During my first few weeks studying abroad in Florence, I blindly adopted the trend of following an abroad food guide to determine which restaurants I'd explore and which foods I'd eat. Before my arrival, I was intrigued by the influx of lists I'd received and the way previous students found their favorite destinations, making the food abroad seem simultaneously homey and enchanting. The guides even shared alluring titles: The Abroad Bible, The Ultimate Florence Food Guide, Florence Grubs and Italy Eats. But eventually I realized that the various "helpful" food guides from previous study abroad students were in fact hindering my food experiences. 

What's the problem?

Though exciting, these guides proved one thing: the study abroad student food culture is defined by those who have come before us — our wise and worldly elders — and shall be repeated year after year with an updated list of Florence food suggestions. A compilation of these guides navigated my conception of food in Florence, and left me little room for my own exploration and discovery. While I appreciated the descriptions and excitement, I found that the guides ultimately acted as abroad barriers.

What is in an abroad guide?

Arielle Simon

Abroad guides typically begin with "professional" tips, such as not to order cappuccinos after 12 p.m. (barrier), not to tip waiters because the service charge covers that (barrier) and not to ask for to-go boxes because Italians think it's rude if you don't finish a meal (barrier). Abroad guides then lay out organized lists of distinct meal groups, detailing the exact restaurants to go to for breakfast, lunch, aperitivo, dinner and gelato (barrier, again). Each restaurant description explains the brilliance behind the meal, what to order, which nights to go and which waiter to befriend to get a free limoncello (too many barriers to keep track).

What's wrong with a little help?

These guides are a novelty to me. What if I pass by the cutest coffee shop at 3 p.m. craving a cappuccino? Am I prohibited from going inside and ordering one? I didn't make game-time decisions (where I could've possibly had the best cappuccino of my life) in fear of going against the norm laid out in my guide. Each study abroad student consistently follows their guides almost competitively to be the first one to try each place. All day long students are thinking about which food destination to hit next.

Lessons I learned

Arielle Simon

In retrospect, I realized letting word documents dictate the abroad food culture is not the best way to become immersed within the Italian culture (or any other abroad destination). I wanted to find local restaurants that I had never heard of or read about, walk inside, choose my meal and rave about my experience later. I wanted to walk into a restaurant and not find 20 other American students proudly following their food guides, but a room full of Italians. I didn't want to feel like I made a huge mistake if I decided not to order the vodka sauce rigatoni.

How to keep your options open

Arielle Simon

Studying abroad is about acclimating to a new culture, particularly the food within that culture, and individually placing yourself. In fact, the place I felt happiest was at a little café, which didn't appear on any of my lists, located directly underneath my apartment. Though initially skeptical of the mystery, I found my favorite destination. Personal scavenging allows for the true abroad food experience. Follow your instincts; if you feel naturally enamored by a storefront, then don't be afraid to walk in. 

My advice

Arielle Simon

I will say, though, I did have incredible meals that came straight from the lists. Our elders weren't entirely incorrect; I just advise allowing originality behind food decisions when studying abroad.

On that note, I will leave you with a little food for thought: food exploration brings authentic experiences to all, so whether you're studying abroad or just reading this for fun, that little restaurant near your home is probably just as good, if not better, than the restaurant constantly being circled around in conversation.