The Val d'Orcia is one of Tuscany's six World Heritage sites. The valley's landscape of gentle, rolling hills was the subject of many Renaissance paintings, especially by the painters of the Scuola Senese, The Siena School, mentioned in the Val d' Orcia's UNESCO nomination.
It is a territory you can spend a long time exploring without encountering a major town whose roads and parking system will confuse you. You'll want--and need--a car in the Val d'Orcia; the drives between villages can be breathtaking.
The region has everything that visitors to Tuscany come to see and experience, from the powerhouse DOCG wines of Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile to spa towns like Bagno Vignoni, whose "baths" in the public square are fed by springs of Monte Amiata, which marks the southern boundary of the territory. There are abbeys and gardens--and that zig-zagged strada bianca lined with cypresses that has come to be a symbol of this territory and reflects Criterion (iv) of the UNESCO nomination: "The Val d'Orcia is an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create aesthetically pleasing pictures."
This landscape re-writing is still going on. When American Michael Cioffi began buying up the crumbling town of Castiglioncello del Trinoro he didn't do it to make a bundle--like I'd expect a rich countryman of mine to do--but he restored a considerable part of the town into places to stay, and used part of the profit to study the Etruscan ruins in the village. It's now the largest privately-funded archaeological project in Italy.
You can see the fruits of Michael Cioffi's labors at the site called Monteverdi.
Below is a map of the primary places to visit in the Val d'Orcia. Click or tap the map markers to see a description. More information on these destinations is found below the map.
The area is easily reached from the A1 Autostrada (see an autostrada map).
Zoom in to see the layout of the towns that also shows restaurants, cafes, churches, footpaths and...toilets. The further you zoom in, the more that is revealed on the map.
Pienza is a tourist favorite, despite being a very small town indeed. Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Pope Pio II, called upon architect Bernardo Rossellino to turn the little village of his birth into an important town, so they tore down the Romanesque church of St. Mary and built a grandiose Cathedral to anchor a nice little Renaissance square called Piazza Pio II. Add a couple of Palazzi, the Palazzo Piccolomini and Palazzo Borgia and you have a cute little historic core that enthralls visitors. And if you, like I, prefer Romanesque to Renaissance architecture, don't worry, you can see remnants of St. Mary in the Cathedral's crypt and the Romanesque Pieve of Corsignano is located in the neighbourhood; Piccolomini was baptized there.
It was all meant to be the Renaissance humanist concept of the 'ideal town'. Perhaps it is. You should go and see if it is successful in your eyes.
Pienza is noted for its pecorino, an aged sheep's milk cheese. A festival held on the first Sunday in September to celebrate the cheese flavored by the unique set of herbs that exist in the local clay soils.
The second weekend in May is set aside for the festival called “Pienza and its flowers” with a market and exhibition of the flowers in the Renaissance city.
Recently, Italian Minister of Tourism Piero Gnudi bestowed Pienza with the title "Comune gioiello d'Italia" (Jewel of Italy).
Trattoria da Fiorella is a popular spot for a traditional Tuscan meal. Tel: 0578 749095
Montepulciano is really located in the Val di Chiana, but we include it because the drive between Montepulciano and Pienza is one of the most scenic in Tuscany, Montepulciano is a very nice town to visit with one of the most impressive main squares in Italy, the Piazza Grande. It's also a wine town producing two famous wines, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano. The castle of Montepulciano, fortezza Medicea, was mentioned as early as 715. View seekers: don't forget to climb the clock tower over the Palazzo Comunale for great vistas of the wine country surrounding Montepulciano. Highlights:
To stay: near Montepulciano is the famed Poggio Etrusco, where you can stay in the countryside and take a cooking class (if you wish) with Pamela Sheldon Johns, author of the extensively researched cookbook Cucina Povera (review).
La Foce has a 15th century villa one used as a hostel for pilgrims along the Via Francigena, but the gardens are what people come to see. Tours are held on Wednesday afternoons as well as every first weekend in the season - from April to November. See the La Foce web site for details. La Foce has a popular trattoria called Il Dopolavoro, Strada della Vittoria 90; Tel 0578 754025.
Below is a picture from the formal gardens after a spring frost changed the colors of the freshly trimmed hedge.
San Quirico d'Orcia is one of my favorite towns in the Val d'Orcia. Pick a restaurant. Any restaurant. The hospitality is good here; the town of about 2500 is located along the Via Francigena. Not to be missed it the Collegiate church of San Quirico, built in the 8th century but the form you see is mostly from the 12th century, the time of pilgrimage. The interior dates mostly from the 17th century.
Restaurants like Al Vecchio Forno and Trattoria Osenna will keep your stomach happy and fuel the rest of your exploration of the Val d'Orcia. The Osenna's menu provides a list of pretty much all of the regions specialties, and they have a wonderful outside terrace.
