5 exclusive things to do when in Tuscany

Boboli garden in Florence

Looking for things to do in Tuscany? The region is a microcosm where you’ll be sure to live a host of unforgettable experiences.
There is a thousand experiences you can live and a thousand places worth seeing – and many things you can do only here – in Tuscany.

Tuscany will really enchant you, with a wonderful, breathtaking nature – green and luxuriant, with vineyards, olive trees, huge oaks, fields of corn, and poppies. Everywhere your sight will discover postcard-beautiful images, which will stay in your heart and with you even at home.
Tuscany is also art and culture, with cities full to the brink of priceless monuments, architectures and testimonies of many, many artists and geniuses, of the past but also of contemporary culture.
And, if you love history, this region will also enchant you. There are surprising discoveries for you at every corner, and often you’ll have a feeling that you are going back in time, to ancient ages.
But a holiday means also relaxing and sports. And Tuscany will satisfy you also in this: there is plenty of spas and thermal centres, a turquoise and crystal-clear sea, and the Tuscany countryside, as said, that can be explored by foot, horse, or bike.
But a list of must-dos would be boring, and can be found anywhere. This is going to be a more exclusive list, more suited to a curious tourist who wants to stay clear of the routes of mass tourism. So, if you really want to live the land that is going to be your host, follow me.

1. Visit the Boboli garden in Florence

After visiting the Uffizi Gallery, Ponte Vecchio and having an icecream in Piazzale Michelangelo (all Florence just beneath you, and a great sight!) grant you half a day trip for relaxing and resting and go visit the Boboli Garden.
Set behind Palazzo Pitti, the garden was born as a monumental garden thanks to the influential Medici family, and is an astounding example of “giardino all’italiana”: carefully trimmed hedges, fountains, ponds, small labyrinths, lawns full of daisies. All invites you to serenity and calm.

Take a book or your Tuscany guide with you and choose one of the many park benches… or just sit down on the lawn, if it’s a beautiful day … and enjoy what is around you: little birds chirping, the murmur of fountain waters… and silence!

The garden is itself an open-air museum, it seems it inspired the Garden of Versailles, as full as it is with many old sorts of trees and hedges, statues and sculptures, all beautifully set in a unceasing alternation of human and natural architectures. It will take three hours to visit it all – three very well spent hours!

The garden is open all year (the ticket is 7 Euros), and looks magnificent in all seasons, it’s a cool relief from long summer days, and shows all its wonderful colours in autumn.

photo credit Shaun Merritt

2. Take a long walk in the pisan lungarni

Too many tourists just make one stop in Pisa: in Piazza dei Miracoli, taking the usual funny snapshot in which they pretend they are preventing the leaning tower from falling, and then leave again to other destinations. And I think they wholly miss the magical, charming atmosphere of the town this way.

Piazza dei Miracoli is indeed unique, but Pisa itself is a young romantic town, well worth a longer visit.

From the great Piazza, take via Santa Maria, enjoy its many shops where one can taste a “tagliere” with Tuscan salami and cheese, with a good red wine from the Pisan hills, then reach Piazza dei Cavalieri.

The Piazza was recently renovated and brought back to its ancient splendour. It is host to the magnificent Santo Stefano Church, and to the Palazzo of the Scuola Normale (with frescoes by Vasari) where so many Italian scientists and literary men received their education.

The Casa Torre on your left, if you face the Normale, will be the so-called Torre della Fame (the Tower of Hunger), where, according to Dante, the tragedy of Conte Ugolino and his sons took place.

Still a short walk through the arcades of of Borgo Stretto, with its shiny boutiques and windows, and you’ll finally reach the Lungarni.

The river’s loop to the West, toward the sea, will offer you magnificent twilights, with the profile of the Chiesa della Spina, an exceptionally beautiful, tiny Gothic church, and the Citadel, the ancient fortress outside the city walls.

The best reasons to take a walk on the Pisan Lungarni are given much better than I could in a letter that Giacomo Leopardi wrote to his sister Paolina in 1827:
“The look of Pisa pleases me much more than that of Florence. This lungarno is such a beautiful, ample, magnificent, exciting and joyous spectacle, that it makes you fall in love with it. I have seen nothing similar in Florence, or in Milan or in Rome, and I really doubt one can find anything comparable anywhere in Europe.

Even in winter, a walk along it is a pleasure, because there is always a sort of spring in the air: so that in many hours of day this part of town is full with gentle people, both in chariots and walking, you can hear ten or twenty languages spoken at once, a beautiful tuscan sun shines through the golden decors of the coffee shops, the boutiques full of fashions, and the great windows of houses and palaces, all of superb architecture. As for the rest, Pisa is a mixture of city and small town, of city-like and country-like aspects, and such a romantic mixture, that I have never seen anything comparable. To all such beauties, one must add the beauty of the Italian language spoken here.”

photo credit Claudio Indiani

3. Take a thermal bath in the woods at Bagni di San Filippo

Tuscany boasts many spa cities, hot springs and towns of international renown, but only in Bagni di San Filippo you will be able to take a bath in the hot waters that spring from the earth, in the open air and amid a chestnuts and holm-oaks grove.

