Tuscany is Italy's fifth largest region at 22,994 square kilometers. Within its boundaries you'll find six World Heritage Sites. Many tourists can rattle them off from memory. They include Florence, Siena, Pisa's Piazza dei Miracoli, Pienza, San Gimignano--the city of towers-- and the Val d'Orcia. Tuscany's capital, Florence, swells with 10 million tourists a year, all clamoring to line up to see the city's immense collection of Renaissance art and architecture, the largest in the world according to many experts.
But what if the tourists and the hustle and bustle of Florence ruin your romantic sensibilities? Just down the road is Pistoia, which many consider a mini-Florence, a Renaissance gem that even allows you an underground visit of one of the world's oldest continuously operating hospitals.
Despite the kudos these tourist magnets in Tuscany have garnered, there are still places hidden or barely accessible to non-residents, especially Americans with limited time to get outside the major art cities. It's a pity, because rural Tuscany can be every bit as compelling as the Renaissance cities whose names get millions of Google hits every year. After all, there are 120 nature reserves in Tuscany. You can walk on wooden walkways over the marshes of Lake Massaciuccoli, ducking into shelters where you can observe and photograph water birds close up, then visit a Roman Villa with fabulous views over the lake, then have lunch on the terrace of an inexpensive hotel--all in a half day with reasonable exercise and great eats. It's the kind of "hidden Tuscany" attraction we like to feature on Wandering Italy.
The whole idea behind "nostalgia travel" will become apparent to you (if you're old enough to remember real farmers and the good products they used to produce) when you visit the northern provinces of Massa-Carrara (the Lunigiana) and Lucca (the Garfagnana), or the southern historic area called the Maremma. Here people are still inclined to make their own food, wine, and olive oil--and do it expertly. As industrial crap food has taken America by storm, the difference in how home made Tuscan food tastes might astound you. It certainly will if you've ever been to a "Tuscan" restaurant in America for sure; expats in Tuscany overwhelmingly agree that a sign announcing "Tuscan Cuisine" in America is an invitation to pass on it. We're talking simple cuisine that depends upon fabulous ingredients, not easily replicated in a distant country that relies on corporate farms for its food.
A simple "Fiorentina" that looks for all the world like a common grilled t-bone or porterhouse steak you can buy at Safeway is far more complex than that. The meat in a bistecca fiorentina, a specialty of the region, must come from well aged Chianina beef. It must be of a certain weight, making it a thick cut. It must be cooked over a hardwood fire. It must not be seasoned before it is cooked. It is served (very) rare. You'll find it mentioned on American menus, but it's unlikely to meet those requirements.
Nostalgia travel isn't just about food. Remember those old Italian movies in black and white where dolled up folks went to some luxurious spa with brilliant, white marble all around and a stringed quartet wailing away in the bandstand, to take the waters and walked away cured of what ailed them? Well, you can do it too! Simply plan a few days or so at Montecatini Terme and spend your mornings at Tettuccio Spa. It won't cost you an arm and a leg either.
Are there places for quiet reflection in Tuscany? You bet. Saint Francis was given a sanctuary called La Verna in 1213 as a retreat for contemplation and in the process he received the stigmata there. You can visit La Verna today, still a place of quiet retreat. And few forget the experience of reliving the horrors of one of the most atrocious war crimes in history in the isolated mountain village of Sant Anna di Stazemma.
Rural Tuscany is a treasure trove of little gems strung out across Italy's largest region, from the "monumental organ" in the little town of Corsanico to the only (I am told) example of a Romanesque cloister still standing in Tuscany in the picturesque little village of Torri. You'll find more in out Tuscany Category on the blog.
So, you must go. See, and taste, for yourself. If you think of Tuscan olive oil as the stuff you buy at a supermarket, your taste buds will have a tastegasm over the real stuff you can only buy in Tuscany.
And if you're the adventurous sort who wants to embrace the Italian lifestyle, you can even discover Tuscany on a Vespa! Don't worry, if you're old fashioned, you can explore Tuscany on horseback as well.
If you have only a little time in Tuscany, you might want to spend a day on a coach tour to hit the hot spots of Siena, San Gimigiano, Pisa with a rural lunch stop, a tour of Tuscany's top places in a day from Florence.
While you are travel planning you'll need to know some of the traditional areas of Tuscany folks talk about. For good, rustic food that's inexpensive and follows age-old rural traditions, go north to La Lunigiana and the Garfagnana. For wine the famous Chianti Classico region is represented on our map. Along the southern edge of the Crete Senesi is where the famous Brunello comes from. The Crete Senesi is where a lunar landscape of gray clay dominates the landscape. You might think of it as barren, but then again, it's famous for white truffles! The Maremma is the Italian "cowboy country" where the Butteri herd cattle in what was once marshy land drained by the fascists. More detail on these areas below the map.
The Lunigiana is perhaps the wildest of Tuscany's historic territories. Set in three isolated valleys amongst the Apennines (Appennino settentrionale to be exact), traditions haven't died; people still make their own food, from salami to wine to honey and cheeses. Over 160 small castles and castle ruins dot the rugged landscape.
Probably named after the now Ligurian port of Luni, the major port for marble transport by the Romans, the traditional territory has at times included Ligurian cities like Sarzana, also a fine place to visit with two castles to gawk at!
The Lunigiana includes the marble mountains of Massa and Carrara, where you can take a very interesting tour.
