These 3 Essential Day Trips from Florence Showcase Tuscany at Its FinestBy David Farley
Going to Florence, Italy without seeing the surrounding Tuscan countryside and twee villages would be like dining at the world’s best restaurant while on a strict diet or thinking you’ve seen New York City without leaving Midtown Manhattan.
Tuscany outside of Florence is an essential experience, as the low-rolling, vine-and-olive-tree blanketed hills hide romantic villas, rustic taverns and medieval hill towns.
The possibilities are endless. After all, Tuscany is the land that gave birth to artists Leonardi da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Puccini and Dante; the singer Andrea Bocelli; the wines Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino; and Renaissance architecture.
Today, it’s a foodies’ mecca, and every town and village boasts an abundance of shops selling local and artisanal food products.
With all the sensory overload that Tuscany offers, how does one enjoy it all? The answer is simple. Rent a car (driving is the best way to see Tuscany), start your engine and read on.
Saffron and Medieval “Skyscrapers”
As you approach San Gimignano, perched high up on a vineyard-laden hill, you’ll understand how the walled town has earned the nickname “Medieval Manhattan.”
The town’s 14 towers (there were once 72), erected during the Middle Ages by warring families, have created a magnet for modern tourism. But don’t let that keep you from experiencing one of Italy’s most bewitching small towns.
The main gate, the thick stone Porta San Giovanni, leads visitors along a souvenir-bedecked street, filtering out on the beautiful Piazza della Cisterna, the town’s main square. Named after the 13th-century well near its center, the triangular square makes for the perfect place for people-watching — and gelato eating.
The Gelateria Dondoli offers a plethora of ice-cream flavors, including the unique and delicious Crema di Santa Fina, a creamy blend flavored with saffron and pine nuts.
Pop into the 13th-century Palazzo di Popolo to take a peek at the Museo Civico (entrance: $10), which houses fresco-covered rooms and a small art gallery loaded with Gothic and Renaissance paintings.
Finally, climb your way to the top of the attached Torre Grossa (fat tower) for a picture-perfect view of the town and the surrounding Tuscan countryside.
Southern Tuscany’s “Little Jerusalem”
Nothing can quite prepare a visitor for the first sight of Pitigliano, sitting high up on a long crag of volcanic rock. With houses made from the same stone as the mound they sit on, Pitigliano is filled with structures that appear to be sprouting from the mountain.
The town is filled with the usual Tuscan accoutrements — fine restaurants and wine, shops selling local food products — but Pitigliano is slightly different in that tourism doesn’t seem to rule here. Which is good.
But Pitigliano’s genuine hill-town aesthetics are not the only reason to visit this southern Tuscan enclave. The town, known as “Little Jerusalem,” was once home to a thriving Jewish community. Visitors can still visit the 16th-century synagogue (entrance: $6).
The town’s other main attraction is the Palazzo Orsini (entrance: $5), at which 18 elaborately decorated rooms are open to the public.
If all this hill-town wandering builds up an appetite, you’re in luck. Hosteria del Ceccottino, located on the intimate Piazza San Gregorio VIII, is an excellent local eatery. Here you can dine on slow-food-inspired dishes like lamb in tomato sauce, wild boar stew and ricotta-stuffed raviolis.
From Lucca with Love
For travelers who want Florence without the crush of tourists, the walled town of Lucca is the place to go.
A morning stroll along Via Fillungo, Lucca’s busiest street, is an exercise in urban Tuscan serenity: bells — from one of Lucca’s 100 churches — ring in the distance as bicycles whiz past neatly clad walkers who carefully consider the contents of shop windows (everything from major clothes designers to old-school bakeries line the street).
An old woman is just unlocking the door of the tall Torre del’ Ore, a 13th-century tower where $10 and 207 steps up afford an awe-inspiring view of the town.
In addition to the medieval towers, there are many ways to view Lucca: The city walls, now a three-mile, tree-lined greenway, is a pleasant promenade that boasts views of the dome and tower-dominated skyline and enough tranquility to make you want to go around again.
Puccini pilgrims, those who have come to seek out the sites of one of Italy’s greatest composers and Lucca native, will find Giacomo Puccini’s apartment preserved much as he left it (Corte San Lorenzo 9, $4).
If you have time for just one meal in Lucca, try Ristorante Giglio. Housed in the wonderful Palazzo Arnolfini, the restaurant serves updated takes on traditional dishes from Lucca and Tuscany.
But aesthetics and edibles aside, visitors often leave Lucca with the images of the friendly locals: the man at the café who puts an extra sprinkle of cocoa on your creamy cappuccino; the waiter who tells you that the pasta is more yellow in Lucca because, historically, the city was wealthy enough to afford to add eggs to the mixture; or that old woman who works in the medieval tower and tells you to come back soon.
You tell her you will. And you mean it.