Money & costs
You are not expected to tip on top of restaurant service charges, but it is common to leave a small amount, say €1 a person. If there is no service charge, the customer might consider leaving a 10% tip. In bars, Italians often leave any small change as a tip, often only five or 10 cents. Tipping taxi drivers is not common practice, but you should tip the porter at higher-class hotels.
Bargaining is common in flea markets, but not in shops – although you might find that the proprietor is disposed to giving a discount if you are spending a reasonable amount of money. It’s quite acceptable to ask if there is a special price for a room in a pensione or hotel if you plan to stay for more than a few days.
In 1189 Florence gave the world the silver florin (fiorino), and much later double-entry book-keeping and the cheque. From medieval times Florentines were considered the masters of international commerce.
Nowadays Florence and its province form a relatively prosperous part of Italy, albeit with some concerns about the future. Figures differ, but tourism accounts for about 30% of the city’s wealth, and industry 27%. Florence is typical of Italy in that the bulk of activity is in the hands of small businesses. On a grander scale, the troubled US multinational General Electric (whose European base is in Florence) runs the Pignone machinery plants, which turn out turbines and related equipment. Chemicals and pharmaceuticals are also present, with Boehringer choosing Florence to set up a new plant in the early 2000s.
Textiles and fashion are important in Florence and adjacent Prato. Of the 105, 000 people employed in industry in Florence, a third are in this sector, which is now under threat from tough competition from cheap Chinese imports.
Although still embryonic, as many as 4000 small firms, mostly in the city’s west, are dedicated to hi-tech ventures. In Sesto Fiorentino, the Polo Scientifico is the city’s research nerve centre. It includes the Centro Nazionale per le Ricerche (CNR, or National Research Centre) and several specialised research centres (including the European Magnetic Resonance Centre).
Although Italy’s sluggish economy has created a sense of crisis in Florence, things are not so bad. Officially, unemployment is at 4.2%, well below the national average of 9.5% (and figures in excess of 20% for much of the country’s south).
As in 11 other EU nations, Italy’s currency is the euro.
You can exchange money in banks, at post offices or in currency exchange booths (bureaux de change). Banks are the most reliable option and tend to offer the best rates. You should look around and ask about commissions, which can fluctuate considerably. There are plenty of banks throughout the city centre. Check commissions at bureaux de change, which can be as high as 10%.
American Express (055 5 09 81; Via Dante Alighieri 22/r; 9am-5.30pm Mon-Fri, 9am-12.30pm Sat)
Travelex(055 28 97 81; Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli 6/r; 9am-6pm Mon-Sat, 9.30am-5pm Sun)
These are a safe way of carrying your money because they can be replaced if lost or stolen. It is, however, generally more practical to use plastic. If you wish to use cheques, Travelex, Amex and Visa are widely accepted brands.
Keep your initial receipt, along with a record of your cheque numbers and the ones you have used, separate from the cheques themselves. Take your passport when you go to cash travellers cheques. For lost or stolen cheques, call these toll-free numbers:
Amex (800 72 000)
MasterCard (800 870 866)
Travelex (800 335 511)
Visa (800 874 155)
Tax & refunds
A value-added tax (Imposta di Valore Aggiunto or IVA; VAT in English) of up to 20% is slapped onto just about everything in Italy.
Tourists who are resident outside the EU may claim a refund on this tax if they spend €155 or more in the same shop on the same day. The refund applies only to items purchased at retail outlets affiliated to the system – these shops display a ‘tax-free for tourists’ sign, or something similar. If you don’t see a sign, ask the shopkeeper. You must fill out a form at the point of purchase and have it stamped and checked by Italian customs when you leave the country (you will need to show the receipt and purchases). At major airports and some border crossings, you can then get an immediate cash refund at specially marked booths; alternatively, return the form by mail to the vendor, who will make the refund, either by cheque or onto your credit card.