Living in Florence: A local guide

Visiting Florence is the ultimate experience of cultural tourism, but moving there means it's time to put away conventional advice and guides

Feature by Ben Venables | 13 Jan 2017

Euphoria, palpitations and visions are symptomatic of Hyperkulturemia, the rare 'disorder' triggered by the close proximity of renaissance art. It's more commonly known as Stendhal Syndrome, after the 19th century French writer who recorded these feelings while staring at a Florence fresco. If great minds can collapse at the sight of a big painting, what chance do the rest of us have?

In Florence, it's easy to get carried away. Dante was born here, da Vinci scored his first job here and Galileo lived most of his life here. With Michelangelo and Botticelli on hand, works of art and sculpture that'd otherwise be star attractions tumble down the 'must see' list – a visitor in Florence has no choice but to skip through the renaissance's greatest hits.

To stay any longer means working out what it is you can do here that is actually of any use. This means the usual options for travellers rocking up with Empire levels of confidence have been exhausted. But let us not grow despondent. We may as well make full use of our current working rights and freedoms before they are rescinded.

The Gates of Paradise

In E.M. Forster's A Room With A View, Lucy Honeychurch is advised to put her Florence guidebook away. It's a chilling thought for anyone. Removing the stabilisers is a key part of Forster's machinations towards his protagonist but, as risky as it is for Lucy, we must have the confidence to do the same. To only glean an idea of, say, Lorenzo Ghiberti's la Porta del Paradiso from our erudite Rough Guide: Pocket Edition is to miss the point. It gives us perspective, and perspective encourages us to face reality. And, with this in mind you're ready for some bad news.

If you're a monoglot arriving in Florence, where bilingualism is common, while holding some belief your rent and expenses will be met through schooling the natives as an English teacher, then Florence is not for you.

In many places we're in the over-privileged position to have these options. But, Florence is a competitive city. Machiavelli himself wrote The Prince here – still the handbook on embracing our inner-ruthlessness and getting ahead of the pack nearly 500 years later. Stepping off the train armed with a teaching certificate it took just four weeks to obtain does not grant key worker status here. It just announces an ignorance the size of Brunelleschi's dome of where the gaps are in the local economy.

To be very frank, when the air cools in the early evening it becomes apparent Florence is home to many more dogs in want of regular exercise than it is of people needing an English lesson. The pedestrianised city centre transforms every Piazza into a walkies heaven. Bitter, bitter experience informs us few can sustain a lifestyle on dog walking alone, but advertising ourselves with competency in this area would at least demonstrate we're thinking about what skill-set we can bring to the table.

Tour Guiding with Assassins and Cannibals

Having put down the guidebook it may occur to you to turn the tables and become the guide. Tour guiding is a saturated market but not necessarily a stagnant one. Your expertise about the comings and goings of the di Medici family is unlikely to see you installed as the master guide at the Palazzo Vecchio on day one – absolutely nothing about this knowledge would stand out here. On the other hand, as Florence is a regular location for novels, films and video-games, there is sometimes room for new tours or fresh takes on existing ones.

Few would've foreseen how Assassin's Creed II has stylishly opened up Florence for fans who'd then visit the sites of the game's violent altercations and spur them to find out more about the real historical figures woven into the story. Since its release in 2009, a number of corresponding tours to meet this demand have sprouted to dissect the fact from the fiction. Your scholarly knowledge of the di Medici's loss of power to Savonarola would have suddenly become very valuable to tour operators.

Hannibal Lecter sparked enthusiastic visitors in the early 2000s. Thomas Harris' novel Hannibal and Ridley Scott's 2001 film adaptation were both arguably most successful for the memorable Florence sequences. After a pointless and then an unbearable prequel, the character's appeal lost some allure. However, the recent TV adaptation – the first half of season three filmed in Florence – has revived Lecter for a new generation of location tourists. Meat is back on the menu, as the 'Fannibals' say.

