Tuscany: from Pisa to Chiantishire and everything in between

Siena garden and well

Tuscany in Central Italy is a popular destination for both Italians and foreigners who travel here to visit its famous Italian cities like Florence, Pisa and Siena to name just a few and to explore the countryside, with its rolling hills and the beaches facing the blue Tyrrhenian Sea. Pisa has an international airport with a number of low-cost airlines flying here from all over Europe so, it is probably a good option to start a visit to Tuscany from here.

Famous all over the world for The Leaning Tower, visitors to Pisa will find a compact city, with pedestrianized streets, bridges and churches including the beautiful Santa Maria della Spina on the banks of the river Arno.

It is a short and pleasant walk from Pisa railway station to Piazza dei Miracoli, where the Tower and other imposing monuments are located.

Before climbing to the top of The Leaning Tower or take the customary Instagram worthy photograph “supporting” it, it is worth visiting the other buildings on the square: the huge medieval cathedral, the Baptistery and the Camposanto, a walled cemetery considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world. When you are ready to climb to the top of the tower, join the queue to start the ascent through a narrow spiral staircase and admire the spectacular view of the square below and Pisa rooftops from the top.

In recent years the city walls have been restored and opened to the public for a small fee; built to defend the city from aggression a walk along the walls provides a different view of this beautiful city.

Pisa main sights can be visited in one day, either as a day trip from Florence, about an hour away by train or, at the beginning or at the end of a holiday to Tuscany.

City walls are a prominent features of many Italian cities and another example of how they have been integrated in the fabric of the city can be found in Lucca. Here the imposing bastions that were once defending the city have been transformed into a public park shared by walkers and cyclists and providing a focal point for socialising and enjoy the views.

The heart of Lucca is the spectacular Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, a public square where buildings are built around an elliptical shape on the site of the former amphitheatre with shops and restaurants enjoyed by both locals and tourists.

The narrow streets of Lucca are lined with old independent shops selling everything from delicious food to expensive jewellery.

Celebrated composer Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca and his house has now become the Puccini Museum, here there is the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the maestro and view the music scores of his famous operas like La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfly.

Like any other Italian city Lucca has a beautiful Cathedral (Cattedrale di San Martino) and although the city towers might not be as famous as the one in Pisa, for a bird’s eye view of the city it is worth climbing to the top of both the Clock Tower and the peculiar Guinigi Tower where the viewing terrace is adorned with beautiful trees which provide a respite from the summer heat and makes this Lucca’s landmark so unique.

Next stop on any itinerary to Tuscany should of course include the city of Florence. Set across the river Arno, with many bridges connecting both sides of the city, the most famous being Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) a medieval bridge with shops on it, as it was once common. To British visitors it will remind them of Pulteney Bridge in the city of Bath built in a similar style.

The areas around the bridge can get extremely crowded at times, so to escape from it all it is a short walk to Palazzo Pitti, a Renaissance palace once residence of the Medici family and the Boboli Gardens. Located at the back of the palace dotted with statues, fountains and grottos, it is one of the most famous and beautiful gardens in Italy.

Back in the city centre, many sights are concentrated in a small area centred around Piazza della Signoria. Starting from Santa Maria in Fiore, Florence Cathedral: a visit inside the church can be combined with the climb to the top of its dome; offering fantastic views of the city is an experience not to be missed.

The adjacent Giotto Campanile is a Florentine Gothic style marble tower, designed by Giotto and richly decorated with sculptures.

And next to it is the Baptistery of St.John; a Florentine Romanesque octagonal baptistery. Here, famous people like the Italian poet Dante Alighieri and most members of the Medici family, where baptized. Architecturally, the baptistery is famous for its three doors, decorated with bronze panels with relief sculptures on them.

Other buildings worth having a look at in the area are the town hall, Palazzo Vecchio on Piazza della Signoria. On this vast square a copy of Michelangelo’s David statue can be seen (the original can be viewed in the Accademia Gallery nearby).

