Street Smarts: Becoming Best Friends with Florence, Italy

Alanna Stapleton is a student at Northern Michigan University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Alanna is currently studying abroad with ISA in Florence, Italy.


The first thing I noticed, besides the musical chatter of the locals speaking Italian, was how the streets have so much more character. I’m not just talking about the historic buildings lining the streets, or the magnificent cathedrals and castles, or the bustling piazzas; those too are full of history and texture and beauty. I’m talking about the way the people of Florence use their streets.

Pedestrians rule the streets…but that doesn’t mean they have the right of way!

Instead of the American tradition of hiding inside giant boxes of metal and making a statement with our bumper stickers, the people of Florence opt for a much more intimate experience when navigating through their city. Florence is quite small, so you’ll find that most people walk. (Leave that pair of heels at home and simply pack sandals, flats, boots, or tennis shoes. The cobblestone streets are hard on your feet and you don’t need the extra hassle of walking in heels. It’s not worth it.) Bicycles, vespas, and itty-bitty cars are everywhere, weaving through the medieval streets and large crowds of tourists. Don’t expect to see SUVs everywhere. There just isn’t room! The streets are small and the sidewalks are smaller, so pedestrians spill over the curbs and stroll in the middle of the streets. People jump out of the way only for bicyclists ringing their bells, vespas whizzing by, or maybe buses squeezing through to their next stop. To the untrained eye it might seem like there isn’t any rhyme or reason to the flow of traffic, but the chaos never seems unruly. It’s best to just be very aware of your surroundings by watching, listening, and walking wherever there is an empty space.

No Space is Wasted in Florence

Like I said before, the historic city center of Florence is small. You just feel closer to the people and buildings around you. The locals have learned how to use the space they have to their advantage. You’ll see many people walking their dogs in Florence, but most of those dogs could also fit inside a large purse. In most places, only one or two people can fit on the sidewalk at a time. Of course we have outdoor seating at restaurants in the states, but here in Italy you’ll find many mismatched tables and chairs literally sitting in the street. In the morning people sit and sip a coffee, as the sun starts to go down the tables are filled with plates of pasta and fine wine.

Step Outside!

Simply leaving your apartment is the best way to get to know the streets of Florence. Try taking a different route every time you head to class. I’m surprised by how quickly the streets of Florence are shifting from “foreign” to “familiar” in my head. I’m beginning to recognize smaller landmarks and less noticeable details about the route to and from my apartment. Sure, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is so visually impressive that it takes my breath away every time, but it’s the people I recognize, the smells that are becoming familiar, and the uneven feel of the cobblestone streets beneath my feet that really let me know I’m headed in the right direction. Eventually your gait will gain some confidence and you’ll look a lot less tourist and a little more local.

The streets are less of a pathway for transportation and more an integral part of the medieval history of Florence, connecting one piece of the city’s past to another. Take the time to become best friends with the streets. You’ll be on your way to falling in love with a new city and maybe you’ll even start to call it home.

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