The Mole Diaries: Florence (Volume 2)
Ryanair and Easyjet do great low-cost flights, unless you are lucky enough to find bargain British Airways flights directly into Florence Airport. Terravision are fantastic for airport transfers from Pisa and Florence airports alike.
It is very important to think about banking before you go abroad. Taking out cash will incur a charge, so you need to make sure you organise yourself with a good bank before you go. Find the option better suited for travellers, where you will be charged little for cash withdrawals and if you can, no currency conversion fees. Any kind of currency card (for example Caxton FX) are handy, you transfer the money direct from your bank account and can use it freely abroad without fees and with competitive exchange rates.
What will I need?
First things first, you need to ask yourself if you actually need it. Florence is a big city, it is not some arid desert location, the shopping is fantastic, and anything you forget or decide you want on arrival you can find here. My advice would be to bring your favourite stuff, it’s always nice to feel a little more glam, but remember that life here is very casual. Girls, you will not need heels. The Italians don’t wear them in clubs and you will probably break a leg attempting to tackle the many cobbled streets! You will live in trainers and jeans out here. Florence’s location in the valley means that it is very warm until the middle of November, and the winter ends around February. However, when it does it cold, its absolutely freezing, so don’t be under any illusions that Italy is a year round summer vacation!
Try and live with Italians if you can guys, or at least other exchange students. I have loved living with friends from my university in the UK, but the difference between my Italian and those who have spoken it in a home environment is pretty noticeable. It is easy to find flat shares in the historic centre of Florence, half the old palaces are now converted apartments and I would recommend you do your homework early to avoid being out of the centre. Don’t panic and find something online, most students wait until they arrive and see apartments in person, a good idea to see what they are like and also to meet the people you could be living with. I have heard stories of students who arrived to their new home to find their middle-aged landlord lived in the apartment and had set a curfew!
Florence is a vibrant, metropolitan, and youthful city which has grown out of an incredibly rich historic and artistic cultural background. It is beautiful from every angle, there is always something new to discover, always a new exhibition in one of the many galleries, always a new bar opening and a new festival being celebrated in one of the many piazze. The historical centre is quite small, and you can reach everything you need by foot without the hassle of worrying about buses or trains. The city is very busy, but Florence is surrounded by parks and mountains if you are more adventurous and fancy a hike, you are not confined to the centre! Art and culture is everywhere you look, it is so easy to get lost in a street full of artisan shops or in a free exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi. Florence is also a very safe city, but this does not mean you shouldn’t be aware! In tourist season, pickpocketing is rife and you should always be careful walking home alone at night.
Transport and travel
Florence is a fantastic year abroad location in terms of traveling. By Italian standards its bus system (ATAF) runs wonderfully, and it is easy to get to further out parts of the city when necessary. From the central train station, Santa Maria Novella, you can not only reach all of Tuscany but all of the peninsula for a more than reasonable price. I would recommend travelling on Saturdays, where on regional trains you can get 2 for 1 on tickets. The city has fantastic connections with all the major Italian cities, and you can even catch the overnight train right into Vienna, Austria.
If you are a nervous traveller however, Florence is also home to a whole host of International organisations targeted at students. They not only organise some great nights out, but are fantastic for trips both within and outside of Italy. They organise everything, travel, hostels, day plans, dinners, the entire lot! Check out ISF (International Students of Florence), Aegee Firenze, ESN Firenze, and Bus’2’Alps on Facebook!
Florence however, is more than just museums and palaces. It is a lively and exciting environment, and at night time, the city becomes even more alive. As a large Italian city it is regularly host to many festivals and events, Vogue Fashion Night out and Notte Bianca to name a few. The Italians come out in force for such occasions, and a highlight my Year Abroad was experiencing Ponte Vecchio turned into a club!
Italy has a large outdoor drinking culture, it is perfectly acceptable here to drink in the piazzas with friends. Hotspots include Piazza Santa Croce, Piazza Santo Spirito, Sant’Ambrosio and Piazzale Michelangelo. All three are a fantastic mix of bars and young people sharing a bottle of wine on the steps of the churches.
