Tuscany

The Small Towns You Can't Miss in Southern Tuscany

Tuscany covers a large area of the Italian countryside and there are so many different areas to choose from. The Chianti region--the area between Florence and Siena (read about it here)--is one of the most popular maybe because of its proximity to Florence, maybe because of the shear number of quaint medieval hill towns or maybe because of the delicious, drinkable wine. But there are other wonderful areas to check out too.

For our 1 year anniversary, my husband and I decided to visit a part of this beautiful region that we had never been to (and did not get a chance to visit during our busy wedding week). So after a few days eating our way through Emilia Romagna, we made our way down to the area south of Siena to learn about Brunello & Vino Nobile, take a road trip through the picturesque Val d'Orcia and to relax in a cozy farmhouse. I recommend visiting this area especially if you're into wine because some of the best in Italy is found here but I also recommend visiting this area to simply relax and admire the views. NOTE: A car is needed to explore this area but don't worry, the roads are not nearly as busy and hectic as they are in Florence or Rome!

WHAT TO SEE & DO

VAL D'ORCIA

Val d'Orcia

Val d'Orcia

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-see for its green rolling hills, cypress-lined roads, vineyards and old medieval hill top towns and castles. Hit the road for these towns in particular and keep your camera ready at all times.   

MONTALCINO - The main star of this little town is the wine (more on that below), but the boutique shopping is great too. Be sure to check out family-run shop Sartoria Principe (Piazza del Popolo, 2) for some stylish casual-wear and quality table linens made on the premises. Also family-run Montalcino 564 (Piazza del Popolo, 36) is a lovely little shop stocked with fine perfumes and soaps and linens for the home. Before you leave, make sure you wander the outskirts of town along the walls for some breathtaking views.

Piazza del Popolo, Montalcino

Piazza del Popolo, Montalcino

A beautiful view from Montalcino

A beautiful view from Montalcino

PIENZA - Perhaps my favorite of them all if I had to decide. Quite small but with a cuteness factor of 100+. Stop for a few gorgeous photos along the Belvedere lookout point overlooking the valley and then grab a traditional Tuscan lunch at Trattoria Latte di Luna (Via San Carlo, 2/4). You won't be disappointed.

A vintage Fiat 500 parked in Pienza

A vintage Fiat 500 parked in Pienza

The streets of Pienza

The streets of Pienza

Quaint bar in Pienza

Quaint bar in Pienza

MONTEPULCIANO - An inviting medieval town with lots of cute shops and cafes. I recommend relaxing in Piazza Grande with a glass of wine (more on that below) as you watch the world go by. Before continuing on to the next adorable town on your itinerary, stop at Caffe Poliziano (Via Voltaia del Corso, 27/29) for an espresso in an old, elegant coffee shop. If you're not in a hurry try to snag a spot on the terrace in the back for some nice views.

Piazza Grande, Montepulciano

Piazza Grande, Montepulciano

MONTICCHIELLO - The tiniest of the towns but all the more reason to visit. The views overlooking the valley are spectacular and the cobblestone streets are super charming. For an amazing meal, make a reservation at Osteria La Porta (Via del Piano, 3) for dinner. The bistecca alla fiorentina served with a fresh, green salad and cannellini beans was possibly the best meal I've ever had in Italy. So simple, yet so delicious. 

The breathtaking view from Monticchiello

The breathtaking view from Monticchiello

CORTONA

Located about 45 min Northeast of Montepulciano is this medieval town where Under the Tuscan Sun took place. Stroll the quaint cobblestone streets and take in some fantastic views of the countryside and nearby Lake Trasimeno from the town walls. Fill your bellies with some yummy local specialties in an old wine cellar at Ristorante La Bucaccia (Via Ghibellina, 17). If the owner likes you, he will give you a shot of grappa on your way out (yikes!)

Piazza della Repubblica, Cortona

Piazza della Repubblica, Cortona

The bell tower in Cortona

The bell tower in Cortona

A small Cortonese street

A small Cortonese street

DRINK SOME LOCAL WINE

  • Brunello di Montalcino DOCG - One of Italy's most well-known, highly-rated and expensive wines made from 100% Sangiovese grapes and aged for 2 years in Oak barrels followed by at least 4 months in the bottle. A great way to taste and buy some is to stop into one of the wine shops in town or if you have a bit more time, visit one of the wineries on the road into town. Be sure to pick up a few bottles, since this stuff back home costs a pretty penny.
  • Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG - Not to be confused with Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, this prestigious wine is a blend of mostly Sangiovese grapes with some other local varietals. It's aged for at least 2 years, 1 of which in oak barrels. A great place to try and buy is at the historical winery in town, Cantina Contucci (Via del Teatro, 1), or at the impressive Avignonesi Estate (Via Colonica, 1, Valiano di Montepulciano) located 20 min outside of town. Be sure to try a riserva as well, which has been aged a bit longer, it's quite delicious!
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano at Cantina Contucci

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano at Cantina Contucci

WHERE TO STAY

This area is chock full of charming old farmhouses and villas that have been restored and turned into beautiful inns and hotels. Here are my favorites all of which are strategically located in the Val d'Orcia making it easy to get to all of the towns above.

