What could be better than studying in Florence? Well, surely that is debatable, I am sure that there are plenty of other great places too but this happens to be where I call home. Living abroad for a period is an incredible experience and hopefully for those coming here, they will be interested in soaking in some culture (and limoncello – why not) while doing so.
Florence is famous for the thousands of students, many of them Americans, who choose this city as their semester abroad location. As you can imagine, there is negative and positive points to this, as would happen anywhere where young people are of drinking age and on their own for the first time.
For those worried about safety, don’t. The city is safe, if you have common sense.
I am inclined to be a ‘glass full’ sort of girl, because I often get emails from students or people visiting who truly care about seeing a more authentic side to the city. In honor of my own 10 year anniversary as a former study abroad student in Florence, first arriving in August 2005 for two semesters and well, you all know what happened next. In a small way of giving back to the city I love so much, I’d like to help those coming for the first time.
Here is my list of 41 tips, meant to be fun, on how your time here can be further enriched. Plus an embarrassing collage of me when I studied abroad with my friends.
1. Learn the ropes before you go. You know, how to get phone credit and change your sim card, get groceries. Select Study abroad has this very detailed and informative guide for all of the stuff I don’t really feel like repeating here. Yes, you should rent a bike, but get a crappy one since they tend to get stolen quite easily. One tip I will give you is not to only rely on WiFi for your iPhone, get another sim card here (it’s cheap!) so you can actually call someone in case of an emergency. I have a list of numbers you need to know (and should program in your phone) as well as 24 hour pharmacies etc. Need to call someone in Italian? Print out this list.
2. Life isn’t about ticking boxes or bucket-lists, enjoy this experience slowly and try not to travel every single weekend. Something I notice about study abroad students the last five or so years is just how often they ‘escape’ Florence to hit up every city in Europe, often with student travel groups aimed at targeting young Americans. Listen, I get it, who doesn’t want to hop around Europe every chance they get? But honestly, sticking around is pretty fun too. The city takes on a different vibe on the weekend, people strolling about, charming markets popping up. It will help you see the city as a true place where people live, not just your M-F home-base.
3. Meet Italians, but not at Space Electronic. One significant thing that changed my study abroad experience was meeting a group of young Italian guys who then showed us around their city, taking us to local spots, food festivals and the like. It was amazing. Sure, some of our group dated a few of them but it wasn’t about getting laid, we were just curious of one another. It meant that I actually got to practice my Italian and experience the city in a unique way. Join language-exchanges, read this post. Yelp is a wonderful community filled with Italians looking to meet new friends so come to one of the many social events, I may see you there!
Additionally, I also recommend meeting European study abroad students in the Aeegee organization, they often organize aperitivi and trips to the Venice carnival for a quarter of the price then the other I-will-not-name student travel companies who promote to Americans.
4. Get to know your neighbors. I recently read this fantastic article from the NY Times about a movement started in Bologna to help neighbors get to know one another, called ‘Social Street’. This consists of closed Facebook groups in difference neighborhoods around Italy where you can post, comment or meet up with those who live nearby. I think it’s brilliant and just joined the one in the Oltrarno area of Florence. Don’t be intimidated because you don’t know Italian, just reach out and see what happens. Even a simple ‘Buongiorno’ to your neighbors will go a long way.
5. Make Florence your home. The more you start to feel comfortable here, the better off you’ll be. Whether that means taking a morning coffee at the same place, going on a daily run, joining a drawing club etc. These sort of little routine items are tantamount to making Florence have less of a Disneyland effect. I loved this podcast by my friend Rick Zullo with the very wise Steve & Linda from The Beehive Hostel in Rome (which is awesome btw) who talks about this very concept while giving advice on finding accommodation in Italy.
6. Be open-minded. I know personally how easy it is to play the ‘compare game’. Oh where I’m from we do… x,y,z. Well the reason why people travel or live abroad (I hope) is for a change of scene and with that comes a need to compromise and accept differences. I wrote this article for expats but it really applies to anyone. Eat the lampredotto panino, see a movie in Italian with subtitles at the Odeon cinehall, just go with the flow and don’t become a negative nancy complaining about how everything in Italy doesn’t work. No-one wants to be around that, complain to yourself in the mirror if you have to. Yes people will notice you’re different, but not all attention is bad :).
