There are many things we love about a trip to Florence, in particular our good friends and partners who are our representatives in Tuscany! And we’ve written before about some of the best things to see in Florence and also about the beautiful Galleria degli Uffizi. But one of our favorite places to visit in Florence is the San Niccolò neighborhood, a wonderfully winding, hilly part of town that is less touristy than the more crowded parts on the north bank of the Arno River.
Now let’s be clear: Florence is a small town and one of the most popular international destinations in the world, so there is no part of Florence that is not in part aimed at tourists, no corner where you won’t hear English spoken, no restaurant that won’t have foreign language versions of its menu. But San Niccolò remains one of the most “Florentine” of neighborhoods.
It doesn’t hurt that it is nestled between two of my favorite outdoor destinations in Florence, the Giardino di Boboli (part of the Museo del Palazzo Pitti) and the Giardino delle Rose (“Rose Garden”), a beautiful terraced garden overlooking the city, partway up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo. The Giardino delle Rose has the feel of a secret garden, complete with a “secret” door. Designed in the 19th century by Giuseppe Poggi, this terraced garden is best seen when the roses are in bloom, of course, but it always offers amazing views of the city and beautiful sculptures by the Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon.
See our top day trips from Florence by train.
In addition to the Rose Garden, if you keep going up past the Porta San Miniato you will arrive at the stunning Piazzale Michelangelo, with its amazing views of the city. The Piazzale Michelangelo is where everyone goes to see the beautiful Florence skyline. Part of Florence’s charm owes to the strict laws that keep the medieval and Renaissance character so intact. The low, red tiled buildings provide the perfect backdrop for the stunning emergence of what shoots above them: namely, Brunelleschi’s awesome dome and the tower of Palazzo Vecchio. Nowhere is this more evident than when looking out from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Keep climbing and you will arrive at the sublime basilica of San Miniato al Monte (technically no longer in the San Niccolò neighborhood but on the Monte San Miniato), a serene and contemplative Romanesque work worth of the long climb up. This basilica sits above the Piazzale Michelangelo on one of Florence’s highest points. Besides the breathtaking views, I love this church because of its quiet, calm interior, its beautiful wooden ceiling, and the imposing stone staircase you have to climb to reach it. It’s a point in Florence few people take the time to reach, but it’s well worth the climb.
Food in the San Niccolò Neighborhood
Of course, shopping is one of the things the San Niccolò neighborhood is known for, in particular the cluster of artisanal workshops fanning out from the area’s most noticeable landmark, the large 14th-century Torre di San Niccolò. This has long been the area for artists, jewelry makers, potters, and tailors.
But we wouldn’t be The International Kitchen if it weren’t also about the food! One of my favorite gelaterias in Florence is in San Niccolò, “Il Gelato di Filo,” which crafts small batches of a limited number of ever-changing seasonal flavors. This is not the place to go to find 50 different varieties, but a dozen truly sublime home-made flavors.
You will find charming (and hearty) offerings at Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolò, right on the main square. It offers traditional Florentine fare that is authentic today as it was one hundred years ago. And finally, our favorite bakery is also in San Niccolò, where you can find out favorite young bakers carrying out the traditions and practices that have been passed down through generations.
The “Oltrarno”: Beyond the Arno
The San Niccolò neighbrhood is part of the “Oltrarno.” Literally “beyond the Arno,” the Oltrarno is the part of Florence south of the Arno River. It includes some of our favorites things to see and do in Florence. In addition to the San Niccolò neighborhood and its gems, you wil also find Palazzo Pitti and the Giardino di Boboli.
Although lesser known than the Galleria degli Uffizi or the Galleria dell’Accademia, the Palazzo Pitti is one of the best art museums in the world, and one of my favorites. It includes numerous works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Perugino, Gentileschi, Caravaggio, and more. But don’t miss the Gallery of Modern Art, which includes a large collection of artists of the Macchiaioli school.
Giardino di Boboli
My children’s favorite place in Florence, the Boboli garden is a classic Renaissance garden full of “avenues,” statuary, fountains, and smaller mini-gardens within the garden. There are places to gather, but also nooks and crannies to explore.
Of course, you can enjoy all of Florence’s neighborhoods during our Florence for the Food Lover cooking vacation.
Check out our Florence for the Food Lover:
If you’re enjoying a longer stay in Florence, it’s also a great starting point for exploring other towns such as on a day trip to Pisa!
By Peg Kern
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