We’ve been fielding requests in the last few weeks from students about to embark on what may be the best thing to ever yet happen to them: studying abroad in Florence. We write that statement with no sense of irony, as studying abroad anywhere is a luxury and can be an eye-opening, life-altering experience. That is very different, however, than saying every student that studies abroad will have such a formative time. In order to make the most of these travels, students should be open to learning about the host culture without judgement, which often means approaching some daily tasks differently. For instance, a task as simple as buying school supplies can prove frustrating if you don’t know where to shop. Here are 6 spots to know before arrival that should help you jump into your semester without reservation.
Even if you don’t smoke, you’ll want to get quite familiar with tabacchi. These one-stop shops are clearly marked throughout Italy with a T sign, usually white on a dark background. The Ts are beacons for a whole slew of things you’re going to need over the next few months: bus tickets, cell phone charges, postage stamps and more.
First, let’s start with the bus tickets. In Italy, you can purchase a single or groups of bus (also known as ATAF) tickets in advance at a tabacchi. Once you board the bus, you’ll have to verify your ticket by sliding it in the (usually) yellow or green box to receive a time stamp, at which point your ticket is good for as many rides as you can (or want) to take in 90 minutes. So, if you ride the bus regularly, best to stop in a tabacchi and pick up a few tickets to have on hand, as you often cannot buy them on the bus. (Another option is to purchase a bus ticket through SMS; click here for one provider).
Speaking of SMS, your texting abilities are also closely tied to the tabacchi. When you purchase a cell phone and number in Italy, it will come on a pre-charged SIM card. When your initial allotment runs out, one of the easiest ways to add more funds to your phone is to ricaricare at the tabacchi. Recharge-cards are sold in pre-determined denominations. You simply purchase one, scratch off the code on the back, and then follow the directions to rev up your phone. You can also reload by paying online with a credit card, but if you’re using cash, tabacchi is the way to go.
Finally, you’re going to need stamps for all those postcards you’re amassing. Not every tabacchi is always stocked with postage, but be sure to ask at your neighborhood one before trekking your way to the post office. There are countless horror stories about trying to take a quick trip to an Italian post office…best to stay clear and try a few tabacchi first!
To purchase most of these things, you’re going to need cash. Unlike in the States, where we make most purchases by swiping our debit cards, Italy is very much a cash-driven country for day-to-day transactions. This, coupled with the fact that you’re likely to face international service fees every time you choose to pay with plastic, will make you quickly aware of the locations of every bancomat (ATM) in the city. Like tabacchi, bancomats are clearly marked, usually with a blue sign, and then have additional signage to tell you which bank the bancomat is affiliated with.
Make sure you let your bank know ahead of time that you will be using your card abroad. Also ask them if they are part of an international ATM system that waves transaction fees (Bank of America is associated with BNL, for instance). If not, pull out as much cash as is safe to carry or store per each ATM use. That way you’ll minimize fees and be ready to shop nearly anywhere.
This place is a sweet spot for every English-speaking student who has studied in the city. Paperback Exchange is an independent, English-language bookshop located near the Duomo (and near student-favorite gelateria, Grom). The staff speaks English, and there’s even a cozy space to sample a book or two while you shop. The store famously carries many of the books and textbooks required for study abroad programs, so chances are you’ll be heading here early on in the semester. Paperback Exchange also sells and buys back used books, so you can keep a few more euros in your pocket (for gelato at Grom).
The Oblate feels a bit like a student utopia right smack in city center. The beautiful library was once a convent, so it has a wonderful atrium where groups of Italian students can be found sketching or taking study breaks. Then, each floor is stocked with Italian books, DVDs, and CDs that you can borrow. But the real gem is the top-floor, open-air cafe. Grab an espresso and a table and work off the free WIFI with front-row seats of the Duomo. The Oblate is open to everyone to use, but to get full access to all the perks (borrowing and WIFI privileges), sign up for a library card. All it takes is a visit to the circulation desk with your passport to get started.
Ok, place #5 is a website, not a physical site. But while you’re waiting to board your flight, this is an important spot you can get familiar with ahead of time. You’ll be using it to plan all your weekend trips throughout Italy. You can view the site in English, which makes it easy to get familiar with Florence’s different train stations, train lines and time tables. Plus, frequently checking the site will help you catch great travel deals–like two-for-one ticket prices or fare sales. So why wait to plan your Cinque Terre excursion? Now’s the time to get started.
ASTOR CAFE (A.K.A. ICED COFFEE)
Like we mentioned at the start, adjusting to a new school and lifestyle abroad can be stressful. Luckily, there are many intoxicating things about Italy that are easy to love–the art, the architecture, the food, the coffee. But sometimes, it doesn’t matter how good something is, you still crave a taste of home. And when you’re staring down your first major assignment and the city is hot, there’s nothing that can keep the spirits up like a big ol’ iced coffee. Now, iced coffee doesn’t really exist in Italy (watering down un bel caffè is considered nothing short of a travesty), but there are a few spots that will cater to the American taste. Astor Cafe is located right behind the Duomo, lets you customize your drink with milk or sugar as you like, and even offers a coffee card for those that want to make it a daily habit. For more clues on where to find iced coffee in Florence, check out Georgette’s round-up here.
Ok! That’s five places to get to know, plus a bonus spot to cure homesickness. Our final piece of advice? Be on the look-out for the September issue of The Florentine upon arrival. Florence’s English-language newspaper is a free resource for visitors to the city year-round. But in the fall, students are treated to an issue that caters just to them, their questions and their needs. It’s a like a welcome letter from the city, chock-full of advice on how to take part in Florentine life.
All that’s left to say now is have fun, make smart choices, and know that we’re green with envy. Buon viaggio!