I recently got back from a 2 week vacation in Italy and have written all about it here.
Since this series is going to be super long, I split up my report into 4 parts. In my last post, I took you through our 2 days in Venice.
Part 2: 4 Days in Tuscany (this Post)
Florence as a base to explore Tuscany
This was the leg of the trip that I was most excited about. Endless tuscan landscapes, winding roads lined with tall cypress trees, charming and beyond gorgeous countryside villages – yes, yes, yes!
After my experience in France – I realised I love being in the rustic countryside more than in large European cities. So I tried to work in as much of countryside experience as possible.
Since neither of us felt comfortable driving around, we had to pick a largeish centre to base ourselves out of and do day trips with organised tour agencies from there.
If budget is flexible, one can hire a private taxi to drive them around. We didn’t want to spend too much on transport, so I found tour companies which do “efficient day trips”. More on this later in the post.
We picked Florence as our base because (a) Yaman had never been to Florence, and there is so much to take in here, and (b) it’s an excellent base to explore Tuscany.
Other popular bases are Siena, Lucca, Montepulciano, and other smaller towns in the area. If you drive, you can easily base yourself out of any of these depending on what you want to experience in Tuscany.
Where to Stay in Florence
We picked an Airbnb apartment right in the middle of all the action – Piazza della Signora. Everything was walking distance (and we did walk everywhere – even though Florence is a much larger city), and our apartment was perfect for our 4 day stay. It was just a 15 minute walk from the Train Station. It was the top floor in a typical Florentine building which has been there for centuries. There were many, and I mean MANY steps – and each flight of stairs had about 30 stairs (3 times the number of stairs in modern flights) – thankfully my husband did all the lugging of the luggage :) I’m forever grateful!
Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria Novella), Palazzo Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio, Loggia della Signoria
After checking into our apartment and taking quick showers, we headed out to explore our surroundings. The Duomo was a 3 minute walk, and we admired it from outside. We had no desire to go inside (as the main architectural details are really the facade & exteriors), and I had no desire to climb up top the Bell Tower – as I had a different viewing point in mind :) More on that later in the post.
Walking around we got to Loggia della Signoria which is basically an open air gallery – and what I find is the most distinctive feature of Florence. Where else would you find treasured sculptures and pieces of art out in the open like this?!
We also walked past Palazzo Vecchio and on to Ponte Vecchio. By this point, we were headed to our view point – Piazzale Michelangelo which is on the other side of the River Arno.
Piazzale Michelangelo, Altrarno and San Niccolo
Florence is surrounded by hills which house some of the most luxurious tuscan villas you will see.
On top of one such hill is Piazzale Michelangelo – a parking lot converted to a viewpoint. Thank you to whoever thought of this conversion – it’s a marvellous vantage point, and one I highly recommend visiting around sunset with plenty of time (and snacks) on hand.
While walking across the Arno River on Ponte Vecchio, we crossed a really charming area of Florence – San Niccolo. It’s a wonderful area to wander about and get lost in. It also has a ton of wonderful (and non-touristy looking) restaurants. I think staying in San Niccolo (close to Ponte Vecchio) would be a great option – it would also be far cheaper than the other side of Arno.
When we got to Piazzale Michelangelo – after walking uphill for a bit and climbing a ton of stairs (but less than I expected really) – the view and the vibe was totally worth it.
Far from being over-crowded, it had a lovely atmosphere with people just relaxing and winding down after a long day. Lots of fresh breeze and golden sunlight made some great photo opps possible :) It was too sunny on this day though, so I made a mental note to get back here on another day for my perfect photos ;)
Dinner at tex Mex place with Karaoke
On our walk back to our apartment, we stopped at this tex-mex place which did burgers. They also had Taco Tuesday going on, so we thought, “why not?!”.
Long story short, the food was terrible (at least the tacos were), but the atmosphere more than made up for it. It was also karaoke night and there were some amazing, and I mean AMAZING singers in the audience. At one point we even thought they might’ve professional/trained singers. Both of us looked at each and agreed that such great singers shouldn’t be allowed to sing at karaoke bars, they make the rest of us look way worse than we are, ha! All in all, it was a fabulous evening and I really didn’t expect us to have such an unexpectedly fun evening in such a non-Tuscan setting in Tuscany :)
Day Trip to Chianti area, Siena, San Gimignano and Pisa
The next day we had a full day tour to the Chianti side of Tuscany.
