San Frediano, the other Florence
Discovering the Other Florence, between must-see places, gourmet addresses and art and craft treasures
Every big city hides stories and traditions, as if to protect them against massification, rare pearls of history and poetry. Rome’s Trastevere, Milan’s canals, Genoa’s ancient Jewish Ghetto. Florence also has its “favorite first child”, whose name is San Frediano. It’s a difficult neighborhood to describe without mentioning the passionate words of someone who experienced and narrated it, Vasco Pratolini in the famous novel Le ragazze di San Frediano: “How much perfection there is in a civilization that has become nature itself. The terrible and fascinating immobility of God’s smile engulfs Sanfrediano, and exalts it.”
From Ponte alla Carraia, the last throughway to the more beaten paths of central Florence, our steps take us to Lugarno Soderini. Here we come to the first must-see in the Oltrarno: the Bellini Museum. In an elegant 15th-century mansion overlooking the Arno, it belonged to the great antiquarian Luigi Bellini. This real treasure includes works by Donatello, Ghiberti, Canaletto, Della Robbia, Piero di Cosimo and Beato Angelico.
We arrive in Piazza del Cestello. Here is the church of San Frediano in Cestello with its high dome. Inside, the light plaster creates an overwhelming brightness. A secret: listen carefully to the sound coming from the facade and close your eyes. You feel as if you were sailing on the waters of the Arno!
Turning into Borgo San Frediano, a long street, the heart of the neighborhood that if it could, would tell myriad stories, of wisdom and strength, handmade excellence and tradition. Here, there seems to be just one watchword: crafts. Some names of artisans who are worth a trip to San Frediano? Antico Setificio Fiorentino, silk makers, on Via Lorenzo Bartolini. Established in the mid-17th century, and a symbol of the neighborhood, the artisans use handlooms to recreate fabric patterns from the Historical Archives that include rare Renaissance damasks, brocades, lampas and filaticci.
Another must for crafts made in San Frediano is Claudio Arezio. In his Florentine workshop on Via del Leone, he makes modern and baroque violins, violas and cellos. And we must mention Il Paralume on Borgo San Frediano.
But wait! During your walk along Borgo San Frediano keep your eyes open because at any moment you might encounter a place of dreams, full of art and beauty, pagan, not religious, but imbued with an almost sacred atmosphere. One of these is Galleria Romanelli: an authentic sculpture studio, a must for art lovers, collectors, architects and enthusiasts looking for unique and personalized pieces.
Back to us: we cross Via San Giovanni, with its typical “humble” houses emblematic of a real sanguine Florence. We come to Piazza de’ Nerli, also known for its historic tripe. Nearby are Via Cardatori and Tessitori which retain the names of the old trades.
Here we are, looking incredulously at Piazza del Carmine, recently pedestrianized, displayed in all its majesty. Before us is the unfinished facade of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Carmine. Next to that is a door that gives access to the visionary miracle of Cappella Brancacci. No, we’re not exaggerating. The frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel are a true miracle of art for all time. The cycle of frescoes tell stories of St. Peter, preceded, on the entrance jambs by Original Sin and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve: a true representation of pathos and humanity.
We go out. Piazza del Carmine is one of the few places in the historic center of Florence where you can still breathe an authentic local atmosphere. A deeply religious and artistic area, in recent decades it has had the more contemporary soul of a city that bases every experience on excellence. In matters of taste and cooking, we have the right addresses. For a dinner in the true Florentine tradition (including dialect) the Trattoria Sabatino is the right place for you, just outside the Porta San Frediano.
One of the best steaks in Florence? At the Antico Ristoro dei Cambi on Via Sant’Onofrio. One of the temples of cuisine in Oltrarno and Florence? Nestled in Piazza Cestello, Cestello Ristoclub. On Via Pisana, Fuor d’Acqua, undisputed reference point for seafood. More maritime flavors at Il Pescatore in Piazza del Carmine. An all-American hamburger? BBQ in Piazza Tasso. Creativity and a gourmet touch: we are at Io Osteria Personale on Borgo San Frediano. Lovers of vegetarian and organic cuisine, San Frediano has its secrets: La Vivanda, on Via Santa Monaca and Gnam on Via Camaldoli. Finally, the cult of Japanese cuisine in Florence: Momoyama, on Borgo San Frediano.
Time to relax. Tucked away in the heart of the San Frediano district, between Via de’ Serragli, Via del Campuccio, and the stretch of wall that runs along the Viale Francesco Petrarca, is the Torrigiani Garden. Properties of the two Torrigiani di Santa Cristina and Torrigiani Malaspina families, 7 hectares of rare beauty make up an extraordinary private park, the largest private garden in Europe within ancient city walls. It’s easy to lose oneself along extraordinarily beautiful paths, among flowers and plants, statues and fountains. But what makes the garden famous is also its botanical garden, extraordinarily rich in tree and plant species from various parts of the world. In the splendid setting of Torrigiani greenhouses, you can book fabulously exotic lunches and appetizers. (for info, reservations and guided tours: firstname.lastname@example.org).
It is forbidden to end your day in Oltrarno without seeing the spots that make the neighborhood’s nightlife one of the city’s most interesting. Aperitifs, dinner and after dinner drinks at Circolo Aurora in Piazza Tasso. A cult spot, imbued with history and culture, in the former Vanzini bar, it’s a perfect expression of the Oltrarno’s slightly hip, slightly chic style. Music, poetry, theater, entertainment and hospitality at Ostello Tasso, on Via Villani. It’s a really incredible formula: hostel and cool venue with a garden. Don’t miss the exclusive parties and seasonal vintage street markets here! A more relaxed atmosphere for San Frediano’s last gem. It’s the Hemingway in Piazza Piattellina.
San Frediano is all here, with wonder and poetry. To keep this uniqueness intact, the Associazione Oltrarno was formed, a major project whose only goal is to enhance the treasures and excellences of this pure Florentine microcosm beyond the Arno.