Featuring International Travel Tips, Stories, & Photos of Fabulous Florence!
My First Journey to Italy
The first time my mother and I set foot on Italian land in August 2013 my mood was a bit dampened. I was happy to be traveling, but being inside the Rome airport on a hot summer day and not knowing the language, made me uncomfortable. It was difficult for me to order a simple salad at what appeared to be a self-serve cafeteria. At that moment, everything seemed so complicated, especially since on top of the language barrier, the dining and food purchasing customs were confusing to me. However, from that negative experience I learned that if you want to sit at a table to eat in many Italian cafes, it cost more money than standing at the counter! (For more tips on eating in Italy read up on this link —>“The Dos and Don’ts of Eating in Italy”
Rome Airport/Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com
Thankfully, when we met the kind tour guide at the Rome airport, my mood changed for the better as we eventually joined 50 other people to begin our daily travel excursions through Rome, Venice, and Florence. I enjoyed all of these beautiful areas but I was entranced the most by Florence!
It was then that I uncovered my addiction to traveling and a strong desire to return to this birthplace of the Renaissance and capital of Tuscany. However, I had no idea how I would get there with a limited budget. I decided to start saving a little money out of each paycheck and talked to whoever would listen about my travel ideas!
Antique Carousel of the Picci Family on the Piazza della Republica in Florence
Maybe you are wondering why I am the “moody” traveler. Well, I am sure many travel enthusiasts feel the same as I do. At the start of a trip I am filled with happiness, anticipating a new adventure! Then my mood saddens on the journey home. In between, the moods fluctuate with ups and downs of unexpected surprises, especially when solo traveling! Naturally, it is always difficult for me to leave Florence after making such wonderful friends, viewing such amazing landscapes, art, and history! (Unfortunately, due to personal finances, I am only able to stay for a short time, generally two weeks at the most.) As my blog progresses, there will be a variety of photos and stories about the places I have visited so far. I enjoy taking photos of the people in this glorious city and they are always patient with my attempts to speak the language. …and I am obsessed with it! After several years of studying the Italian language and prior to my most recent trip I did some research and discovered The Michelangelo Institute in Florence, a wonderful school at an affordable cost.
Later in my blog, I will share more of my happy mood moments with this lovely school!
Travel Agent Scam
While working as a special ed instructional assistant/substitute teacher with a background in technology, one of my coworkers understood my passion for travel and suggested I attempt a part-time career as a travel agent. She suggested contacting her friend, a former teacher, who ran a travel agency based in California. I was told the agency was looking for new recruits all the time. Of course, I joined immediately! Hmmmm…I know what you’re thinking…. correct!After a few months, I realized something wasn’t quite right. At first, my new opportunity seemed to be a great idea! Helping people travel and obtaining travel perks for myself – wow! The company presented me with online videos and tests for receiving a Travel Agent certificate. It seemed official to me. Perhaps this could be a new part-time job for me!
Here comes the slippery slope my dear friends…. Not long after printing out a certificate and receiving a special ID number to contact various hotels, etc. for clients, my heart sank when this so-called agency required a monthly fee for their “travel club.” I was a bit suspicious about the agency’s claim that this was beneficial to everyone who joined. Eventually, my inner voice told me that paying sixty dollars per month when I didn’t travel that often, could have been a scam. Hopefully, my story will help shed some light on “required fees” for those of you who have been asked to pay money to join any type of travel club or employment agency!
My short lived travel agent attempt sparked my desire to learn the ins and outs of international journeying and to help others from the experiences. I know many people who have this desire, but lack the courage to travel alone. In the beginning, when I shared my ambitious plan with friends, coworkers, and family members, there were various responses. Some were extremely negative and filled with warnings of terrorism alerts, being mugged, etc. However, the amount of positive comments were greater : “When are you going?” “You are strong! I wish I could do it!” “How exciting!” “When can we see the photos?” Honestly, safety did enter my mind, but I took many precautions and did a lot of research. From the very beginning I have been continually aware of my surroundings and never leave my personal belongings out of sight.