Florence is also the home of some of the coolest bars I have ever been in. They range from the incredibly expensive and sophisticated SE.STO rooftop bar, to the downright cheap and sweaty such as the Irish Bar Piazza della Signoria. My personal favourites are those with a live music scene. BeBop is fantastic, a different act every night, themed evenings, tribute bands – its grungy, dirty, cheap, and full of Italians! Backstage is another which has live music every night, more modern, looks like a living room inside but the various acoustic artists and DJs that play there every night are always worth seeing. My personal favourite thing about this place is that you can go from lounging around on the sofas and chatting in one room, to dancing to drum and bass in the other!
Florence is also FULL of clubs. There is pretty much somewhere to go every night of the week, they are even open air in the summer! My personal picks would be YAB, SPACE, Babylon, Fullup & FLO.
Of course, Italy is the capital of food, a haven for fans of carbohydrates and absolutely the place for some of the most delicious tasting fruit and vegetables in Europe. Florence and Tuscany are well known for many different specialities, such as the Bistecca Fiorentina, and is host to a huge choice of fantastic restaurants, but one of the best ways to eat well (and cheap) in Florence is to take advantage of their fantastic ‘Cibo da Strada’, or Street Food. Try a speciality such as Lampredotto or Trippa alla Fiorentina, both different parts of the bovine digestive system, or head along to Via dei Neri for THE best panino you will have in your entire life at All’Antico Venaio, or for a board of cured meats at La Prosciutteria. Take your food and a glass of wine and sit in the streets with the Italians, the atmosphere day and night is fantastic, and you might even get in some language practice whilst you are at it.
Another element of the Italian food culture you should not miss is Aperitivo, where for between €5-10, you get a cocktail or beer of your choice and unlimited buffet food. This is not however, an American-style all you can eat where one piles their plate with a mountain of food they can never even dream of finishing, Aperitivo is a sophisticated social event where friends can go and have a good drink and some even better food. By far the my favourite in Florence is SoulKitchen, it is young and lively, the music is always great, the staff are so friendly and the food is incredible. Its hard to believe that for €8 you get a cocktail and endless food which regularly includes fresh fish, pasta, homemade pate and bread still warm from the oven. I would recommend trying an Aperol Spritz, a drink originally from Veneto and is now popular across Italy as a pre-dinner drink, it’s delicious and helps digestion!
Of course, whilst Florence is not Naples, there are also some fantastic places to eat pizza. I would recommend two places, Il Pizzaiuolo and Gusta Pizza. Two totally different environments, both great value for money and the food is amazing. Try the Burrata pizza from Il Pizzaiuolo, you wont regret the decision!
Top ten hidden secrets and places to go
Unfortunately, Florence is a very touristic city, and in the busiest months you will be desperate to get away from the streets full of tour and school groups from all corners of the globe. Try these hidden secrets to avoid the craziness!
1. Fiesole – A small town in the surrounding hill, offers a fantastic panoramic view of the city.
2. Rose Gardens – Hidden just below Piazzale Michelangelo, quiet and tourist free, perfect for a picnic, to study, or to just sit and relax!
3. San Miniato al Monte – Avoid the crowds at Piazzale and head straight up to the church, it’s the highest point in the city, and watching the sun set from the cemetery is unforgettable.
4. Le Murate book café – Student discount on all drinks and the courtyard has bench-beds, do I need to say more?
5. Amblé – Hidden just off Ponte Vecchio, its frequented only by Italians and is the perfect location for a lunch and a cold drink. All the furniture is vintage or one of a kind and can actually be bought!
6. Biblioteca della Parte Guelfa – You will actually have to study on your year abroad, and I would recommend this cute little library hidden in the historic centre to avoid the inevitable pre-exam crush in the university study rooms!
7. La Terrazza Rinascente – On top La Rinascente department store, this little roof terrace bar on Piazza Repubblica is gorgeous, even if it is slightly more expensive!
8. Spiaggia sul Arno – Open from May onwards, this little beach is the sunseekers haven in the city, with a bar, beach volleyball court, sunbeds and beachhuts. We regularly go to sunbathe and take a picnic, although you can’t swim in the river!
9. Cascine market and park – Open every Tuesday morning, La Cascine market has stalls for everything and anything, including second hand clothing where, if you are willing to dig around a bit, you can find some fantastic vintage items for as little as 50 cents!
10. Terrazza @ Oblate Biblioteca – Study outside and in the sun at the roof terrace of the Oblate Library, it has a fantastic view of the Duomo to make the hours spent revising a little less tiresome!