We had booked the “Tuscany in a Day” tour with Walkabout Tours which had some 10,000 5 star reviews for this tour – and with good reason. We absolutely enjoyed this tour. It was the perfect pace and the perfect mix of “guided” and “free to wander yourself”. I would highly recommend this tour for exploring the Chianti side.
Our tour guide was an Argentinian who had moved from to Italy in a leap of faith – only a couple of years ago. Thank you, Maria Belen for such a great & well organised day!
We left at about 8 am from the meeting point and headed straight to our first stop – Siena.
At Siena, we were led by a local guide who took us through the history of Siena (and the historical (continuing to present day) rivalry between Siena and Firenze. He also told us all about the Palio horse races – very fascinating. I don’t want to spoil it for you – should should go to Siena and learn about it :)
Siena offered some wonderful views of the country side, but the most remarkable feature of this town is the central square. Massive, shaped to support the Palio races, and offering stunning views from every corner. Great place to grab a seat in one of the many terrace cafes there and people watch while enjoying some breakfast.
Amazing wine tasting + lunch at an Agritourismo Fattoria Poggio Alloro
After Siena, we headed straight to Fattoria Poggio Alloro which is farm, vineyard, wine-maker, B&B all rolled into one.
We got a tour of the premises, but we were all mostly distracted by the panoramic views from this property. If you have extra time in Tuscany, this would be a great place to spend a night or two at.
Then, we headed to their dining room for lunch on these long tables. We were given some bruschetta to start with, followed by pasta, a second course (I had omelette with veggies while the others had cuts of meat and cheese), followed by dessert (almond biscotti with a dessert wine). Each course was paired with a wine produced by them – we had their Rosso and their standard Chianti line along with a white. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Chianti – too spicy for my taste, but loved the white.
I must note that Maria had taken into account special dietary preferences in the bus before we reached this place – so I got a special veggie menu while the other had the standard menu. They also took care of Gluten Free diets.
After lunch, we took tons of photos because I absolutely loved the views & the light was just perfect. We got so lost in our photography, that we were the last people to get back on the bus – oops!
After lunch, we headed to San Gimignano. By the time we reached San Gimignano, it was jam packed with tourists. It seems every single tour operator has tours which takes buses packed with people to San Gimignano. Since it’s a really tiny place, you really do feel the crowds.
While its a gorgeous and amazingly well preserved town, our experience there was less than optimal due to the sheer number of people around. Even though it’s a quaint little village, it felt massively touristy at that moment. However, if you don’t count the mad crowds there, it is indeed gorgeous and I loved the little nook at the western side of the town. It was actually a park called Parco della Rocca and was relatively free from the crowds – and also offered good views of the countryside.
I was a little viewed out by this point (Poggio Alloro had beyond stunning views), so I didn’t appreciate them as much as I would have had we come here first.
The leaning tower of Pisa
After San Gimignano, we headed to Pisa. One of the most famous – and crazy touristy – spots of Italy.
What I think Pisa is amazing for:
- Spending 5 minutes appreciating just how much such a ginormous structure actually leans
- Spending 30 minutes taking ridiculous photos with it (we saw some people get REALLY creative with their photos, ha!)
Other than that, Pisa is PACKED with people, sellers, and “gypsies” / petty thi. So be very careful while walking around, and always keep your bag in front of you.
On returning from this tour at about 8:30 pm, we headed out to find some typical Florentine steak. We ended up at iTuscani 4, which had the most ginormous portions ever – but I also tasted the best pecorino cheese of our trip here. Great place to visit as a group and share dishes. Not a good place for vegetarians because they literally don’t have anything for vegetarians on the menu. I don’t fault them, they are a specialised place for steak. So they kindly made a plate of grilled veggies + cheese + jams for me. Not too shabby!
Uffizi Gallery and Museo Galileo
The next day we had the entire day in Florence. We started with paying a visit to the most visited museum in Florence – the Uffizi Gallery.
