Things to Do in Tuscany
Every Italian city has its central piazza where the city's political, social and cultural business took place, and Siena's is pretty magnificent. The Piazza del Campo was developed in the mid-14th century by the ruling Council of Nine who, naturally, divided the space into nine sectors, each representing one of them. Never be in any doubt that a lot of self-aggrandizement existed during this period.
At one end of the square is the magnificent Palazzo Pubblico, or town hall (now also housing the Museo Civico) and from here the shell-shaped space radiates out. The bell tower of 1297, Torre del Mangia, rises from the palazzo and from up here there are great views. Enclosing the remainder of the square are the Late Gothic palaces of the grand medieval families of Siena. The Fonte Gaia, or fountain of life, is a white marble focal point and meeting place at the top end of the piazza. Twice a year, in July and August, the madness of the traditional bareback horse race.
Siena's magnificent Tuscan Gothic cathedral is not to be missed. And if you're in Siena you can't miss it because it dominates the place. Rising high with its magnificent white and greenish black stripes, it has a bit of red thrown in on the front facade and lots of detailing - including scrolls, biblical scenes and gargoyles. In the centre is the huge rose window designed by Duccio di Buoninsegna in 1288. Statues of prophets and philosophers by Giovanni Pisano which used to adorn the facade are now housed indoors at the nearby Museo Dell'Opera.
Inside the place is equally impressive with art by Donatello, Bernini and early Michelangelo. Some of the best pieces such as Duccio di Buoninsegni's Maesta have been moved next door to the Museo Dell'Opera. Unlike other cathedrals where you are craning your neck to see magnificent ceilings and frescoes, here you need to look down at the mosaic floor. The whole floor is tiled and is one of the most impressive in Italy.
UNESCO-listed Pienza was little more than a sleepy hamlet until the reign of Pope Pius II in the first half of the fifteenth century. Pienza, then called Corsignano, was the pope’s home town, and he enlisted the help of architect Bernardo Rossellino to transform the village into an ideal Renaissance town. The reconstruction began in 1459 and only lasted four years, but the result has put Pienza on the radar of many a traveler to Tuscany.
The town’s historic center offers excellent examples of Renaissance architecture, particularly the cathedral, Palazzo Piccolomimi and Palazzo Borgia, all flanking charming Piazza Pio II. While it’s easy to breeze through the tiny town — it only takes five minutes to walk from one side to the other — it’s also an inviting place to savor a local specialty, sheep’s milk pecorino cheese with a bit of honey drizzled over the top.
Taking prize place beside the Town Hall on Piazza Duomo, the Collegiate Church of San Gimignano, or the Duomo of San Gimignano, ranks among most impressive monuments of San Gimignano’s UNESCO-listed historic center. Behind its comparatively reserved façade, the church’s main claim to fame is its exquisite frescos, which date back to the 14th and 15th centuries, and remain remarkably unrestored. The bold colors and painstaking detail bring to life iconic biblical scenes including Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, the Garden of Eden and dramatic depictions of Heaven and Hell, with highlights including works by Bartolo di Fredi, Lippo Memmi, Benozzo Gozzoli and Taddeo di Bartolo.
Adjoining the church, the small Museum of Sacred Art includes more works taken from the Collegiata and other San Gimignano churches, including a Crucifix by Benedetto di Maiano and the ‘Madonna of the Rose’ by Bartolo di Fredi.
Some of the finest gems of Western architecture are clustered on Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli, known locally as Piazza del Duomo.
Your first sight of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Duomo and the Baptistery is literally breathtaking, their white marble shining in the sunshine on a bed of emerald green lawn against a summer’s blue sky.
Apart from the glorious architecture – white, red and green marble, Romanesque curves, Tuscan arches and Gothic points – it’s the almost surreal spatial quality of the buildings that creates a sensation.
Come here during the day to see the buildings’ white marble shine in the sunlight, and return again at night when visitors are fewer and the buildings are beautifully floodlit.
Rising high above the Piazza del Campo is the bell tower, Torre del Mangia, built in the early 1300s. It reaches nearly 90 metres above the Palazzo Pubblico and was intended to be exactly the same height at the bell tower of the Duomo to indicate equality between church and state. These are the two structures that still soar high above the historic center of Siena.
If you have the stomach for heights and no fear of tight spaces, climb the 500 steps for a great view down onto the square and across the city beyond. The irony is, of course, that the tower is named after its first watchman, an overweight glutton, hence the name Tower of the Eater. It’s not sure he would ever have made it up the top to see the view.
