06/19/2012 07:00 am ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

Check Out A Different Side Of Florence

Almost 15 years ago I spent time in Florence seeing as many of the famous sites as possible. You know the list: the Duomo, the David, the Uffizi, Santa Croce. It was May and the small city was swarming with tourists. The buzz of residents' motorbikes made me feel I was in a mosquito-crazy swamp.

Then a writer friend who knew Tuscany well invited me and my spouse across the river to the Oltrarno District. We had dinner and drinks at Piazza Santo Spirito and it felt like being in a different city. The architectural beauty was there, but the tourists weren't.

So when I was invited to speak about my novel Rosedale in Love at an international Edith Wharton conference in Florence held last week, I chose the Silla, a well-reviewed hotel on that side of the river, mapping its closeness to Santa Spirito Church, which has work by Michelangelo, and other sites I wanted to see.

Except for two intense days at the conference, most of my time was on the Oltrarno (literally "the other side of the Arno"). I went to the amazing San Miniato al Monte, and there were maybe only a dozen or so people there. It has the best views of the city, since it's so high up, but the crowds were lower down at Piazelle Michelangelo.

The other churches I went to, San Niccolo near my hotel, Santo Spirito, and Santa Maria del Carmine, had beautiful altars and art. And they, too, had no tourists. Even at Santa Maria del Carmine, famous for its frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, there were never more than 20 or so people.

Each time I'd take a cab from my hotel to the other side, it was like going from a quiet Midwestern field to Times Square. And coming back, I was grateful every day that my friend had introduced me to a totally different way of spending time in a remarkable city.

My only regrets were that I managed to eat at the amazing bistro Zeb near my hotel just once, and that by the time my Italian was starting to roll smoothly off my tongue, I had to leave.