The streets of Florence are nowhere near as busy as they were a little over a year ago. As travel restrictions are still in effect around the world, there are little to no tourists in Italy. Students are the among the only ones allowed to fly in from the US. This has its pros and cons. Here’s what you should expect coming into the country as a study abroad student.
While the city is certainly more open than it was a year ago, not everything is “back to normal.” Some of the smaller shops have been closed since the pandemic started, and many have closed permanently. Just like in the US, many small businesses have struggled since the start of the nationwide shutdown.
However, a lot of the shops and restaurants are still open, even if not at full capacity or normal hours. This of course depends on which “zone” you’re in, considering the current COVID guidelines as further explained below.
No matter what zone your region is in, the restaurants, gelaterias, small shops, clothing store chains and markets are still widely open. There may be some modifications, such as only takeout past a certain time of night, but no worries, you can still go to get your gelato after enjoying a nice margarita pizza by the Arno river. While I’m sure I haven’t gotten nearly the full experience of small shops, street venues, art pop-ups and such, life is still trucking on over here in Florence. Don’t put your trip off because you think you won’t be able to do as much. Instead, this lets you see Florence behind the curtain of crowds and tourists – if anything, this cuts the line to get gelato in half!
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still extremely sad to see so many vacant spots in Florence – but let’s look towards the bright side, because it’s all we got.
Art & Culture
The bittersweet hush of the city almost makes Florence feel more homey. The lack of crowds allows you, as students and tourists, to see the city in its natural beauty without the usual flooded streets.
For example: I walk by Michelangelo’s Statue of David every. single. day. I get to walk by the enormous Duomo and admire its detailed architecture every time I walk to class. I pass through the Piazza della Signoria on my daily walks without getting remotely close to bumping anyone’s shoulder. I cross straight through the middle of the plaza and don’t even think twice about it. Before the pandemic, you would not be able to do any of these things. This piazza is usually flooded with people trying to get into the Palazzo Vecchio, look at the Statue of David, or get a picture next to the Fountain of Neptune. In the most positive manner possible, when I walk by these things, the extraordinary now seem so ordinary.
I’m grateful for all of the things that I can witness and experience while living here during this ungrateful time. The museums may be closed, as I haven’t been in a yellow zone since week one, but the natural beauty, architecture, landmarks and pop culture of Italy make up for it. If we were to move into a yellow zone and the museums opened, just imagine the convenience of being one of the only tourists in Florence looking at the Uffizi Gallery or the Museo Galileo.
Being a Tourist
As students are really the only tourists in Italy, I was nervous as to how Italians would react to seeing Americans back in their country. I was pleasantly surprised that I have only gotten warm smiles when introducing myself as an American. Many shops will quickly pick up on your accent once you speak, if they couldn’t already tell from your apparel. Most will ask where you’re from, what you’re doing here and how you managed to get here.
I was ordering a panino from Il Cernacchino on Via della Condotta (the Fotonica panino was amazing, shown below) when the workers asked where I came from, then proceeded to tell me that Boston was the best city. They handed me my warm sandwich, exclaiming, “The Fotonica for the Boston girl!”
The locals here love to see people back in the area. Not only is it refreshing to see their city come back to life, but students also contribute to the economy. Many of the locals love helping Americans, especially eager students. I have had the most pleasant experiences with small shop owners.
Definitely try to learn the language! It’s easiest to learn a language when you’re fully immersed in it. This can be difficult while your classes are all in English and travelling is widely prohibited, but promise me, you’ll regret it if you leave the country knowing a sum of three Italian words: ciao, buongiorno and bella.
Florence is (usually, in normal times) a very touristy city. This means that almost all of the shop owners know English pretty well, or at least some of the language. This goes to say that you can easily navigate Florence without knowing any Italian language. You can ask the workers, wherever you are, “Inglese?” when you walk in, and they will say, “Ah, yes! Hello!” in response. It’s good to at the very minimum know the basic phrases though, such as good morning, good afternoon, hello and goodbye.