We had booked skip the line tickets but did not book a tour with a guide. We personally prefer self guide tours a lot more, so we downloaded Rick Steeve’s guide to the Uffizi gallery. I also referred to this guide to appreciate and understand the art better. I recommend both! The Uffizi also offers some of the best views of Ponte Vecchio – and you can very clearly see the passageways used by the Medici family to commute between their home (Pitti Palace) and their offices (Uffizi – which literally means “office” in Italian).
After Uffizi, we headed to Museo Galileo because we had read about it being an interactive museum. Unfortunately we ended up getting to the interactive part at the very end of our tour by which point we were quite fatigued. It’s a good place to visit though – but I was let down. I wouldn’t recommend visiting it if you don’t have lots of surplus time.
The other really popular museum people visit in Florence is the Accademia – mainly to just get a glimpse of Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of David. We gave this one a pass.
Pitti Palace and San Spirito, chilling at Olivia Cafe, Piazzale Michelangelo, Gusta Pizza
After lunch, we headed back to Altrarno – I really loved this side of Florence more. Way more “quaint” and far from the crowds.
We visited the Pitti Palace, and a few galleries within it – nothing great. You can totally give this a miss. There was an option to visit Boboli gardens, but it was way too sunny that time so we gave that a miss.
Instead, we headed to a little cafe right outside Pitti Palace and spent a couple of hours there, just sitting, reading, relaxing, people watching while munching on fried snacks – all my favourite activities, ha!
After a while, we headed back to Piazzale Michelangelo – remember those perfect photos I wanted? I felt the light was just right this evening, so we headed up those stairs again.
And it was! This evening was probably my favourite in Florence. The atmosphere was amazing again – there was also a guitarist which was playing + singing and entertaining the crowds. We took our photos, and headed straight to grab at spot on the steps. It wasn’t very busy when we got there, so we got pretty amazing seats with a magnificent view. The weather was just perfect – and I’m so glad I was wearing jeans that evening because it did get quite chilly up there. We just sat there, people watching, listening to the music, singing along a little bit and taking in the views. And also Instagramming a little bit – because who am I kidding? Y’all saw my stories from up there, right? Ha! I highly highly recommend spending a lazy evening at this spot and staying until sunset. It’s magical at that time of the day.
After sunset, we headed straight to grab Tripadvisor-famous pizza from Gusta Pizza. We had to wait in line for a bit, but the line moves really quickly. I had the Gustapizza which was mozarrella, tomato sauce, cherry tomatoes and aragula. It was delicious – and the best part was the crust. My leftovers also tasted great reheated for breakfast the next morning (no stretchy dough issues). I recommend getting some pizza from here!
Day Trip to Val D’Orcia: Montalcino, Pienza and Montepulciano
The next day we had another all day tour. This time it was a tour of the Val D’Orcia region with Ciao Florence. Ciao Florence was the only company I found which offered a group tour of this region – it had great reviews, but ONLY for this tour. The other tours by this company had mixed reviews.
I’m so so SO glad I booked this tour because THIS was Tuscany as-I-thought-it-would-be in a day.
If you’re looking for those endless tuscan fields, lone cypress trees, dreamy & quintessential tuscan landscapes that you see plastered all over postcards, then THIS is where it’s at. It’s ALL from this region – Val D’Orcia, not the Chianti side (which is more wooded).
The best part is that Val D’Orcia is still “untouched”. Massive tour buses haven’t landed here yet, so it’s an AMAZING area to be in. It felt a lot like Provence really. I do have a weakness for Provence – you must have guessed that by now :)
Our tour was led by Brando of Ciao Florence – who has himself designed this tour. He’s a really passionate Tuscan guy who made this tour and our day super fun & engaging.
Montalcino & Brunello Wine Tasting
We left from Florence at about 8:30 am and our first stop was Montalcino.
On the way there, Brando told us a lot of interesting facts & stories about the region, and the Tuscan way of life.
The last few minutes before Montalcino is where you can start seeing some postcard perfect scenes. With a high shutter speed, you can definitely take some great photos from a moving bus.
Montalcino was a tiny, sleepy town, perfect to walk around in, grab some great views and some light breakfast in. It was free from crowds (I think people from our bus & travellers living there were the only tourists there), had the most charming pastel coloured buildings, with gorgeous floral drops and arrangements. A rather hilly town, no road is plain, you’ll get your pasta calories burning here.