Casa Lemmi is a top-rated hotel in San Quirico d'Orcia, tucked inside a residence of Norman origin with an interesting history that includes the Templars.
Montalcino is a hill town along the Via Francigena that has been inhabited since Etruscan times. Inside its Fortress you can taste the famous wines which grow on the lower levels of the hill, the famous Brunello di Montalcino, then you can go up on the top of the walls for good views of the surrounding countryside.
On the last weekend of October the Thrush festival of Montalcino is held, an archery contest between the Quartiere of Montalcino. It's a very famous festival which includes an all-day medieval feast inside the Fortress.
The area's Brunello is really Sangioveto Grosso, a clone of Chianti's Sangiovese. It requires a bit of aging. One of the larger and more famous estates, Castello Banfi, is easily visited--and you can even stay on the property, which also has a restaurant called La Taverna. Castello Banfi - Il Borgo offers luxury lodging 6 miles outside of Montalcino overlooking Banfi's vineyards.
If you wish to stay in town, we highly recommend a stay (and a meal) at the Albergo il Giglio. Just down the street is an enoteca called Enoteca di Piazza where you can taste wines (for a fee, which is waived if you buy) and they'll ship free, which is a great bargain these days.
Il Pozzo is another fine restaurant you'll want to consider. See the review: A Trattoria Where One Can Be Certain To Eat Well: Montalcino’s Il Pozzo
South of Montalcino is the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, a great example of the French Romanesque. It is popular to visit while the monks are chanting. See: Sant'Antimo Abbey.
Bagno Vignoni doesn't hide its hot springs; the "square of sources" is a 16th century tank for the thermal healing waters coming from an underground source and it's right in the center of town. The Romans used them, as did weary pilgrims walking along the Via Francigena. Today they're not used by the public (much--it's "forbidden"), but the Centro Benessere Le Terme offers treatments involving the waters and if you just want to soak your feet, there are channels cut into the rocks near the parking lot that flow with spa waters. You can see a video of the Terme on YouTube. Just outside of town is the highly-rated Adler Thermae Spa & Relax Resort.
Bagno Vignone is one of 5 recommended spas in Tuscany.
Arcidosso is an ancient Tuscan town built, like Pitigliano, on a plateau, in this case at the foot of Monte Amiata. It's called the "gateway" to the mountain. The Romanesque church of S. Leonardo, built in the 12th century, has many frescoes to see. The Aldobrandesca Fortress is now used for cultural events. An olive oil festival is held in November in nearby Montelaterone.
From Arcidosso there is easy access to the Monte Amiata Faunal Park (Parco Faunistico del Monte Amiata - Arcidosso).
San Giovanni d'Asso has an interesting medieval center and is known for its winter white truffles. The castle has been turned into a White Truffle Museum.
As always in these popular vacation areas, it's best to travel in the off season to avoid lines and crowds. To check the historical weather conditions see our Siena Weather and Historic Climate page.
Since there are no huge cities in the Val d'Orcia, you have the opportunity to explore from a central hub in the countryside. HomeAway lists many top-notch Val d'Orcia Vacation Rentals. 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.
Viator offers interesting options for getting a taste of the Val d'Orcia from some of the larger and more popular Tuscan cities. There are also interesting things to do. I highly recommend the Balloon trip, although it starts in the Val di Pesa.
The Val d'Orcia has a few local specialties you'll want to try. The first and foremost is the Pecorino cheese from Pienza. Montalcino is known for its honey. The Crete Senesi and Val d'Orcia had a great historic production of Saffron; cultivation of the crocus sativus flourished in the 16th century, was forgotten as it lost value, and has been rediscovered today and the cultivation renewed.
The famous pasta of the region is called pici, a type of handmade "fat" spaghetti. It is often served with an aglione sauce to become Pici All'Aglione on menus featuring, a smooth tomato sauce with more garlic than Italians usually use in cooking.
If you like modern Italian cooking that doesn't stray too far from its traditional roots, you must reserve a table at Osteria La Porta. Located right at the gates to the village of Monticchiello, the osteria's terrace offers the stunning view of the Val d'Orcia you see below. The carefully sourced food and wines will give you an idea of the great products available in the Val d'Orcia; try the Prosciutto di Cinta Senese and you'll know what I'm talking about.
There are two apartments you can rent, one in the tower adjacent to the terrace. There us also a sister restaurant in town, La Cantina de la Porta, offering two cozy, vaulted rooms stunningly decorated.
If you like to eat close to your food, you'll want to head down the narrow country lane to Podere Il Casale. Get there early and have the owner give you a tour of the farm, then sit down to lunch on all the farm's products as you look over the little valley below Monte Amiato. You can reserve a table online, one of which is shown below. You can also take a cooking classes, learn to make pizza, or learn how they make their sheep and goat's milk cheeses. You can also camp out on the property.
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. If you are in a restaurant, be sure to note our tips: How to Get Good Food in Italy.