Reasons Why You Should Explore Tuscany

The entire Val d’Orcia area is a Unesco World Heritage site
The entire Val d’Orcia area is a Unesco World Heritage site | © Stanislav Moroz / Alamy Stock Photo
Nicola Williams

If a single region could be a microcosm of Italy, it would be Tuscany. From the wealth of world-famous art in Florence and the surrounding Chianti vineyards to the white-sand beaches of Elba, here’s why you need to add this Italian region to your bucket list.

Feast on a smorgasbord of Renaissance art and aperitivo banquets in Florence, snorkel in turquoise waters in along the Costa degli Etruschi (Etruscan Coast) or get deliciously lost in the countryside’s vineyard sprawl. Tuscany is the place to live the Italian dolce vita to the full. Here’s how.

Marvel at Florence’s beauty

Blessed with Renaissance treasures amassed by the art-smart Medici dynasty and boasting a long history of superlative craftsmanship, the city of Florence is a true epitome of beauty. Gawp at all-out Medici conceit over preposterously embellished family tombs inside the Cappelle Medicee, commissioned from Michelangelo himself, or gorge on city panoramas from the cathedral’s rooftop terraces and dome. To bag the finest seat in the house, hike uphill – past the sunset crowd on Piazzale Michelangelo – to the steps of Basilica di San Miniato al Monte.

Admire world-famous art at the Uffizi

Book a time-slot ticket well in advance and bring along bags of stamina to navigate Florence’s landmark art gallery, by the Arno River. Masterpieces by Renaissance heavyweights like Botticelli, Da Vinci and Michelangelo cram its labyrinthine interior, and painted ceilings across the interiors are a treat – look up! Tip: if you’re touring Tuscany, track the Uffizi Diffusi project, which plucks world-famous art works out of the Uffizi and places them into less-crowded unexpected venues elsewhere in the region.

Climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Kitsch souvenirs and intrusive selfies aside, a hike up Italy’s iconic Leaning Tower in Pisa is a Tuscan rite of passage. If you have kids in tow, under eights aren’t allowed up the 251 steps spiralling inside the 56m (184ft) tall bell tower, built in 1372 for the neighbouring green-and-cream marble striped cathedral from 1092. Views of Piazza dei Miracoli and its majestic pea-green lawns and Romanesque edifices are superb, but those from atop the surrounding city walls are even better.

Dine on Tuscan cuisine

Be it devouring a succulent bistecca alla fiorentina (thick-cut T-bone steak) at cheek-by-jowl packed Trattoria Mario in Florence; queuing for a tripe panino at one of the city’s old-timer tripe carts; or market shopping for seasonal, sun-soaked fruit and veg, Tuscan cuisine is memorable. Unmissable culinary experiences include savouring timeless Tuscan cuisine at Slow Food favourite Il Grillo è Buoncantore, as well as hunting and devouring white truffles at Barbialla Nuova.

Watch the Palio di Siena

Local Sienese life revolves around the contrade (districts) from which you hail. Nothing evokes the blazing age-old rivalry between the city’s 17 neighbourhoods as spectacularly as Siena’s Palio. The frenetic horse race – little changed since medieval times – sees 10 bareback riders in historical costume charge around a dusty dirt racetrack thrown up in Piazza del Campo. Fork out from €240 (£206) for a grandstand ticket or join the boisterous crowd for free, several hours before the race begins.

Sunbathe on incredible beaches

When Tuscan art and architecture tires, hit the beach. Sandy shores lace the coastline around port city Livorno (beaches in Castiglioncello and San Vincenzo are fab). Alternatively, if your heart is set on an island paradise, follow in the footsteps of Napoleon to Elba’s white sands and gin-clear waters. History aficionados risk falling madly in love with the Golfo di Baratti’s compelling Etruscan ruin – an incredible beach experience. Top tip: from Elba, sail to the teeny islands of Capraia, Giglio and Pianosa.

See typical Tuscan surrounds at Val d’Orcia

Tuscany is awash with rural valleys where harvests chart the passage of time and natural hot springs promise an invigorating green reboot. But no single valley is as quintessentially Tuscan as Val d’Orcia, southeast of Siena. No wonder, really: the entire valley is a Unesco World Heritage site. Think medieval hilltop villages and abbeys, prized vineyards producing powerful Brunello reds and small towns like Montalcino, peppered with enoteche (wine bars). To experience Tuscan heaven on earth, check into La Bandita.

Take part in the wine harvest

Autumn’s vendemmia (grape harvest) – a riot of fun – is celebrated with gusto by wine growers and wine lovers alike. Most towns in Chianti and other vineyard areas mark the harvest with a sagre (wine festival), involving indecent amounts of al fresco dining, dancing and drinking. Staying in an agriturismo (self-catering cottage) on a wine-producing estate, such as La Buciata near Montepulciano or Castello di Gabbiano, is a prime opportunity to watch harvesters in action and take part.

Experience the Carnival of Viareggio

Forget Venice! The seaside resort of Viareggio on the sandy Tuscan coast buzzes at Mardi Gras, when the town morphs into one massive street party. Kicking off on Mardi Gras and hitting the streets each Sunday during Lent, the Carnevale di Viareggio is a spectacular smorgasbord of ticketed street parades, free street parties, fireworks, live music and dancing to dawn. To appreciate the Herculean craftsmanship behind the gigantic papier-mâché characters enlivening parading floats, don’t miss poking behind the scenes at La Cittadella del Carnevale.

Visit the medieval town of San Gimignano

Etruscan by birth and contemporary star of most Tuscan Instagram feeds, handsome San Gimignano is impossible to resist. Building a tower higher than your neighbour was a national pastime in medieval times. The walled tower-spiked town of San Gimignano remains testimony to this power-crazed period in Tuscan history. Hunt for frescoes featured in Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini inside the cathedral, and hike up the 54m (177ft) tower at the Palazzo Comunale to admire this timeless Tuscan prima donna from an aerial perspective.

Looking for more insider tips? For a meal you won’t soon forget, grab a bite at one of the best restaurants in Pisa. Then, make a plan to leave the city behind. To help you plan your itinerary, here are the must-visit attractions in Tuscany that you absolutely have to check out. For a restful night of sleep, we recommend one of the best hotels in Lucca or, if you want to linger amongst the towers, one of the best hotels in San Gimignano.

This is an updated version of an article originally by Francesca Masotti.

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