So. I’ve been back a week. And I must say I miss Florence terribly, if only because I haven’t done much here except sleep. I miss the hustle and bustle, the ease of traveling, and of course my wonderful new friends.
Anyway, for my final post on this blog (sniff), I’m going to impart all of the wisdom and knowledge I picked up over the past four months. This all is useful for future study abroad students, visitors to Florence, and every body in between.
One thing I heard over and over again is that Italians dress really well. It’s not to the extent that you think. Yes, an Italian does not leave the house in yoga pants and a t-shirt (unfortunately). But they also don’t wear loubotins out every day. If you are like me and enjoy making budget clothing look classy, you are in luck. Here it is all about classic and chic.
1. As much as it pains me to say it, leave your patterns at home. At least the loud, flashy ones. Stripes, polka dots, patterns with two or three basic colors are fine. When I wear my bright red plaid button-up around I stand out like a sore thumb.
2. Black is best. I wore my black jeans so much they lost all their elasticity and the inner thighs turned white. I ended up buying a new pair. Of course you can wear blue jeans, or whatever else you want, but nothing beats a neutral top over black jeans with a nice necklace.
3. They don’t buy into that “shorts” business. In 25 degree Celsius heat, I see Europeans in their black pants, black boots, and a buttoned up coat. I don’t get it. It makes no sense. But nothing screams “tourist” like your pale legs.
4. Leave those heels at home. I trip over the crazy cobblestones wearing toms, I do not need to be four inches higher to make the tumble worse. If you’re a club person, nobody will judge you for wearing flats. Four months here and I didn’t once wish I had heels (that’s mostly the truth).
5. Sneakers vs workout shoes. I can barely tell the difference, but to Europeans, there’s a big one. Essentially it’s two types of tennis shoes: one for everyday wear, and one to work out in. They look exactly the same! But if you wear the workout shoes out an about you are instantly branded american tourist. So maybe avoid them, just to be safe. Unless you work out (which I never did).
Here in Florence, there are boutiques on every corner. Of course, the question is whether or not you can afford anything in there! If you can find an affordable piece that looks great on you, congratulations. You have more luck than me.
Otherwise, there are two Zaras and an H&M literally on the same street. Most everything you could want would be in those two stores.
Also on the same street is the Porcellino market. I’m not sure what it’s actually called, but the statue of a boar is right next to it so it’s hard to miss. Also it’s a pretty big market! They sell everything from leather to scarves to hats. This is a great place to get quality stuff. Most of the stalls are run by Italians, not by immigrants who work for them.
There’s also the San Lorenzo market. This place is filled with every souvenir you could hope for. It’s run by men who don’t mind shouting at you to come take a closer look if you accidentally glance at their stall. If you want a better price but lower quality, come here.
At both markets it’s totally expected to barter. You can get a great deal! Just ask for the price and they’ll probably already knock it down. Then look disappointed and it might go down further. If you try to walk away they’ll knock it down again, or ask you what price you want to pay. Always say a price lower than you want to pay, and it’ll end up closer to it. I was really worried about that going into it, but it’s surprisingly easy!
Florence is (thank goodness) a walking city. Nothing is terribly far away. Walking from one end of town to the other might take thirty minutes, tops.
If you’ve got to take the bus, don’t worry! It’s pretty easy! Tickets can be picked up at any tabaccheria. They’re €1.20 each. Then go to ataf.net and plug in the address you’re at and where you want to go, and it’ll tell you which line, which stop, what time, and how long it’ll take. When you get on the bus stick your ticket in the slot in the machine next to the driver, and it’ll stamp your ticket. It can be used for 90 minutes after that time stamp. Be sure to press the stop button before your stop so the driver will open the doors!
On the other hand, you could just not buy a ticket. Of all the buses I’ve taken, I think I’ve had my ticket checked only twice or three times. Especially if the bus is full, nobody will be going around checking tickets. You can easily get on and off without paying anything! If you do get caught there is a fine, so be careful! I keep a ticket in my wallet just in case I see someone checking them so I can scan it real quick (but I haven’t had to use it yet).
I don’t need to tell you to travel. It’s obvious! It’s easier to get from one country to another in Europe than it is to get to another state in America! I would suggest remembering that you do live there, too, so don’t forget to see the city you live in. Come home from your trip early and spend Sunday in town, or skip a weekend and stay home altogether! You’ll leave feeling much more connected. And you can brag about being a local.
When you do travel, might I suggest visiting smaller cities close to your home? I’ll surely be back in Europe one day to visit the big cities, but it seems highly unlikely I’ll ever visit Lucca. Who’s even heard of Lucca? Another bonus is that you don’t have to pay for housing, since you can just come home in an hour!
The trains in Italy are pretty great. Go to trenitalia.com to look up ticket prices and times. If you’re planning in advance, some regional timetables don’t show up until the week of, but if you look at the same day a week earlier it should be almost exactly the same. You can buy the tickets online or at the station. For every day trip we took we just bought them at the station, and validated them at the small green machines. Make sure to validate them! The tickets are usable for several months after buying them, so if you don’t validate they can be reused. There are normally people checking your ticket, and they come more frequently than the bus people.
