Have you ever seen the movie Under the Tuscan Sun? Isn’t it amazing?! Under the Tuscan Sun is one of my favorite movies and it’s probably one of the main reasons I was dying to visit Italy. Florence is a magical Renaissance city not to be missed on any Italian vacation, but Tuscany is where my heart lies. Okay, maybe my heart really just loves wine…
Tuscany is located in the central region of Italy on the west coast of the Mediterranean. Tuscany is famous for its landscapes, traditions, culture, history, and amazing food and wine. Agriculture is still thriving in Tuscany with its numerous vineyards producing olives and wine. The Tuscan valley is the birthplace of Chianti, a red wine made by a mix of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Malvasia bianca grapes. During the summer months you can see fields of sunflowers growing amongst the rolling hills with the Mediterranean and mountains in the distance. Florence is the capital of Tuscany and the most visited city in the region, but the small cities and towns of Tuscany should not be missed either. Luckily many towns and villages are just a short train ride from Florence and make excellent day trips.
The Best Day Trips From Florence, Italy
Pisa is famous for its Leaning Tower and is one of the most visited cities in the region. It’s only a quick train ride or an hour drive from Florence. Most people come to Pisa for its tower, but it’s more than that. Pisa has many beautiful churches and museums that are worth the visit too. Pisa was first settled in about 5th century BC with its golden age during the 12th and 13th century when it was maritime power due to its location between the Arno and Serchio rivers. During the Renaissance period the arts and sciences flourish and Galileo Galilei even taught at the University of Pisa.
The most popular site in Pisa is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You’ll see hundreds of tourists taking the cliché picture of holding the tower up. Construction of the tower began in 1173. The tower started tilting after three of the seven tiers were completed and the tilting continues today at about a rate of 1mm per year. In 1990, the Italians decided that after the tower reached a critical point of 5.5 degrees, added a more stable foundation and footing to the tower to ensure the tower lasts for many more years. The tower can be climbed, but is limited to groups of 40 at a time. Long lines can form so it’s best to book tickets ahead of time. A ticket to the Leaning Tower costs about €15 for an adult. Next to the Leaning Tower is the Duomo (cathedral) and baptistery. Most people just visit the tower, but the cathedral is worth the visit as well. Tickets to the Duomo are separate from the tower, but a lot cheaper at €2.
Other sites worth visiting include:
- Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knight’s Square) – The Palazzo della Carovana located in the square contains a beautiful facade designed by Giorgio Vasari
- Santa Maria della Spina – A small white marble church located along the Arno River and is a fine excellent of Gothic building
- Museo dell’Opera del Duomo – A small museum that contains a mixture of sculptures and paintings by Nicola Pisano and Giovanni Pisano.
Cortona was one of my favorite stops on my Italy trip. It was where the movie Under the Tuscan Sun was filmed. I had high expectations for the village and every single one of them were blown away the second we got off the train. Cortona is a small medieval town located on a hillside surrounded by the fertile valleys. In order to get from the train station to the old town on the hill, you have to take a crazy bus ride up the steep switch backs to the top where you emerge into a different time period. The town is filled with classic medieval architecture. The streets are narrow and cobblestone. And the locals friendly. You could easily spend an afternoon getting lost in every nook and cranny of Cortona.
Sites to see in Cortona:
- Fortress of Girifalco – On the top of the hill a fortress dating back to 1556 still stands. It’s a bit of a hike, but the views from the top are amazing. The fortress was built by the grand duke of Tuscany in 1556 for defense, although it was never really needed. Today it is home to a small museum.
- Santa Maria del Calcinaio – Cortona is home to many churches, but Santa Maria del Calcinaio is one of the finest examples of a Renaissance church in Tuscany. The church dates back to the 15th century and was the church of the guild of shoe makers.
- Museo Diocesano – Museo Diocesano is a small museum of 9 exhibition rooms where works of art date by from 2nd century AD all the way to modern art.
On the train home from Pisa, my friends and I randomly decided to hop off the train in Lucca and boy were we glad we did. Lucca was a giant surprise and I quickly fell in love with the charming little town. The highlight of the town is the tree-lined city wall that you can walk around and get great views of the Renaissance city. Lucca has many churches, palaces, and museums that are all worth a visit in their own right. The charming little town that often captures the unsuspected hearts of many, can easily be explored by foot or bike. The old town confined by the city walls is home to numerous historic cafes and restaurants serving fresh local dishes and its own Lucchesi wine. The outer town of Lucca is surrounded by hills that are begging to be hiked and explored.
Sites to explore in Lucca:
- The City Walls – Lucca’s city wall was built in the 16th and 17th century and still stands in almost perfect condition today. The wall is about 12 meters high and 4 kilometers long with wide tree-lined walking and biking path that is often crowded with locals and tourists alike enjoying the fresh Tuscan air.
- San Michele in Foro – San Michele in Foro is arguably the most beautiful church in Lucca. It has a simple and muted interior, but its exterior façade is perhaps one of the most intricate designs in all of Italy. The church building marks the spot where the city’s Roman forum was once held. It is located in Piazza San Michele.
- Cattedrale di San Martino – Cattedrale di San Martino is another one of Lucca’s beautiful churches and this Romanesque church dates back to the 11th century. The interior of the church was built later in the 14th and 15th century in the Gothic style. Works on art by Niocla Pisano and Jacopo della Quercia can be seen inside the church. Entrance into the cathedral and museum cost €3 while the bell tower and archaeological sites cost an additional €7.
- Palazzo Mansi – Palazzo Mansi was built by a wealthy merchant in the 16th century. The rooms are extravagantly decorated rococo rooms and draped head to toe in tapestries, paintings, and chintz. Admission is €4 for adults.
For centuries Siena has been Florence’s rival for economical and political power and it still is in terms of visitors. I unfortunately did not get a chance to visit Siena while I was in Italy, but because it is a popular destination I wanted to include the city on the list of best day trips from Florence. Siena is a medieval city and is often more appealing than its rival Renaissance city of Florence. It is more intimate and its historic center is declared a UNESCO Heritage Site. A bus or train ride from Florence to Siena takes less than an hour so it makes the trip more appealing. The most popular site in Siena is its cathedral. The Siena Cathedral was built in the 12th century in the Romanesque-Gothic architecture style. The interior of the cathedral is extremely rich and beautiful. Of particular note are the inlaid marble pavement, Nicola Pisano’s pulpit with lion pedestals and biblical bas-relief panels, and the Piccolomini altar, partly sculpted by Michelangelo. The bell tower can be climbed for stunning views of the city.
Other sites to see in Siena:
- Piazza del Campo – The Campo is Siena’s heart and one of Italy’s greatest city squares. It is known around the world for its beauty and medieval architecture. Twice a year, the famous Palio di Siena horse race is held around the edges of the square.
- Palazzo Pubblico – The Palazzo Pubblico is Siena’s town hall and home to the Museo Civico. It’s construction began in the 13th century and its original purpose was the house the Republican government. Nearly every room in the building contains frescoes, including several from Simone Martini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
- Torre del Mangia – Next to the Palazzo Pubblico is the famous 503 steps tower that gives amazing views of the city from above. The tower was built between 1338-1348 and was built to be the same height has the Siena Cathedral to show that the church and state had equal power.
Tuscany is a beautiful region of Italy and there are many other small deserving towns and villages that should be explored. If you have more time in the region, rent a villa or take a cycling tour of the region. I know when I go back to Tuscany someday I want to do a cycling and wine tour of the region. So sit back, grab a glass of Chianti wine and enjoy the fresh air and sunflowers.
Have you been to Tuscany? What are your favorite towns?