Moving to Florence, Italy is part of lots of peoples’ dreams. Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who gets relocated here, is taking a sabbatical, or has managed to align the stars to get the appropriate permit and income for a long term stay in Florence. You’ll have lots of questions at this point, like where to live, how to find a home, how to set up utilities, cell phone, banking, or where to find certain types of things for the home.
I have long thought about writing this article. It comes from my own experience of moving around the USA on a few occasions. I used to observe that it was generally pretty easy to set things up for a long term stay because services are structured similarly between states and cities. These were, of course, the days before ordering everything online on Amazon. For example, upon arrival in a rented apartment anywhere in the States, if I need to buy sheets or things for the house, I know I can go to Bed Bath and Beyond or get some discounted stuff at TJ Maxx. For upscale groceries and health foods, I know to look for the nearest Whole Foods. I know the names of the main cell phone companies and banks. I know the general terms for the types of stores and services that I need.
Cue up Italy, and more specifically Florence. Different language, different market. When I moved here the first time twenty years ago, globalization still hadn’t hit. Big supermarkets were still something pretty new; I shopped at a tiny supermarket for some things, but got vegetables at the mercato, bread at the panificio and cheese at the gastronomia. I recall complaining to my mother that it took me half a day just to do the groceries (though I secretly loved it). The land-line in my tiny apartment still had a ticker-counter, called scatti, that marked out the time you were on the phone in order to tally up the cost. Things are pretty different now, at least in larger cities like Florence, but there’s still a steep learning curve, and I want to help with that. So this is my guide to help you set up a long term stay in Florence, to learn the words you need to get the things you need.
Long term stay in Florence: how to find an apartment
The first thing that will concern you is of course where to live. The answer will depend on so many factors: how long you’re staying, where you want or need to be in the city, if you’ve got previous experience that points you to one area or another, if you’re single or have kids, etc. I could write a whole series of articles about this – a friend of mine even published a humorous memoir about renting in Florence! – so this will be just a brief guide.
Step one: find your area. Real estate listings here indicate areas of the city that you’ll want to be familiar with so you understand where things are. Under the listings for “centro” or historical center, you’ll find things being much more specific, usually with reference to the nearest piazza, but sometimes certain streets. If you’ve visited here a few times before moving, you’re probably familiar with the main areas like Santo Spirito, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo, and maybe you have a sense of what the apartments are like in each. Things generally get more specific in house hunting, so rather than the generic Oltrarno it will specify say, piazza Tasso or via di Santo Spirito. But there’s a whole world beyond the centro, and if you’re looking for something with a balcony and decent furniture on a reasonable budget, you may not be able to live right in the heart of things. To the north of the city is Novoli, a dense residential area that has gained value thanks to the new streetcar line. Out towards the stadium is Campo di Marte and Coverciano – which have always been my stomping grounds. For a serious house hunt, it’s possible to do it online, but you’ll need to become familiar with area names and street names.
Step two: find the perfect apartment. Where to look? A lot of people start on Airbnb, but most apartments there are priced for short term tourist rentals and not everyone will offer a month-by-month deal. A better option is a similar platform called HousingAnywhere, which has over 1000 listings in Florence for mid- and long-term rooms and apartments in Florence starting at €400 per month. (I just noticed that until the end of September 2020, they’re also waiving their platform and move-in fees.) I usually cross-reference the provided map locations with google maps’s street view to get a sense of what the street is like if I am not familiar with it. Things to look for: window size and location – does the bedroom give on to the street, and if so, is it a quiet one? Is the apartment ground floor, and if so, does that bother you? Is there an outdoor space, however minimal, where you can hang your laundry? Is there… furniture? Most of the rentals you’ll see will probably have furniture, but look out – some may have only a kitchen, bathroom and lamps. This is called “partially furnished” or parzialmente arredato. Usually you can negotiate for a couch, shelf and bed to be added to the price. Long term rental contracts in Italy, called “4+4”, tend to be for unfurnished homes; to find these, look on a platform like Casa.it or Idealista.
Step three: things you might not have thought of. When negotiating a rental, I suggest contacting the owner through the platform of your choice before booking to scope out what kind of human interaction you might have. Ask a few crazy questions (you’ll probably have plenty anyway) and see how available and helpful they are! Another issue you might not have thought about is contract type. Most rentals that you can book online are probably going to be registered through a tourist contract, and this may have implications if you’re staying for a longer term: do you need to declare residency at the apartment? If you have a foreigners’ permit of stay for work, family reasons or similar, once you declare residency in the city through a simple registration at city hall, you can register for state health care. For more information about how to get state healthcare in Italy see my article “Living in Italy: How I stay healthy”. Ask your potential landlord if it is possible to declare residenza there.