A lot of the locals want to learn English, if they aren’t already semi-fluent. I had a gelato shop owner ask me what it was like in America right now, because she wanted to move to New York City within the next year. She was asking me how her English sounded, and even said that she liked my American accent, which was “second best” to a British accent. While they want to get to know English better, take that as an opportunity to learn their language too! They appreciate Americans trying their best to immerse themselves in the local culture and language. It’s too easy to get around the language barrier, but try to learn what you can while you’re here.
Even during COVID-19, public transportation is still open. The bus station is available to travel around the city and its outskirts. It’s a very easy way to travel the distance that you don’t want to cover on foot or bike, and it’s free for students! Without signing up as a student, it’s still only 1.50 Euros for a ride.
My favorite way to get around the city is via electric scooter. At any given bike rack, you’ll find electric bikes and scooters. These are both new to Italy. They were installed as the pandemic hit to give locals more ways to get around without using public transport. They’re also more sustainable and lots of fun! The electric scooters go pretty fast, up to almost 30km/hr, or 18mph.
The city is so easy to walk around though, and I’ve never felt more self-reliable. You can easy walk to anywhere within the city center. The bikes are super nice to have when you’re exploring, and the scooters are a great activity. They can both be dropped off at any of the designated parking spots, not just the one you picked it up from, making them super easy to use.
For farther trips, the train is the way to go. There are a couple different train stations in Florence, and they both go to just about anywhere in Italy you’re looking to explore. Trenitalia has a mobile app for easy ticket buying, but it’s honestly most convenient to buy your ticket at the self-serve machine at the station.
The closures and restrictions depend on which zone your city is in. The zones usually define a whole region, but can be modified to specific cities as well. This could range from yellow to red zones. These each contain different restrictions on what can be open and for how late. These can also include a nightly curfew.
The Yellow Zone is fairly open, with no night curfew. You are allowed to move to other regions of the country if they are also in a yellow zone. Museums can open during the week, and restaurants are allowed to stay open but only until 6pm. After 6pm (or 18:00), takeout is still available. I only experienced living in a yellow zone for my first week in Italy, once I was out of quarantine in the last week of February. I wish I had done more while I could, but it’s hard to know how things will change in the future.
An Orange Zone is a little more restricted, as a nightly curfew is instated from 10pm until 5am. Traveling between regions is only allowed for necessary reasons such as work, medical or moving between houses. Food is only available for takeout, and museums are not allowed to open. There is some flexibility within an orange zone, as there is also a “Reinforced” Orange Zone that lifts the nightly curfew. However, more restrictions can also be added on, such as tighter curfews on weekends. In March 2021, we were in a modified orange zone, where alcohol sales were prohibited after 4pm on the weekends, meaning that bars had to close early.
A Red Zone only allows movement around the city for essential reasons, such as attending school, going to the grocery store or seeing a doctor. Police are allowed to stop anyone on the street and ask to see their voucher, which should be filled out with their personal information as well as where they are going. I’ve found that this is a lot less strict than it sounds. Lots of “non-essential” shops are still open. Restaurants (and gelato:)) are still open for takeout, and people seem to be moving around on the sunny, pleasant days just as much as they were during an orange zone. College students are still allowed to attend classes in this zone, so it hasn’t affected me a whole lot. Red zones can also be applied for holiday weeks as a precautionary measure. This is the case for me currently, as Florence shut down the city for Easter.
The Florence I’ve come to know for the past two months is certainly less populated and lively as it was in 2019 – but this never would have stopped me from coming here. My trip to Florence has been an eyeopening experience for so many reasons, and I’m immensely thankful for my sheer ability to come here during this time. I think gratitude is the most important characteristic to hold, especially right now. Between the stunning art, delicious sandwiches and pizza, school’s cultural courses and the sunset I get to watch every night, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
If you’re coming to Florence anytime soon, make sure you take in every second of it. This place will swiftly become your second home.