Tour guiding to popular tastes does all rely on being in the right place at the right time, and keeping an eye on the waxing and waning of fashions. Even with luck, an ability to navigate copyright issues, partner with local sites, hurdle the paperwork and vanquish rivals may also be needed. But a successful venture might end up becoming more than just a fun way to make ends meet, lengthening your stay and utility here.

Over the Arno

It's about time we crossed the River Arno. We'll do so via the Ponte Santa Trinita rather than the better known Ponte Vecchio and head straight into the bustle and narrower winding lanes of Oltrarno. There is gentirifcation around Piazza Santo Spirito capturing some of the tourist trade, but this area is still the beginnings of the side of Florence where people actually live.

Here it's rewarding to pay attention to unassuming buildings and not to walk past artisans of all kinds beavering away in their workshops. If you have craft experience – especially in that of art restoration, and also textiles, ceramics and jewellery (amongst others) – you may well already feel at home here. How easy it is to actually work here depends not just on a vacancy or your ability, but also creating a good first impression and perhaps securing a recommendation.

You do have an advantage in that this group of professionals are easy to meet and chat with – their workshops are normally open to the public. If you have diligently listened to Michel Thomas' Italian audio course you may still want to build on his firm scaffold a little longer before bursting into someone's workspace like the deranged embodiment of an unsolicited email. It's best to treat your first walks around this district as a recce. In the meantime read The Prince, although beware it's something of an upgrade from a seminar on networking and putting Machiavelli's suggestions into action is probably an activity best left for week two.

If there's a lot in this on finding work – or about an attitude towards finding work and taking chances – rather than recommending which Tuscan wine should go with which Tuscan dish and the like, it's because what is most important in Florence is finding out how you're going to stay for longer than a holiday. Once you've stumbled on this the rest will follow – and you won't feel a straniero for long.

Finding a Flat

The Florentine newspaper and services such as EasyStanza are good places to start when finding a room. A detailed search will soon reveal what's true for another city doesn't always hold in Florence. Take student areas and accommodation – it isn't necessarily cheaper than residential locales because many international students in Florence are extremely well-heeled with a budget set by what their parents can easily afford.

Do look outside of the old city walls, Florence is so compact all sense of what constitutes being out in the sticks has been lost. The area where AFC Fiorentina – the city's football team – play is just to the east of where many tourist maps end. Apart from on match days, Campo di Marte is considered a tranquil kind of place, but it is still only minutes from the historic city centre. You don't have to live out in the surrounding hills or commute from the Tuscan countryside to find somewhere affordable.

Back to our old friend Hannibal Lecter, he was fortunate to find live-in accommodation with his appointment as curator of the Capponi Library on Via de Bardi. However, it took the 'elimination' of the incumbent, a false identity as Dr Fell and the ability to translate medieval manuscripts to secure such arrangements. He put up with all this because he wasn't bored in Florence, having enough to engage him and keep his murderous impulses in check. Likewise, you must also be prepared to make sacrifices.

Beyond a flat share, rental contracts tend to be complicated and oblige a lengthy stay. Unlike Dr Lecter, you won't want to leave Florence in haste once your enemies catch up with you. Reneging on a rental deal will only create new foes and engulf you in an eternal bureaucractic nightmare.

Most contracts last for four years in Italy and require six months notice by both tenant and landlord. There are slightly more flexible ones about, and students or temporary workers might find themselves eligible for rentals spanning less than a year. However, these have less rights to renew and are dependent on student or working status.

If you are in Florence for the long haul, as a tenant you'll be expected to take on more of the running and upkeep costs for an apartment than would be common in the UK. Look out for service and maintenance charges. It is not unusual to find yourself responsible for plumbing and the drains, how eco-friendly the boiler is and if the communal stairs are clean.

But of course what is most crucial is to check if you are allowed a dog. If you work and live in an area like Oltrarno, walk a dog through the old centre and back to your apartment in the evening, then you can truly call Florence your home.