  • Poggio Piglia - A favorite of mine perhaps because of the friendly and hospitable innkeeper, Paolo. But the rustic yet modern decor (those wood-beamed ceilings!) and spacious bathrooms, some with soaking tubs overlooking the hills outside, was pretty amazing too. A delish onsite restaurant with a lovely outdoor terrace (and chocolate cake you dream about) and a refreshing infinity pool with a view make you never want to go home. Starting around $200/nt. (Macciano, SI)
  • Villa Armena - A rustic boutique property with traditional yet luxurious decor and modern bathrooms with soaking tubs. An onsite restaurant, wine cellar and free-form pool make this another solid choice. Rumor has it the house dog is super cute too. Starting around $200/nt. (Buonconvento, SI)    
  • Follonico - A very small, old farmhouse with cozy, rustic decor. What it lacks in amenities (no restaurant or pool), it makes up for in charm. Guests can expect breakfast though, with freshly-baked, locally-sourced goods. And the view is to die for. Starting around $250/nt. (Località Casale 2, Torrita di Siena, SI) 
  • La Bandita - For a bit of a splurge, go for this stylish spot with a stunning infinity pool in a remote location outside of Pienza. No restaurant but locally-sourced breakfasts served daily. If you'd prefer being closer to town and having a restaurant, check out sister property La Bandita Townhouse. Both starting around $350/nt. (La Bandita: Localita Podere Lucia 14, Pienza, SI; Townhouse: Corso il Rossellino 111, Pienza, SI)
Luxury farmhouse accommodations at Poggio Piglia

Luxury farmhouse accommodations at Poggio Piglia

Aperitivo on the terrace, Poggio Piglia

Aperitivo on the terrace, Poggio Piglia

The driveway to Poggio Piglia

The driveway to Poggio Piglia

Lastly, this is definitely one of those trips that you will need to leave some room in your suitcase. The wine is just too delicious not to bring home. Tip: I love packing a foldable nylon weekend bag (like a Bric's on Longchamp) and then using it for clothes on the way home so the wine can fit in the suitcase! Sometimes, if you're lucky, the airline won't even charge you to check it which is an added bonus. Another tip: Amazon sells these wonderful sleeves for your wine that are lined with bubble wrap and they seal at the top so your clothes don't get ruined if a bottle breaks. Ciao for now!

Cam and me taking in the view of the Tuscan countryside

Cam and me taking in the view of the Tuscan countryside

A sunset over Tuscany

A sunset over Tuscany

Awesome Alternative Accommodations in Italy: the Agriturismo

Castello di Bibbione
Castello di Bibbione

In my last post about places to see in Tuscany, I mentioned that you have some options in where/how you stay. Florence provides a great home base for taking day trips and is chock full of hotels, B&Bs, hostels even. It is also a common jumping off point for organized tours and public transportation such as trains and buses. But a great, affordable alternative is to experience an agriturismo. Agriturismi are actual working farms that offer accommodations in its farmhouses or villas. The style of accommodations can vary-- from rustic to luxurious, traditional Tuscan to modern-- and some even offer swimming pools and spas. One thing they all have in common is that they produce some type of food, usually olives for olive oil or grapes for wine, that you get to sample and bring home as a souvenir. Yes, you're technically staying on a farm but since you're in Tuscany the scenery is spectacular and nothing like Old MacDonald's. I've stayed in both a hotel in Florence and an agriturismo in the countryside and both were lovely experiences in their own way. The most memorable though was my week at Il Castello di Bibbione, an agriturismo in San Casciano in Val di Pesa, known for being Niccolò Machiavelli's hunting grounds. It is located just 30 minutes south of Florence, about 40 min north of Siena, and close to the autostrada (the major highway) which made it a perfect location for exploring. The grounds consisted of a castle which had a few separate rooms, a 4-bedroom villa for large groups, several 1 & 2-bedroom apartments, 2 swimming pools and a breakfast room. At one point in time it used to be a small village so the buildings are all in walking distance of each other. Each room/dwelling was outfitted in rustic yet charming Tuscan décor and each had its own kitchen so you could cook a meal with the food you picked up from the local market that day. Some apartments had outdoor patios with a grill and the villa even had a wood-fire pizza oven built into the side of the building. You can bet we took advantage of that!

