In so many ways, Florence is a city where time somehow seems to have stopped. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has set foot here or just looked at some pictures. Everywhere you turn, and without even walking into a church or a museum, you meet with that everlasting beauty that only masterpieces possess.
But there’s a place in particular where this feeling deepens to a wonderful extent. And to reach it, you just have to go over a bridge.
Commonly known as Oltrarno – literally “on the other side of Arno River” –, it’s not simply a quarter of the city, but a mood, a way of life that still lingers through its ancient tones.
Walking on the streets, having a coffee or an aperitivo, eating in one of the many little cafés and restaurants, you will hear people talking mainly in Italian, or rather Florentine (and if you don’t understand a word, that’s normal).
Life in Oltrarno appears to move slowly than elsewhere. It’s a feeling that you can catch in the air and on people’s faces.
Once the heart of Florence’s trade, it’s still filled with artisan shops – especially antiques and leather –, studios, artistic laboratories and small live music venues. But its charm rests not only in the quality of life and its creative streak.
Over the centuries, Oltrarno became a stylish area that many nobles and aristocrats chose as their home, building marvelous palaces and villas. The biggest and most famous one is Palazzo Pitti, residence of the Grand-Duke of Tuscany. Now one of the most significant museums in the city, it’s definitely worth a visit, together with Boboli Park – which is basically a huge and spectacular open-air museum in its own right.
As for churches, you are spoiled for choice: Santo Spirito, San Frediano in Castello, San Niccolò, Santa Maria del Carmine with the Brancacci Chapel featuring frescoes by Masaccio, Masolino and Filippo Lippi, but also other little, hidden gems such as San Pietro in Gattolino.
And how can you reach Oltrarno? Crossing the river, as its name implies.
Ponte Vecchio is the most obvious path, and you can’t say to be in Florence if you don’t walk amongst its jewelers and goldsmiths at least once.
On the other hand, our suggestion is to take Ponte Santa Trinita. For two different reasons. The first is that from there you can admire Ponte Vecchio in all its timeless beauty. And the second is that this bridge will lead you directly into Via Maggio, which is in the very middle of Oltrarno, and therefore the perfect starting point to wander in astonishment.
Via Maggio is basically a series of stunning palaces. You’ll have a linking just looking at their façades. The street exudes history and art: noble families’ coats, decorated chapels, doors and windows that witnessed countless events and lasted through the centuries.
Two buildings in particular stand out. One is at number 26, and it’s known as Bianca Cappello Palace. It belonged to the once mistress and later on second wife of Grand-Duke Francesco I de’ Medici. Its remarkably adorned façade makes it impossible to miss. The story goes that English writer Horace Walpole conceived the word “serendipity” in 1754 when he discovered a long-lost painting by Giorgio Vasari. The subject of this painting? Madame Bianca Cappello.
A fortunate chance indeed.
The other noteworthy palace of Via Maggio is at number 73. With its windows facing Piazza San Felice, it was the house – now a house-museum – where Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert Browning once lived. As for Robert, his remains now rest at Westminster Abbey. But his wife’s grave can be found at the English Cemetery in Florence.
This poet’s love for the city will really last forever.
It is often said that to really appreciate something you must take a step back and look it from a distance. And that’s another thing that you can do in Oltrarno.
After visiting all the other marvels that this quarter has to offer, saddle up and move to Piazzale Michelangelo, one of the highest points of the whole city (but if you’re not up for a walk, a cab or a bus will do).
Thanks to a view that is simply breathtaking, what you’ll find here is the perfect frame to keep in your memory all your life.