Home Away From Home: My Little Florence Apartment.
The plaster of the walls was cracked, and the stairs, though cement, felt ancient beneath my boots. I’d managed to find the switch for the stairwell’s light and crept hastily past the door at the bottom, which was now slightly ajar to reveal the nighttime blackness of the building’s crumbling bowels. Had that been open when I left? Fumbling with the ring of keys, I found the one for the door to my apartment, stumbled inside, locked everything behind me, and felt it.
I’m one of those people who can pretty much fall asleep anywhere.
That probably makes you want to punch me.
But rest-assured that when it comes to staying asleep, we’re dealing with a whole different animal.
Aside from when I was a pot-bellied toddler who could apparently roll off and under the bed without realizing it — oh, and also that one time with my head in the toilet back in college — staying in a deep, non-location-dependent sleep has never been my strong suit. And as I get older, I’ve noticed my requirements becoming more stringent:
- I have to be warm. If it’s a cold room (or outdoors), this means I need lots — and lots — of blankets.
- Silence. I need silence.
- My pillow has to be soft. I’m a side/back sleeper, so any pillow that props my head up too high or is so hard that my ear turns red is a no-go.
- But my mattress can’t be too soft — this leads to backaches.
- Some sofas are acceptable, but with most I have the issue of rolling back into the crevasse between the butt cushions and the back rest, and I don’t do well in confined spaces. So yes. Usually there has to be a mattress.
- I have to feel safe. If I’m alone, this means heavy locks and quiet neighborhoods. If I’m in a hostel-type situation (which has become less-and-less likely as I become more-and-more crotchety), I have to get a good vibe from the group.
Of course, I kept all of these things in mind when booking my stays in Italy.
My beds don’t *all* have to look like my bed at the Aia Mattonata in Siena, but — you know — that situation didn’t hurt.
My Italy accommodations ran the gamut — from a 4-star luxury hotel, to cozy boutique inns, and even strangers’ guest bedrooms, I wanted to use this trip to really test my comfort zone and see what kind of sleeping arrangements would give me the best bang for my buck. (And if you’re looking for something beyond typical accommodations, check out my expat friend Diana’s post about some really cool alternatives.)
The thing is, at 32-years-old, the occasional upscale hostel is do-able, but flitting from a lumpy mattress in one town to a flat pillow with questionable stains in the next is like inviting the purple under-eye circles and lower back pain over for tea and crumpets and asking them to stay awhile.
You can’t put a price on under-eye circles, guys.
I knew that by the time I arrived in Florence, I’d be feeling a little homesick (and also a lot broke), so I decided to look into apartment rentals. This is something people rarely think to do when they’re staying somewhere short-term (I was only going to be in Florence for 3 nights), but it makes perfect sense for families who want to save a little money by cooking their own breakfasts or for solo travelers who — ahem — are tired of eating dinner alone in public.
The internet runs amok with international apartment rental websites, but I ultimately decided to reach out to one called FlipKey because of its association with TripAdvisor, which is a site I’ve been using to pre-judge restaurants and properties since I was old enough to say, “The filet was a tad overcooked.”
Also, it was just the easiest to use.
All I had to do was enter the city and search dates…
And it gave me a whole slew of options that I could filter from there.
My absolute FAVORITE search capability — one I’m not sure I’d ever try booking an apartment without — is the map function. I clicked on the map in my search results and could then filter by price, number of bedrooms, and other special options while visually narrowing in on the part of the city I wanted to be in.
I knew I wanted to stay in the vicinity of the Ponte Vecchio, yet still within reasonable walking distance to my tour meet-up locations, and even the train station if it wasn’t possible to hail an early morning cab on my departure day. (It wasn’t.) And this map search function allowed me to ensure my location with the utmost ease.
It is, sincerely, the best (and in my opinion most necessary) search capability for an apartment booking site to have, and yet not all of them do — at least not one that’s so easily accessible and clickable.
Online vs. Reality
The biggest concern people usually have with booking something online like this is whether the website photos realistically represent the real deal. It would be pretty awful to show up somewhere and realize it’s far worse than advertised. With my professional history of a real estate photographer, I already know to assume that a place that’s been professionally photographed is going to look lighter and brighter than it actually is. Aside from that, though, I have a low deception tolerance.
Click HERE to see the listing photos of where I stayed.
(They obviously used a professional photographer, and I didn’t ask permission to use the photos on my site.)
My Florence apartment in person:
As you can see, the representation was pretty spot-on. The apartment was obviously staged for the original photo shoot and the photographer used a wider lens, but I really don’t feel like the interior of the apartment was deceptively represented. Once inside, it felt homey, safe, and exactly how I expected.
The exterior, however, was another story.
Online, the photos made it look like the apartment is inside a gorgeous yellow building with dark wooden shutters and an entrance through a private courtyard. In reality, the apartment was inside the building between the gorgeous yellow building with the dark wooden shutters and another yellow building that’s under noisy construction.