The Palazzo Pubblico is hard to miss. A magnificent stone and red brick building begun in 1297, with excellent towers and crenellations, it is everything one could hope for from a Gothic town hall. Situated on the lower side of the Piazza Campo, the building is shaped to fit the design of the civic square and has a subtle curve to it.
These days it retains its government functions and also houses the city museum, Museo Civico, which is well worth a visit for its frescoes, paintings and sculptures. The Sienese school was artistically significant and the late medieval frescoes were some of the first to depict non-religious themes. Instead they made statements about government, justice and patriotic devotion. The most significant is the huge fresco cycle of 1337 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, entitled Allegory of Good and Bad Government; it’s not difficult to get the painting’s message.
More Things to Do in Tuscany
Designed by the renowned architect Giovanni Mengoni in the late 19th century, Florence’s Mercato Centrale is a cavernous, two-storey market hall that’sl full of Tuscan foods. The biggest market in the city, on the outside it’s all iron and lots of glass. Enter on the ground floor to see rows and rows of meats and cheeses including mounds of fresh buffalo mozzarella, and food bars where you can stop for a snack or a panini. The northern corner’s where to buy fish and shellfish, while the second floor is given over to vegetable stands.
All kinds of foods can be bought here, from fresh bread to pasta and pizza, gelato and chocolate. There’s also the popular Chianti Classico wine store, which you can arrange to have any wine you buy shipped home. You can also sign up for wine tasting classes or head to the market’s cooking school.
With its lively piazzas, striking Gothic monuments and remarkably preserved city walls, the historic centre of Siena is one of Italy’s most impressive medieval sites and it remains the nucleus of the modern-day city. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, the old town is a veritable open-air museum, crammed with architectural gems, historic buildings and museums, as well as one of Europe’s oldest universities.
The historic centre of Siena is best explored on foot and the obvious starting point is the enormous Piazza del Campo. Located at the heart of the city, the piazza hosts Siena’s famous Palio horse races, as well as being home to landmarks like the medieval Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall), the Fontana Gaia fountain and the 90-meter high Torre del Mangia. Nearby, the marble-fronted Duomo cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and one of Siena’s most impressive sights.
Florence’s spacious Piazza della Signoria has long been one of the city’s main meeting points. The Palazzo Vecchio, which anchors one side of the square, was once home to the rulers of the Florentine Republic, and today still serves as the city’s town hall. This square, then, was often used by those seeking favor (or protesting) their government.
Today, the Palazzo Vecchio houses a museum along with the town hall, and the Piazza della Signoria is lined with other major attractions. In front of the Palazzo Vecchio you’ll find a copy of Michelangelo’s famous “David” statue (in the place where the original once stood). The open-air gallery that is the Loggia dei Lanzi contains a collection of sculptures. And to one side of the Palazzo Vecchio is a fountain with a huge statue of Neptune.
The Piazza della Signoria was the site of the 14th century “Burning of the Vanities” led by the monk Savonarola, and it’s also where Savonarola was later hanged.
You'll catch glimpses of the red-tiled dome of the Duomo, or Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori, peeping over the rooftops as soon as you arrive in Florence.
The 13th-century Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio was responsible for building many landmarks in Florence but this is his showstopper. The beautiful ribbed dome was creatively added by Brunelleschi in the 1420s.
The building took 170 years to complete, and the facade was remodeled to reflect Cambio’s design in the 19th century.
Inside the Duomo, your eyes are inevitably drawn upwards to that soaring painted dome and lovely stained-glass windows by such masters as Donatello. Visit the crypt, where Brunelleschi's tomb lies, or to the top of the enormous dome itself for stupendous views over Florence.
One of the oldest buildings in Florence, it's thought that the octagonal Baptistery stands on the site of an ancient Roman temple. It may even have been built as early as the 5th century. The striking Romanesque cladding of white and green marble was added in the early 12th century.
Inside, the Baptistery features gold mosaics, marble columns and tombs. Look up to catch the best views of the gilded mosaics covering the cupola.
Perhaps the Baptistery's most famous attraction is its trio of gilded bronze doors, decorated with panels. Examine the panels up close to admire their incredible details.
Historic Palazzo Vecchio ('old palace') has been at the political heart of Florence for more than 7 centuries. With its late-medieval crenellated roofline and soaring defensive tower, it dominates the lovely buildings and sculptures of Piazza della Signoria in the heart of Florence.
The striking building was built in the early 1300s, and was redecorated by the ruling Medici family in the 16th century. Inside you can imagine how life at the top was lived in Renaissance Florence by touring the luxuriously decorated chambers.
