the Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens
From Ditta Artiginale, it’s less than a minute’s walk to one of Florence’s most awe-inspiring attractions, the Palazzo Pizzi (Pitti Palace). Once the resplendent royal palace of the Medici, the Palazzo Pitti was briefly the Italian power base of Napoleon Bonaparte and former court of Italy’s king. Now it’s the largest museum complex in Florence.
The Palazzo Pitti’s art collection easily rivals those of Florence’s other galleries — the Uffizi and Accademia included. The main difference is that while with their almost exclusively renaissance offerings the Uffizi and Accademia can (without the right guide) feel a little samey, the Palazzo Pitti has diverse collections to suit every taste. The Palatine Gallery boasts a collection renaissance art worthy of the Medici, while ithe palace’s other offerings — the Gallery of Modern Art, Medici’s treasury, and Museum of Costume and Fashion —add something a little different.
Tickets can be purchased online or at the onsite ticket office. If the weather’s good (and as this is Italy, it probably will be), it’s worth getting a combination ticket for the Palazzo Pitti and adjoining Boboli Gardens. These royal gardens are among the largest and most ornate in Florence, masterfully designed and decorated with flora, fountains, and statues dating as far back as the sixteenth century.
Have lunch in Santo Spirito
Head straight out of the Palazzo Pitti and within five minutes you’ll arrive at Piazza Santo Spirito, the square at the heart of Oltrarno’s central quarter. If you’re looking for a light lunch, let your nose guide you to Gustapanino. Loved by locals and tourists alike, Gustapanino serves up a delectable range of sandwiches from traditiona mortadella and artichoke cream focaccia to more spicy nduja varieties inspired by the owners’ home region of Calabria. Get a crumbling paninoto takeaway or pay a little more and park yourself at one of their tables on the piazza.
If traditional Neapolitan pizza sounds right up your street, Gustapanino has a sister restaurant Gustapizza next door. Its roaring wood-fired oven and no-frills menu brings in a bustling trade both from Oltrarno locals and locally residing exchange students. Eat indoors among the hustle and bustle or takeaway and eat out on the steps of the piazza.
Or if you’re looking for more of a slow-paced sit down meal, sandwiched between the two Gustas is Trattoria La Casalinga, a traditional family restaurant serving up beautiful pasta dishes and secondi at reasonable prices every lunchtime from 12:00 – 14:30.
Art lovers rejoice at the church of Santo Spirito
While you’re on the piazza, take 20 minutes to explore the church of Santo Spirito at its head. The fifteenth century church might lack the facadal grandeur of Santa Croce or Santa Maria del Fiore, but don’t let this put you off. The church of Santo Spirito was the brainchild of none other than Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect responsible for the Duomo.
The church’s simple, perfectly proportioned exterior stands in stark contrast to the splendour of what’s inside. Santo Spirito houses an array of artworks by the likes of Lippi and Andrea Orcagna. But the church’s magnum opus has to be its small wooden sculpture of Christ carved by the great Michelangelo Buonarotti himself, dedicated as thanks to the Augustine friars who had offered him sanctuary after the death of his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1492.
Entry into the church is free, just be careful with your timings. Though open for service every day of the week (except Wednesdays), Santo Spirito is only open to tourists from 9:30 – 12:30 and then from 16:00 – 17:30.
Indulge in some of Oltrano’s mouth-watering gelato
If have some stomach space saved over from lunch (or even if you don’t), set your sights on seeking out some of the best gelato in Florence. Oltrarno is home to three of the city’s most reputable gelaterie, which although just a stone’s throw away from one another serve up some distinctly different delights.
Standing on the southern end of the bridge from which it takes its name, the first is Gelateria Santa Trinita. During high season, Santa Trinita is immediately identifiable from the long line of people snaking around it from the sidewalk. This is a good sign; such popularity pays testament to the quality (not to mention the quantity) of the ice cream they offer.
Walk a few minutes west along the river from Santa Trinita and you’ll come to another bridge, Ponte alla Carraia, and its eponymous gelateria, Gelateria la Carraia. La Carraia serves up a similar fare to Santa Trinita, the only difference being that Santa Trinita is better for fruity, creamy gelato while La Carraia is better for darker, chocolaty stuff.
If you want the best of both worlds and are happy to go without the riverside views, you can’t beat Gelateria della Passera on… you guessed it, gelateriein Oltrarno aren’t so inventive with their names — Piazza della Passera. As a work of art, their “Mona Lisa” is on a par with the famous portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. The main difference is that with Passera’s gelato, the smile will be genuine.
