One of Italy’s most beautiful cities, Florence, Italy, is a tourist mecca. From world-class art museums and architectural treasures to hearty cuisine and storied fashion houses, there is no shortage of things to do in Florence Italy. It’s no wonder that Florence, Italy attracts millions of visitors every year, but mostly to the city’s historic center.
Just beyond the Arno River, the river that flows through and neatly divides Florence into two parts, is the Oltarno. If you want to experience living like a local in Florence Italy, then spending time in the Oltarno is a must. The Oltarno is a hip neighborhood where the locals live. And, if you’re looking for things to do in Florence Italy, without all the tourists around, you’ll want to follow these helpful tips to experience Florence like a local.
How to Live Like a Local in Florence, Italy
Getting to the Oltarno
The Oltarno is easily reached by crossing over one of the bridges from the historic city center to the more local neighborhood on the other side. Walking across the bridges of the Arno is one of those things to do in Florence, Italy that gives context to the history of this European city from the Renaissance to the present. The oldest bridges of Florence were built during the Roman times and several have been bombed and rebuilt since.
One of those bridges you’ll want to cross to get to the Oltarno is the Ponte Vecchio. To the masses, Florence’s most famous bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, houses goldsmiths and other shops. Hidden above those shops is the secret passageway of Duke Cosimo I de’Medici known as the Vasari Corridor, which leads to the Palazzo Pitti, located in the Oltarno neighborhood. Put a pin in that, however, because we will circle back to that later.
Where the Real Florentines Live
Away from the touristed historic center of the city, the real Florentines live in the Oltarno. The Oltarno, which translates to “beyond the Arno,” is where the creative people of Florence live, work and create. The tiny streets of the Oltarno are filled with all kinds of artisan workshops. You’ll know you’re in the Oltarno when you find fewer shops selling souvenirs.
The Oltarno is where the locals live and artists create. And, it’s been that way since the 15th Century. Around that time, the arts flourished and artists moved across the river to be closer to the Palazzo Pitti, to offer their services to the ruling Medici family of Florence.
In the Oltarno you’ll find workshops, oftentimes with their doors wide open, where bookbinders, painters, leather workers, shoemakers, glass-blowers, and metalsmiths work honing their craft. Handcrafting artisanal goods is a proud tradition of the Florentines, and here in the Oltarno is where you will find the heart of it.
Artisan Workshops in the Oltarno
It’s easy to stumble upon artist workshops in the Oltarno, simply by walking the backstreets, courtyards and alleyways of the Oltarno neighborhoods. Exploratory walks like these, on their own, are the kinds of fun things to do in Florence, Italy if you want to see how the locals live. But, if you’d like to get a sense of the great variety of artists that proudly create in Florence, you might want to check out Creative People in Florence.
Creative People in Florence (CPiF) is a cultural association comprised of artists, designers and creative thinkers who are active in workshops in the Oltarno. CPiF hosts open studios events, which are seriously fun things to do in Florence, Italy, where CPiF members open their doors to the public to tour their workshops and get to know the artisans behind the bench. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the open studio events, a map of the open workshops is usually posted online or on social media. If not, you can always book an artisan workshop tour like Made in Florence.
Other Sights & Things to Do in Florence Italy
For the locals who live in Florence, the neighborhood church of Santo Spirito is where people gather. The Santo Spirito Plaza is full of fun things to do in Florence Italy. Every morning there is a Flea Market full of trinkets and wares, fresh produce and other pre-packaged farmer’s market type finds. In the evenings, the plaza comes alive with swing dancing and locals hanging outside the ochre-colored facade of the Santo Spirito Church, where it is said that Michelangelo studied corpses from the Church’s convent to better understand the human form for his art.
While you might not find a lot of locals at the Palazzo Pitti, as far as things to do in Florence Italy, and specifically the Oltarno, is concerned then a visit to the palace that once housed the most powerful family in Florence is a must. The Palazzo Pitti was the former residence of the Medici Family, who grew their wealth and power from banking.
The Medici family was so powerful that the Vasari Corridor was built to offer a secure passageway between the palazzo and the Duomo Church in the historic center of the city. Their Palazzo was later gifted to the city of Florence, along with all of the great works of art they amassed, and is now a museum in the Oltarno.
When looking for things to do in Florence Italy, consider a separate palazzo ticket to the Boboli Gardens which is one of the first and most excellent examples of an Italian garden. The gardens are full of statues, grottos and caves, many of which were built and designed by the artisans of the Oltarno.
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Rest Your Head Like a Local
Much like any other city, if you want to live like a local, consider an AirBnB. With a short-term rental, you’ll likely have access to more local amenities like a kitchen, washer/dryer, etc. This will give you a place to prepare fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses for a sunset aperitivo, just like the locals do. Shopping for your daily spread at farmer’s market stands, recycling a wine bottle and filling it with house wine, or buying cheese- yummy cheese- are just a few things to do in Florence Italy that will give you a more local experience.
If you’re not ready to give up all of the amenities that typically come with a hotel, consider a hybrid accommodation like those offered by Your Place in Florence. Your Place in Florence offers several short-term apartment rentals in the Oltarno, but still provides certain amenities like house-keeping, complimentary coffee and wine. The Your Place in Florence properties range from a beautifully alfrescoed 14th century family residence to boutique and sophisticated apartments with a more contemporary feel. Your Place in Florence also offers itineraries and curated experiences of a wide variety of things to do in Florence Italy.
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Enjoy the Simple Things Like a Local
If there are 3 things that help to illustrate what the Italians call “la dolce vita,” it’s lattes, gelato, and wine. These are three simple things to do in Florence Italy that will give you a glimpse of how the locals indulge daily.
Florentines, like all Italians, love their coffee. More than just a morning beverage, an espresso or Caffe Latte is usually taken immediately after lunch. And in the Oltarno, oftentimes before an artisan returns to the workshop. It’s easy to find a cafe on any street, but if you’re looking for an organic farm-to-table vibe search out Carduccio’s for breakfast, lunch and small bites with your coffee.
Just like a silversmith hones their craft, so do serious gelateria artisans. One such artisan, Antonio, the founder of La Sorbettierra, also known as the best gelato shop in Florence, as voted by the locals has done just that. However, La Sorbettiera is more than just a gelato shop. It’s a workshop where patrons and passers-by can take a peek behind the scenes as the gelato chef perfects authentic recipes and invents fully original and modern interpretations of new flavors. Of all the things to do in Florence Italy, a trip to a gelato shop is the sweetest.
But, la dolce vita doesn’t end there. Imagine if you could walk into a restaurant or a wine shop with an empty bottle of wine and have it filled on the spot from the tap. Well, if you want to live like a Florentine, these are the kinds of local things you get to do in Florence, Italy on your way to a meal with family or an aperitivo with friends. And, these tap wines or vino sfuso as they are called, are table wines and are actually really good wines, and inexpensive to boot. Look for signage for “fiaschetteria,” literally a wine shop for bottles, and don’t forget to bring your bottle!
If living like a local in a foreign country is something you’d like to experience at least once in your life, then follow this list of things to do in Florence, Italy. Italy is a culturally and historically rich country, and oftentimes people try to pack the entire country into one short visit. But, if you can manage to find the time and save the money, spending a week in the Oltarno will give you all the time you need to check off this list of things to do in Florence, Italy and live la dolce vita like a local.
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Traveling with a family? Read How to Have a Successful Family Holiday in Florence
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