Cross the Arno, leave the Uffizi and other famous landmarks of Florence behind, and enter a world of real shops, bars full of locals, traditional food and artisan workshops. This is the Oltrarno
Rivers often divide cities into “official” and “alternative” districts – think of Paris, with its Left Bank, or Rome’s Trastevere. Florence is no exception. North of the Arno is the historic centre, which revolves around the twin civic and religious hubs of Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo. Here, too, are most (though not all) of the city’s cultural draws: the Uffizi gallery, the Accademia, the churches of Santa Croce, San Lorenzo and Santa Maria Novella.
Cross the Ponte Vecchio… and the contrast is not immediately apparent. After all, there are some pretty fine palaces here too – including Palazzo Pitti, Florence’s most bombastic Renaissance palazzo. Other families to make their home on the south side of the Arno include influential Florentine clans such as the Macchiavellis, the Guicciardinis and the Capponis, and wine dynasties such as the Antinoris and the Frescobaldis.
One such family pile – the elegant 16th-century Palazzo Magnani Feroni – has been turned into a 12-suite luxury hotel (doubles from €220) without forfeiting its intimate, privileged aristocratic atmosphere. Alongside these imposing residences are a handful of fine churches – one of which, Santa Maria del Carmine, contains one of the city’s most unmissable sights – the astonishingly naturalistic early Renaissance frescoes by Masaccio and Masolino in the Brancacci Chapel.
But as you get away from the souvenir gauntlet of via de’ Guicciardini, which connects Ponte Vecchio with Palazzo Pitti, and begin to wander west towards piazza di Santo Spirito, you start to pick up on the Oltrarno’s unique character. This is an area of real shops, of neighbourhood bars full of Florentines, of motorbike mechanics and haberdashers’ shops, and (once you get into the piazza itself) morning market stalls overflowing with seasonal fruit and vegetables.
It is also full of artisan workshops where leatherworkers, jewellers and makers of handmade paper ply their trade. Some are very high-end indeed – such as celebrity cobbler Stefano Bemer, who once took on Daniel Day Lewis as an apprentice for 10 months in 1999-2000 (the actor wasn’t training for a role; he just wanted to learn to make shoes). Bemer’s exquisite, understated traditional men’s shoes start at €850 for a ready-to-go pair – while bespoke models cost from €2,300. A more affordable artisanal shop-op in the area is chic and cheerful Aprosio – where designer Ornella Aprosio works wonders with glass beads, which are woven into brooches, earrings, necklaces and handbags.
Waking up in Oltrarno is a delight. It’s not overrun with tourists even at peak times, but early in the morning is when the district is most magically itself, as the market traders set up their stalls and residents walk their dogs or browse the Florentine newspaper La Nazione over a cappuccino and a brioche.
If you can’t stretch to the rates at Palazzo Magnani Feroni, become a temporary local by checking into Floroom 1, a small but very stylish new b&b, which overlooks a charming little piazza. There are just four rooms (doubles from €140) – but this is one of the most design-savvy b&bs I have see in Italy. It’s also great value (free wi-fi, soft drinks and all-day gourmet nibbles are included in the price, plus a generous breakfast centred on homemade cakes and fresh fruit). And don’t write off the Lungarno as unaffordable – the first of the Ferragamo group’s five Florentine hotels to open in the city that is home to the brand, this luxurious contemporary classic, with views across the river and Ponte Vecchio, offers rates as low as €180 depending on occupancy and the time of year.
The other great thing about Oltrarno is its lively eating and drinking scene. Begin the evening with a little something at Le Volpi e l’Uva, a tiny wine bar (open 11am-9pm, closed Sun) with a comprehensive selection of wines from smaller Italian producers, many of them available by the glass. Then move on to bohemian and just a tad bijou Filipepe (€50 a head without wine; open daily, evenings only), a creative restaurant with shabby-chic, French-inspired décor and sapid, Calabrian-inspired cuisine: the chef hails from Italy’s Deep South. For something more resolutely Florentine, head for piazza della Passera, where Il Magazzino (€30; open daily) serves up dishes so classic they should have preservation orders slapped on them: ravioli stuffed with lampredotto (a form of tripe – go on, try it), stewed rabbit, cantuccini (sweet almond-studded biscuits) with Vin Santo dessert wine. After a meal here, you’ll start talking like a local.
Le Volpi e l’Uva (+39 055 2398132, www.levolpieluva.com), piazza dei Rossi 1r.
Filipepe (+39 055 200 1397, www.filipepe.com), via San Niccolò 43r.
Il Magazzino (+39 055 215 969), piazza della Passera 2-3r.