Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, is famous for its art, culture and history. As one of the wealthiest European cities of the Middle Ages, Florence was a financial and mercantile centre and the birthplace of much of Italy’s most renowned works of art, like Michelangelo’s David. Florence’s city centre is an UNESCO World Heritage Site that draws in millions of holidaymakers each year.
But there’s more to the Tuscan region than this stunning city. When you stay in a Florence hotel, you’re also in spitting distance of some of Tuscany’s most picturesque medieval towns. All of these cities are fairly close to Florence, so spend a day or two exploring what lies beyond the city of Florence — you won’t regret it.
The medieval village of Lucca is one of only a few ancient cities in the region to retain its medieval city walls — in the 19th century, residents turned the tops of the these thick fortifications into lush public parks, planted with grass and trees. Today, you can walk or ride bikes atop them. There are over four kilometres of walls; you can still see the 11 bastions and six gates that protected the medieval city.
Lucca is also home to over 100 churches. Notable ones include San Michele, in the piazza that started life as a Roman forum at the town centre. Stop here for a coffee or spot of window-shopping. Don’t miss San Martino Cathedral on the Piazza San Martino, with its 13th-century bell tower and notable artworks. Visit the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. Parts of the 2nd-century structure remain visible.
There’s more to Pisa than its famous Leaning Tower. You can spend an entire afternoon exploring the surrounding Piazza del Duomo, where the cathedral, baptistery and cemetery are found alongside the campanile or Leaning Tower. Take a leisurely stroll along the Arno River and visit the Caffe dell’Ussuro, a historic cafe that’s been open for business in a 15th-century palazzo since 1794.
The medieval Tuscan hill town of Siena saw its heyday from 1260 to about 1348, and many of its structures and artworks date back to that period. It’s located 60 kilometres south of Florence, at the southern edge of the Chianti wine region. Consider renting a car and exploring the picture-postcard Italian countryside here.
The medieval heart of the village lies at Piazzo del Campo, the scallop-shaped main square that boasts a 14th-century tower. Visit the city’s cathedral adorned with works of art by Bernini, Michelangelo, Pisano and Donatello. If you’re there in the summertime, catch the famous Il Palio de Siena, a horse race that takes place on 2 July and 16 Aug. in the Piazzo del Campo. If you want to reserve a seat, however, you’ll need to do so in advance. It sells out quickly.
If you’re looking for a quaint, sleepy Italian village not overrun with holidaymakers, visit Montalcino. Take the bus from Florence, transferring at Siena, to get here; the train station is deceptively far from the actual town itself. If you’re a wine lover, visit Montalcino, where the best wine in Italy, Brunello di Montalcino, is made. Also try Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, another of Italy’s best wines that’s been produced and consumed in nearby Montepulciano for hundreds of years. Sample the area’s best cheeses and meats, and explore the village itself.
Fiesole is eight kilometres north of Florence in the hills overlooking the city; on a good, clear day, you can see spectacular views of Florence from the highest point in Fiesole. You can take Florentine public transportation to travel here; the bus is the fastest and easiest method.
When you reach Fiesole, check out the Piazza Mino, with its 14th-century Palazzo Pretorio (Town Hall), cafes, restaurants and shops. The 11th-century cathedral contains works by the sculptor Mino da Fiesole. Visit the Zona Archeologica (Archaeological Zone) to explore Roman baths and a 1st-century amphitheatre, and Etruscan temple, and a museum containing a range of medieval, prehistoric, Etruscan and Roman artefacts. The Etruscan walls, which are visible in several places in the archaeological park and around the city, date back to about 2000 B.C. Fiesole, formerly known as Faesulae, was the region’s most important city in pre-Roman times.
Florence is known for its culture and history, but the singular Tuscan villages in the surrounding countryside are too darling to be missed. Plan a daytrip — or two — to nearby towns like Lucca, Pisa, Siena, Fiesole or Montalcino.
About the Author: Contributing blogger Adi Herndon has visited more than 30 countries and written for numerous travel blogs.