Being a solo traveler has given me a great feeling of strength and independence! It is exhilarating to be able to create my own schedule and relax whenever necessary. I never feel alone because I am able to connect with friendly people everywhere I go! Striking up conversations with people in a positive way creates these new friendships and wonderful opportunities to see the world in a different light.
As my solo trip planning began I decided not to let my time, money, and efforts of obtaining a travel agent certificate go to waste. To me trying to advise clients about traveling wasn’t right without doing it myself. After doing some research, I discovered that with my certification various hotels around the world would compensate me with free rooms. I made up business cards on vistaprint.com and emailed over 140 hotels in Florence hoping to receive “comp” rooms for free. In each email I explained that I was writing a travel newsletter. (My crazy idea! Why not? I thought it would be fun to review restaurants, hotels, and the places I explored.) With a lot of persistence and patience I was able to stay at three hotels for free.
Then I repeatedly checked the internet for cheaper round trip flights. I did find an inexpensive flight from Philadelphia to Milan, Italy with a brief layover in Rome, but needed to take a train from Milan to Florence. That is another interesting story to be continued later in my blog!
My frequent journeys to Florence over the years have inspired me to learn more and more about this amazing city. It has become my obsession. I am anxious to share with you the dos and don’ts of solo traveling and my exciting personal experiences, including amazing food, friendships, Italian language, art, and history. Perhaps I can inspire you to venture out and go beyond your comfort zone to follow your desire to travel, even if you think the cost is not affordable! There are many ways to cut costs and still enjoy an international trip. It may not be the same as touring with a travel company, but it is a great way to relax and get to know a specific area without the rush. You can even locate and purchase economical individual tours at your discretion after getting to the destination. Two years ago, while in Florence, I successfully scheduled three tours to several museums and a lovely all-day cooking tour in the Chianti Hills.
A lot of the information and experiences in my writing will assist you with traveling to all parts of Europe, even though it involves mostly the Florence region. Remember – La vita è breve! (Life is short!) If you love to travel, do it now!
Travel Prep Tips
Now I will give you a break from my personal experiences to share some helpful travel information:
- Travel insurance is always a good idea to purchase for comfort in case of lost luggage and/or delayed flights, etc. (CSA is a good one —-> CSA Travel Protection
- Register with the US Embassy on their website. —> step.state.gov/step/ This is an important step to take in case your passport is stolen. If that does occur you will be able to go to the nearest US Embassy in the city you are staying and they will assist you.
- Make copies of your passport to place in luggage and carry-ons for the flight
- Take at least two credit cards and a check debit card with you. (Do not bring a savings account withdrawal card! It does not work in international ATM machines.) Many merchants prefer cash for purchases but credit cards are good for emergencies or larger purchases. Make sure to contact the credit card companies prior to leaving for your trip to let them know the dates of travel and check the fees for international purchases. When contacting your bank about the check debit card inform them of how much money you plan to withdraw on a daily basis. (On my first trip I didn’t realize why I couldn’t make a withdraw from a bank ATM machine. I contacted my bank from Florence, Italy and was told that I had to give them a heads up of a daily withdraw amount. ) Make the amount higher than what you plan and you shouldn’t have any problems.
- Contact credit card companies companies and your bank along with your bank prior to travel.
- Purchase Euros Before Your Trip? – Maybe not! Here is my take on the whole euro exchange/prep thing. I have talked to people who think it is a great idea to purchase a “starter” pack of euros from a travel agency. However, my personal experience was a travel agent in the US told me to pay a “fee” for a certain amount of my US dollars to be converted into euros. The amount purchased would either go up or down, depending on the international exchange rate for the moment. So, if I was given three hundred euros, there was a chance that the worth in US dollars would be less by the time I got to Italy. The other option was to go to an exchange booth either in the European airport or final destination. I learned quickly that the exchange booths attach extra fees on top of the fee for exchanging your US dollars. My tip: Go to the ATM machine at the airport you first land in. Do not use the exchange booth in the airport or any European city. Exchange booths charge exorbitant fees and you will walk away wondering how you lost over $100 of your money in the transaction!
