If you’re reading this, it means you have made one of the best decisions of your life in considering to study abroad in Florence, Italy, and now it’s time to start thinking about what to expect. I studied abroad in Florence fall of 2012 during my senior year at Towson and I can say without a doubt that will be the most unforgettable semester of my college career. Hopefully this guide will help you to prepare for life in Florence.
Starting with the beginning I’m going to talk about what to pack. I went to Italy with my 49.5 lbs suitcase, a stuffed carry on, and a “personal item” that should have counted as another bag. My first piece of advice to you is to not bring more than what the airline allows. This is in terms of weight and number of bags. One of my roommates had two extra bags and ended up paying 80 euro to check the first and a whopping 200 euro to check the second. Another roommate was over the weight limit by one pound and the airline required her to buy another bag at the airport and move her stuff around, and then check both. These people deal with travelers all the time, so please do not count on them being sympathetic. Which leads me to my next point: only bring what you are 100% positive you will wear. Look through all your stuff at least three times before you go and hopefully you will take out a decent amount each time. If you have a friend or family coming to visit you, I suggest asking them to leave some extra room in their bag for you to give them stuff to take home. This will be a huge help when you’re packing to come home and it seems like the amount of stuff you have doubled. The last point I’m going to make may be the most important: shoes! I cannot stress enough how important it is to bring shoes that you have already broken in. The last thing you want is to not be able to go explore your new home because you have blisters.
The first thing you will need to know when arriving in Florence is how to get around. With many programs, you will land in Florence and be on your own in getting to the meeting point. There will be plenty of cabs lined up outside of the airport near the cab sign where you will have to wait in line for one. Most of the drivers speak some English but not much, so it could be a good idea to have your meeting point written down to hand to the driver. I went through the Lorenzo de’ Medici Program and from the airport to our meeting point, which was the school library, it cost about 25 euro. This cab ride to your meeting spot then to your apartment/homestay, and the one back to the airport will probably be the only time you ride in a car in Florence. In your new home you will walk everywhere, several times a day. And honestly I never thought of it as a negative. It gives you the time to look around at everything and go exploring. On average most people spend about 20 minutes walking to their destinations, whether it is to class, a restaurant, or a store.
The first thing you should do is buy a map and take the time to get lost in Florence; it will not only help you to learn the city but it will help you to discover all of the charm that makes it one of the most traveled to destinations in Europe. You could also use that map to help you find all of your buildings before the first day of classes! In the beginning of the semester there will be an opportunity to buy a museum pass for 25 euro, do it! There is so much history in Florence and even if you are uninterested in art or history, going to these places are once in a lifetime opportunities. So try to visit all of the places on this card, especially the Giardino di Boboli in Palazzo Pitti, it is beautiful! Take a walk down the Ponte Vecchio or up to Piazzale Michelangelo to get the picture perfect view of Florence. At night you can walk down by Santa Croce to find all of the popular bars and hang out spots for the other American study abroad students. As for safety, watch out here for pickpockets. This is definitely more likely here but I can say with confidence no matter what time of the day or night, I always felt safe walking around Florence, even by myself. I do not recommend a female college student walking around a foreign country by herself late at night, but the important part here is that it is safe if you have to. My biggest piece advice to you going to Florence is to use your Italian! There is only one thing I regret about my study abroad experience and that is that I had the opportunity to study a language in it’s spoken country, and I came home knowing only a little more than “ciao!”
