Things to Do in Tuscany
Taking prize place beside the Town Hall on Piazza Duomo, the Collegiate Church of San Gimignano, or the Duomo of San Gimignano, ranks among most impressive monuments of San Gimignano’s UNESCO-listed historic center. Behind its comparatively reserved façade, the church’s main claim to fame is its exquisite frescos, which date back to the 14th and 15th centuries, and remain remarkably unrestored. The bold colors and painstaking detail bring to life iconic biblical scenes including Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, the Garden of Eden and dramatic depictions of Heaven and Hell, with highlights including works by Bartolo di Fredi, Lippo Memmi, Benozzo Gozzoli and Taddeo di Bartolo.
Adjoining the church, the small Museum of Sacred Art includes more works taken from the Collegiata and other San Gimignano churches, including a Crucifix by Benedetto di Maiano and the ‘Madonna of the Rose’ by Bartolo di Fredi.
Every Italian city has its central piazza where the city's political, social and cultural business took place, and Siena's is pretty magnificent. The Piazza del Campo was developed in the mid-14th century by the ruling Council of Nine who, naturally, divided the space into nine sectors, each representing one of them. Never be in any doubt that a lot of self-aggrandizement existed during this period.
At one end of the square is the magnificent Palazzo Pubblico, or town hall (now also housing the Museo Civico) and from here the shell-shaped space radiates out. The bell tower of 1297, Torre del Mangia, rises from the palazzo and from up here there are great views. Enclosing the remainder of the square are the Late Gothic palaces of the grand medieval families of Siena. The Fonte Gaia, or fountain of life, is a white marble focal point and meeting place at the top end of the piazza. Twice a year, in July and August, the madness of the traditional bareback horse race.
The Renaissance period was born in the hills of Italy, and nowhere is this more evident than at Val D’Orcia, an architectural wonderland and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the countryside of Tuscany. Here, the low-lying chalk planes and rolling hills have inspired many an artist to cover canvases with depictions of rural Italian life.
Travelers can explore the quiet tons, like Pienza and Radicofani, and sip incredible wines in the cafes of Montalcino. Whether it’s wandering the hills in search of a true taste of Italy, or traversing the planes with a camera in search of the perfect iconic image of Italy, visitors will find exactly what they’re looking for in Val D’Orcia.
The main church in Lucca is its cathedral, the Duomo di Lucca, built in the 11th century. The structure stands at one side of the Piazza San Martino, and inside, visitors will find the most revered relic in town: the Holy Face of Lucca (Volto Santo). This wooden cross is said to have been carved by Nicodemus, and although the one on display is a 13th-century copy, it's no less important to the church or town. There are two times each year when the Volto Santo is celebrated, dressed in special vestments in the cathedral. The church was rebuilt in the 14th century, although the campanile (bell tower) from the original structure remains, which is why one arch is quite a bit smaller than the other.
Other points of interest inside the Duomo are paintings by Ghirlandaio and Tintoretto, as well as the 15th-century tomb of Ilaria del Carretto of the Guinigi family. There is a museum in the cathedral as well.
With its lively piazzas, striking Gothic monuments and remarkably preserved city walls, the historic centre of Siena is one of Italy’s most impressive medieval sites and it remains the nucleus of the modern-day city. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, the old town is a veritable open-air museum, crammed with architectural gems, historic buildings and museums, as well as one of Europe’s oldest universities.
The historic centre of Siena is best explored on foot and the obvious starting point is the enormous Piazza del Campo. Located at the heart of the city, the piazza hosts Siena’s famous Palio horse races, as well as being home to landmarks like the medieval Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall), the Fontana Gaia fountain and the 90-meter high Torre del Mangia. Nearby, the marble-fronted Duomo cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and one of Siena’s most impressive sights.