Many of you will not miss, during your tuscan holiday, San Gimignano or beautiful Val d’Orcia and its magnificent tuscan countryside, rich with “borghi” – Montalcino, Pienza, Montepulciano, Bagno Vignoni… – that are famous both for their medieval and Renaissance art and monuments and their excellent wines (for example Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino, nobile di Montepulciano or Chianti classico) and gastronomical products (don’t miss to taste a local olive oil or some plate with wild boar).

But not many know that, just a few kms away, where Val d’Orcia meets the first flanks of Monte Amiata, lies this tiny spa town, whose thermal springs made it known since the times of the Romans. And relative isolation and few inhabitants insured that the place kept its natural, wild and distinctive look over the centuries.

A real small river of hot thermal, waters crosses the wood, and creates a fabulous landscape, with large, white calcareous rocks, small waterfalls, and natural pools with warm waters, up to the largest pool, dominated by a huge calcareous slab of rock called Moby Dick by the locals. Moby Dick was created and carved by the flowing river itself during the past millennia, and its form and colour are indeed reminescent of Melville’s creation.

Take the path just outside the village and enter the wood: soon you’ll hear the murmuring of the “white ditch”, and, after a few more steps, you’ll be in front of this natural marvel. The experience of a hot bath amid a luxuriant wood is something magical in itself, but try and imagine it in winter, with the wood and trees under a slight snow cover: a unique, unforgettable adventure!

photo credit Paesaggi di Maremma

4. Taste the cacciucco alla livornese in the right place

If you are on holiday along the Tuscan littoral, or you are already on your way back and bound to take a plane from Pisa airport, take your time and treat yourself to a traditional lunch or dinner in Livorno.

Tuscan cuisine boasts in its very ancient tradition many great recipes: home-made pasta sorts, meat, venison, soups and cold meats in the inland, anchovies “sottopesto” (with home-made sauces), fresh fish, and spaghetti with seafood – and much more – along the coast.

But the fishsoup called cacciucco can be tasted only in Livorno in its genuine, inimitable version. It is, indeed, more than a simple fishsoup.

The recipe is centuries-old. Some say it was born as a poor man’s fishmeal: tiny fish hard to sell, stale bread with garlic to mask the strong smell. But over the centuries the recipe became sophisticated, tomato and “savours”, “sapori” – onion, celery, carrots – were added, and today the cacciucco is a real culinary experience, a mixture of fish and ingredients that calls to the mind the complex and happy mixture of people and cultures that is typical of the city of Livorno.

Cooking the soup is a slow, complicated process, so the best is to book one day ahead in one of the many good, historical taverns in Livorno’s harbour. The specialised taverns keep their style and atmosphere classic and unaltered, with a good, old-fashioned jolly spirit.

Order cacciucco only, nothing else. It will be served in huge portions, accompanied, as the tradition wants it, by a good glass of red wine.

A curiosity: in some restaurants, you will be given an adult-sized “bib”. Accept it: eating a cacciucco, with all its variety of seafood, is a rather complicated operation, and the risk of spotting one’s clothes with the delightful tomato sauce is serious!
Enjoy your meal!

photo credit Susan Lucas Hoffman

5. An excursion to the isle of Pianosa

If your holiday itinerary in Tuscany includes the Tyrrhenian coastline, add an excursion to Pianosa Isle: it will be an unforgettable experience.

There are ferries to Pianosa leaving regularly from San Vincenzo, Piombino, and the Isola d’Elba, from spring to the end of summer. They leave in the morning and come back to the mainland at twilight.

From the ferry, the island will appear like a very narrow strip of land, just a shade darker than the sea itself. Since 1858, Pianosa has been an agricultural penal colony, and for over a century convicts have broken up, tilled, and fertilized the land. Now it is no longer a penal institution, and population ranges from two forest rangers in winter to a maximum of twenty people in summer.

To preserve the beauty and natural character of the island, access is limited to 250 persons each day, and bathing permitted only on the beach in front of the tiny village. Cala Giovanna has a beach with the finest, white sand and a crystal waters with a thousand tones of turquoise. You can see all sorts of fish, all much like in the Caribbean.

The best period to visit is perhaps spring, when the crags are covered in yellow, pink and white flowers, and the uncultivated fields are full of birds and butterflies. Walking among the Aleppo pines and rosemary, and discover breathtaking panoramas of the sea almost at every corner, during the tour of the island, is a great experience. Beautiful dry stone walls are a testimony to the hard work of the convicts, and there are perfect white streets, and the tall former prison that dominates the island like a castle.

From a boat, you will see the thousand small caverns that were formed by the erosion of wind and water on the island’s sandstone basis.

Before leaving, visit the catacombs too, that can be reached through a small grotto near the harbour: there is an intricate system of galleries, probably the burying places chosen by early, small christian communities that settled on the island, attracted by its abundant water and fertile land.
A day dedicated to nature, its colours and its parfums!

photo credit Roberto Miliani

Tuscany Suits You offers you complete assistance for building your travel in Tuscany, reservations of hotels etc., cars with or without a driver, advice on places to visit with classic and unusual tours and one day excursions, events not to miss, or simply on the right tavern where you can taste the original Tuscan cuisine.

Photo cover credits Marco De Naro