And while it does have a lovely view of a peaceful private courtyard, there’s actually no way to access it. The actual entryway in the cement enclosure behind the security gate is far less glamorous:
There was a scary open door at the bottom of the stairwell that led beneath the unfinished part of the building:
And when it comes to the stairwell, I don’t think I exaggerated its creep factor. (My apartment is the door on the left.) The rest of the stairs led to what appeared to be a dead-end.
Now. None of these things were openly deceptive. The listing didn’t specifically say that the apartment had access to the courtyard or that there wasn’t noisy construction going on next door during the day. But these are the types of things to look out for when booking anything online — not just apartments.
Fortunately, my sunny courtyard view made up for the stairwell. Mostly.
The Bottom Line
Renting an apartment is the best way to live like a local. In a hotel or a hostel, you’re surrounded by other travelers. But when you stay in an apartment, most of the people you interact with actually live there. I felt more at home in my little apartment than I did in any of the hotels where I stayed. It was mine. Plus, I managed to save a little money by shopping at a local market and cooking for myself. (As a bonus, the apartment was already stocked with some basic seasoning ingredients and cooking oil.) And it turns out an Italian grocery store is the perfect place to pick up souvenirs.
My attempt at pasta al pomodoro.
That said, staying in an apartment by myself was pretty lonely. I know it’s an accommodation choice I’ll make again in the future, but I’ll likely only do it when I’m traveling with at least one other person.
What kinds of places have you stayed in on vacation?
Good to know:
- I would absolutely book an apartment through FlipKey again. In fact, now that I’ve seen how easy their search functionality is and the vast number of choices, I know this will be my go-to website for apartment rentals. They also have some really fantastic travel guides where you can find expert advice about various regions.
- The booking process was slightly confusing. Some properties can be booked through FlipKey, while others are booked directly from the owner or property management company. I booked mine from the FlipKey website, but ended up working directly with a company called Apartments Florence. We had a few language barriers to deal with, and even though I kept them up-to-date on my arrival time, the apartment was not ready by the time I arrived.
- Sometimes the nightly rate isn’t accurately represented — especially when booking directly from the owner/agency, so take note of extra fees that might be listed during the booking process.
- Other things to watch for: Does the apartment allow smoking? (ew.) Are there cleaning fees? What is the procedure for checking in/checking out? Is there a fee for an early or late check out?
- Most apartments should come with basic cooking utensils, dinnerware, dish soap, and other basic necessities; but it doesn’t hurt to verify this with the rental company before booking.
- Some rental companies offer a concierge service (cleaning, drivers, restaurant recommendations, etc.) for an extra charge.
Disclosure: FlipKey invited me to experience their service in exchange for writing a review. Rest assured that all opinions, as always, are completely my own.
Excellent post Katie! One does need to be aware that sometimes things online are not as they seem in reality, but looks like you made out well with that cute apartment. I’m hoping to do more traveling once my youngest is in college later this year, so thanks for the tips!
Overall, it was definitely a great place. The free bottle of wine they left me didn’t hurt. ;) (I’d highly recommend looking into apartment rentals wherever you go — hotels are fun, but apartments definitely give you an added sense of independence!)
I love this post! I totally agree that there is such a huge gap between the way a place is presented online and the reality. But you lucked out — that apartment is adorable, with so much character!
It really was this cozy little retreat! I was literally only 1 block from the river, and it was so cool to have that courtyard view (and the subsequent nighttime quiet, devoid of traffic) right in the middle of the city!
Okay that stairway would have totally creeped me out, what if you arrived in the evening? What a brave girl! The apartment looked lovely, but going between two buildings and that staircase…yikes!
Fortunately the space between the buildings was locked off from the street by a HUGE security gate. If not for that, this would’ve felt un-safe. But because I could lock a giant gate behind me (and there were entrances into both other buildings from that enclosure), it felt much better!
Roughing it in Florence. I like it. It shows a real commitment to adventure and travel despite stairwells. I also love the idea of trying to live like a local.
I’m sensing your sarcasm AND I LIKE IT. ;)
Good post Katie, you never really know what you’re getting when you book online. The important thing is location, location, location! As long as you feel safe, nearly anything is tolerable!
I’ll admit I was looking over my shoulder right up until I got inside (except in the stairwell because I was worried about ghosts), but I definitely felt safe there. :)
Very true! It was amazing being within walking distance to so many great restaurants and less than a block from the Arno!
So much great information here. That stairwell would creep me out, too. Just part of the adventure of travel, I guess!
haha yeah i’m becoming more and more pickier with where i stay now that i’m in my 30s. i don’t think it’s worth it to save a buck or two if you’re sacrificing good sleep.. or a good time. :P i always have to have a flat but soft pillow.. and i cannot do scratchy or velvety feeling blankets. something about them really bug me. :) i’m the worst at falling asleep.. but i usually do okay staying asleep. waking up is very hard.. every morning. haha
Ooh, scratchy blankets — that’s a good one I forgot to add. And you know, I used to be able to get up no problem, but that’s getting a lot harder, too! Sleep is good. :)
[…] grapes. But I’d arrived via bus in Florence earlier that day, and after a lazy siesta in my adorable apartment, it took all of my energy to walk a couple of blocks to the Walkabout Tours […]