Siena's magnificent Tuscan Gothic cathedral is not to be missed. And if you're in Siena you can't miss it because it dominates the place. Rising high with its magnificent white and greenish black stripes, it has a bit of red thrown in on the front facade and lots of detailing - including scrolls, biblical scenes and gargoyles. In the centre is the huge rose window designed by Duccio di Buoninsegna in 1288. Statues of prophets and philosophers by Giovanni Pisano which used to adorn the facade are now housed indoors at the nearby Museo Dell'Opera.
Inside the place is equally impressive with art by Donatello, Bernini and early Michelangelo. Some of the best pieces such as Duccio di Buoninsegni's Maesta have been moved next door to the Museo Dell'Opera. Unlike other cathedrals where you are craning your neck to see magnificent ceilings and frescoes, here you need to look down at the mosaic floor. The whole floor is tiled and is one of the most impressive in Italy.
You'll catch glimpses of the red-tiled dome of the Duomo, or Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori, peeping over the rooftops as soon as you arrive in Florence.
The 13th-century Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio was responsible for building many landmarks in Florence but this is his showstopper. The beautiful ribbed dome was creatively added by Brunelleschi in the 1420s.
The building took 170 years to complete, and the facade was remodeled to reflect Cambio’s design in the 19th century.
Inside the Duomo, your eyes are inevitably drawn upwards to that soaring painted dome and lovely stained-glass windows by such masters as Donatello. Visit the crypt, where Brunelleschi's tomb lies, or to the top of the enormous dome itself for stupendous views over Florence.
More Things to Do in Tuscany
Pisa’s marvelously striped marble cathedral is a textbook example of Pisan Romanesque architecture, dating back to 1064.
Roughly cross-shaped, the duomo features a galleried exterior topped with a small dome and completed with a rounded apse.
Inside, the building’s five naves create a sea of pillars rising to a golden coffered ceiling.
Much medieval detail was lost during a disastrous fire in 1595, but the mosaic by Cimabue surrounding the altar survived intact. Another highlight is the ornately carved pulpit by Giovanni Pisano.
There are a few historic towers inside Lucca's city walls, but the most famous is the Guinigi Tower, which was built in the late 14th century as the place where a family of silk merchants lived and worked. At one time, Lucca had more than 200 such tower homes, but today there are only nine left. The Guinigi family once ruled Lucca, and the family's modern descendants bequeathed the tower to the city. The Guinigi Tower is particularly notable for its impressive rooftop garden. The garden dates from at least the early 17th century, and today has several ancient Holm oak trees growing there. The rooftop garden was renovated in the 1980s and is open to the public.
Florence’s spacious Piazza della Signoria has long been one of the city’s main meeting points. The Palazzo Vecchio, which anchors one side of the square, was once home to the rulers of the Florentine Republic, and today still serves as the city’s town hall. This square, then, was often used by those seeking favor (or protesting) their government.
Today, the Palazzo Vecchio houses a museum along with the town hall, and the Piazza della Signoria is lined with other major attractions. In front of the Palazzo Vecchio you’ll find a copy of Michelangelo’s famous “David” statue (in the place where the original once stood). The open-air gallery that is the Loggia dei Lanzi contains a collection of sculptures. And to one side of the Palazzo Vecchio is a fountain with a huge statue of Neptune.
The Piazza della Signoria was the site of the 14th century “Burning of the Vanities” led by the monk Savonarola, and it’s also where Savonarola was later hanged.
Right in the heart of Chianti wine country, Gaiole in Chianti is a sleepy village these days but as it was an important town in the Middle Ages, it is surrounded by great defence castles including Vertine, Barbischio and Meleto. The most impressive of them all is Castello di Brolio, which commands the surrounding countryside from its perch nearly 1,804 ft (550 m) above swathes of olive groves and vineyards. Unbelievably it has been owned by the Ricasoli family since the 12th century and has long been associated with wine making.
The castle gained its present appearance in the mid 19th century, when it was remodeled into Gothic style with turrets and towers of pink stone by Barone Bettino Ricasoli, the man responsible for introducing Chianti wine to the world. One of the foremost attractions on Chianti wine estates itineraries, today the castle, its private chapel and the family treasures in the Ricasoli Museum can be explored by guided tour.