7. Go to a festival. Whether it be a sagra (food festival) or during harvest season, there is nothing better than seeing one of these community festivals firsthand. Plus the wine and food is cheap. Here’s a list to get you started. You might need a car but here is when having Italian friends comes in handy 😉 and some places are reachable by bus. In fact, one of my favorite food festivals celebrating Italian truffle, is starting next week on September 3 (until the 27th) in Girone. You can arrive easily via the number 14A (direction girone) bus from the central train station. Truffle pizza, truffle bbq, truffle pasta is waiting!
8. Get A Haircut Here, but read this first because a 1980’s mullet isn’t anyone’s friend. Unless you are Lionel Ritchie.
9. Visit Cinque Terre, but stay in Levanto instead. The charming seaside villages of Cinque Terre in Italy’s Liguria region seem to not only be the most popular screen saver for computers the world over, but so many people seem to want to make it a ‘day trip’ when it really should be a weekend trip. My best advice is to stay in nearby Levanto, which isn’t dead at night, and visit the five towns by boat. I also recommend renting a bike (ask your hotel) and riding to nearby Bonassola.
10. Gelato can be just as fun as alcohol, really (and this is coming from someone who loves, loves her wine) especially when the festival is in town. There are plenty of options in the city but avoid the spots that have huge, colorful mounds which are usually just frozen, resold gelato. Never buy gelato anywhere that also sells pizza/pasta/self-service. Gelato should range between 1.50 – 4 euros (for a huge amount). Go for the small, artisan shops where you know they make the gelato there. Places like My Sugar (San Lorenzo neighborhood), La Sorbettiera (piazza tasso), and I love my local spot in piazza della passera too.
11. Keep it cheap, pack picnics and eat on the steps of piazzale michelangelo, go to Cascine park, or take the number 7 bus to Fiesole. This hilltop town offers badass panoramic views of the city and has a great walking path.
12. Speaking of walking, embrace urban hikes. Some of my favorite paths are on the south side of the river. Download some tunes and earn that pasta. Here are my favorite itineraries. I recommend heading to Forte Belvedere, easy to arrive on foot (yes there’s a hill) which offers a fantastic view of the city along with a seriously cool contemporary art exhibit, Human. Visiting is free and it is only open until the 27th of September.
13. Eat weird green vegetables that seem like an alien created them, like my favorite broccoli romano (a mix between broccoli & cauliflower)- see below, they’re tastier than they look. If you like kale and consider yourself a hipster, cavolo nero will be your new best friend. Here’s a great guide by Arttrav.
14. Get acquainted with Italian coffee culture. Yes you can find coffee bars where you can linger (Ditta Artigianale, La Cite, I love them both) but also seek out the classic ones like Robiglio, Cafe Giacosa as well, after all you can never have too much coffee. If cappuccino art is what you’re after. You must head to ‘New’s Cafe’ in the San Lorenzo neighborhood. Soon you will be back in the states making a scene at your local Starbucks saying “Why oh why is that crap called a macchiato!“.
15. Get used to life without a dryer. They aren’t common in Italy and seriously this is pretty easy to get used to, plus you’re helping the world save energy. Go you!
16. Turn Off Your Lights, Electricity is expensive. One thing I quickly learned in Italy was that electricity is expensive. Really expensive. I used to leave lights on all of the time back in the states, which is something I truly wince about today. Turn off the lights when you aren’t in that room and don’t use a hairdryer together with the oven or washing machine. This can easily blow a fuse, the fuse box is typically located right outside the door or on the bottom of your palazzo building.
17. Invest in a really good candle. Sounds silly, but it will help make you feel at home. As cozy as a kitten in a blanket. My favorite ones can be found at the best perfume store in town, Aqua Flor by piazza santa croce.
