Florence, Italy's Best New Neighborhood

UNA Hotel Vittoria, Florence. Photo: Alberto Ferrero/UNA Hotels and Resorts Alberto Ferrero
By Donald Strachan

Cities change. It's what they do. However, one of the draws of Florence has been that its center is stuck in time. It was old when Lucy and George traded gazes in E. M. Forster's 1908 novel, Room with a View. It was old when the English Grand Tourists of the 1700s came to study the palazzo architecture and church art. Heck, some of it was even old when Michelangelo raised his giant David outside the Palazzo Vecchio. He'd still be able to navigate much of Florence's centro storico, without Google Maps.

However, one part that is changing -- and fast -- is San Frediano. Stretched along the River Arno's Left Bank from the southern end of the Ponte Santa Trínita westward, through and out the Porta Pisana, this former working-class, artisan's borough is a place you'll still meet Florentines, most of whom long ago abandoned downtown to the visitors. These days, for fun, food, lodgings, and even a dash of Renaissance culture, you need never cross the river.

Photo Caption: UNA Hotel Vittoria, Florence. Photo: Alberto Ferrero/UNA Hotels and Resorts
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Floroom, a premium bed & breakfast in Florence. Photo courtesy Floroom Courtesy Floroom
Part boutique hotel, part contemporary premium B&B, Floroom, Via del Pavone 7 (www.floroom.com; tel. +39-055/230-2462), is aimed squarely at a new generation of visitor to the city. Rooms are small and monochrome, with privacy screens separating the sleeping and bathroom areas, and hung with striking black-and-white photography. Clever use of reclaimed materials, occasional exposed wood beams, and furniture in a 1950s style custom built for the space, ensure the design never veers to the cold. There's a small communal mezzanine where you can help yourself to drinks and snacks. Travel light, bring an iPad, and settle in. Double rooms range €120 to €160.

If you prefer full hotel services (or are traveling with lots of luggage), the UNA Hotel Vittoria, Via Pisana 59 (tel. +39-055/22-771; www.unahotels.it), part of a boutique chain, is in a class of its own when it comes to affordable style. The second you step into the floor-to-ceiling mosaic in the reception area, you realise this is no ordinary Florentine inn. Rooms are bold and contemporary (quite un-chainlike), and all come equipped with modern kit like 32-inch plasma TVs. Executive rooms come with super-sexy all-in-one rainfall shower/tub combos. Prices range €109 to €306 for a double.

Photo Caption: Floroom, a premium bed & breakfast in Florence. Photo courtesy Floroom
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IO Osteria Personale, Florence. Photo courtesy IO Osteria Personale Courtesy IO Osteria Personale
The stripped brick and sleek banquette seating wouldn't be out of place in Brooklyn or Shoreditch, but the exceptional food at iO: Osteria Personale, Borgo San Frediano 167 (tel. +39-055/933-1341; www.io-osteriapersonale.it), is resolutely Tuscan. Not Tuscan like you've tasted before, though: There's no pasta on a modular dinner menu that's divided into seafood, meat, and vegetarian dishes -- a "renewal" of Tuscan food tradition, is how proprietor Matteo Fantini describes it. You can buy by the dish (each priced €13 to €18), in any sequence you fancy, or go for a multidish tasting menu at €40 (four dishes) or €55 (six). The likes of raw squid ribbons served with sage-infused garbanzo cream or spelt with artichoke, cocoa beans, and robiola cheese deliver traditional flavors, but are served up by 24-year-old Pisan chef Nicolò Baretti in a clean, deconstructed style. There's even a chalkboard on the wall with diagrams showing how some of the dishes are built -- Fantini's equivalent of the football coach's playbook.

Just up the road, Il Santo Bevitore, Via Santo Spirito 66r (tel. +39-055/211-264; www.ilsantobevitore.com), encapsulates all that's best about the new generation of Florentine eateries. This restaurant-enoteca takes the best of Tuscan tradition and sprinkles it with some contemporary fairy-dust. A buzzing, candlelit interior is the setting for clever combinations presented with style. Best of the courses are the antipasti tasting platters, including cured meats sliced right at the bar and an assaggio di sott'olio (a trio of preserved vegetables in olive oil). The wine list is peerless on this side of the Arno. Pasta dishes cost around €8, with most mains around double that.

Photo Caption: IO Osteria Personale, Florence. Photo courtesy IO Osteria Personale
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Context Travel tour of Florence in action lead by docent Luca Santiccioli. Photo courtesy Context Travel Courtesy Context Travel
The south bank of the Arno has a reputation for craft that stretches back beyond the Renaissance: Wander the labyrinthine streets and you'll still find cobblers, milliners, engravers, and more working from tiny botteghe. Context Travel (www.contexttravel.com/florence) runs a regular "Made in Florence: Oltrarno Artisans" walking tour round the neighborhood that brings you up to speed with the past and present state of Left Bank craftsmanship. Tours cost €70 per person and last 3 hours. If your credit card needs flexing after all that educating, Aprosio, Via Santo Spirito 11 (tel. +39-055/290-534; www.aprosio.it), is a glass and crystal jewelry designer without equal in the city (closed Sun). The store is arranged like a temple to creativity.

Photo Caption: Context Travel tour of Florence in action lead by docent Luca Santiccioli. Photo courtesy Context Travel
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Volume, cafe and gelateria in Florence. Photo courtesy of Volume Courtesy of Volume
The twin piazzas of Santo Spirito and Carmine -- home to a Brunelleschi church and Masaccio's Cappella Brancacci frescoes, respectively -- have also long been the hub of Florence's alt-nightlife scene. Dolce Vita, Piazza del Carmine (tel. +39-055/284-595; www.dolcevitaflorence.com), is still going strong, these days attracting clued-up thirtysomethings who have grown up with the city's iconic DJ bar. New kid on the block is Volume, Piazza Santo Spirito 5r (tel. +39-055/2381-460; www.volume.fi.it), which opened in 2010; it's an artsy café cum creperie cum gelateria by day, with contemporary art hanging on the walls. When night falls, Left Bank revelers stop in for aperitivo and cocktails (€6), followed by live music four or five nights a week (Thursday night is a blues jam).

Photo Caption: Volume, cafe and gelateria in Florence.
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