I just visited Florence, Italy and here are a few things I could not find online prior to my trip, so I hope this helps someone out there. The information below is current as of April 2011, so keep in mind the current date. Also, EU = EUROS.
1 - AIRPORT TRANSPORTATION
Take a taxi. The airport is just outside the city and its a quick drive and the service my hotel recommended had a 20-EURO flat rate fee plus 1-EU per bag, so our total was 22-EU. This is a tiny airport (probably the smallest I have EVER been in) so if you look into those shared vans/shuttles, you will not only pay more, but will have to wait for a designated pick-up time (every 2 hours) and THEN drop other people off before you. Not worth it - go with a cab. BEST to ask your hotel for their recommendation on a service for the cheapest rate. Remember, it’s a pretty quick drive. The 20EU service we used (and I was able to make the reservation myself) is through TAXI 4930 at http://www.4390.it/2009/
2 - METRO: BUS/TRAIN
Florence doesn't not have a subway system, only busses. Buses cost 1.20EU and you need to buy the tickets before you get on the bus. You CAN buy them on the bus, but then they cost 2EU each. These tickets are different than the standard magnetic strip & scan system you find in major USA cities. They are basic tickets that you get time-stamped on the bus when you first board to show when you boarded. You then have 90 minutes to use that ticket on any other line (free transfers). I was very confused where to buy the ticket at first, thinking it was a magnetic system and also looking for a Kiosk at select stores. This is not the case. Tickets are sold at virtually every tobacco/lottery shop and are sold by the cashier, just ask for "bus biglietti" and they have a book of them. For maps and info, go to the bus website at http://www.ataf.net
3 - LANGUAGE
While this is not as "hot" of a tourist spot as Rome, it is still flooded with tourists and many restaurants and services cater to tourism. Most people speak English, so don't worry, but don't assume (or be ignorant...) that everyone will speak it or speak it well. Know your basics: questions, directions, restaurant lingo, etc. Always best to speak a few sentences first before asking if they speak English – it’s the polite thing to do.
4 - TRAINS TO OTHER CITIES
If you are in Florence for more than a couple days, you should take a day trip. The city has numerous museums, but it’s not that big and you should explore. I must say the museums here are above expectations as I only had a few in mind to visit and there was so much more. Basically, you can see the city in a day, but to see all the museums will take a long time. If you are here strictly for the museums, great, otherwise take a day trip or two.
TRAINS: you can buy an ALL-ITALY pass before your trip through EURORAIL.COM. I did this and was happy about it. EXCEPT… it was more expensive than doing it in person. Since this is a service that helps you manage your trip, you pay more for it. Also, we bought a 2-person all-Italy pass for 1st class. Then… some trains require reservations because they fill-up, so you need to buy your seat reservation too, so the prices add up. While I don’t know the best way to go about it: do your math. If you don’t need a special ticket, don’t buy a special ticket, especially if you are not going on any wild adventures or multi-city tour. You can always buy your individual train tickets through tranitalia. If you want to take trains to other countries, they have passes for this too, so check it out. ALSO, my last note on Eurorail, is that we didn’t plan ahead too well and didn’t make our seat reservations far enough in advance (we already started our trip and were in Paris before heading over to Italy). The cost of all our seat reservations came out to $166 through Eurorail, but they could not let us buy them because they required to print them out from their offices and mail them to us, which was too late (1 week in advance…). This made us panic but we stepped into the Florence train station on day 1 and bought the reservations without a problem days before our travels. And get this, it only cost 46-EU, which is approx $65…. A HUGE discount compared to that Eurorail wanted to charge us (good thing we planned poorly on the reservation front!) All good things, visit the site at http://www.eurail.com
5 - RESTAURANTS
There are good places and bad. Obviously, the expensive places are very nice and the cheap ones are well, cheap. We found a great sandwich shop we returned to that was cheap, and we ate at a few quick places that were sub-par. In Venice, we found a great Kabob place that was DIRT CHEAP and was great. Price doesn’t dictate quality, but one thing sure does: location. You will notice a lot of SH*T near the tourist landmarks: bad food, crazy un-related merchandise (fake Rolexes near the tower of Pisa? Gimmie a break). If you are randomly walking around looking for a place to eat (without any recommendations from books or online) try to find a place not on a tourist street, away from a tourist hot-spot, that doesn’t cater toward convenience of hot, sweaty, loud tourists. Even one block away from a tourist "route" will house many great looking places. Now, remember that Europe is really old, so it’s possible a restaurant has been there hundreds of years before the street turned into a shameful tourist crowd, so don’t disregard anything. We ate at a few good places in Italy, and a few bad. The good were not in the path of tourists from point A to point B. Look up what books say is good and decide for yourself if they are worth going to. I’d say of the fun places we tried, half we stumbled upon and the others were one of the many mentions in a travel book. Another note, if you are searching online, see what college kids from the USA eat at - they will write their review in English and on English forums/review websites and are great means to find places that appeal to you.
6 - FLORENCE AIRPORT HELP
As I mentioned above with the TAXI being best for the Florence Airport, when we landed we had a reservation for a shared van, which was not pleasant. We were scheduled for the 3PM departure, but I was told a guy would have a sign with my name on it. This did not happen and instead of jumping outside and frantically looking for the van about to leave, I looked around for the guy with the name sign (since this is what I was told to do). Never found him and in my print outs I saw that the next shared van pick-up was 5pm. TWO HOURS away for a 20-25 minute drive! I was very upset (and realized how much of a crock these shared vans were in Florence – again, get a taxi, you can find one for a 20EU flat rate). There is an APT office for tourists in the airport and they have all sorts of maps and they speak English. Even if you already have your transpo sorted out (which is what most people are in the office for) this is a great place to stop by: maps, multi-linguists, and helpful information. It’s a small airport so it’s easy to find.
7 - POWER & WALL SOCKETS & CONVERTERS
I figured this out before the trip but it took a while to researtch, so here it goes: Europe electrical outlets give out 240volts when USA only gives out 140voltes or so. THEREFORE, if your electronics are not equipped to handle the 240, they will blow up. So when traveling, you need to do two things:
1 – See what electronics you want to bring will handle the 240 volts
2 – if they CAN handle 240 volts, buy the appropriate adapter (so your prongs will fit into the wall)
There are two things to know here: adapters and converters. An adapter is a simple $5 plug that allows you to plug in your USA cords to European outlets (makes the prongs fit). This is only good if your items can handle 240volts. Most important things can: battery chargers and computers and smart phones (but always best to check first). If you need a power converter (reduced power to USA so it won’t blow up) these are hard to find, heavy, and not really worth it. Most expensive electronics are good for 240voltes and if your cheap ones (hair dryers, etc) don’t, its probably best to buy a cheap one when you land.
Most of the European Union has a standard 2-prong outlet, but Italy has a 3-prong outlet. Now I don’t know how it works across the country, but the two prongs MAY OR MAY NOT work in Italy (it all depends on the specific wall outlet size, etc). I bought a special Italy 3-prong converter for my USA items and it worked fine, but noticed that the lamps in the hotel were 2-pronged. No idea what the country does, but the $10 investment for 2 adapters was well worth it.
I hope this helps SOMEONE out there – let me know!