18. Don’t be an asshole when you drink too much. It happens to us all, I’m just as guilty but remembering that there are noise ordinance laws after 11pm is a helpful reminder. Have parties, go out, dance till 3am, just don’t start singing Rihanna’s Umbrella at the top of your lungs at 5am or else even I might pour water on your head, or drop down a little ‘surprise’ from my dog Ginger (I’ll let you guess what). Also instead of frequenting clubs with mostly Americans, go to Tenax one day to see what clubbing in Europe is really like ;-).
19. Dress like an Italian. Nothing says “hey, you’re a foreigner’ more than donning a North Face jacket together flip-flops. Obviously this is optional but if you’d like to fit in, think about investing in clothes that are more Italiano. They really know how to dress here, even the bus drivers look as if they stepped out of Vogue sometimes. This means tighter jeans, nicer shoes (with great soles – cobblestones are brutal and if you wear heels I likely will see you barefoot at 12am in piazza Duomo), winter tights, fitted jackets, neutral colors matched with plenty of accessories.
20. Get to know local artisans. One of my favorite things about Florence, is the abundance of people doing really cool things. From old men toiling in tiny workshops in the oltrarno neighborhood to contemporary artisans keeping the made in Italy brand alive, there is plenty to choose from. Join the creative people of Florence on facebook and keep an eye out for their social events.
21. Embrace ‘Aperitivo‘ the Italian version of happy hour. With the price of a cocktail, you can basically have a light dinner in many local places around town.
22.Follow local instagrammers. A great way to get to know any city is to see those who instagram about it. I work in social media so I’m paid to say that, Just kidding, it is just that instagram is an obsession that we have all caught, I am the first to admit it. A form of micro-blogging and sharing like no other, it’s a great way to ‘see’ the world in a visual scrapbook – and get handy tips on what to do in the city from local experts.
Some great local accounts to follow include the official Igers Firenze crew, my friend Nardia of Lost in Florence, Alexandra Korey of ArtTrav, Alexandra Lawrence – tour guide extraordinaire, street shooter Marco Badiani, Grazieateblog (Brazilian), AlidFirenze (French), Florence For Free, Photographer Birgitte, Krista of Alla Fiorentina, Molly – tour guide and all around sweet person, the gals of Tuscany buzz the lovely Valentina of TooMuchTuscany, and naturally The Florentine and Visit Florence.
23. Look out for details. There is a lot to see in this city. Everywhere you look there is a plaque commemorating a moment, a flood marker showcasing how high the water rose in the flood of 1966. Or these cute wine doors “buchette del vino” which date back to the Renaissance era, where wine was sold during certain, strict hours. Keep an eye out, a record, even Dan Brown’s Inferno has made us look for certain places mentioned in the book. Also take a look at the Unusual Florence facebook page which often has great tips.
24. Wander to the other side of the river. It’s no secret that I am obsessed with the ‘rive gauche’ oltrarno of Florence, or south side of the city. It is where I live, where I go for coffee, where I meet and greet friends. It has retained (still) a neighbourhoody-feel that you don’t always get in the tourist-filled areas surrounding the Duomo. I also adore the area around piazza tasso, which has a great outdoor cocktail bar, a very impressive restaurant, Culinaria Bistro and one of my favorite geleteria, La Sorbettiera. Or hop on the tram and head towards Soffiano to one of the best pasticceria spots in Florence, it is more than worth it, trust me!
25. Eat lunch, not dinner out. The secret to saving money in Florence is avoiding eating out for dinner or ‘prime time’ as I like to call it. With the exception of aperitivo, lunch is always the best option. There are plenty of places that serve special lunch menus to workers that cost much less like Osteria il Buongustai, Trattoria Giovanni (my local favorite) on via sant’agostino, Il Chicco di Caffe, Pescheria San Pietro (great fish) in front of the station. Even my favorite ‘Sexy in the City’ type bistro Irene at Hotel Savoy offers an affordable lunch menu. Also a bunch of new places have just opened in town that are worth stopping by for lunch.
26. Craving something different from Italian food, that’s ok too! I get that we are so accustomed to having the world on our plate that after a while pasta and heavy soups might not be your thing. To be honest Italian food is more varied than you think, check out the recipes on my friend’s Emiko and Giulia’s blogs.
