Note: post updated April, 2013
As a very wise sage once said,
“Let’s get some shoes.”
When it comes to getting shoes in Florence, or in Italy in general, you’re in pretty good hands. People ask me where to go and I can’t seem to narrow it down to just one place. There are so many stores and so much variety of shoes that it helps to first know what you’re looking for (impossible task, I know). Sandals? Heels? Shoes? Boots? Color? Material? The last ones is easy…leather! However, regardless of what you have in mind, here are a couple tips that can help you go home with the best pair of shoes at the best price.
For some, timing is key. Italian stores are required by law to have two sales per year. Not just on slow moving merchandise, we’re talking the whole store. Everything. These national sales go on for an entire month and can mark regular items down by as much as 70% (if you wait long enough). The summer sales go on during July, while winter sales take place in January. If you can wait it out, hitting these sales (called saldi in Italian) can save you a pretty penny on a perfectly lovely pair of shoes. This is particularly nice if you are in the market for a pair of boots, which can cost a bit if you want the real-deal, genuine leather stuff. If you are picky or have something very specific in mind either 1. Go early to the sales to ensure that the shoes in your size are not all gone or 2. Skip the sales since it may just drive you made trying to find exactly what you’re looking for in the all the ensuing mayhem.
Remember, you have so many options when it comes to buying shoes in Florence. Some places are more reliable than others. I have had my very favorite pair Italian sandals for over four years now. They have not survived this long because I never wear them. On the contrary, I have worn them all over Italy and the States. During the summer months we’re talking every day and up to twelve hours a day (on the cobblestone streets of Europe). The best part is you’d never know. They are made the good old-fashioned way: by hand (oh, and with love).
Before that pair, I naively I bought some sandals from one of the stores (more like warehouses) around the San Lorenzo market. When they broke a week later and I tried to take them back, the storeowner basically laughed at me. Word to the wise, if you go to one of these “cheap” shoe places, look them in the eye and ask what happens if they break. If they don’t promise to fix them (something that is pretty easy to do with most leather sandals), walk out.
When I bought my four-year long pair, I went to a much nicer (aka, slightly more expensive) store located on one of the main shopping drags of the city, called Sabatini (Borgo degli Albizi, 75r, see map below). The man who owns it told me that while he rarely has any problems with his shoes, I could bring the sandals back if they broke. I asked him how long that offer would be good and he didn’t understand the question. Because he meant FOREVER. And of course, I never needed to go back. It wasn’t until their 3rd year of life that the little leather straps had worn so thin that they would occasionally break off. It was an easy fix; one-minute and two euros later at the cobbler and they were good as new (see map below for my favorite cobbler in Florence). I went back to Sabatini this past summer and showed the owner my pride and joy, but he didn’t seem that surprised. I think that is a good sign.
For some of you, going to a typical shoe store where the shoes are lined up in a row and either they have what you want or they don’t, is easier (otherwise the options can be overwhelming!). However, for those of you who want 100% control of what your shoes will look like, why not consider getting a pair of custom shoes made. Sound crazy? It’s not.
My most recent pair was purchased from a very friendly Florentine at his store known as “Francesco da Firenze,” on the other side of Ponte alla Carraia (Via Santo Spirito 62r, see map below). His little shop window is full of various pairs of sandals that are hard (if not, impossible) to find anywhere else. When you go in, you can just point at the ones you like and order them in your size. Or, if you fancy a particular design, make a custom order. Want a different heel? Want a different color leather? Want to combine two designs? Why not turn that sandal into a shoe? Whatever you want, he can do it. In fact, he measures you right then and there and your new shoes are ready within a day or two. Amazingly, as long as it is not a highly unusual shoe (or size), there is no obligation to buy. In most cases he can simply put it in his store window until someone comes a long that does love them. Best of all, for those of us with slightly different feet (long, narrow, wide etc.) he can modify his designs to accommodate you! This is a real plus for those who never find shoes that fit properly and justifies the slightly higher prices (65-85 Euro vs. 45-65 Euro at some no-name place in the market).
To top it off, Francesco is super friendly. The last time I went to him, he showed me his studio with all the amazing cobbler tools and even had an intern from Japan learning the trade! He works very traditional Italian hours (9–12 and 3:30–7) and usually has either a young woman there to help or his son who also makes shoes. While Francesco’s Florentine accent can be a little hard to understand (even for those of us who speak Italian), his son is easy to understand. Don’t speak any Italian? Not to worry. They make it work. Just come with your European shoe size in hand and they will help you.
Yea. It’s basically a shoe dream come true.
3. What (is it?)
If you do find your dream pair of shoes (or boots or sandals) and you’re nervous they are not the real deal or perhaps just not sure what pitfalls to look out for when it comes to spending that much money on footwear, here are some leather tips to keep in mind.
•How to tell if it is real leather:
a. Look, touch, and smell: If it’s real leather, it means it’s real skin. It will look like skin and have texture, but also be very soft to the touch. If it is pleather, it will either smell like nothing or have a distinct plastic smell.
b. Check behind. If you can see the back of the leather take a look. Real leather has a suede backside
c. Stamp. Most items that are genuine leather have to say so. Ask to see the stamp.
d. The Flame test. When in contact with fire, pleather will ignite and give off a plastic smell. Real leather will melt, but will not ignite, and give of a very different smell. The salesmen in the market have a great deal of fun demonstrating this trick. (Do not try it at home!)
e. The scratch test. Another trick the vendors like to use is the scratch test. Should you run your fingernail along the leather leaving a mark, real leather is easily restored to new by simply rubbing the scratch it with your finger.
•Miscellaneous things to keep in mind when buying leather shoes:
a. Quality. Buying leather shoes is not the same as buying a leather jacket. The wear and tear on your feet through cobblestone streets for hours at a time simply puts much more strain on the material. Make sure your shoes will pass the test. Soft leather can be lovely, but if you are a big walker, then those shoes may not keep up with you for very long.
b. Fit. Leather will give, but it won’t give for miles. If it pinches now, chances are it will pinch later. Get the size that fits you or you’ll never wear them!
c. “Fixability.” This is a made-up word, but it is important. Are those leather shoes so fancy (or cheap) in their construction that you won’t be able to get them fixed? The ideal is for these shoes to last a long, long time. You will probably have to resole them at least once. Make sure the cobbler doesn’t shake his head at you when he sees what you have brought him to salvage.
•Once you know you have the real thing and you bring it home, here are some key tips for taking care of leather:
a. Try to avoid wearing them in the rain or, at the very least, waterproof the crap out of them.
b. Keep them away from extreme heat or extreme cold (I had a pair I left by a heater for a whole winter and they literally dried up and cracked away. It was very sad).
c. Keep them clean! You can do this by using soapy water and a cloth and afterwards applying saddle soap, which is a kind of a conditioner.
d. Certain kinds of leather can also be treated with regular body lotion – keep it simple though, just basic moisturizer will do the trick. Remember – it’s skin, so teat it as you treat your own!
3. Who (else)
Here are some of my favorite (legit) shoe stores in Florence:
Address: Borgo degli Albizi, 50122 Florence, Italy
Phone:+39 055 234 0240
Francesco da Firenze
Address: Via Santo Spirito 62R, 50125 Florence, Italy
Phone:+39 055 212 428
Antica Cuoieria Calzature
Address: Via del Corso, 48, Florence, Province of Florence, Italy
Phone:+39 055 238 1653
Calzolaio dal 1948
Via de’ Ginori, 14r
See below for a map of the three shoe stores listed above and my favorite cobbler in Florence:
View Florence shoe shopping/fixing in a larger map