Two things that you probably won't find at an agriturismo are daily room service (although you can request new linens if necessary), and a concierge (however the receptionists are very knowledgeable and friendly). That doesn't necessarily mean you won't find high-end amenities though if that's what you're looking for. They do exist, especially with luxury agriturismi popping up on the map more and more lately (I just saw one on Jetsetter). Also, some do not have restaurants onsite or only offer meals during part of the day, so that is something to keep in mind. But hey, it gives you a great excuse to get a flavor for local life at the market in town as you stock up on provisions. Which brings me to my next point.

A car was imperative for staying at the agriturismo and for exploring the area. You might be able to find some that are accessible by bus but more than likely you will be quite off the beaten path so I highly recommend renting a car. Don't be scared, rent that Fiat and have fun with it! Cars, especially stick shifts, are pretty inexpensive to rent ($100-150/wk for a standard size). Automatics are tougher to find but it is possible and you do need to reserve one in advance. Note: it's totally worth renting the GPS with your car or you're stuck reading maps and I bet it's been awhile you've had to do that, thanks Google. If you're not keen on driving, then you might be better off staying in Florence where you can catch trains, buses and tour groups.

Important note about driving: If you are renting a car, be sure to watch for signs indicating you are about to enter a Limited Traffic Zone or Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL). You are NOT allowed to drive in these zones which are usually found at the historical city center of most cities in Tuscany and you WILL get a ticket. They have cameras set up that take pictures of your license plate and the rental agency will mail you a piece of paper in Italian several weeks later when you're least expecting it. More info on ZTLs here. Also, when on the highway watch for signs indicating a speed trap known as Controllo elettronico della velocità. You are always warned ahead of time, several times actually, that one is approaching so just keep an eye out for the sign with a little policeman on it and slowww down. Yes, that is probably why you see all the people ahead of you randomly braking. Do yourself a favor and take the hint.

Tuscany is such an amazing destination that no matter how you see it you will find enjoyment. But I hope that this article encourages you to trade the chain hotel for an agriturismo on your next trip. You might surprise yourself--I know I did--and find out there's more to traveling than staying at the Hilton.

Note: If you're not sure about how to go about finding an agriturismo, let me know below or shoot me a message and I'll show you a few websites that I've found to be helpful.

The view at Castello di Bibbione

The view at Castello di Bibbione

Villa il Poggio, Castello di Bibbione

Villa il Poggio, Castello di Bibbione

One of the two pools

One of the two pools

Tuscan living room

Tuscan living room

Pizza oven

Pizza oven

Our Fiat for the week. Meep meep!

Our Fiat for the week. Meep meep!

7 Places to See in Tuscany

Tuscany. One of the largest and most-visited regions in Italy. It is no wonder that it tops many people's bucket lists with land comprising of vast plains, gorgeous green rolling hills, hundreds of vineyards and lots of quaint, medieval hillside towns. It is such a beautiful place words cannot describe and that photos don't do justice topped off with some of the most delicious food and wine around. If this dreamy destination is not on your list, it should be. And for a decent chunk of time. There is so much to see and do in Tuscany that you really should plan to spend at least a week to get a taste of the wonderful culture. And then you should go back and do more. Better yet, you should just move there like Diane Lane does in Under the Tuscan Sun. But if that cannot happen well then here is a list of 7 places to see on your next trip to Tuscany that will have you longing for more.

A street in Florence

A street in Florence

PISA

Home of the Leaning Tower and pretty much nothing else. A half day is more than enough in this touristy city and trains run regularly here every day from Florence (about a 30 min ride). The Leaning Tower can be found in Piazza dei Miracoli. It is free to wander the grounds but you have to buy a ticket to climb it. I've never felt the need to do that. There are tons of tourists here so you will probably just want to get your picture and turn right around. Avoid eating or drinking near the Leaning Tower because those places tend to rip off tourists. Instead stop at Il Crudo in nearby Piazza Cairoli (Piazza Cairoli 8) for a delicious panino.