To buy ethnic food, your best bet is Vivi Market (Via del Giglio, 8, San Lorenzo Neighborhood), or as I like to call it ‘Mecca’ for its wide variety of non-Italian food options, and ginger beer. You can thank me later.
But if you are looking to vary it up when you go out, why not? I have more personal suggestions on my ‘eats’ list, but for top picks, here goes.
- IyoIyo, Borgo Pinti, 25, 50100 Firenze. 055 247 8410. No frills, but authentic, this is my go-to sushi joint.
- Banki Ramen, Via dei Banchi, 14, 50123 Firenze. You might be wondering why Florence has a Ramen bar, but it does, and it’s pretty good. Go early to get spot (early means 7pm) and try the gyoza too!
Truth be told, the Mexican food in Florence sucks. Which is sad because I adore it, live for it, give me a taco or I’ll kill you for it ;-). There is some new place on via dei benci trying to pass as Mexican food but I can assure you, unless nachos come with lukewarm dutch cheese and red beans from a can, it is not. Of course there is the Tijuana chain, which is ok, I tend to find that everything from there tastes the same, the beans, the enchiladas etc. But they do a happy hour nightly which means margaritas are affordable, if you go, head to Tijuana 2 in porta al prato, it’s bigger and nicer :). Better still, is to make it at home, you can find black beans, cilantro ‘coriandolo fresco’, avocados at the central market and sant’ambrogio, and you can get sour cream and other various options at the supermarket for your own ‘taco tuesday’ if that craving hits. There are food delivery options in Florence which I have detailed out here.
- Icchethai StreetFood Firenze, Lungarno Cellini 25C, Firenze. Brand-new Thai street food offering limited options . Price 10-20 euros
- Ristorante Niwa, Via del Ponte alle Mosse, 16/R. On the pricier side, I really like Niwa and their fusion Thai options and sushi. Nico and I had one of our best dates there (complete with sake) and for a fun splurge, this place is great. Not exactly in the center, but you can still walk there.
- Haveli, Viale Fratelli Rosselli, 31r-33r, 50144 . A little out of the way but still walk-able.
- Indian Restaurant Saffron, Via Il Prato, 9/R, 50122 Florence, Italy. Good Indian food on via il prato, which seems to be mecca for Indian restaurants in the city.
- Ristorante India, Via Antonio Gramsci, 43, Fiesole FI. Actually in Fiesole, which means a 25 minute bus trip from piazza san marco (take bus 7 – direction Fiesole). Very nicely decorated and on the expensive side, but worth a trip!
- Al noor, Via del Ponte alle Mosse. This is our go-to take out delivery Indian spot, consistent, good and fast. This is one you’ll want to save.
27 A. Eat Florentine steak somewhere authentic. Sorry vegetarians but I had to mention bistecca alla fiorentina, it is the t-bone wonder of the local culinary diet and damn is it good in Tuscany. My favorite non-frills spot to get it is at L’Brindellone near piazza carmine. A place where even Italians will pay for food they can get at mama’s house. That in itself means a lot. Try the fried zucchini flowers and truffle pasta too :).
27 B. Don’t listen to TripAdvisor unless you want to trust people who have only ever visited Florence once. I occasionally look at the ‘Top 10’ on tripadvisor and shudder. Certainly I believe everyone is entitled to an opinion but it is a bit worrisome when you don’t get a true 360 degree vision on what’s out there in Italy, especially because many Italians don’t leave reviews. Which means you have a bunch of people who have only been here once giving klout to a city and its options. Personally, I do use yelp, and I try to leave as many as I can to hopefully help people looking for quality places in Florence but just remember that sometimes the best advice is word of mouth, ask an Italian or just wander.