Setting up your new home in Florence: where to find the things you need
If you are super lucky, your furnished rental apartment will already contain everything you need for comfortable living, but probably it won’t. Here’s the types and brands of stores where you might pick up whatever is missing:
A mesticheria (sometimes casalinghi) is a kind of neighbourhood everything store. Sometimes it is combined with a hardware store. Good ones will be stuffed to the gills on shelves and there’s a guy who will get you what you want if you can figure out how to ask for it. You’ll find everything from hooks for bathroom towels (always lacking!), cleaning products, salad spinners and the like. It might not be designer style but it will be practical.
Find the supermercato nearest you, or visit a larger supermarket on the city’s borders. The main supermarket brands in Florence are Coop, Conad and Esselunga. Esselunga is usually larger and on the fringes, while Conad tends to serve the center. All three offer fidelity cards that give discounts as well as accumulate points towards fun “prizes” (Esselunga has the best ones). Prices for cleaning products tend to be best at Esselunga, which also delivers a range of items, though doesn’t carry everything it has in store online. Esselunga Gignoro, for example, has a good selection of bedding and housewares, as well as a small electronics section where you can buy a fan, microwave, small tv, etc.
What if you need some new sheets and towels? The term for this is biancheria per la casa or biancheria letto, not to be confused with just biancheria or biancheria intima which by default means underwear. Coin, a mid-range department store downtown, has a housewares area downstairs with an attractive selection of home linens (particularly good during the sales season). Another store with a few locations around Florence is called Centro Arredotessile, where they also sell pillows and mattresses. Honestly, I’ve had a hard time finding linens I like here, and have taken to ordering numerous things from a French e-commerce called La Redoute, which also has a selection of items marked “sustainable”.
Feeling the need for a proper flat screen TV, external hard disk, router or any other electronic item? These days Amazon tends to be pretty competitive, but there are local big-box stores with online and in-store purchase options. Names to look for are Trony, Media World and Euronics. For Mac-related things there’s an Apple Store downtown in piazza della Repubblica. For camera equipment (and eye glasses, for that matter) I highly recommend Fontani, near the Fortezza da Basso.
And if you want to hang a picture but don’t have a hammer? The neighbourhood ferramenta or hardware store (which sometimes corresponds with the everything store mentioned above) is usually a good solution, but larger DIY projects may require a trip to one of the big box hardware chains, OBI or Leroy Merlin. The latter is located at I Gigli shopping center in Calenzano, whereas OBI is at the Coop shopping center in Sesto Fiorentino. Both require a car. Personally I like Leroy Merlin for major hardware like shelving, lamps, garden tools, as well as big plastic boxes, paint, caulking etc.
Finally, if you’re missing furniture, it’s probably time for a trip to IKEA. Technically, there is a bus that goes there, out near the airport, but if you make purchases you’ll either have to rent a panel truck to get home, or have it delivered at a cost of €59 (you can order some Ikea furniture online as well). There are not many other lower-cost options around – Italians tend to get nice furniture that lasts a long time. That said, if you’re investing in a good sofa-bed, the chain store Divani e Divani might have what you’re looking for (they are made to order so have a wait time unless you pick something up at an end-of-season floor sample sale). There is also the chain Maisons du Monde in Prato.
If you’re not so picky and are interested in getting some used items for the home, Facebook Marketplace may have something; there’s also a group for items given away for free called Te lo regalo se lo vieni a prendere Firenze, and a group for sales called Compro e rivendo a Firenze.
Other services in Florence
If you’re not staying permanently, you probably won’t go to the trouble of opening a bank account in Italy, but you may need to deal with some other services, such as utilities or phone service. Usually your rental apartment will come with utilities installed, and you’ll agree with your landlord about paying them included in the price or separate. If they are separate, the contract will likely remain registered in the name of your landlord and he or she will show you the bills and tally up a regular payment, but in some longer term cases, you may be required to transfer the bills to your name. Italy recently opened up to “free market” providers, which means that there are numerous brand names out there. The main ones in Florence are Enel or Eni for gas and electricity, Telecom, Wind or Vodafone for home phones and internet service.
Many Americans use their regular cell phone provider’s service on roaming while here, connecting to wifi at home or at work to use whatsapp or other messaging services. Cell phone service in Italy has some of the most competitive prices in the world, so you may find it more economical to get a pay-as-you-go account that includes calls and 4G or 5G cell service for your unlocked smartphone. The main brands for this are Wind/Tre (the two companies just mergered), Vodafone and TIM. While technically all provide service in Florence and Tuscany, some areas have better coverage from one brand or another, so ask your landlord or neighbour which is best for you.
If you’re wondering about the cost of living in Italy, I’ve published my family of two’s annual budget in the article “The cost of living in Italy: my annual budget.”
I hope this list of brand names, store types and places to find homes is useful to you if you’re planning on setting up house in Florence! Let me know with a comment if there’s anything I’ve missed that you are wondering about.
This article is sponsored by HousingAnywhere, a platform to find mid- and long-term rentals around the world.