Famous for its white and blue-grey marble, the Carrara Marble Quarry has contributed to iconic structures such as the Pantheon and Trajan's Column in Rome, as well as a variety of Renaissance sculptures including Michelangelo's David. Sitting on the Carrione River, the quarry is about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Florence and was named for the nearby city of Carrara in Italy's Tuscany region. More than 600 other mine sites sit in the Alpuan Alps above the city, about half of which are either abandoned or emptied of marble, given that they have produced more marble than any other place in the world. A 4x4 jeep tour can take travelers up to the highest mines in the quarry, with the first stop being in Colonnata, an ancient village at 1,700 feet (532 meters) that is home to some of the most impressive marble quarries and magnificent views of the surrounding area.
The Piazza dell'Anfiteatro is a large square in the center of historic Lucca. As the name suggests, it was once the site of a Roman amphitheatre, one that was built in the first century and could hold up to 10,000 people. The remains of that structure now lie more than nine feet underground, but the oval shape of the piazza is a direct result of the outline of the amphitheatre. The Piazza dell'Anfiteatro was built in 1830 by demolishing some buildings that had been constructed in the space. It became the site of the town's market, and is the heart of the old city today.
The oldest square in the Tuscan city of Arezzo has the appropriate name of Piazza Grande, or Great Square. Dating back to the Medieval era, the piazza was once the site of the city's main market. Today, it plays host to the monthly antiques market that is one of the largest in Italy. It's also where the annual Joust of the Saracen is held. Notable buildings surrounding the Piazza Grande include the 14th-century Fraternita dei Laici palazzo, a loggia designed by Giogio Vasari, a 13th-century Episcopal Palace, and part of the 13th-century Romanesque Apse of Santa Maria della Pieve.
UNESCO-listed Pienza was little more than a sleepy hamlet until the reign of Pope Pius II in the first half of the fifteenth century. Pienza, then called Corsignano, was the pope’s home town, and he enlisted the help of architect Bernardo Rossellino to transform the village into an ideal Renaissance town. The reconstruction began in 1459 and only lasted four years, but the result has put Pienza on the radar of many a traveler to Tuscany.
The town’s historic center offers excellent examples of Renaissance architecture, particularly the cathedral, Palazzo Piccolomimi and Palazzo Borgia, all flanking charming Piazza Pio II. While it’s easy to breeze through the tiny town — it only takes five minutes to walk from one side to the other — it’s also an inviting place to savor a local specialty, sheep’s milk pecorino cheese with a bit of honey drizzled over the top.
Some of the finest gems of Western architecture are clustered on Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli, known locally as Piazza del Duomo.
Your first sight of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Duomo and the Baptistery is literally breathtaking, their white marble shining in the sunshine on a bed of emerald green lawn against a summer’s blue sky.
Apart from the glorious architecture – white, red and green marble, Romanesque curves, Tuscan arches and Gothic points – it’s the almost surreal spatial quality of the buildings that creates a sensation.
Come here during the day to see the buildings’ white marble shine in the sunlight, and return again at night when visitors are fewer and the buildings are beautifully floodlit.
If you want to catch those iconic, sweeping views of Florence you've seen in postcards, head to Piazzale Michelangelo. From an elevated position overlooking the city, the fabulous views take in the city's fortified walls, the River Arno, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and, of course, the round red dome of the Duomo.
During the day, drink in the views as you stroll along the Renaissance promenade, overlooked by yet another copy of Michelangelo's David. Return in the evening for magical views of Florence floodlit at night.
- Things to do in Siena
- Things to do in Florence
- Things to do in Pisa
- Things to do in San Gimignano
- Things to do in Chianti
- Things to do in Livorno
- Things to do in Umbria
- Things to do in Emilia-Romagna
- Things to do in Piedmont & Liguria
- Things to do in Perugia
- Things to do in Bologna
- Things to do in Lake Bolsena
- Things to do in Lazio
- Things to do in Veneto
- Things to do in Lombardy