We also visited a small local winery. This was probably the smallest winery I’ve visited and it was a unique experience to see how small scale production like this still happens in some pockets of Italy (like Montalcino) and it’s still profitable (due to license rationing – which is mainly intended to maintain the quality of the soil in the region). We tasted a delicious Rosso (perfect as a table wine), a Brunello (which is a famous Montalcino wine & gets its name from the dark brown color it used to have due to the chestnut barrels which were used decades ago to age them (well before they got oak barrels for ageing – which is what they still use, just like the majority of wineries all over)), and one of their Riservas (wines aged a tad longer). Of course there were all DOC & DOCG wines. Being the non-drinker-in-general that I am, I liked the youngest of them the most (the Rosso), but I quite enjoyed the full bodied Brunello as well. I think my favourite wines from all the ones we had in Italy were the ones from this little winery in Montalcino.
After the wine tasting, we headed for lunch. We had an option to either go for lunch by ourselves or join Brando at a place for a 3 course meal for an extra price. We of course opted for the latter! We started with some lovely bruschettas, followed by a different main course for each person (depending on what you want – you can choose). I had the local specialty Pici Cacio E Pepe (hand made spaghetti like pasta with cheese and pepper). It was delicious, but I felt it could have been creamier (ha!). Dessert was a yummy cake with homemade berry jam.
Pienza & Pecorino Cheese Tasting
After our wine tasting and some free time in Montalcino, we headed to Pienza.
The views from Montalcino to Pienza were breathtaking. I wanted to stop every 2 minutes to take photos ;)
Pienza had very similar vibes as San Gimignano, sans the crowds. It’s probably the cutest village we visited on this trip. You also get remarkable views from this little town. I’ll let you take in the scenes through these pictures.
We also spent 10 minutes tasting some pecorino cheeses in a small cheese shop here. The cheeses were okay, nothing to write home about – I liked the pecorino from iTuscani more.
Montepulciano & Wine Tasting
After Pienza, we headed to Montepulciano.
By this time it had started raining. So we enjoyed misty, rainy, dramatic scenes of Val D’Orcia on our way there.
Our first stop in Montepulciano was another local winery and some wine tasting. Again, amazing wines – and we tasted a Rosso, a flagship wine of this winery and a Riserva version of the flagship. All of them tasted good, but I was pretty wined out by this point. May be if we had visited this winery before the one in Montalcino, I would’ve enjoyed this more ;)
After our wine tasting, Brando gave us free time to explore Montepulciano, but some of us opted to follow him to a local copper artisan’s workshop. I don’t want to spoil this experience for you- but all I’ll say is this – go in with an open mind and a good appetite for some light hearted humour. Ha! Very entertaining 30 minutes here.
Dinner at Trattoria Marione
After Montepulciano, we headed straight back to Firenze. On our way back, Brando was available to give recommendations for restaurants where we could enjoy authentic Tuscan meals. I asked him for a place where I would find good Pappa al Pomodoro (a tuscan bread soup with tomatoes) (Veronica had recommended this dish to me).
He recommended a place called Trattoria Marione. Luckily it was very close to our apartment and we didn’t have to wait for a table. It certainly looked like a favourite with the locals.
The funny part is that that Pappa al Pomodoro was not on the menu at this place, ha! But they had a Ribollita (which is a similar tuscan bread soup with vegetables) – so I went with this. I’m so glad we came to this place because I loved my dish! It was probably the most unique dish I ate in all of Italy, and I enjoyed my bowl of hot, hearty soup. Also, this place has an amazing Tiramisu, and of the numerous tiramisu we ate in Italy, this one was my favourite.
Tuscany Quick Round Up:
Stayed At: This Airbnb
Favourite Eats: Trattoria Marione, iTuscany for amazing Florentine Steak, Gusta Pizza
Favourite Sights/ Experiences: Val D’Orcia Tour with Ciao Florence and especially the Montalcino wineries, Piazzale Michelangelo, San Niccolo & San Spirito
Here are the Other Parts of our Italy Vacation:
Part 2: 4 Days in Tuscany (this Post)