Tuscany Travel Guide

Tuscany is one the few places in the world where, up to this day, a perfect blend of culture and tradition can be found, owing to the many generations that have preserved it for even up to several centuries later. The epiphany that Tuscany is a quintessence of romance, charm, culinary delight, and of course, sunshine dawned upon many after the film adaptation of Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun came out back in 2003. Today, travelers flock to this illustrious region in northwest Italy to either enjoy a restful getaway, celebrate their nuptials, or get a fantastic first-hand experience of the beauty of the place itself. Embodying the very identity of Tuscany, its medley of castles-turned wineries, evergreen cypress trees, cascading hills, and verdant vineyards is simply stunning.

When to Visit

Spring and fall are considered the best seasons for a visit to Tuscany. During these months, you can expect a fair weather, which is perfect if you want to roam the district all day. Spring is also littered with joyous festivals, such as the Easter Scoppio del Carro and the Maggio Musicale Florentino. Fall, on the other hand, is celebrated with the Giostra del Saracino, Palio dela Ballestra and the Display of the Virgin’s Cradle. While summer (July to August) is also a great time to visit Tuscany, the heat sometimes proves to be unbearable, as it can escalate to up to 86 degrees, especially in the valleys.

Getting Around Tuscany

Car rentals are widely available in Tuscany, however, navigating through the city’s labyrinthine roads can be quite a task, so make sure to have a map at all times. Better yet, rent a car that is equipped with GPS. However, if you do not want the headache associated with international driving, then your best option is hopping on the train. Tuscany is serviced by different train lines, such as LFI, FCU and Ferrovie dello Stato. Bus travel is also recommended, especially if you want to visit Tuscany’s small towns and regions. The stops are usually located in piazzas, although you can hail a bus in the middle of a country road.

Things to Do

By now, you're probably looking up for great sights to see in Tuscany, but how about the things to do? Never head back home without ticking these things off your to-do list.

1) Trek (to Monte Forato)

Monte Forato is the ideal destination for a good hike due to its suggestive natural arch that connects two twin peaks, creating a hole that can be seen from Garfagnana and Versilia. You'll definitely need a good pair of hiking shoes for this; you might as well set aside a whole day for this activity if you truly want to immerse yourself in authentic Tuscan adventure. The part along the crest is exposed, so you have to feel comfortable and maintain good equilibrium so as to stay safe. A trek to Monte Forato is best done in late spring, summer, or early fall.

2) Thermal Baths

A small town in the municipality of Manciano in Maremma, that is nestled atop a hill overlooking the famous thermal springs, Saturnia sits close to an Etruscan necropolis along the Roman road Clodia, which is situated right between the Aurelia and Cassia roads. What turns Saturnia into a magnetic destination for locals and tourists alike are its famous hot springs, which consist of several springs cascading from Mount Amiata to the hills of Albenga and Fiora and reaching Roselle and Talamone. These warm, sulfurous waters were well-loved by the ancient Romans and Etruscans. Legend has it that they were sprang forth in the exact point where Jupiter's thunderbolt struck in a battle against Saturn. The waters have a temperature of 37.5 °c, known to possess therapeutic and relaxing properties.

3) Go Biking

Mostly a hilly territory, with plains etched along its rivers and coast, Tuscany makes for an ideal destination for cycling aficionados of all levels-- from amateurs, to anyone just wanting to pedal and enjoy the beauty of the region, or even to professionals.  For cycling wannabes, the region's slopes and hills means putting themselves to the test right where many of the sport's legends trained themselves at-- Bartali, Cipollini, and Bettini.

4) Go for Cooking Classes

Forget about eating ready-made spaghetti-- how about learning to cook pasta from scratch? Or getting a little more knowledge about wines through a one-day course? Try your hand at preparing some of the best dishes you'll only find in the Tuscan region, either by taking a half-day or a week-long course. This is not only enjoyable to do; when you're back home, you'll get to put to good use a small piece of your holiday!

5) Shop

Tuscany is not only renowned the world over for its picturesque landscapes, scrumptious food, and excellent wines, but for shopping as well. In the larger cities of Florence and Siena, you'll find long stretches of large shops and brand-name outlets, as well as smaller workshops owned by local artisans. If you're in the hunt for branded and Italian fashion designer items like clothes, shoes, and house decors, Tuscany has plenty of outlets you can head out to for the best deals.

