Three friends and I are going to Florence in the late fall, just toward the end of the tourist season. In the past I have stayed in hotels and apartments but because there are four of us and because we will be there a little longer we decided to find a villa in or near Florence. Florence is the largest city in the region known as Tuscany.
Hotel vs. Villa
We had several reasons for renting a villa rather than a hotel. The main reason is that we will be there for more than a week and we found that it is cheaper to stay in a rental than a hotel for that period of time. Everyone we contacted was willing to give us a deal for a longer stay. Many villa rentals require at least a one week stay. Since we will exceed that by a few days we got a discount.
Another consideration was the size and personality of our group. Having four people meant we would have to get two hotel rooms. We really wanted to be able to sit around and socialize in the evening in the quiet of our own space. We are all very independent so having our own rooms was a definite selling point for any place we booked.
Another factor in renting rather than staying in a hotel is that we all like to cook and we think it will be fun to go to a market to pick out ingredients and then cook a few meals at home. Not only do we like to cook but we like to drink wine. Having our own space means that both cooking and drinking will be cheaper.
The downside of renting is that we won’t have maid service, we will have to shop for necessities and will not have access to help 24/7 as you would in most hotels.
Finding a Villa Near Florence
At first we were going to find a villa in the Tuscan countryside, thinking that it would be more relaxing and provide us with more options to tour some small Tuscan hill towns. Our primary requirement was that there had to be a train station either within walking distance or a short drive from our villa. We had this requirement because we knew we would be tired after long days of sight seeing and we knew we would be drinking wine. Italy, like most of Europe has very strict drinking and driving laws and spending time in an Italian jail is not on our agenda.
This proved more difficult than you would have thought. We spent an entire afternoon Googling most of the popular and a number of the less popular rental websites including VRBO and Airbnb.
To determine if a town had a train station we used the Trenitalia website using the town where the villa was located as the departing station and Florence as the arrival station. We knew we wanted to spend at least three days sight seeing in Florence so having easy access was important. We soon realized that if we booked a villa outside of Florence we would have to reconcile ourselves to driving more than we would like, taking a bus more than we would like or using a driver which were open to but weren’t sure we wanted to be that scheduled. All of us want to be able to change our daily itineraries depending on weather and things that come up at the last minute that we may find interesting. Plus we have all made clear to each other many times that we do not feel the need to do everything as a group. In other words we wanted flexibility and independence.
I have a number of friends who have stayed in villas in the Tuscan countryside and had a wonderful time, but they were as interested in spending time around a pool as in touring. Flying 8 or 9 hours to sit around a pool in Tuscany was not our goal.
Villas in Florence
We finally decided that our best option was to book something in Florence. Having been to Florence a half dozen times I felt like I knew the city well enough to know generally where we should stay. For example, when someone told us their rental property was close to Piazzale Michelangelo I knew enough to ask if it was at the top of the steps or at the bottom of the steps. None of us wanted to traipse up and down the hundred or so steps to and from Piazzale Michelangelo a couple of times a day.
The primary reason for staying in Florence is transportation. We decided it would be easier to stay in Florence and take the train to places we may want to visit rather than staying outside the city and relying on trains to get us into Florence. Several in our group want to take a day trip to Venice which is a lot easier to do from Florence than one of the smaller towns.
Why We Chose The Villa We Chose
To start with the proprietor was very responsive to our inquiries and very helpful at least in our email correspondence. Yes, this is his business but not everyone was as responsive or helpful in answering our questions. We especially appreciated that he answered questions not directly related to his property. Customer service counts.
The villa is on the “other side” of the Arno so we will have to walk across the bridge to get to the historic center of Florence, but it also means that tourists will have to cross the bridge to get to us. Although we are going at the end of the tourist season Florence will still be crowded and noisy so being a little out of the way will be welcome.
The villa we are renting is the right size with the right number of rooms, beds, and bathrooms. It has a fully equipped kitchen, air conditioning, WiFi, etc. all for the right price. I think it work out well but I don’t expect it to be perfect. Remember, you will enjoy your trip even when not everything is perfect.
Ask The Following Questions Before Deciding on a Villa:
- Do you need air conditioning? If you are an American visiting Tuscany in the summer you will need air conditioning because it is very hot and you want a real, working air conditioner. Not all villas have air conditioning and even fewer have central air conditioning.
- Is there internet, if so is it WiFi? Maybe you want to escape the world and disconnect but keep in mind that this will mean that you can’t easily make reservations online, look for restaurants, get directions, use an Italian language translation tools, etc. Most of Italy is well connected but not all.
- Will the proprietors be on site? In our case we were told that the owners do not stay on site but that they do come by every now and then to check on things and to take care of the property. I view this as being the best of both worlds. I once rented an apartment in Venice with a couple of friends. We arrived late in the evening, picked up the key, got ourselves settled in and blew the main fuse within 15 minutes of arriving. It was just long enough for the rental office to close so there we sat for 12 hours without any electricity. So having someone stop by every now and then is not necessarily bad and having someone you can contact in an emergency is even better.
- Does everyone need their own bathroom? Many places have one full bath and one or two half baths meaning you are going to be waiting to take a shower. Outside of the bigger cities and towns water pressure can be less than what Americans are used to. Also, bathtubs without showers are not uncommon.
- How many steps are too many? If mobility is an issue always ask how many steps there are to get into a villa and how many steps there are inside the house. Not to mention steps to get to your villa. My sister and I once stayed in an apartment at the top of Riomaggiore in Cinque Terre and had to walk up and down at least 100 narrow steps every time we left and returned to our apartment.
- How far are you from the things you want to see? Maps can be deceiving. If you have specific places you want to go ask the property owner how best to get there, how long it will take and how far it is before you book your villa.
- Are you sure you want to cook, shop and do laundry on your vacation? Staying in an apartment or villa is not like staying in a hotel. For one thing you will have to shop for necessities that are often provided by a hotel. If in doubt ask. Will there be soap? Can they provide a cook? Is there a washing machine (maybe) and dryer (probably not, be prepared to hang your laundry outside). If the property does not provide anything you will have to be willing to shop so you need to ask: How far away is the nearest market?
- One bed, two beds, bunk beds? You can tell a lot from pictures but it is always worth asking about the beds. If you want a queen size bed, verify by asking in writing. Things may have changed since a picture was taken so a queen may now be a double or more likely two twins. Often Italians put together two twin mattresses and call it a queen. One of the rooms in the villa we are renting has bunk beds. We needed to make sure at least one of us was okay with that.
- Are there any extra fees? Frequently a rental property will charge a cleaning fee.
- How much needs to be paid up front? Most rentals require an up front payment and it is not always refundable or at least it is not all refundable.
- Are there property reviews available? Always, always, look for reviews from previous tenants. Reviews can be hit or miss but you know what is important to you. If reviewers complain about noise and you are a light sleeper then this is something to consider. If you are traveling with small children and a reviewer comments that the property is not kid friendly then you need to believe them. On the other hand if you will be traveling with all adults you don’t care that a property is not kid friendly.
- What about the pictures? Be wary of pictures. Sure pictures are useful. You can get an idea of how may beds there are, how big bathrooms are, whether a place is sunny or dark, or if there are enough comfortable seats, etc. But you don’t know how old the pictures are and of course these days photos can be enhanced on even the most basic phone. So a picture is not always worth a thousand words. If it is important to you ask!