A visit to Florence without taking in the beauty of the Arno River as it courses underneath Ponte Vecchio would be like
- a trip to Chianti without visiting the vineyards,
- a trip to Pisa without seeing the Leaning Tower
- or a visit to Siena without standing in the shadow of the Torre di Mangia
And yet, so many take it for granted as it travels by on its 240 km (150 miles) journey to the Tyrrhenian Sea! There is nothing to take for granted about this river.
It takes a strange path, surging from the lofty heights of Mount Falterona, southeast of Florence in the Casentino valley, then traveling south toward Arezzo (but never quite arriving). There are those that will tell you that the Arno river "snubbed its nose" at the town and turned north to avoid it. The river then flows through the Valdarno where you can find the via dei Setteponti (the road of the seven bridges) which made travel from Florence towards Arezzo fast and safe in medieval times. Finally, it enters into Florence and then travels west toward Pisa and the sea.
The Arno River has always been a protagonist in Florentine history and there are some exciting new ways to learn about its role in the expansion of the city. Below are a few creative suggestions on how to incorporate the river into your itinerary while visiting Florence.
1. Leisure Cruise
Float along the Banks the Arno
If you really want to immerse yourself in the history of Florence, then you shouldn't miss out on the opportunity to float down the Arno River in one of the restored "vecchi barchetti" (old boats) from the 1800's which are propelled down the river by pushing off the river floor with "lunghe pertiche di legno" (long wooden oars).
A determined group of sailors has resuscitated the antique skill which is particular to the Florentine waters: the "renaioli." In a 75-minute long riverboat tour of the bridges and palazzos along the banks of the river, you can slow down and see Florence like few ever do, from the center.
These flat-bottomed boats were once used to dredge the river floor searching for gravel and sand which were instrumental in the construction of the buildings and towers throughout the city. Once a skill that was passed from father to son, the renaioli of Florence are now all but extinct and the necessary service they offered has been totally phased out.
The form of these boats made them exceptionally steady and it is nearly impossible to "rock the boat" (so to speak), so even if you think you might suffer a bit from the motion — that is not a problem here, making it the ideal way to tour the Arno River in the shadow of the Uffizi and Ponte Vecchio. You can arrange for special tours for weddings and events by contacting them on their website.
2. Workout on the Water
SUP (stand up paddle) to use those abs even on vacation!
The Stand Up Paddle Board rage has invaded the Arno River as well. Explore the possibility of an afternoon balancing your way up and down the river learning about the historic building that rise on the banks. Or perhaps you like the idea of a sunset cruise underneath the Ponte Vecchio?
There are several options where you can sign-up and enjoy the ride — well, in this case, you are setting the pace. Book this SUP tour along the Arno or the Canottiera Comunali Firenze also has a SUP club where you can contact them about the possibility of renting a board. If you want to get out of Florence for an adventure, T-Rafting (see below) has SUP activities not only in Florence but all along the Tuscan coast and rivers.
3. Getting your Feet Wet with Adventure
The stories the Arno River could tell if it only had a voice
Or you could rely on Sebastian and Enrico at T-rafting, to tell you the story when you sign up for their "Molini & Gualchiere" river rafting tour of the Arno River. From September to June, you are invited to climb aboard and imagine the Arno as a major highway transporting the wooden beams to build Brunelleschi's dome. Or try to imagine how the wool union captured the energy of the water in the gualchiere mills, pounding and felting the wool that made them one of the richest unions in Florence.
This trip lasts about an hour and a half and includes boating the Arno river, visiting the mills along the way and an explanation of how they used to navigate the waters. Fluent in Italian, English, and German, they will help you explore the "Blue" trails of Tuscany through activities for adults and children of all ages and all skill levels.
The team at T-Rafting creates an atmosphere of contagious enthusiasm for the scenery, the history, the sport and yes, folks, we are in Italy — so be prepared because sometimes a taste of the local culinary delights makes up part of the trip.
In the months of July and August, they move towards Mugello and Lago Bilancino, where you can raft the river or SUP (stand up paddle) around the lake for an adventure you will always remember. For the more adventurous, even the thrill of an "extreme sporting" event with soft rafting and kayaking. What's more, they are located only minutes outside of the city center of Florence and can be easily reached by car or public transport (bus or train).
4. Blazing a Trail along the Banks
You don't have to get in to enjoy the river
There is always the option of following the trails that run parallel to the river. They are perfect for biking, a jog or clearing the cobwebs and enjoy a bit of fresh air. Many joggers, walkers, and bikers make the circuit around the river in the city center
However, for those looking to get away from the honking horns and throngs of tourists — those who really only want to hear the steady rhythm of pounding out a few km in meditative silence — then start at Ponte San Niccolò heading away from the city where you can pick up a trail that is sometimes paved and sometimes just a dirt track on the banks of the river that runs until Girone - approximately 7 km (one way).
5. A Labyrinth on the Shore
a work of art for the landscape
The project design was inspired by models for "Giardino dei Semplici", traditional Italian gardens and by Clément, "Third Landscape Theory". Along Lungarno, the wide green space between the water and the embankment wall has been dedicated to the Terzo Giardino. It may seem as if it is just an unkempt area of tall green weeds but it is actually a programmed space where the landscape has evolved on its own.
The Third Landscape designates the sum of the space left over by man to landscape evolution - to nature alone.
You can walk down the ramp behind Easy Living (Lungarno Benvenuto Cellini, 69R) and enter into the garden which is divided into two sections — closest to the embankment is a level space in the garden occupied by a geometrical arrangement of "flower beds" and the second area along the water's edge is where the natural vegetation creates "walls" that give the effect of having a room on the river. You can refer to the official website Facebook page for more information about the construction.
6. Happy Hour Anyone?
It's just as beautiful from a distance
And of course there are those, who just want to watch the water float by — and that's good too! I am never one to say no to an aperitivo riverside! Especially in the summer when lots of places pop up directly along the banks, where you can settle in with a glass of prosecco, a few snacks and an hour or two to relax. There are a few bars with river views and live music which are perfect for a romantic - or rowdy - happy hour.