As told by Suzy Guese who studied abroad in Florence and also visited again in summer 2009. Read more from Suzy on her blog.
Getting There: You can easily arrive to Florence by plane. If you fly into Florence Airport (FLR), Aeroporto di Firenze, exiting the terminal, you will see a bus stop on the right. It costs around 5 Euros to take a bus to the main train station, Santa Maria Novella, in the city center. Other airports nearby include the Pisa Airport, Aeroporto Galileo Galilei. Short train rides run from here to the Florence main train station. Pisa services many of the low cost airline carriers, leaving extra room in the travel budget.
You can also arrive by train or bus to the Santa Maria Novella Train Station. Trains connect with most Italian cities like Rome, Venice, Milan and Naples. Even outside of Italy, trains run down to Florence from France, Austria and Germany. Buses travel from more regional cities like Siena and Bologna.
Where To Stay: If you are planning on studying in Florence and looking to get away from the “study abroad” infested city, see if your school will arrange for a home-stay option. At the last minute I decided to do a host family. Not only was this better for my language goals, but also I developed relationships with Florentines who now seem like family.
If you are just visiting, staying in the historic city center can be pricey in spring and summer. The benefit is that you are right in the city’s heart. Couchsurfing options, hostels, and hotels can all be found throughout Florence. For a bit more peace and quiet, book a pensione on the other side of the River Arno, away from the main attractions. This side of the river has a more local feel.
How To Get Around: If you have two feet that function, you won’t need a bus or taxi to get around. This is one aspect to Florence I love. You can always walk, as the city is so compact. Many of the main attractions are all within a five minutes walk of each other. In other words, save your money and walk. Not only will you burn off that pizza and gelato, but also you never know what side street you might stumble upon for that Renaissance snapshot.
There are buses that travel from one point of the historic center to the other, provided by Florence’s main bus company ATAF. They look more like toy buses, bright orange and usually carting a few little old ladies.
If gelato is not enough (it is for me), I recommend Baldovino’s pizza. Their prices are extremely reasonable and I love the location, just along the side of the Santa Croce church. Trattoria Quattro Leoni is another delicious restaurant in the city. While it is expense, if I could choose a last meal, it may be here. Dishes taste impeccable and it even bears a history, serving Florentines way back in 1550. Due Fratelli is an insignificant sandwich stand in between the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio with great simple panini around 2 euros a piece. For desserts, head to Hemingway. The crepes, milkshakes and cocktails here do almost taste sinful.
Landmarks To See: Landmarks may be Florence’s middle name. The city has a few handfuls. From the famed Brunelleschi’s Duomo to the picturesque Ponte Vecchio, the city is crawling with visions of the Renaissance. I recommend climbing the 400 some steps to the top of the Duomo. The 360 degree view of Florence makes you appreciate just where you are. The main piazzas in the city lend great people watching spots, including Piazza Signoria, Piazza Della Repubblica, and Piazza Santa Croce.
Museums, Museums and More Museums: The head honcho museum in Florence is the Uffizi Gallery. Clouded with lovers of art history, there is something about seeing Boticelli’s Birth of Venus in person that induces chills. The man about town, Michelangelo’s David, has a roof over his head at the Galleria d’Accademia. Walking into the Pitti Palace Museum, the walls are covered with paintings. You look over your shoulder and a Velázquez is mixed in with all the others ever so casually.
Moments with Beauty: My favorite place to read, write or just explore are the Boboli Gardens. The gardens are best in spring when the idealized Renaissance space glows in green and the rose garden is in full blooming Barbie pink.
If you come to Florence with a significant other or just your camera, get cozy with either at Piazzale Michelangelo. The piazza looks over the city, lighting up in bright purples and pinks at sunset. The view is almost unreal, seeming inconceivable that you just traversed such a vision all day.
Language tips: While you will hear Italian, if you look like me, redheaded with pasty white skin, Florentines will speak English to you. I was trying to learn Italian in Florence and found restaurants and cafes generally spoke to me initially in English. Don’t give up. Keep speaking Italian. Eventually they too will give up and help you learn.
General Advice: People often gripe that Florence is so touristy, never giving it a chance to warm up. While the city is incredibly popular in late spring and summer, look beyond the fanny packs and giant maps. By having an open mind, you can get to know locals and uncover the real Florence.
If you are studying abroad, try not to become a bad stereotype. Most think students are just out to get drunk every night at the corner bar. Be aware of the sketch-balls that prey on those in inebriated states. While Florence is generally very safe, no city is safe after 10 shots of Tequila.