The Ultimate Guide to Shopping in Florence
I recently crossed the bittersweet halfway point of this 3-month adventure in Tuscany. Having spent several weeks in Florence and the surrounding areas, simultaneously trying to be a tourist, a local and a blog researcher, I have learned a lot about shopping. First we should get one thing straight. I love to shop. I particularly enjoy shopping for clothes and shoes. I love finding things that are unique, or finding a special deal. I even love shopping for food if the experience is different, not the mundane supermarket that we all spend half our lives in. However, even if you aren’t a big shopper, but ever plan to vacation in the Florence area, this article is for you.
We all must shop. We all need clothes, food, medicine, gifts and souvenirs. When we are in a foreign country with a different native tongue, this can be a challenge, but also an adventure.
Let’s start with some basics every traveler should know. In Italy, cash is king. My credit cards, which I spent much time and effort upgrading before this trip so that I could use them without exorbitant fees, sometimes work and sometimes do not. Forget about American Express, it is accepted almost nowhere. I visit the Bancomat (ATM) more often than I thought I would, and I need exact change more often than I’m used to. (I’m used to never). I once received a dirty look from a cashier for trying to use a 20 euro note when the amount owed was only slightly less than 10. I live in fear of the dreaded 50 euro note being the only thing left in my wallet. I’ve gotten in the habit of quickly sizing up the vendor/cashier and using the largest note I think I can get away with, in an effort to always keep small change on hand. Something I find cool is that the smallest is the €5 note. €2 and €1 coins are used all the time, and they are well-designed to easily spot in your pocket, though they weigh you down more than paper.
Shopping for medicine has been a little tricky. With the fluorescent green cross signs on almost every corner (indicating a Farmacia), I sense that medicine is all around me. However, none of it looks familiar, so it’s hard to find some basic things. I’m sure they are there, but the packaging looks different, and my Italian fluency stops short of drug and ailment lingo. I’ve been known to pantomime sore throat, gauze pads and even the preventative spray against head lice (a school-age child’s necessity). Italian pharmacists, even if they don’t speak English, are very helpful and we usually get what we need. But here’s a tip: Bring the medicines you think you might need.
If it’s gifts, wine or food that you seek, any discussion of Florence shopping should begin with the famous Mercato Centrale (Florence’s Central Market). This market, which is actually a diverse collection of vendors, is located in a huge and gloriously beautiful two-story building right in the center of town. The upper level has prepared food, bars, gift stores, places where you can taste cheeses or wines from all over Tuscany, and even a large cooking school. One could pass many hours wandering this level and buying gifts and treats. The lower level, which is not open as often as the upper level, has all the fresh food vendors. There is a dizzying number of produce vendors. Anyone in search of the perfect Tuscan melon would have dozens to choose from.
As lively and wonderful as the Mercato Centrale is, I have not visited it as often as the smaller Sant’Ambrogio market across town. This market is similarly packed with fresh food vendors, but not as many and not in such a beautiful building as to attract tourists for souvenir shopping. At Sant’Ambrogio, you get the sense that you are shopping where the locals shop, and paying the prices that the locals pay. I am still surprised each time at the reasonable prices of the fresh produce. However, you have to eat it right away before it goes bad. Italian farmers tend to harvest their produce when it is truly ripe and ready to eat. If I’m being honest, the main reason I shop here more than the Mercato Centrale is that it’s more convenient. There is a huge, easily accessed parking lot right under the market. In fact, Sant’Ambrogio’s lot is my go-to parking for almost any destination within Florence.
If you are staying longer than a few days, especially if you have rented a villa or house rather than a hotel room, never fear, they also have grocery stores. There are a few chains in the area, and Coop is the one I like best. Or rather, it’s the one I find in the most convenient locations. Some of my friends prefer Esselunga, but I find it a little harder to get to. There are 3 Coop stores of varying sizes within a 5-10 minute drive of my house in 3 different directions. They have all the food and household things you need, as long as your needs don’t arise on a Sunday (closed Sunday, which I somehow forget almost every week). They even have a gluten-free section for my daughter. By the way, American pasta companies should take notes from the Italians on how to make packaged gluten free pasta. It’s delicious here.
Most people know that you’re supposed to buy leather in Florence. And anyone visiting the city for more than 5 minutes will be able to find multiple stores selling jackets and handbags made of the lusciously soft hide. For a large selection at reasonable prices, a good bet is the San Lorenzo outdoor market right outside of the Mercato Centrale building. To say it is “right outside” of the market building is to minimize its vastness. The San Lorenzo market consists of a seemingly never-ending row of booths along several city blocks of Florence. I don’t actually know its hours of operation, because it’s just always there, always packed with people. Many of the vendors sell identical items- purses, jackets, linens and some real kitschy touristy things. This just invites you to haggle with them. Some of the leather vendors will try to lure you into their nearby stores where they can make you a custom-fit jacket for about €150. Not bad.
