Florence’s Oltrarno District, Full of Charm, History, Art and Vitality
Literally the “other side of the Arno” and better known among Florentines as “Diladdarno”, the Oltrarno district embraces the area south of the River and west and east of Ponte Vecchio; traditionally home to Florence’s artisans and its old-world, it is also known for housing some of the city’s most remarkable attractions such as Palazzo Pitti, the Boboli Gardens, Giardino Torrigiani and Cappella Brancacci. In addition to the above-mentioned beauties, the area is strewn with wonderful Medieval and Renaissance buildings, lively squares, churches and lesser-known treasures built by the greatest Florentine artists. With its narrow medieval streets, botteghe artigiane, independent boutiques, inviting restaurants and bars, the Oltrarno is very much frequented by locals and tourists, especially on hot summer nights. It includes the neighbourhoods of San Frediano, Santo Spirito and San Niccolò, each of them with its own character, even if at first glance they may appear the same.
San Frediano – the more working-class of the three neighbourhoods – has given its name to the majestic gate from which you enter the area, Porta San Frediano. With plenty of fashionable restaurants and bars, this neighbourhood has been improving and attracting more and more people for a vibrant night out. Situated in the homonymous square, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Carmine – one of the neighbourhood’s jewels – houses the celebrated Brancacci Chapel, a treasure of paintings by Masaccio, Masolino and Filippino Lippi, which is regarded as a supreme masterpiece of the Renaissance. Another religious building of interest and a staple of the magical Florentine skyline is the Church of San Frediano in Cestello overlooking the Arno River. Want to know some of the best places to eat and drink in San Frediano? Here is a list of our favourites: Santa Rosa Bistrot, All'Antico Ristoro di Cambi, Trattoria Napoleone, MAD Souls & Spirits and NoF Club (a nice music venue too!).
Just a few steps from San Frediano is the Santo Spirito neighbourhood, whose beating heart is certainly Piazza Santo Spirito with the graceful and simple Basilica of the same name, the last masterpiece of Filippo Brunelleschi. The piazza hosts a few markets per month (a flea market, a farmers’ market and a creative market) and it’s an excellent place to have lunch or dinner or simply a good night out. The whole area around Piazza Santo Spirito is very beautiful and includes some of the most charming streets in town – Via dello Sprone, Via dei Vellutini, Via Maggio, Via Romana and Sdrucciolo de’ Pitti – the most visited attraction of the neighbourhood is surely the Pitti Palace with its fabulous Boboli Gardens; however, you should also spare some time to visit the extraordinary Giardino Torrigiani, La Specola Zoological Museum and the Church of Santa Felicita, the oldest in Oltrarno, which houses a unique painting by Jacopo da Pontormo, the Deposition from the Cross. Our favourite places to eat and drink in Santo Spirito are: Il Santo Bevitore, Vivanda, Osteria Santo Spirito, Rasputin (great cocktail bar!) and 4 Leoni.
Bordered by Ponte Vecchio to the west, Via di Belvedere to the south, Porta San Niccolò to the east and the Arno River to the north, San Niccolò has always been the artist neighbourhood. Its main street – Via di San Niccolò – is full of stylish art galleries and antique shops; the area is also known for its wine bars, cocktail bars and typical osterie where you can taste delicious local specialties. Located on Via de' Bardi, the Church of Santa Lucia de’ Magnoli (1078) has been recently renovated and boasts a lovely terracotta lunette by Benedetto Buglioni on its façade. Not far from this little known jewel is the entrance to the Bardini Garden, one of the most beautiful (and least visited...) gardens of Florence. Don't miss Porta San Niccolò for a unique view of the city from the top of the tower and the ravishing Palazzo Capponi delle Rovinate (Lungarno Torrigiani, 25), Dr. Lecter's Florentine home in the movie Hannibal by Ridley Scott. The best places to eat and drink in San Niccolò are the following: Osteria Antica Mescita, Il Rifrullo, Enoteca Fuori Porta, The Speakeasy and La Beppa Fioraia (not really part of this neighbourhood, but pretty close to Porta San Miniato).
Originally a working class area, the Oltrarno district underwent significant changes during the 15th and 16th centuries, when the wealthiest Florentine families took up residence here and built their wonderful palazzi. In 1550, Cosimo I de’ Medici and his wife Eleonora di Toledo purchased the Pitti Palace and commissioned the lavish Boboli Gardens. In the same period, a lot of noble residences were erected along Via de’ Serragli, Via Romana and Via Maggio, changing forever the appearance of these streets. Via Maggio in particular is home to an amazing palazzo that was the scene of one of the most talked-about love stories of the Renaissance… we are talking about the Palazzo di Bianca Cappello, have you ever heard of it?
Situated on this street at no. 26, this palace was constructed by Bernardo Buontalenti between 1570–74 on the orders of Francesco I de’ Medici, the second Grand Duke of Tuscany, son of Cosimo I de’ Medici and Eleonora di Toledo. The building was destined to Bianca Cappello, the Venetian noblewoman with whom the Grand Duke had fallen crazily in love some time before. Already married to Joanna of Austria, Francesco I had never endured his political marriage, so when he met Bianca, he didn't think twice about buying her a house just around the corner from where he lived. A few months after the premature death of Joanna, Francesco and Bianca could finally get married, but their marriage didn't last long... they both died seemingly from malaria in October 1587, within a day of each other, at the Villa Medici in Poggio a Caiano. Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Francesco’s elder brother and third Grand Duke of Tuscany after his brother's death, didn't allow Bianca’s body to be buried in the family tomb.
Remember, Florence is just a stone's throw away from Chianti, Siena, Montalcino and other fabulous destinations.