From the courtyards to the chapel and private rooms, you’ll see elaborately decorated ceilings, frescoes by the celebrated Renaissance painter Vasari, and statues by such luminaries as Donatello and Michelangelo.
Climb to the top of the tower for stupendous views of Florence and the Arno valley.
Palazzo Strozzi may not be one of Florence's most popular museums, but those in the know say this fine example of Renaissance architecture is a must-see spot in Italy for art, history and Italian culture. What was constructed during the late 1400s as a residence for the Strozzi family, later became one of the largest temporary exhibition spaces in the city, drawing private collections from across the globe to the halls of this Florence destination.
In addition to galleries and halls jam-packed with ancient art, frescos and contemporary design, Palazzo Strozzi offers travelers and locals new and unique ways to engage with art. The scenic courtyard hosts free concerts, movie nights and cultural activities in warmer months, while permanent touch-screen installations showcase the history of the museum for those interested in learning more.
The Pitti Palace was built by rivals of the powerful Medici family in the mid-1400s. A century later, the Medicis took over the huge Renaissance palace, and it was the home of Florentine rulers until the early 20th century.
Today the massive palace houses a number of picture galleries and museums, and is surrounded by gardens and ornate fortifications. To see the entire collection would take days if not weeks, so choose your favorites and plunge in!
A tour of the royal apartments reveals the Medicis' taste for over-the-top decor. An impressive collection of Renaissance masterpieces is housed in the Palatina Gallery, with works by Raphael, Titian and Rubens.
To see the Medicis family's silverware, head to the Silver Museum, or take a stroll around the Renaissance Boboli Gardens, with its statues and grottoes.
Built over a former Benedictine monastery garden and grain market in the late 14th century, the wrongly often-overlooked church of Orsanmichele was designed along Gothic lines, with ornate tracery around the doors and windows. Each of the wealthy trade guilds in Florence were commissioned to provide statues of their patron saints to fit the 14 niches in the exterior walls but the project lingered on and was eventually completed with exquisite works from such Renaissance masters as Ghiberti, Della Robbia, and Donatello. Replicas now fill the niches while most of the originals have been restored and are displayed in the two-floor museum above the church, where the original Gothic architecture is exposed, giving views of wooden vaulting and decorative brickwork.
Although Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 and lived in the neighborhood, he never actually occupied the building now known as ‘Dante’s House’, a 14th-century labyrinthine townhouse with a small museum attached that is filled with reproduction memorabilia dedicated to the great Italian poet. There is a model of 13th-century Florence, a reconstruction of Dante’s bedroom, illustrations of his poems and reproductions of early manuscripts of his magnum opus The Divine Comedy, which was written after he was banished from Florence for backing the wrong side in political intrigue. As an exile from his home city, he was forced to wander around northern Italy for several years before ending his days in Ravenna in 1321. Although there is nothing on display that actually belonged to Dante, the museum does a decent job of recreating his life and times and goes some distance to explain the convoluted political system of the era.
The most famous bridge in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio, or old bridge, dating from the mid-14th century. But just downstream from the Ponte Vecchio is another beautiful bridge, the favorite of many Florentines - the Ponte Santa Trinita.
Although Italy and Germany were allies during World War II, Nazi troops destroyed every single bridge in Florence spanning the Arno except for one - the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Santa Trinita was turned to rubble. When the bridge was rebuilt in 1958, some of the stones used were from Ammanati’s 16th century bridge, recovered from the Arno after the war. The rest of the stones were quarried from the same place Ammanati went to get stone in 1567. Even the statues of the four seasons were recovered from the river, although the statue of “Spring” remained headless until her head was found in the river in 1961.
If you want to catch those iconic, sweeping views of Florence you've seen in postcards, head to Piazzale Michelangelo. From an elevated position overlooking the city, the fabulous views take in the city's fortified walls, the River Arno, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and, of course, the round red dome of the Duomo.
During the day, drink in the views as you stroll along the Renaissance promenade, overlooked by yet another copy of Michelangelo's David. Return in the evening for magical views of Florence floodlit at night.
Things to do near Tuscany
- Things to do in Siena
- Things to do in Florence
- Things to do in Pisa
- Things to do in San Gimignano
- Things to do in Chianti
- Things to do in Arezzo
- Things to do in Lucca
- Things to do in Livorno
- Things to do in Umbria
- Things to do in Emilia-Romagna
- Things to do in Marche
- Things to do in Perugia
- Things to do in Bologna
- Things to do in Piedmont & Liguria
- Things to do in Lazio