Sadly long overlooked, its squares used as car parks, the area across the Arno river has been transformed by Florence’s mayor.
A Street party at Piazza Del Carmine, Oltrarno. Photograph courtesy of Il Nuovo Reporter
January drizzle didn’t spoil the fun for the Florentine families of the Oltrarno district at a free street party on the 14th-century Piazza del Carmine: stilt walkers, a circus workshop, music and stalls marked its €3.6m transformation from open-air car park to pleasant, pedestrianised square.
“This is a victory,” said mayor Dario Nardella. “The square should be inhabited by people, not cars; a place for living and making a living.” We could not agree more.
On the same day, more than 300 people had enjoyed the view from the centuries-old walkway above the ancient Porta Romana, reopened after a decade. The gate is part of Florence’s medieval fortifications, and this is the only part of the city where bits survive. Over the river, the defences were demolished in the 1800s to make way for new roads and neighbourhoods.
Being overlooked has not always worked in the Oltrarno’s favor, though. As mass tourism boomed, visitors would cross the river to visit the Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace, but bypass the rest of this characterful area of narrow streets and artisans’ workshops. “A short-cut to the centre, rather than a destination,” as Nardella put it.
The city is working on bringing more tourism to the Oltrarno. There have been protests at gentrification and loss of parking, but the district already has a different feel, helped by the extension last month of Florence’s restricted traffic zone. Non-residents now cannot drive or park here in daytime or summer evenings.
The great thing about being over the river from some of the world’s top Renaissance sights is the views, and the Oltrarno is making the most of this, with ancient buildings repurposed as bars and restaurants, and bringing more passing trade for artisans.
For a place to stay with great views, Al Giardino delle Rose (doubles from €100, algiardinodellerose.com) is a cute guesthouse on a hilly street near the Rose Garden, but the owners also let a one-bedroom flat (sleeps four, with sofabed, from €160 a night) on narrow Via Toscanella, near the Ponte Vecchio. More stylish Soprarno Suites on Via Maggio (doubles from €130 B&B, soprarnosuites) has 10 rooms displaying offbeat art. For a budget bed, new hostel Tasso (from €25pp B&B, ostellotassofirenze.it) has minimal, chic rooms and dorms.
New places to eat include the very popular ZEB gastronomia on Via San Miniato: it has no menu but a tempting counter display of soups, pastas and mains. Or make a night of it at The Speakeasy 23, on Via San Niccolò, which has wines, craft beers and deli items and live music or DJ sets Wednesday to Sunday.
Berberè pizza joint
Berberè, Bologna’s right-on pizza joint, chose the Oltrarno’s Piazza De’ Nerli for its Florence outpost, serving sustainable pizzas and craft beers under whitewashed arches with modernist “frescoes”. Equally organic, and near the Tasso hostel, Gnam does good-value soups and burgers.
Stay sustainable with a choice of 150 organic wines to wash down “zero-km” vegetable dishes at Vivanda, near the Pitti Palace. Or head to Bevo Vino on Via San Niccolò for free aperitivo snacks with a glass of prosecco.
New shops include the studio of Marina Calamai (marinacalamai.it ) on Via Santo Spirito. Her, who creates crazy cake-themed sculptures, paintings and jewellery. The jewelery is equally unusual, if less gastronomic, at Angela Caputi (angelacaputi.com) up the street, as are the beautiful clothes and accessories at Quelle Tre (quelletre.it), run by three designer sisters.
But don’t bank on parking up the steps from Bevo Vino in panoramic Piazzale Michelangelo it too is in the mayor’s sights: he has had the square cleared and pedestrianised.