Having a guidebook is actually really useful. I’m not a fan of tours, so we used the books to give us the same information a tour would. They often also have maps and restaurant recommendations.
Speaking of maps, I got an app called Ulmon. You can download maps for pretty much any city, and it has a bunch of stuff included. Restaurants, landmarks, churches, anything you want. And you can search for specific places and streets. It doesn’t always have it, but it’s great if it does. And it’s free!
It’s super annoying to plan ahead, but it’s really helpful to at least have an idea of what you want to do. Otherwise you might just sleep in and see a sight or two and you’ll leave the city without really seeing it. Read through your guidebooks before you leave, and the Internet is man’s best friend! Just google itineraries for wherever you want to go and several will pop up.
Ryanair is amazing. I flew to and from Germany for €40. You’ll probably take red eye flights, but live while you’re young, right? Use terravision.com (or another like it) to take buses to and from airports. We used hostelworld.com and airbnb.com to find places to stay. The airbnbs we had were the bomb dot com. Especially the one in Rome!
The preparation is annoying and I have so much more respect for my parents now. Just remember: wherever you go, you are going to see amazing things and make amazing memories.
This IS Italy, after all. It’s hard not to eat well!
Breakfast for Italians is very simple (and a little sad). They have a croissant and a cappuccino. Not much else, and if they want to shake things up they have toast instead. Lunch is average, if a bit on the large side since breakfast is so small. Before dinner they have aperitivo, which is where you pay around €5 for a glass of wine and normally endless food. For budget meals these are pretty great! Dinner doesn’t start until 8 at the earliest, and it lasts a while. You start with an antipasti (appetizer). The primi piatti is normally a pasta dish, followed by the secondi piatti, a meat. At really fancy restaurants this is followed by a cheese course, but normally you just get dessert and a coffee to finish dinner. Meals can last a very long time!
If you’re poor like me, meals like that don’t happen a lot. Normally I eat all meals at home. Mostly sandwiches more lunch and pasta or chicken for dinner. There are two markets in Florence: the Mercato Centrale and the San Ambrosio Market. The Mercato is a little more touristy, but it’s more central (hence the name). The San Ambrosio is my favorite, although it’s a bit of a walk. At either place you can get good fresh food! The still cheaper option is Conad, or another regular grocery store.
The Mediterranean diet is a real thing. We learned about it in cooking! Italians, Greeks, and others around that area eat mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, and olive oil. 100g of pasta a day is really good for you, because of all the good carbohydrates and stuff in it (pasta pump-up, anyone?). Limit white meat to a couple days a week, and red meat even less. I actually gained way less than I expected by accidentally following all these rules!
By the way, the weight I gained was all gelato. Gelato is actually everywhere in Florence. It’s one of the cities that claims to have invented it! Don’t even bother with gelato that’s piled up and brightly colored: that’s not real gelato. The best gelato is in metal tins that they have to open up to serve you. They don’t mind how much they give you, since they make it fresh every morning!
I accumulated a list of restaurants and gelaterias from recommendations and walking around Florence. It’s been really helpful when decided where to go. I give it to you in the hope that it helps you, too!
L’Orti del Cigno
Scandicci-location with good restaurants
Acqua al due
Gelateria Dei Neri (my favorite, try the brown sugar chocolate!)
Gelateria Santa Trinita
La Strega Nocciola
Caffe la Posta
I made the mistake of hearing “spring semester” and assuming it would be springtime a lot more than it actually was. I didn’t even bring a heavy coat. Of course I froze a little bit, but in the long run I actually don’t regret it. Less than halfway in the trench coat I brought was the perfect weight for a coat, and I stopped wearing it by April. Also, it would’ve been a pain to lug across the ocean twice!
While I can’t speak for the fall semester, this is what I would recommend packing for a spring semester in Florence:
- Three bras
- 10-12 pairs of underwear
- Seven pairs of socks
- Three pairs of pants (one black, one blue, one additional of your choice)
- Black leggings
- Yoga pants
- One pair of shorts
- One skirt (that can work for both day and night)
- One dress (that can work for both day and night)
- 5-7 nice tops
- Denim shirt
- Striped long sleeve shirt
- Long sleeve black shirt
- Two cardigans (black and white)
- Several scarves
- Three t-shirts
- One pair of nice tennis shoes (like Keds)
- One pair of espadrilles or Toms
- One pair of flats
- One pair of sandals
- One pair of boots
- Some kind of winter coat (as lightweight as possible without weighing down your suitcase too much!)
Don’t forget you’ll go shopping while you’re there, so try to leave some room in your suitcase for other things! As for toiletries, you can buy things like shampoo, conditioner, feminine products, and anything else at grocery stores, euro stores, and pharmacies, so you don’t need to pack them!
That’s about all I can think of. If any other seasoned LdM alumni has anything else to add, please comment for the good of those who are coming after us!
It’s been lots of fun writing this blog, and I hope it’s been fun reading it! Living in Europe for a semester was life-changing and awe-inspiring and just plain amazing. I learned so much, in and out of the classroom (though mostly out of it!). If you are able to study abroad, DO IT. You’ve still got seven other semesters at your home institution, and you can spend the remaining ones you have left basking in the awe of your friends who stayed at home (I hope).
This is me, signing off. It’s been grand.