6) Hit the Beach

If you are not a local, you may have heard little about Tuscany's beaches that it may be hard for you to imagine that Tuscany even has a coast. The region actually has plenty of splendid beaches. If you are certified beach lover, you'll definitely fall head over heals for Cinque Terre and Portofino, which have their own version of beauty: awe-inspiring dreamscapes, where the mountain is bordered only by the ocean's edge.

Tuscany’s Top Spots

Tuscany is a medium-sized province that consists of small towns, each having its own flair and character. Here are several must-visit attractions in Tuscany’s key districts:

1) Santa Croce

This 13th century Gothic church is the resting place of many renowned Florentines, such as Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Niccolo Machiavelli and Ghiberti. After paying your respects to these masters, revel in the beauty of the church’s notable works of art, such as frescoes by Giotto and the triumphal cross by Cimabue. Admission fee is USD 6.60.

Address: Piazza Santa Croce

2) Duomo di Firenze

Finished in 1436, Florence’s majestic cathedral features a Gothic façade and marble cladding. Its dome, which was considered an engineering marvel during its time, is adorned with paintings by Vasari and Zuccari. The 85-meter Campanile is also a must-visit for those who wish to enjoy Florence’s fantastic views. Entrance is Free.

Address: Piazza San Giovanni

3) Leaning Tower of Pisa

Also known as Torre di Pisa, this inclined tower was created in 1173 by Guglielmo and Bonnano Pisano, but was only finished in 1360. Apart from its peculiar architecture, the leaning tower also plays a role in scientific history for being the location where Galileo Galilei proved his theory about gravity. Admission fee is USD 20.

Address: Piazza del Duomo

4) Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption

Considered the foremost example of Pisa Romanesque architecture, this cathedral is the result of Buscheto’s fusion of different kinds of artistic styles. Admission costs only USD 2.65.

5) Piazza del Campo

This plaza serves as Siena’s main hub, and is littered with quaint cafes, restaurants and historic structures. Formerly a Roman forum, the Piazza has eventually graduated as Siena’s main place of trade. Entrance is fee, but you need to pay a sum to be admitted in certain places within the Piazza.

Address: Piazza del Campo

6) Guinigi Tower

This tower provides a lovely view of Lucca, especially during autumn. While you need to climb 130 flights of stairs, the lovely view at the top will definitely be worth your while. Admission is USD 5.30.

Address: Via S. Andrea

7) Convento Frati Cappuccini

If you are not repulsed by images of skulls and bones (lots of them), then you should include a visit to the Convento Frati Cappuccini in your itinerary. The crypts play home to the bones of Friars and other Romans, with their frames categorized in the skull room, pelvis room and thigh room. Donations are accepted in lieu of admission fees.

Address: Strata dei Cappuccini

8)  San Gimignano Bell Tower

It requires you to climb as much as 200+ flights of stairs, but when you reach the apex of San Gimignano Bell Tower, you will be treated to the nice landscape of Tuscany, Italy.

Address: San Gimignano

9) Piazza Grande

As Arezzo’s number 1 place of interest, Piazza Grande offers incredible walking and shopping tours for travelers. Its top highlight is its Town Hall, which has been in existence since the 6th century.

Address: Piazza Grande

10) Livorno- Santuario di Montenero

The santuario is not just a simple place of worship; it is a museum filled with interesting artifacts as well. Located on top of a hill, the church plays home to artifacts that range from inspirational to outright peculiar. A memorial to Mondigliani, one of Livorno’s famous citizens, is located within the area as well.

Address: Piazza di Montenero

Dining in the City

Apart from its beautiful attractions, another thing that makes Tuscany famous throughout the world is its sumptuous foods. A visit to the city is indeed incomplete if you have not dined at any of these top-rated restaurants:

1) Ristorante Arnolfo

As one of Tuscany’s best restaurants, Ristorante Arnolfo brings traditional yet innovative fares concocted by Chef Gaetano Trovato. What’s great about this restaurant is that its menu always changes. However, make sure to sample its staples, such as rack of lamb in red wine sauce and lamb saddle with olives. Entrees range from USD 150 to USD 232.

Address: Colle di Val d’Elsa

2) La Taverna Etrusca

When it comes to delicious yet affordable Tuscan food, a good choice for those with mid-range budgets is the Taverna Etrusca restaurant, located in Sovana’s central square. Must-try eats include nettle soup with ricotta cheese and grilled meat. Courses range from USD 40 to USD 93.