On another note, read this post by my friend Coral who wrote an article specifically tackling inane food comments she often finds on Tripadvisor regarding the local food experience…
28. Embrace the markets, which is kind of why you wanted to come anyway after stalking instagram, right? When people think of Italy, they imagine choosing their daily meal from a farmer’s market, and it really is part of life here. My top pick for food markets will always be Sant’Ambrogio (where the locals go) open in the mornings until around 2pm, the surrounding neighborhood has plenty of finds as well, Teatro del Sale, Semel etc. I also adore the daily flea market in piazza ciompi (see below) which is a lot of fun to browse. The last Sunday of the month it expands into the surrounding streets and you can really pick up some finds. You can find more info on when and where the markets happen in Florence on my ‘before you go’ section.
I have a lot of love for the open daily flea market (mercato delle pulce) in piazza dei ciompi, selling everything from old record players to books, antiques and all sorts of random trinkets. On the last Sunday of the month, the market expands into surrounding streets and takes on a pretty vibrant atmosphere. With locals and visitors alike browsing the wares to find the 'diamond ' in the rough. #TLPicks
29. Keep an eye out for street art. You may be wondering why certain street signs are modified, perhaps a man smashing his guitar, or cutting the ‘no’ line, well that’s Clet Abraham. Or what about famous works of art in scuba masks? That’s another artist. You can spot various works all around the city, and here is a guide to help you get started.
30. Don’t buy fake shit off the streets or crappy leather. It’s tempting but you can actually get fined for purchasing that ‘oh so real’ Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses from an illegal street vendor. When it comes to leather, the markets in San Lorenzo are very popular with tourists but if you want to the real deal, head to the Leather School by Santa Croce instead.
31. Try to learn Italian. I get how hard it is to learn another language, it took me a year plus to learn Italian and now I’m trying to learn French. The thing is, life is here so much better when you can communicate in the local language. Italians (in Florence) are pretty good in English but you shouldn’t expect them to cater to you. Try with a few basic phrases, download duolingo and attend conversation exchanges :), trust me, it’s worth it! I like Cher Hale’s approach to language learning via The Iceberg Project.
32. Get into art. Florence was once home to artistic greats such as Michelangelo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghirlandaio and the list goes on. If you come to the city, visit the Uffizi gallery for a few hours on your own, without a guide, you may be ‘over’ art in the city faster than you can say ‘Primavera.’ It can be overwhelming but I really recommend visiting other museums too, try the Palantine gallery at Pitti Palace (which is amazing), The Bargello museum, Stibbert, Horne, Villa Bardini or the newest spot, Museo Novecento in piazza santa maria novella. Give yourself an afternoon and embrace art slowly, Palazzo Strozzi hosts twice-yearly exhibits that are always impressive and do a great job of asking the viewer questions. The churches are amazing in itself, my favorites are San Miniato al Monte, Santo Spirito and Santa Trinita. Don’t feel stupid if you don’t ‘know everything’, it would be almost impossible here, and that’s what guides, books and online tools are for. My friend Alexandra has a plethora of art resources for those interested, via her blog ArtTrav.
33. Visit one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. Obviously one of my favorite spots is the Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella on via della spada 16. I take everyone there, even if it is hardly a ‘secret find’ as it once was. Once run by the Dominican friars of Santa Maria Novella in Medieval Florence, they have been whipping up concoctions for centuries here, including the very popular rose tonic water that I adore and often gift to friends and flowers, L’Acqua della Regina after Catherine de’Medici, and a liquor made from the dust of ladybugs (freaky, I know). I also recommend visiting old apothecaries around the city, like Bizzarri on via della condotta, that are just as fascinating as Santa Maria Novella. Especially if you’re into Harry Potter like ambiances.
34. Start reading! What better way (yes even better than instagram) to get to know your new city than through books. There are some fabulous reads that takes place in and around Florence so here is my favorite roundup, feel free to mention one’s you love that I missed!
- The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall. The Medici Family was the most important family in Florence, so powerful they literally left their balls all over the city ;-). Read this book to get the inside scoop.
- Brunelleschi’s Dome, Ross King
- From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David, Victor Coonin.
- Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel
- The Stones of Florence, Mary McCarthy
- A Room with a View, E. M. Forester
- The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio
- Inferno, Dan Brown.