The portions are a little smaller here than at Santa Trinita or La Carraia, and rather than being displayed behind glass the gelato itself is hidden from sight. This is done to ensure quality though, not to feign modesty, so with its rich and reasonable ice cream, Gelateria della Passera gelato is still to my mind the best gelateria in Florence.
Catch the sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo
Image by Galex59
via CreativeCommonsYou know that picture postcard panoramic of Florence that crops up now and then on your Instagram feed? Chances are that comes from the view at Piazzale Michelangelo. Unfortunately the square’s stunning panoramic is Florence’s worst kept secret, so whenever you go be prepared to wait a few minutes for your ideal photo-op spot at the front. But don’t let this put you off; a bleeding sunset over Florence really is a sight to behold.
The most direct route to Piazzale Michelangelo takes you on a steep though stunning walk through the medieval gate of Porta San Miniato and up past the beautiful giardino delle rose (Rose Garden), which is open and flourishing from May through to October. The more leisurely, scenic route starts at the river at the foot of the imposing medieval tower of Porta San Niccolò and takes you up meandering paths lined by fountains and flora.
When you’ve finished at Piazzale Michelangelo, before heading back down to Oltrarno make sure to visit the church of San Miniato al Monte. As Florence’s most impressive examples of Romanesque architecture, the fourteenth century church is serene if not reverentially solemn from the inside; a stark contrast to the sublime view that greets you as you leave.
Duck into an artist’s studio in San Niccolò
As you’ve walked around Florence, the keen eyed among you might have noticed that there’s something strange going on with the street-signs. These whimsical alterations are the work of Clet Abraham, a French artist whose cornerside studio you pass on your way down from Piazzale Michelangelo. If the original artworks are too pricey (or indeed heavy), his vinyl stickers and t-shirts are perfect for a quirky souvenir.
Wander the backstreets of San Frediano
Lonely Planet has named San Frediano as one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world, and with good reason. Practically untouched by tourism despite its proximity to Florence’s historic centre, this medieval quarter, which runs between two of the city’s last remaining ancient gateways, is a winding labyrinth of narrow streets, artisan workshops, and traditional trattorie (local family restaurants).
Traditionalism is just one side of San Frediano. By night, the quarter transforms into one of the city’s most alternative scenes, bustling with fusion restaurants, packed out bars, and arguably the best cocktail bar in the city, MAD Souls & Spirits, which Roman Candle Tours has already featured in its guide to the best aperitivo in Florence. One of the alchemistic concoctions dreamt up by the owners of MAD Souls & Spirits is the perfect way to work up your appetite for dinner in Oltrarno.
Dinner in Oltrarno
People have scoffed at me in the past for recommending Osteria Santo Spirito. The osteria certainly aware of its own popularity constantly packed with a mixed crowd of tourists and Italians who are fortunate or foresighted enough to have made a reservation.
It’s also consistently very good, offering a modest but well thought out menu of antipasti, pasta dishes, meat and seafood secondi and desserts to die for. Perhaps the real reason I love this restaurant is nostalgia — it was the first restaurant I ate at when I first came to Florence back in 2015. I still go back there when I can, mainly for their gnocchi in truffle oil: pure heaven for any true cheese-lover.
Another Oltrarno trattoria Roman Candle Tours strongly recommends is Quattro Leoni (Four Lions) on Piazza della Passera. Savouring a plate of their pear ravioli out on the piazza is a memorable experience, but my personal favourite is the typical Tuscan dish of pappardelle (broad, flat pasta, similar to lasagne) coated with a delicious wild boar ragù. Booking ahead is advisable, either by calling them or by passing by earlier in the day.
Nightlife in Oltrarno
At the centre of Oltrarno’s nightlife is the piazza of Santo Spirito itself. Every weekend during the high season, the piazza is packed out with hundreds of Italians and Erasmus students who congregate outside the church steps to socialise, drink, and—for the locals who happen to be carrying musical instruments—form impromptu bands.
Oltrarno also has a more organised live music scene at NoF Club. Open every night (until 1:30am on Sundays; 3am on Fridays and Saturdays) this intimate but lively bar has established itself in recent years as a great place for seeing local bands and discovering local talent. It’s situated not far from Ponte alla Carraia, which takes you back over the river to the centre, bringing to an end your perfect day in Oltrarno.
If you liked this article, read also “Where to Find the Best Gelato in Florence“