Address: Piazza del Pratorio, Sovana

3) Buca di Sant’Antonio

For the best (and cheap) Tuscan and Italian specialties, head straight to Buca di Sant’Antonio, a classical restaurant which has been serving hungry patrons since 1782. Here, you will enjoy a relaxing dining space as you feast on house specialties such as meat-stuffed pasta with tomato and meat sauce and roast capretto with herbs. Costs range anywhere from USD 12 to USD 21.

Address: Villa del Cervia

4) Cibrèo

Cibreo's country-inspired theme and impeccable food quality justify its reputation as one of the Tuscany's finest eateries. The dishes are authentically Tuscan-- though the place serves no pasta and little grilled meat -- with innovative touches and lots of spice. While you may have to wait for up to an hour for your food even with a reservation, the wait is absolutely worth it, given that its chef owner Fabio Picchi would sit down and talk to you. Prices start at USD 44.

Address: Via Andrea del Verrocchio, 5  50122 Florence

5) La Giostra

Its owner, a closet prince and double Ph.D., made a choice to indulge his passion for cooking by starting this little-known fine diner a few blocks east of the Duomo. He doesn't adhere strictly to Tuscan dishes; rather, he lets his creative juices, culinary imagination, and half-Habsburg legacy marry Italian and Austrian styles of cooking, with spectacular results. Their carpaccio and ravioli are a piece of heaven. Food prices start at USD 60.

Address: Borgo Pinti, 12/r | 10/R 18/R, 50121

Best Accommodations in Tuscany

If you are looking for the best downtime experience after a tiring day of touring Tuscany, then grab the best deals from any of these top accommodations:

1) Castiglion del Bosco

Covering 4,500 acres of prime land, Castiglion del Bosco is the perfect sanctuary for travelers who wish to immerse themselves in the beautiful culture of Tuscany. While rates are expensive at USD 540 per night, it provides the best spoils of life – right in the heart of Tuscany.

Address: Localita Castiglion del Bosco, Montalcino

2) Palazzo Squarcialupi

Live like an Italian royalty by staying in the 15th century palace that is Palazzo Squarcialupi. Located in the town center, this mid-range hotel offers affordable room rates starting at USD 152. With a spa and pool to boot, Squarcialupi can give you a memorable stay for a manageable price.

Address: Castellana in Chianti

3) La Dimora degli Angeli

Located just a few steps away from the Duoma, La Dimora degli Angeli is one of the most famous hotels among tourists because of its location and cheap price (rooms start at USD 131 per night.) While it’s more of a B&B, its spacious and cheerful rooms make for a Tuscany vacation you will definitely remember for years.

Address: Via de Brunelleschi

4)  Hotel Davanzati

If you are planning on a Tuscany trip with your family, then go ahead and make reservations at Florence’s famed Hotel Davanzati. This 3-star hotel, which is TripAdvisor’s 2013 winner for Best Service, offers clean and spacious rooms for families and couples too. Rates start at USD 262.

Address: Via Porta Rossa

5) Il Rio di Vorno

If you plan on backpacking throughout Tuscany, then II Rio di Vorno hostel is a good pick. With rates as low as USD 25 per night, its great location allows you to access Tuscany’s best locations, such as Lucca, Pisa and Florence. For an additional USD 13.25, you can munch on the hostel’s sumptuous Tuscan delights.

Address: Via Folle Manzi

6) Luxury Villas

You never get to fully enjoy Tuscany until you have stayed in its luxurious villas. Five-star hotels around the world would pale in comparison to the comfort, charm, luxury, and elegance offered by these villas. If you are a lover of nature, antiques, history, architecture, or all of the above, you may just be strongly enticed to get a villas on your vacation in Tuscany. A week's stay in any of Tuscany's villas would roughly cost USD 5,000 or more.

7) Farmhouses

If you want to make your Tuscany vacation something out of the ordinary, then spending it in a farmhouse instead of a boring hotel room is your best bet. Your stay would consist of dining with the host family and other guests, helping in the grape or olive harvest, or simply enjoying the peace and quiet of the countryside. There are some farmhouse hosts who arrange the activities of their guests themselves: horseback riding, mountain biking, trekking trails, Tuscany cooking classes, and many more.

So if you picture an idyllic holiday destination--comprised of life's finest pleasures: frolicking in the beach, relaxing thermal baths, trekking, delicious food, and excellent wines-- Tuscany is one place you should never overlook. Do not just go to Italy for Rome, Vatican, or Venice-- include Tuscany in your trip as well!

Marv Perez