- Italians Dance and I’m a Wallflower, Linda Falcone.
- Dark Water, Robert Clark
- The Passion of Artemisia, by Susan Vreeland
- Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant
- The Light in the Piazza, Elizabeth Spencer
- The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone
35. Eat Fried Balls (Dough). Seriously I could live off coccoli, a traditional Tuscan street food that you will find in many antipasti in Florence. It actually means ‘to cuddle’ and I understand why, they are so comforting! One of my top picks is Forno I Tre Pini, Via Dè Ginori, 7-red, but you’ll find them listed in most restaurants.
36. Find a local vino sfuso. Wine in Italy is almost cheaper than water and it happens to be pretty good too. For everyday table wine, head to the local ‘sfuso’ which sells wine in bulk, often people bring back bottles to then get refilled and so on. I love the concept because it is yet another chance to get to know someone, plus it is really more eco-friendly consider the recycling of bottle, and you can try some before buying. Studentsville offers a great introduction to vino sfuso here. Il Santo Vino is where I typically go, near santo spirito on Borgo Tegolaio 46 R.
37. Learn grocery store etiquette. Shopping here is a little different than you might be used too. Grocery stores in the center of Florence are quite small and don’t have a wide variety of items (which is why I love the market). Also Italians tend to eat seasonally, which is better, see what is in season via this handy calendar. When picking fruit, it is considered a ‘no no’ to touch fruit and vegetables with your bare hands, put on the plastic gloves and bag your items, then you need to weight it (there should be a scale nearby) according to the number you see next to the price of said item. If you go to the cash register with a bunch of fruit in a bag with no sticker, they will sigh heavily and send you back. It’s annoying and embarrassing so just avoid this by doing it right the first time.
38. Tipping is not necessary. I’m serious. It is easier to get used to than you think because here being a waiter or waitress isn’t always a ‘passing fancy’ but often a lifelong job, with a salary to match (no one gets great wages in Italy but you get my drift). Not everyone will smile, or hurry to get your water and asking for the check can almost be bizarrely difficult. Just embrace it and don’t take it personally. If you truly can’t comprehend not leaving anything, just roundup your bill a few euros. And never tip your taxi driver, they charge too much anyway ;-). One exception is tour guides.
39. Get ready for the hunger games, in the form of sidewalk space. Here everyone walks, takes the bus or bikes. What you will see are that sidewalks are valuable real-estate and Italians stand their ground. In many areas of Florence, sidewalks are minuscule and almost seem as if the ground is breaking below them, the cobblestones are so bumpy. I grew up stepping out of the way for people, saying ‘excuse me’ when it wasn’t my fault and life in Italy has hardened me (in a good way) like a champ. Obviously older people and strollers take precedence, and don’t freak out when the side mirror of a bus whizzes by your ear, par for course here. Just be self-aware while taking selfies on ponte santa trinita that people need to move past you. You’ll be just fine ;-). Well that is, unless it rains, then the city becomes a free for all and you very well may be poked by someone’s umbrella. Benvenuto in Italia!
40. Don’t submit to FoMO, a very real syndrome which is the ‘fear of missing out.’ This caused two of the girls in my own study-abroad program to return to Los Angeles because they couldn’t bare to see their friends ‘having fun’ back home and giving them guilt trips. I mean really? What kinds of friends are those anyway! Luckily with skype, whatsapp, snapchat, instagram, you can keep in touch so easily now, but remember that everything will be just fine at home. Focus on your time here and don’t stay holed up in your house watching movies you downloaded on the internet, Orange is the new black, and wishing you were home. Get out, take a walk, buy a dress from Zara, and call it a day. Life is for living after all, Orange is the new black can wait.
41. Just have fun. After all guys, you are in Florence, one of the best cities in the world. Embrace that there will be good days and bad days and you’ll have the time of your life.
That’s all folks, I am sure some of my fellow Florentines or Nuovi Fiorentini can offer up additional tips, I hope they comment and do. As always I appreciate your comments, shares and support! I also had to share this hilarious list of advice on how to spoil your time here by Mary Gray from The Florentine.