- ATM Machines: It is very important to use an ATM machine that is associated with a bank. If you use a random ATM machine on the street you will find your final bank statement with a fee of at least $30 or more dollars attached to each transaction! Of course, your bank will automatically attach a fee for each transaction but it will be much lower. (For my bank it was $5 per transaction.) Furthermore, take out a larger amount at one time so that you don’t have to keep returning to the ATMs!
- ATM Scam Alert: Each time you use an ATM machine always cover your hand as you are putting in the security access code. There are tricky little thieves all over the world who have discovered ways of randomly replacing the cameras in ATMs. For a closer look at these scam methods check out this website: https://www.thesun.co.uk/money/3875481/atm-scams-money-criminal-tamper-card-machine-steal/
- Leave copies of your planned travel itinerary at home along with credit card numbers and security codes for yourself and family members in case of an emergency. While it can be time consuming, it is worth the effort.
- Luggage Tags and locks: While there are no guarantees that your luggage won’t be lost, it is better to lessen the chances of this happening by protecting each luggage piece, including your carry-on, with special tags that can be tracked and TSA locks or ties. Look for ratings of various types to purchase on Amazon.
- Purchase special covers for your Passport and credit cards! RFID blocking sleeves, like the ones sold on Amazon will protect your information from being scanned and provide great identity theft protection.
- Special plugs for outlets: Prior to your trip make sure to purchase special plugs designed for European outlets to charge cell phones, use laptops, etc. Don’t bring an american hair dryer like I did on my first trip! The European outlets are not equipped to handle the wattage and you may find yourself in a situation similar to mine where the circuits over load and suddenly all the electric is kaput! (I was scolded by a hotel employee. Lesson learned!) Not to worry! Most hotels and other rentals are equipped with hair dryers.
Places to Stay
If you are not planning to go with a tour company and being bused to various hotels, renting an apartment is a great idea! Being on your own and staying in an apartment is a much more relaxing way to visit a city.
Airbnb.com – I love this website for finding places to stay in Italy at reasonable costs! I have used it a total of four times and never been disappointed. You can find a reasonably priced apartment for your vacation with air conditioning, WIFI, a washer, and even Cable TV! People rent out their apartments all year long throughout the world. In Italy, there are many to choose from. Just be sure to do it months in advance if you are planning a summer trip. Summer is “high season” for Italian hotel and apartment renters. The nice places get booked up quickly.
Airbnb includes a great option to add filters so you can easily narrow down your search with how much you want to spend, the amount of rooms, etc. There are also reviews from previous tenants and it is very easy to communicate with the apartment owners through messaging on the website. By the way, most of them speak English in case you do not understand any Italian!
When I visited Florence for the first time with my mother, we became lost for over an hour on foot. (Previously, the tour guide from Trafalgar said it was easy to find our hotel since all the streets were around the Duomo in the center of town. This was not true for us!) After walking continually for over an hour in circles, I decided that it was best to hail a taxi. Little did I know that the reason all the taxis sped by and ignored my frantic waving was because that getting a taxi in Italy is not the same as in the United States! You must either go to a specific area that has taxis stationed there or use a phone to call ahead. That is why I am hoping to help you avoid any experiences like mine by clicking on this highlighted link of —>taxi locations which will help you find a taxi station area that is convenient for you in Florence….or you can just call for one!
Phoning a taxi can be a little tricky because after pressing the button for English you will hear an advertisement and then a fast-talking voice of an operator who may or may not speak English that well. These taxis are very high in demand, especially during the “high season” of summer. Therefore, it is important to know the correct address of where you are standing. I had many great experiences and only a few problems with Florence taxis. Last year, a problem arose when I took a taxi to a tanning salon (Yes, I said tanning salon…I just wanted to try it.) The ride there was great! However, when I telephoned for a return ride, the operator appeared to have trouble understanding my location. It took over a half hour for the taxi to find me!
