With so many tours of Italy offered, you may need a day or two to realize what an amazing province Tuscany is. To sum up its featured attractions is to include its mountainous landscapes, its architecture, its fascinating medieval hill towns, and its coastline – among many other attributes. “Tuscany has to be experienced and explored first-hand. Even if you hear about other people’s experiences, Tuscany is something you have to see with your own eyes.” These words from the local tourist board sum up my feelings. Not only is it beautiful, Tuscany is special enough to warrant having 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The heart and soul of Tuscany is the city of Florence. If you have limited time, certainly use Florence as a base for exploring Tuscany. You will obviously want to absorb some of the culture and history here before setting out to explore the rest of the region. Florence is known as the Cradle of the Renaissance, with its riches to be found in its art galleries and museums. The city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The focal point of the city has to be the Duomo, Florence’s superb cathedral. Admire the structure in itself and don’t miss the doors of the Baptistery of Saint John in the Piazza del Duomo, adjacent to the Duomo itself. They are a remarkable work of art and date back to between 1059 and 1129.
The outstanding Uffizi Gallery needs time to explore, and I highly recommend reserving your visit online to avoid the long lines. Also consider the Pitti Palace and the Galleria dell’Accademia – the latter being home to Michelangelo’s iconic Statue of David. There are many other art institutions in Florence which time doesn’t allow me to mention. A subject for another time.
One highlight on your many tours of Italy include two different excursions which will enhance your time in Florence. One is to take the local bus to the Piazzale Michelangelo, about a 15 minute journey. You will find yourself looking down from the top of a hill, which overlooks the red roofs of the city, and enjoying amazing panoramic views of Florence and the surrounding area. You might even consider walking up or down. The other excursion is to again take a local bus, but further out of the city to the small town of Fiesole. The journey this time is about half an hour. Once there, you will be rewarded not only with wonderful views again of the skyline of Florence, but also of the beautiful surrounding countryside. Fiesole was an Etruscan settlement and has some interesting archaeological sites.
My last suggestion for Florence is to walk from the Duomo side of the city over the always crowded Ponte Vecchio, stopping in the middle and taking in the views of both banks of the Arno River, and then exploring the narrow streets on the other bank. There is a maze of streets which will reveal some charming less crowded areas of Florence and, with luck, you may finish up in the Piazza Santo Spirito, a lively square lined with cafes, bars, and small boutiques where the locals congregate as well as visitors in the know.
If you only visit one other city in Tuscany, make it Siena, to the south of Florence. It is one of the most beautiful and charming cities you’ll find on your tours of Italy. It is a medieval city which has preserved its heritage. Here you can wander through the old narrow streets and feel you have truly stepped back in time. The centre of Siena is the Piazza del Campo, once a Roman forum somewhat circular in shape with a ring of medieval style buildings on its outer rim. You can absorb the beauty of the piazza at one of the many cafes around the perimetre, while taking in buildings such as the Palazzo Pubblico and its tower, Torre del Mangia. An important Siena landmark is the cathedral in the nearby Piazza del Duomo. It was constructed in 1215 and is a simply magnificent structure. The interior is truly stunning. The floor is inlaid with 56 panels depicting historical and biblical scenes provided by around 40 different artists.
If you happen to be enjoying your tours in Italy in either July or August, your visit to Siena may coincide with Il Palio. This is a very special and colourful event which takes place only twice a year. The pageant starts with a horse race around the Piazza del Campo. This is a horse race like no other. It is a contest between 10 of the 17 Contrades (central districts/neighbourhoods) of Siena, with a rider and horse participating and representing each one. All citizens of Siena are affiliated with one of the Contrades. After the race, the winning horse, rider, and citizens of the Contrade celebrate by parading around the city for several days.
You, of course, are well aware of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, one of the most icon sites seen on tours of Italy, so if visiting this city, you will want to have your camera ready to photograph this unique structure. However, after this, what else? Well, you are already standing in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) which contains Pisa Cathedral, one of the most ornate and impressive cathedrals in the country – some say more so than the Duomo in Florence. The interior contains many special works of art. One more place to check out is the attractive Piazza del Cavalieri (Knights Square) which was the political centre of the city in medieval times and today retains many of the original buildings.
Beautiful Lucca is my third choice of city to be visited after Florence and Siena. The first thing you notice about Lucca is the city wall, which is in excellent shape considering its age. You can walk on the promenade on top of the wall all around the perimetre. You can check out the Roman amphitheatre in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro and the Lucca Cathedral with its marvelous Romanesque facade with arches and carved columns, and its tall campanile. Another site worth visiting is the Palazzo Pfanner, a beautiful 17th century palace with an ornamental pond, a lemon house, and 18th century statues of Greek gods. Summertime chamber music concerts hosted here are excellent.
Next up is San Gimignano, a pretty medieval walled town famous for its 14 beautiful towers which, as you approach the town, rise up like a medieval skyline. Once in town, the Piazza del Duomo is where you will find these thousand year old towers. The town’s 14 towers are all that remain of the original 72 which were owned by the rich. Most were torn down. While here, go to the San Gimignano 1300 Museum where you can learn about the architecture, social life, and history of Tuscany in the Middle Ages, together with a large reconstruction of the town of San Gimignano in the 13th and 14th centuries.
On tours of Italy, it’s sometimes forgotten that Tuscany is located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Its principal resort is Viareggio, located 80 kilometres/50 miles from Florence. It has a sandy beach which stretches 20 kilometres/12 miles and is sandwiched between two beautiful dense pine forests. There is certainly never a shortage of things to do in Viareggio, even if you only stroll along the promenade. Alongside the promenade are boutiques, shops, cafes, and art galleries. Every year in February and March, Viareggio holds its world-renowned Carnevale di Viareggio. It is held along the promenade for five weekends and visitors come from far and wide for this event.
Tuscany is one of the most famous wine regions in Europe. Its vineyards produce an array of internationally recognized wines. If you are interested in visiting wineries in the region, you can either take an organized tour available from Florence or Siena or simply drop into any of the various wineries dotted around the province. Well known brands found here include Chianti, Montepulciano, and Bruno di Montalcino. The main grape type is Sangiovese.
There are a number of other fascinating and small hill towns that exist in Tuscany almost too numerous to mention. If you do spend time in this enchanting province, on your various tours of Italy, you can easily discover them for yourself. However, the key factor is time, and in Tuscany, it will be time well spent.