All this outdoor market stuff is great, but what if it’s raining? Even worse, what if you brought your kids with you to Florence, and it’s raining? It’s enough to instill panic in any parent. I believe I may have found the perfect solution to this dilemma: The I Gigli shopping center. About a 15 minute drive north of Florence, not far from the airport, is a good old fashioned American-style mall, complete with a huge Best Buy-type of store, chains such as H&M, a food court and everything. But what makes this mall stand apart from most of its American counterparts is that the Florentines have managed to make it paradise for kids. From the moment Kate, Eve and I walked in and stumbled across a race track for remote controlled toy cars, to the indoor train ride that circled the mall, to the sushi restaurant where you choose from a selection of food items that float by on a conveyor belt, this place was kid heaven. I must admit I had a fun day there too. I also had a memorably excellent espresso after the sushi lunch. We may be in a mall, but we’re still in Italy.
Florence has no shortage of amazing places to shop for clothes. The center of town, near Piazza della Repubblica, is riddled with fancy stores that draw you in with their sophisticated window dressing. There are a couple of brands I like in particular. Michele Negri has earned some money from me over the years. I have been known to splurge at Massimo Dutti. The fanciest shopping can be found on Via de Tornabuoni, where each and every major Italian designer has a large storefront. Think of an Italian designer… yes, they have a store on that street! It is a beautiful and very exclusive-feeling neighborhood, but I don’t actually do much shopping there.
So, where do I shop for clothes in Florence? This is an evolving picture as I make new discoveries over time. Every time I come to Italy, I am struck by the way people seem to wear “pieces” rather than basics. And they usually aren’t cheap-looking. How does one accomplish this feat in the land of Prada and Ferragamo? I have a couple of ideas that might help answer this question.
First, you need the perfect boutique. Even in Italy, the true boutique is being replaced by chain stores over time. However, I’ve seen some really good ones. My favorite store in Florence, without any doubt, is a little boutique that occupies 5 storefronts on the same block, providing a strolling-and-shopping experience. All five stores are called Jasmine, and they are located on the street Borgo San Jacopo, running parallel to the river just on its south side. I actually love this entire district of Florence, known as the Oltrarno (Italian for “other side of the Arno”), because, you guessed it, it’s on the other side of the Arno river from the main attractions like the Duomo. This area is less crowded and has some of the most beautiful neighborhoods and lively bars and restaurants in Florence. And, as I mentioned, it is the location of my favorite store.
I randomly stumbled upon Jasmine when I was staying in Florence for the summer five years ago and lived not far from its location. At first I did not realize all of the stores were related, as some have no obvious signage. I just thought I happened upon the best shopping street in the world. But they are all owned and personally managed by a nice gentleman with a design/architecture background and his wife, Jasmine. They carry numerous brands, prioritizing the look and feel of each item over its brand name, and striving to introduce new designers to the fashion scene. With as much thought and care as they put into the buying process, they match it with their store design. The last time I stopped by Borgo San Jacopo, an inviting scene of soft linens and towels on a comfy-looking bed in a window informed me that they now carry home items too.
I don’t pretend to have the knack myself, but maybe one reason Italians know how to dress so well without breaking the bank is because of gems like Jasmine. There is another magical place that I discovered on this trip, which may help solve the mystery: The luxury outlet center known simply as The Mall.
I visited The Mall on a day when I was feeling under the weather, not in the mood to shop, but had a few quiet kid-free hours. I was instantly revived upon arriving at this shopper’s paradise about 30 minutes’ drive south of Florence. It has the feel of an outdoor mall, but not really. It’s more sophisticated than I expected, situated in an expansive open area among the beautiful rolling hills of Tuscany. Also, the stores are large (some gigantic) and the number of luxury brands represented is impressive. According to their website, they carry 30 brands, everything from quintessential Italian Gucci, Sergio Rossi and Valentino to top foreign brands like Burberry, Saint Laurent and Tag Hauer. Not having any real intention to spend money, I mostly browsed the beautiful stores. The prices were steep of course but much better than they would be in a department store back home. Despite my best efforts, I ended up doing a bit of damage in the combined Stella McCartney/Alexander McQueen store.
The Prada megastore made my jaw drop with its two sleek levels and its giant screen displaying video footage of the Luna Rossa sailboat that competed in last year’s America’s Cup. It was surreal to see the San Francisco Bay on this large screen so far from home.
I could go on about shopping Italian style, but instead I will leave you with a final reminder that we aren’t in Kansas anymore. After my long morning at The Mall I was ready to grab a late lunch at its refined version of a food court. Nevermind France’s risque commercials or Greece’s topless beaches. Only in Italy would a mall cafeteria display Robin Thicke’s somewhat offensive and certainly adult-oriented “Blurred Lines” video on the big screen. No one even seemed to notice.
Viva Italia! And long live shopping.