Here are a few taxi phone numbers:
055.4242, 055.4390, 055.4798
Another option is to use a new taxi app on your cell phone! I have never tried it but I certainly will on my next trip! This may be used on an iPhone or Android: it-taxi-app
Personal Experience\Taxi Tip: Many of the taxi drivers speak very little English but they skilled drivers and will understand how to get you to the proper destination. (I had many conversations with taxi drivers in Florence and each one was courteous and dedicated to their jobs.) You do not need to tip them. If you are planning to take a taxi from the Florence airport, a ride to the center of town will be a flat rate of 20 to 22 euros plus 1 euro per piece of luggage. A nice way to show appreciation is to round up the fare to the nearest euro. Frequently, I tipped an extra euro if I felt a driver was super friendly.
Amazing Photo Opportunity: Want to take some fabulous panoramic photos of Florence and see another version of Michelangelo’s David? Why not take a taxi to Piazzale Michelangelo! Some people told me to just walk or take the bus….I decided to treat myself and called for a taxi. The cost was reasonable and the driver was happy to pull over and wait for me while I acted like the character of Carrie from Sex and the City in the scene when she first sees the Eiffel tower in Paris (Sorry…but it’s true! Sadly, my clothes were not as stylish as hers!)
I felt hypnotized as I glided along the railing of Piazzale Michelangelo which overlooked an unbelievable panoramic view of Florence!
My First Solo Trip: August 2015
Traveling alone for the first time was quite a challenge, but I was anxious to learn how to travel and share my information with other people. A close friend of mine gave me a ride to the Philadelphia airport and that’s when the fun began!
The European train System and other learning curves: After figuring out how to get around in the Philadelphia airport for the first time and going through other fun situations on the airplane, like having my seat changed twice, I landed in Rome with a brief layover of only 1 1/2 hours! I almost missed my connecting flight because the gate number had changed. At the time, I had no idea that gates could change! So, I stood at the incorrect gate for a while, wondering where all the passengers were. As my boarding time approached and no passengers were around, I finally decided to show my ticket to an airport employee. She immediately crossed out the gate number on my ticket and, in her lovely Italian accent, abruptly told me that I had 10 minutes to get to the correct gate! I ran…like a maniac! Luckily, I made it just in time.
My flight on L’italia airlines was smooth with courteous flight attendants and passengers. After landing in the Milan Malpensa (MXP) airport (Linate (LIN) is the other airport in Milan which is a bit closer to the center of Milan.), I obtained my luggage, and headed to the nearest ATM machine. Next, I needed to find the shuttle bus to Milan Central Station. Many workers in the airports and train stations do speak English. However, it helps for travelers to at least attempt speaking a minimal amount of Italian even if only to say “Buon giorno”(bwohn/DJOHR/noh), which means “good morning/good day” and may be said all the way up until 5 p.m.! After 5 p.m., a nice greeting is “Buona sera” (BWOH/nah SEH/rah), “Good evening.” You can purchase the shuttle bus tickets ahead as I did online and the departures run every 20 minutes. I recommend using Malpensa shuttle because for me they were reliable. I was grateful to locate the shuttle bus right outside the airport. The driver was a pleasant woman and she gave me a friendly Italian hug as I tipped her 1 euro for loading my luggage.