I’m not by any means going to tell you where you should and should not eat, but these are a few places that I am really missing now that I am back in America. First is Gusta Pizza off Via Maggio, about 20 minutes from the Duomo. This became a Sunday tradition with my roommates and it was the best pizza that I found in Florence. But just so you know in advance, you don’t share these pizzas, or any pizza in Italy for that matter. They are so different from American pizzas that it becomes no problem to eat a whole one and then stop for gelato on your way home! For a panino, my favorites were I Fratellini on Via de Cimatori, Antico Vinaio on Via de’ Neri, The Oil Shoppe on Via Sant’Egidio and Salumeria Verdi on Via Verdi. I Fratellini is a small hole in the wall near Piazza della Signoria where you stand literally outside on the street and eat your sandwich with a glass of wine. These sandwiches are smaller, only cost 2,50 euro, and are delicious! Antico Vinaio has a reputation of excellence being the #1 restaurant in Florence, as ranked by trip advisor. Make sure you get one of these huge sandwiches on focaccia and it will be perfect! The Oil Shoppe is always packed with American study abroad students but has one of the widest selections of ingredients so you can custom build your own sandwich. Salumeria Verdi is known to everyone, or at least all of the study abroad students, as Pino’s. Pino is the owner who makes essentially every sandwich by hand and loves to talk to whoever comes in! These sandwiches are so good that while my parents were visiting they ate about half of their meals here. I am biased when it comes to gelato because my favorite was always Venchi across from Piazza del Mercato Nuovo, but other good one’s are Grom, Gelateria la Carraia, Rivareno Gelato and Gelateria Santa Trinita. I have learned to never get gelato when it’s all built up in swirls to look attractive, the reason it looks so attractive is because no one is eating it. If you spend more than 2,50 euro on a small cone/cup you are spending too much. If you’re out later at night be on the lookout for a Secret Bakery. I only ever found one down by Santa Croce but they are scattered throughout Florence. These are little shops open between 11:30pm to about 3am that definitely don’t look like bakery’s, but as soon as you get close enough you can smell the pastries, which only cost a euro! Conad is probably the most popular grocery store if you live in the center. They have the biggest selection at the best prices, and you can sign up for a Conad card for discounts and store specials. Personally, I thought it was pointless to order pasta when eating out, just because that’s what I always made for myself at home. But a few places such as Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori on Via dei Magazzini was totally worth it! I had the best food of the semester here, but make sure you make a reservation because they don’t take walk ins. Everything is homemade and delicious and they add such a personal feel to your time there, I wish I went more often!
Where to Go:
The most important thing to do while studying abroad is to travel! The train station is a short walk away from the Duomo and can take you anywhere in Italy for relatively cheap. Traveling anywhere in Tuscany will be beautiful and you can get most places for around 20 euro round trip. Rome is a must see and Venice was amazing as well and a train ticket to both was about 45 euro one way. Organizations such as Florence for Fun or Bus2Alps often have organized trips for study abroad students if you don’t like planning yourself. Look up flights on Ryanair, Vueling, or Easy Jet to get cheap flights to multiple different countries in Europe. Many times flying out of Pisa is much cheaper and you can catch a bus at the train station to the Pisa airport for 5 or 6 euro. Stay in hostels when you go, hostelworld.com has a lot of great listings that are trustworthy. When I studied abroad the best trip I went on was to Cinque Terre. The train round trip was 30 euro and it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The hike was long and actually quite difficult but the views and crystal clear water made it so worth it. For spring/fall break you could also look into doing a cruise, there are a lot that leave out of Rome and help you to see more of Europe than you could on your own.
Budgeting is an important part of the study abroad experience. You need to make sure that you can do everything that you want to and not drain your savings in the meantime. What I found useful was to keep track of all of my expenses, that way I knew where my money was going. It is also important to look up any sister banks that your bank may have so you don’t get hit with different fees. I know BNL is a sister bank of Bank of America and it is everywhere in Florence. PNC will reimburse you for a certain number of fees associated with other ATM uses. When you use an ATM, take out however much money you feel comfortable doing. I found it easier to take out 300 euro and use it until at ran out and I wouldn’t get more out until that point. I also used my debit card a lot though. There are numerous sources debating if you should use cash or a card abroad but I found it to be totally up to your personal preference. I liked using my card better and didn’t notice any significant fees whereas some of my roommates preferred to use cash. It is up to you. But the important thing to remember is that studying abroad is not the time to be stingy. You may never have these opportunities again so I suggest going on every trip you can afford and eating out as much as your budget will allow.
Whether you choose to take my advice or not, I hope that through reading this you have gained a little more knowledge on what life in Florence will be like. Now it is time to go experience it for yourself!