Perhaps even more than the Lunigiana, the Garfagnana is a place where food traditions thrive, perhaps because of the demand for larger productions; the area is more populated has some larger cities like Lucca as well as spa towns like Bagni di Lucca and artisan marble working towns like Pietrasanta. It's one of the rainiest territories, known for farro and porcini mushrooms. There is also some stunning mountain scenery to be taken in.
The territory of Chianti Classico lies between Florence and Siena along the state road 222, known as la Chiantigiana. It's black rooster country, a symbol you'll see on bottles of the recently revived wines of the region, as well as on the wine road signs. It's also the home to one of the most famous butcher shops in the universe, Dario Cecchini's Macelleria, which now has expanded to include a couple of Dario's restaurants. It's definitely a place you meat eaters will want to visit, although I can take you on a virtual tour with our video: Inside the Antica Macelleria Cecchini. Chianti is also a place for the famous Cinta Senese pigs, also, like the wine, brought back from near extinction.
Like all wine regions, you'll find great restaurants wherever your car leads you.
Just south of Siena lies the Crete Senese, an arid zone of rolling, gray clay hills, way more picturesque than it sounds. The main crops are cereals, aided by irrigation, and the area is notable for its white truffles, particularly around San Giovanni d'Asso; inside its castle is a White Truffle museum and there's a truffle fair the second and third weekends in November. You won't find vineyards in the crete, but just south are wine towns like Montacino and Montepulciano, where the scenic drive between the two cities along the ss146 gives views of the Crete Senese and the Orcia River valley. Tourist favorite Pienze is nearby. Find out more about: Val D'Orcia, which includes many of Tuscany's iconic places, like the Villa and estate of Iris Origo, Le Foce.
Cowboys? Like the Camargue of France, the unexpected cognitive dissonance for the foreign tourist used to thinking the icons of the wild west were only found in the US. The cowboys are called Butteri here, and operate in a once marshy land drained by the fascists. Like the Lunigiana, the territory spreads outside the region of Tuscany--and, in this case into northern Lazio. The Alta Maremma is home to some very interesting villages like Pitigliano, known as "Piccola Gerusalemme", or "Little Jerusalem" after the large Jewish population settling here in the middle of the 16th century. The Maremma is also know for its metal-producing hills called the Colline Metallifere worked by the Etruscans around Populonia, who also dug out the tuff to make "roads" and blocks for building. If you like walking in an ancient historic context, the Vie Cave around Pitigliano await your hiking boots, and a visit to the Populonia Etruscan Tombs can lead to several other walking opportunities.
A favorite of ours is Monte Argentario, once an island off the coast, now connected by causeway to mainland Italy. Lots of nature, great seafood, interesting port towns, and lots of romantic towers that once kept watch on the coastline.
The landscapes of Tuscany. Could they be any more diverse?
Traditionally, Tuscan provinces have been named after the major cities, administration centers from which the provinces took their names. This is the case in the map shown below. Current government cost savings measures are set to make major changes. For example, the little province of Prato is targeted be merged with Florence and Pistoia. But for now, these are the major provinces of Tuscany.
The interactive map below shows a few of the more popular cities and villages covered by Wandering Italy. Click or tap a marker on the map to explore the destination further.
Many good paper maps are available on the web that cover Tuscany. If you are planning to drive around the rural areas, a good map is quite valuable, especially if you don't have GPS in your rental or lease car. We recommend the Touring Club Italiano Tuscany map. Authentic Tuscany is a guide by the Touring Club that is quite useful as well, pointing you towards the smaller places in the rural countryside as well as offering information on the larger cities. We refer to it often.
In such a desirable place to vacation, it's best to travel in the off season to avoid lines and crowds. To check the historical weather conditions, we've created pages with climate information for three major destinations in Tuscany:
All of the Tuscan countryside is beautiful. That's why it's so popular. Many folks like to rent a country house for a week or so. HomeAway lists well over 7000 Tuscan Vacation Rentals. This kind of rental is becoming more and more popular, and is sometimes called self-catering. Don't know what self-catering is and how renting a vacation property works? See: Italy Self Catering, which also includes our recommended places to stay in Tuscany, including a castle near Pienza and apartments and villas in the Garfagnana, Siena, and Pisa.
Another place we liked quite a lot is Le Torri, vacation apartments featured in our blog post Castello di Poppiano - Why Not Pretend You Live in Italy? The post will give you a sketch of how life is in a little village in the Colli Fiorentini wine country.
You can find out about Italian hotels and how I choose them, then search for your own place to stay on our Hotels in Italy page.
If you want a hotel and are ready to compare prices, see: Hotels in Tuscany.
Tuscany has always been known for the quality of the raw ingredients culled from small farms or the family orto or vegetable garden. So, the food is simple, but very, very tasty. It's also seasonal; don't expect to eat agretti or the famed wild asparagus in August. Wild boar, cinghiale, is a specialty served with polenta, forming a natural fusion because the boar like nothing better than to eat the polenta corn as it ripens in late summer.
While you're walking or driving around, be sure to be on the lookout for Sagra Posters. A sagra is a celebration of some kind of local foodstuff or regional dish. You'll sit on long benches and eat the food locals eat right alongside you.
When you get tired of restaurant meals, there's another way to enjoy eating with locals. Becoming popular is the practice of eating with home chefs, who can not only feed you but let you know about the culture and attractions of their home base. BonAppetour, for example, offers quite a number of Tuscan dining experiences.