Inside Milan Central Station: Waiting for the train going from Milan Central station to Santa Maria Novella station in Florence was an entirely overwhelming experience for me the first time. I had no clue where to go and asked people along the way. Milan Central station is also loaded with nice shops, restaurants, and gelato stands. Upon arriving there, I desperately needed a charging port for my cell phone and was starving at the same time. I finally found a restaurant with many charging ports. However, it was extremely crowded. A lovely hostess, who spoke English, suggested I use a charging port in the back of the restaurant near the bar which was closed. I had to wait for my phone to charge and guard all my luggage while my stomach growled and growled! Eventually, I was able to make my way to a gelateria (A place that sells gelato, which is a delicious, creamy version of ice cream!) and purchase a small cup gelato. While juggling my gelato and luggage, I managed to find a place to sit in the overpopulated station. Suddenly, my hand slipped and I looked down to see that some of my gelato had landed on a woman’s designer shoes. Ugh! I apologized profusely in Italian (Mi dispiace! – I’m sorry!) and did my best to assist with the clean up. The woman just shrugged it off and motioned with her hand which I took to mean that it was not a big issue to her. Whew!
Prior to my train arrival time, I thought there would be plenty of time to figure out the loading area which was located through large doors with a station employee who was checking every ticket. As I looked up at the large billboard-like, lit up scrolling signs hanging from the ceiling, my confusion began. It is important to recognize the location of the train number on the ticket and then find your zone on the sign. However, I had some difficulty because my train number on the sign seemed to have a different location and not Santa Maria Novella. Since my train was departing shortly, I decided to interrupt several Italian police men, who were involved in a heated discussion. One of them quickly looked at my ticket and said, “Twenty!” and returned to his discussion. My brief relief turned into panic as I realized that zone number wasn’t correct! Then I ran over and interrupted two Italian conductors and they tried to shoo me away. That did it! I stomped my foot and told them in Italian I needed their help. It worked… (I guess they wanted to get rid of this frantic american woman!) They pointed me to the correct zone and I realized I had less than 10 minutes to run to the 10th car of my train! With sweat dripping down my back I ran while dragging my heavy suitcase…. I was thankful and surprised as people nearby helped me haul everything up the steps of the train.
Luggage Advice: Try not to bring an over sized luggage on your trip, even if you stay for two weeks! On a train it is very difficult to maneuver a large suitcase in the small aisles. I was told by one woman to place my luggage in the front of the car. As I followed her advice, walking towards the car entrance, I was mortified to see a hill of suitcases loaded onto a large metal shelf. Somehow, I managed to haul my monstrosity onto the shelf. As I shimmied my suitcase off the train (Again, a nice passenger assisted me) at Santa Maria Novella, a young man passed by and said, “Tu sei molto forte!” – “You are very strong!”)
Prior to boarding validate your ticket or not if it is purchased on the Internet: Once you enter the train platform area, look for a small yellow or green validation machine, usually closest to the areas right before the where the trains pull in, and insert your ticket. If you have a ticket previously purchased on the internet it is not necessary to validate it.
Regarding the train ride I must express how spectacular the scenery was, especially when passing through Bologna. These European trains are very clean and have tables with chargers for your phones. You can order food too! When I arrived at the Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence, I was able to figure out that my first hotel stay was within walking distance. Another reason to not bring heavy luggage…. the treacherous walk over narrow cobbled pavements and the streets!
First solo episodes with hotels: As I mentioned earlier, this was the trip where I had previously written to 140 hotels in Florence and was determined to create a travel newsletter. As a result of my ambitions, I was able to stay at three nice hotels free of charge. I only paid for one hotel and that was due to an unfortunate experience where one of my room arrangements did not have air conditioning. A little hotel advice: When arranging to stay in European hotels during the summer, make sure you ask prior to arrival if there is air conditioning! Many hotels and apartments do not have it or have it in some rooms and not others.
The San Giorgio Hotel was very close to the Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence and I was able to walk there with my luggage. This hotel is family owned and operated with complete care and friendliness. I loved staying in my little room, complete with a shower and private bathroom. The rate was 50 euros per night, which included a delicious buffet breakfast in the morning. This is the place I returned to when I had a terrible experience of no air conditioning in one of the hotels. (Believe me, you do not want to every go through that! I slept with a small fan directly on me.) So, my first night was prearranged and free at the San Giorgio. When I called to offer to pay for a room on short notice I was welcomed back with such kindness. All of the staff was pleasant and understanding. I was more than willing to pay the 50 euros to get that air conditioning in the midst of those high August temperatures.