On the corner of the square is the Loggia dei Lanzi a three arches building with a number of statues and nearby is Palazzo del Bargello, the site of the National Museum.

A short walk away the world’s famous Uffizi Museum housing a large number of priceless paintings and sculptures it is a must on a visit to Florence; like any other major museum in the world, it would take days to see everything on display here so some careful planning is needed.

Florence is a city of churches, too many to mention all but, firmly on the tourist map and not to be missed, are Santa Maria Novella near the railway station, Santa Croce, the burial site of Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli and Galileo Galilei, and the Medici Chapels, this is the mausoleum of the Medici family.

The church of San Miniato al Monte is reachable from Piazzale Michelangelo, a square overlooking Florence, offering probably the best views of the city.

A short bus ride away from Florence, the town of Fiesole provides even more views of the city and a welcome respite from the crowds, even if it can get quite busy in the summer months when, both locals and visitors, flock to the hills to escape the heat.

Fiesole was an Etruscan settlement later conquered by the Romans and the beautifully preserved Roman Theatre and Roman Baths can be seen here.

Other notable sites in the town are Fiesole Cathedral, the Town Hall and a short but steep walk away the Monastery of San Francis with some of the cells where the monks used to live visible here. From up here on a clear day there are also beautiful views of Florence.

Spending a few days in Florence can be combined with a day trip to one of the most beautiful towns in Italy: Siena. Reached from Florence by coach, it is a scenic one and half hour trip through the Tuscany countryside and its famous hills. Siena is a car-free city with a medieval landscape of towers, squares and churches so be prepared to get lost in its alleys and cobbled streets lined with small independent shops.

Most first time visitors to Siena will want to get to the heart of the city, the famous Piazza del Campo. A shell-shaped square, it is the location of the Palio di Siena; held twice a year in the summer it is a controversial horse race pitting the city Contrade (neighbourhoods) against each other to win The Palio, a banner painted with an image of the Virgin Mary; it will stay in the winning neighbourhood for a year until the next race.

Given the brutality of the competition, with many people calling for it to be scrapped, measures have been put in place to protect both the horses and the jockeys, with cushions placed at the most dangerous corners of the square, after complaints where raised about the welfare of the animals and, the danger to the riders and the spectators who fill the square to capacity during the race. Houses with windows facing the square are renting “front row seats” at exorbitant prices, offering the best view of the race in a safe environment.

The huge building on the square, Palazzo Pubblico, houses a museum. A trip up the Torre del Mangia next to it, offers beautiful views of Siena and the square below; another notable feature of the square it is the Fonte Gaia, a monumental fountain adorned with statues and marble panels.

For a different perspective, a nice view of the city can also be enjoyed from The Facciatone, a panoramic lookout next to the Cathedral.

Siena Cathedral its a magnificent building, decorated with alternate black and white marble stripes, mosaic floors, a bell tower and the adjacent Piccolomini Library with its decorated ceilings.

A visit to Siena, would not be complete without tasting Panforte, Ricciarelli and Cavallucci: spiced biscuits typical of the city, they can be bought in most bakeries and make a nice gift or a tasty souvenir from a visit to Siena. With many other destinations nearby, like San Gimignano, nicknamed Medieval Manhattan for its towers, (of the original 76 only 13 remain today) or the village of Pienza, where scenes of the Oscar winning movie “The English Patient” were filmed, Tuscany offers endless possibilities for art lovers and walkers. People looking for an active holiday, will find horse riding on offer in the Maremma area, sun seekers will love the beaches, (Versilia being the most popular). and for people that just want to relax and unwind, enjoying the surrounding while sipping a glass of Chianti (with or without fava beans!), there are plenty of opportunities to do so on a holiday to Tuscany; it might not come as a surprise that a number of visitors have holiday homes in the region including many British citizens who purchased beautiful country homes earning the area the nickname “Chiantishire”. 

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