There’s a lovely image in the Florence section of The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James’s poignant novel about a life on hold. The protagonist, Isabel, goes to stay with her aunt, who lives in a “historic building in a narrow street whose very name recalled the strife of medieval factions”. For Isabel, to inhabit this old palazzo, with its hidden garden, was “to hold to her ear all day a shell of the sea of the past”.
We never find out exactly where Mrs Touchett’s Florentine residence is located but I like to think James had San Niccolò in mind – a district that unfurls in a long, uneven strip along the south bank of the Arno on either side of the Ponte alle Grazie, defined and limited to the south by the heights of Forte di Belvedere and Piazzale Michelangelo. We can imagine his crinolined heroine walking across picturesque Ponte Vecchio – dodging portrait painters rather than today’s selfie sticks – and turning left into winding Via de’ Bardi, suddenly alone in a quiet lane lined with medieval palazzi.
In its country curves, in the wildly unkempt gardens that mock the severe Gothic façades across the road, Via de’ Bardi captures something essential and unique about one of the city’s largely undiscovered quartieri. Few other places in Florence are so deeply resonant with the music of the sea of the past; few are so adept at hiding in plain sight within arrowshot of some of the Tuscan capital’s top 10 tourist-checklist attractions, including Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens.
There are still many other parts of San Niccolò where you can find blissful refuge from the crowds, such as Costa San Giorgio, another rural lane in the heart of the city. Walk up its steep flagstones, past a house that belonged to Galileo, to find recently restored Villa Bardini, where a terraced garden with roses, fruit trees and wisteria pergolas gives wide-screen views of Florence’s red-roofed Centro Storico (Old Town) laid out at the feet of Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome.
And yet there’s something new in the air in this ancient ward. Walk on along Via de’ Bardi and its continuation, Via San Niccolò, past tall palazzi made even more dark and Gothic by the horse-harness ferri (irons) that protrude from their façades. You’ll pass by the cave of wonders that is the jewellery workshop of Alessandro Dari, a modern-day alchemist whose mad, intricate creations in gold, silver and precious stones wouldn’t feel out of place in The Lord of the Rings. Press on and, all of a sudden, the dim canyon of a street opens out and you’re in a bustling urban village that has become a dining and cultural hub at night.
It seems appropriate that right on the corner where the grand townhouses of Via de’ Bardi and Via San Niccolò end and the “village” part of the district begins is the workshop of Clet Abraham (Via dell’Olmo 8; +39 340 771 0105), a playful French artist whose principal medium is hacked road signs; a turn-left arrow sprouts as Pinocchio’s nose and the white bar of a no-entry sign becomes the bone of a tiny dog that can’t believe its luck. In the 11 years since Abraham set up shop in San Niccolò, he’s seen it become increasingly popular with “clued-in foreign visitors who want to get away from the obvious”.
The heart of the new San Niccolò scene is a piazza that doesn’t even have a name – it’s simply the junction between Via San Niccolò and Via San Miniato al Monte, the steep paved lane that leads up to the magnificent Romanesque church and monastery of the same name. Dotted around this bulge in the road are at least eight places dedicated to liquid or solid refreshment. Tellingly, there’s also a luxury real-estate company; this once popolare (working-class) eastern end of San Niccolò is now in the midst of full-scale gentrification.
The best of those dining spots at the San Miniato junction is Zeb, an acronym of “zuppa e bollito”, or soup and boiled meat. Owner Alberto Navari and his mother, Giuseppina, opened a gastronomia here in 1985, one of those classic Italian delis where you can buy groceries, cheese and salami. In 2008, they transformed it into what you see today: a compact, suavely designed shrine to market-fresh Tuscan cuisine.
In essence, though, this is still a neighbourhood restaurant. Diners sit on stools around a central aisle and choose from trays of mains or side dishes displayed behind a glass counter. These might include a traditional dish such as peposo, a slow-cooked beef stew once baked in the kilns of the ceramics town Impruneta. Pasta, like the Zeb classic cappellacci (ravioli filled with pear, ricotta and pecorino), is made to order in the kitchen by Mamma, who comes and goes as her son reels off the day’s menu a voce. “Written menus are cold,” he says, “and we’re all about socialising.”
After a satisfying lunch, walk through the 14th-century town gate, Porta San Miniato, and take the second street on the right to find La Beppa Fioraia, a long shed of a place that comes on like an elongated cricket pavilion but is, in fact, dedicated to the national sport of eating and drinking. Friendly and artsy, with colourful Van Gogh chairs and wooden tables that spill out into a rustic garden in summer, this bustling trattoria is popular with locals. Prominent on the menu are taglieri boards, each one an invitingly shareable selection of cold meats, cheeses, grilled and roasted vegetables, pâté, relishes and tapas-sized portions of classic Tuscan dishes such as the bread-and-tomato pappa al pomodoro soup.
San Niccolò’s most upscale dining option is not in its villagey core but on the Lungarno, the elegant riverside avenue and promenade that was only laid out in its present form in the 1870s (the land was previously taken up by private gardens). La Bottega del Buon Caffè pays homage to the area’s heritage in its exposed-brick walls and ceiling arches. But that’s it for shabby; the rest is chic and sophisticated, in keeping with chef Antonello Sardi’s farm-to-table cuisine in this Michelin-starred restaurant. Order à la carte or spoil yourself with an eight-course dégustation with matching wines for €245 (about $380).
Just across the road is San Niccolò’s biggest surprise: a beach. From May to September, as part of the Estate Fiorentina program of summer events, the sandy riverbank becomes a beach of sorts by day; by evening, it’s a nightspot called Easy Living that features a bar chalet at the water’s edge and an elevated garden terrace with a restaurant, cocktail den and panoramic views.
Beach rugby in the shadow of a medieval tower before Negronis at nine? Welcome to Florence’s coolest urban village, which unites the charms of the city, the country and the seaside in one very seductive package.
Unlike many hotels in the city of Michelangelo that opt for a faux-Renaissance look – all heavy brocade and dark antique furniture – the Continentale is a stylish bolthole overlooking the Ponte Vecchio. Architect Michele Bönan has fitted out its 43 rooms and suites in a light, airy idiom that unites 1950s chic and Mediterranean minimalism. The cherry on the torta is La Terrazza, a rooftop bar that feels like a Chianti-shire villa balcony airlifted to Florence.
Another fine terrace – this one with a view of Giardino Torrigiani, Florence’s most extensive private garden – runs along two sides of AdAstra. Currently the city’s most desirable boutique hotel, it was opened in 2015 with creative input from the husband-and-wife team behind upscale B&B SoprArno. With 14 rooms (up from nine after five were added in September), AdAstra is a glorious meld of stately and bohemian.
San Niccolò is still waiting for an accommodation option that channels its new hipster status but until one comes along, traditional three-star Hotel Silla is a good-value, comfortable base from which to explore.
Photography by: Colin Dutton
SEE ALSO: First-timer’s Guide to Florence