For the rest of my first solo trip, I was a happy walking-wanderer, getting to know the local areas and attempting to speak the language. After adjusting to my surroundings a little at a time, I accidentally found the San Lorenzo Market! (Enjoy this link to information on other markets: https://www.walkaboutflorence.com/articles/markets-florence) The previous trip with my mother had given me a lesson in bargaining with market merchants prior to any final purchases. Markets like this are filled with outdoor open huts of purses, t-shirts, jewelry, and many other items. Be advised: Never pay the original price in the outdoor markets! It was difficult for me to do at first, because I was a bit shy about it. But, you will see that it is easier the more you do it. Just tell a merchant you will pay a certain amount and if he declines, start to walk away….You will be proud of yourself at how easy it is to bargain with these local merchants to drive down the prices!
Eventually, I was able to find many other conveniently located shops, supermarkets, nice restaurants, and museums.
Buca San Giovanni
One day, around 5:30 p.m. as my stomach growled while I wandered down one of the main busy streets in Florence near the Duomo and cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, I nearly passed a doorway that peaked my curiosity. I couldn’t believe my luck that this “doorway” lead to a set of steep stairs down into the lovely Buca San Giovanni restaurant. It was like stepping into a dream as I was greeted warmly by a friendly waiter and guided immediately to a table. As I looked around I became amazed at the beauty and history of my surroundings. The walls were filled with framed photos of famous actors and other celebrities, including President John F Kennedy. I also noticed several dining areas adorned with frescoes and gorgeously painted ceilings. As I was the only customer at the moment (Most Italians have dinner close to 8:00 p.m.), the waiter switched on beautiful music for me to accompany the delicious meal.
Please enjoy looking at this link to the website of the Buca San Giovanni, known as an established historical site in Florence and constructed in 1882. http://www.bucasangiovanni.it/en-index.php
Antica Torre via Tornabuoni 1
Another unexpected experience on my first visit was seeing this lovely mansion that sits on a busy side street near the Arno River, close to the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The entire seven story tower, constructed in the 1300s has a colorful history and in later years the restorations upheld a mansion with rich art from the Renaissance era and a delightful place for guests to stay. When looking out from the terraces and restaurant on the seventh floor patrons can experience one of the best panoramic views in the city.
I was lucky enough to receive a guided tour through the building. Eventually, I was brought into a special room called the “Salotto,” which was used for business meetings and weddings. Suddenly, a staff member opened a hidden closet and turned on a switch. I was hypnotized as I heard a song by Sade surrounding me. The walls in the room contained a special, advanced technology of sound fibers. I was also told that this Salotto was funded by the Luciano Pavarotti Foundation. To this day, I still maintain contact with one of the friendly staff members, Martina, and upon my returns to Florence I cannot resist returning here to see her and tower of historic beauty. It is one of the many surprises hiding in this city. Please follow this link if you would like to read more about the Antica Torre via Tornabuoni 1—> https://www.tornabuoni1.com/en/the-terraces/
La Certosa – An amazing discovery in the hills of Florence and Chianti
The first time I encountered this restaurant was on a Trafalgar tour with my mother in 2013. After that, I returned in order to spend more time interviewing the employees and to repeat this fun, unique dining experience, complete with a baritone singer belting out well-known Italian and American songs in an amazing voice that was unbelievable. This jovial entertainer was friendly and hospitable as he joked with the restaurant patrons while singing. The singing was accompanied by a talented pianist with fingers that seemed to flow like butter across the keys of an electrical piano-type organ. The food was delicious as there was a variety of well cooked meats and fish to choose from.
Aside from the spacious room that I dined in, there were other areas in the restaurant for weddings, parties, business meetings, and other events. The walls were adorned with paintings of a hanging purple flower, common to the Tuscan area, known as Wisteria.
This restaurant is not just an ordinary restaurant. In fact, many years ago it was a monastery.