While the main thoroughfares of Florence, Italy, continue to overflow with waves of tourists from all over the world, the quaint, narrow quarters of the ancient city increase in appeal to conscientious travelers seeking a more authentic experience. Look no further than the Santo Spirito quarter in the Oltrarno section of the city, south of the River Arno and away from the postcard attractions and hordes of gawkers following guides, on the literal "other side" of Florence.
The streets of Santo Spirito have remained essentially unchanged since the Renaissance. Like the other traditional quarters of the city, Santo Spirito is named after its most famous church and namesake piazza, which in this case are, respectively, a flat-façade design of Filippo Brunelleschi (of Duomo fame) featuring 38 interior chapels hung with a museum-worthy amount of masterpieces, and a rectangular, tree-lined beauty of a piazza bordered on both lengths by bars and eateries around a gurgling fountain. The neighborhood is contained on three sides by roads lined with commerce and open to vehicles, while the narrow streets in between are made for walking, past unmarked artisanal shops with open doors, and into rustic eateries and quaint boutiques manned by the person's whose name is on the product.
The quarter is also home to the "Bianchi of Santo Spirito," one of Florence's four calcio storico (historic soccer) teams, an ancient, amateur sport represented by neighborhood residents in an annual spring tournament that combines the mechanics of rugby with the brutality of mixed martial arts fighting. So keep an eye out for local bad-asses, and be sure to pledge allegiance to the Bianchi of Santo Sprito should you ever cross the path of a calciente.
Where to Eat:
- Il Santo Bevitore: A Brooklyn-on-the-Arno rejuvenation of abandoned space, in this case an old coach house where the trail of inventive modern cuisine is blazed in serene yet funky surroundings.
- Il Santino: The wine bar next door offers the same breadth of Italian vino along with charcuterie plates and panini.
- Lo Sprone Vinaino: Just off the Piazza della Passera, a tiny piazza nestled in the neighborhood's center, is a charming hole-in-the-wall that features authentic yet inventive cuisine, hand-written menus on place mats, and a guitar-playing owner.
Where to Stay:
- The SoprArno Suite: This is a newly opened and artistically decorated 10-room B&B in a 16th-century palace.
- Palazzo Belfiore: Stay in one of these seven apartments in the 14th-century palace of a noble Florentine family.
Where to Shop:
- Dexter: Named after jazz legend Dexter Gordon, this small shop swings with an all-Italian line of high-quality, vintage-feel clothing for men and women, from shoes to hats, and nearly everything in between.
- Mannina Calzature Firenze: Elegant, hand-crafted shoes, made and sold in Santo Spirito since 1953. Founded by Calogero Mannina and handed down to his son, Antonio.