Last Updated on June 21, 2019 by Chelsea Opong-Wadeer
As my time with the beautiful city of Florence, Italy was coming to a close, I couldn’t help but reflect on the things I learned. I thought about my long walks to Esselunga, the confusion I used to have when it came to using Italian bathrooms, and the change of the city at the beginning of the tourist season. Here are a few of my tips and recommendations for navigating day-to-day life as a student abroad in Florence.
1. Master the basics of the language.
One of the first things I noticed when trying to really understand the ways of Florence was to learn the lingo. Knowing key words like “grazie” (“thank you”), “prego” (“you’re welcome”), and “ciao” (“hello” and “goodbye”) really helps. Two things one should note about saying thank you and you’re welcome in Italian.
- If you pronounce thank you in Italian as “gracie,” Italians will immediately know you’re American. Always be sure to put more emphasis on the “z” so it sounds something like “gra-tsee-ay.”
- A fun way I remembered “prego” was that it sounded just like the Prego sauce made in America.
There are also different meanings for “prego.” For example, when someone says, “Prego, avanti!” to you in the supermarket, that means next in line.
2. Realize that restaurants in Florence are not like those in the States.
Understanding restaurant etiquette is important. For example, the waiter/waitress won’t bring you the check unless you ask for it. Basically, you could be sitting in a restaurant until they close and they won’t ask you if you are ready for the check, so be aware of this.
3. Accept that bathroom and laundry facilities may be different from what you’re used to.
Italian sinks function a little differently than the ones in America. The majority of sinks in public or restaurant bathrooms in America are automatic, but in Italy you will find that you will need to press a button on the floor in order to turn on the sink. This was actually pretty fun for me to figure out – I often left my hand under the sink thinking it was automatic!
Next, laundry. Many of you may have probably seen pictures of people in Italy using clotheslines to dry their clothes. This is universal in Florence. There are laundromats, but I feel in order to be a true Florentine it’s good to learn the drying rack methods. Generally, what I noticed was that my clothes would be dry in less than a day, especially if it was nice and sunny out. My housemates and I would put the drying racks on our terrace.
Another important thing to note: try not to confuse fabric softener with laundry detergent. I met someone who had a roommate that had no idea she was just using fabric softener instead of laundry detergent for the 4 months that they were abroad. It happens to the best of us.
4. Indulge your homesickness once in awhile.
If you’re ever missing a bit of American-like-breakfast, La Milkeria, Le Vespe, and Mama’s Bakery will be your best friends.
- La Milkeria carries waffles and pancakes that will instantly remind you of your favorite breakfast places at home. This place also has great milkshakes and gelato, but I mainly went there for breakfast.
- Le Vespe serves brunch on Sundays but sometimes only takes cash or card on those days. This place is also a great reminder of breakfast food from home!
- Mama’s has bagels with an abundance of toppings. My personal favorite was getting a plain bagel with chive cream cheese and a side of fruit.
5. Eat the gelato and don’t think twice about it.
Of course, we cannot forget about gelato. Wondering what the difference between gelato and ice cream is? It’s hard to put into words – you just have to try it for yourself. It’s a bit richer than ice cream, an the flavors are to die for. I personally ate gelato almost every night after dinner. My two favorite gelato places in Florence are Gelateria La Carraia and Gelateria Edoardo by the Duomo. La Carraia is one of my favorites based on the prices – you can score one flavor for €1 or two flavors for €2. My favorite flavors from there are cream of milk (crema di latte) and cookies (biscotto)! Edoardo’s was great for their favors and their cones. I personally really enjoyed their cones because they had a sweeter taste to them. I recommend trying their pistachio favored gelato and their white or red wine gelato.
6. Utilize the grocery stores.
The two main grocery stores in Florence are Esselunga and Conad. I was fortunate enough to live right above one of the Conads in Florence, so for me it was a no brainer to go there if I needed a few things. Also, a good thing to note is that you have to pay for plastic bags in Italian grocery stores. I recommend bringing a bag with you to save! I would sometimes go to Esselunga, but it did come with a long walk. Florence does have public transportation, so sometimes my friends and I would walk there and take the bus back.
7. Give public transportation a try.
Let’s say you were at the grocery store and wanted to take the bus home, like my example in #6. All you’d need to do to get a bus ticket is to go into one of the many Tabacchi (tobacco stores) and ask for one! For example, “Vorre una biglietto dell’autobus per favore?” It costs you about €1,20 (decimal points are commas in Italy, too!).
Always, and I mean always, make sure you scan your bus ticket in the yellow ticket reader when getting on the bus. This is very important, because the bus monitors (ATAF) sometimes will come on the bus and if you do not have a ticket or have not scanned your ticket, they can kick you off and you can pay a fine up to €200. 10/10 would recommend not forgetting your bus ticket.
8. Soak in the cityscape at sundown.
Take a walk up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the cityscape, this is likely where they were taken. The typical thing to do on your walk up is to pack a picnic: a bottle of wine, some bread and cheese or pizza. Then watch the sunset. Here are some pictures of the sunsets I’ve saw while I was abroad and let me just say how pictures cannot sum up this view.
9. Use your meal plan and eat all of the pizza.
I recommend going to Gusta Pizza. Not only is it to die for, but the workers have the best humor and will make you feel like you’re part of the family.
10. Culminate your study abroad experience with a climb up the Duomo.
I recommend that you do this towards the end of your trip, mainly so that you can point out and recognize areas that you and your friends walked through every day. Plus, if you buy your ticket online you can skip the line and not have to wait! You also get to climb up the Bell Tower all for €15.
All and all, Florence is my second home. The memories this beautiful city has brought me over the last four months are ones I will forever cherish. Now take some of these tips and tricks and get out there and make your own adventure!
This post was contributed by Chelsea Opong-Wadeer, who spent a semester studying abroad with AIFS in Florence, Italy.