An obligatory picture with the Leaning Tower

An obligatory picture with the Leaning Tower

FIESOLE

Another great day trip from Florence, this charming little town is located up on the hills slightly north of the city so has a spectacular view and also has a cute little piazza with trattorias and gelaterias. Make sure you wander the side streets up the hill because there are spectacular views once you reach the top. If you are staying in Florence and unable to spend time exploring the Tuscan countryside but want a taste for it, this is the place to go. It is a quick 20 minutes on ATAF bus number 7 from Piazza San Marco. Purchase your tickets inside the tabaccheria. Make sure to validate (stamp) your ticket in the machine as soon as you board the bus.

Views from Fiesole

Views from Fiesole

SIENA

Another major city of Tuscany but smaller than Florence and a little over an hour south. You will want at least a full day to explore this city. Piazza del Campo is the main square full of places to eat and bustling with people. Definitely fun to wander around. For an amazing Tuscan meal off the beaten path in a super cute tiny square with a great outside patio, visit Enoteca I Terzi (Via dei Termini 7). Also, the Duomo (Piazza del Duomo 8) is supposedly one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Tuscany, especially the interior. Other than that have fun and get lost wandering the streets, my most favorite activity.

Lunch al fresco at Enoteca I Terzi

Lunch al fresco at Enoteca I Terzi

CERTALDO ALTO

Definitely a lesser known town in Tuscany, my husband and I stumbled upon this place when we were searching for a town with a city hall to get married. This one definitely fit the bill-- old and medieval, perched up high on a hill with gorgeous views of the rolling Tuscan countryside, quaint, and filled with cobblestone streets for strolling. Cars need a special permit to drive up here so visitors must park at the town below (Certaldo proper) and take the funiculare up the hill, which just adds to the charm. It is a really small town that you don't need a full day for but is a great place to relax outside with some wine and bruschetta at a cute little cafe like Enoteca Boccaccio (Via Boccaccio 37) taking in the scenery. It's about 45 min to an hour south of Florence.

The quaint town of Certaldo Alto

The quaint town of Certaldo Alto

SAN GIMIGNANO

Another quaint medieval town great for wandering around located about an hour south of Florence. A few hours are perfect for exploring the many cute streets lined with shops and places to grab a bite or drink. This town produces one of the few white wines in Tuscany, Vernaccia, and it's pretty good so make sure to have a glass! The views on the drive to town are so amazing and exactly how you would picture Tuscany. This town can get pretty crowded but escape the masses and have a delicious panino and glass of wine for lunch at dal Bertelli (Via Capassi 30), a cute little spot off the main tourist drag that offers local ingredients.

The towers of San Gimignano

The towers of San Gimignano

MONTERIGGIONI

This small, fortified medieval town still has its walls intact. Walk along the walls for amazing views of Tuscany and relax in its piazza with an espresso or prosecco. You don't need more than 2 hours here because it is so small. It's about an hour south of Florence and on the way to Siena.

The view from the walls of Monteriggioni 

The view from the walls of Monteriggioni 

Not mentioned in the list above but something everyone should include in their trip is a visit to a winery. There are literally hundreds in Tuscany to choose from whether it be a huge, well-established brand or a small, family-owned name. On my last trip, I visited the new Antinori Winery (Via Cassia per Siena 133, Bargino) which was down the street from where we were staying. Antinori is a huge production (some bottles can be found in the States) and the facilities were nothing short of spectacular. On my next trip, however, I plan to make it to some of the smaller, independently-owned wineries for a more intimate experience. Here is a helpful site that lists all the wineries in the Chianti region of Tuscany and here is another helpful resource that includes some other Tuscan wine regions as well. Be sure to check the winery's own website to make sure they are still in business and for more details on their hours.

The crew at Antinori Winery

The crew at Antinori Winery

Curious about where to stay? You could choose to stay in Florence which serves as a good home base and has plenty of hotels. For a splurge, stay at the Westin or St. Regis which are centrally-located, on the river Arno and housed in buildings with beautiful architecture that make you think for second you're in a museum. OR, you could opt to stay in the countryside in an agriturismo which is an excellent and affordable option (you will just need a car). What is an agriturismo you ask? Well, my next post will be all about it and the agriturismo that I stayed at, so check back soon or follow me to receive a notification.

Wondering about Florence? Read my post on that here.

Not on this list but a top priority for my next trip to Tuscany are the towns of Montalcino and Montepulciano for their exceptional wine-- Vino Nobile and Brunello. If you've been to either of these places, I'd love to hear all about it including any wineries you visited. Leave me a comment below, per favore!

And as always, if you have any specific questions about Tuscany I encourage you to ask away! Happy traveling :)

Mangia! Mangia! Eating in Florence and Tuscany

Ahh, Tuscany. I can almost taste the earthy Chianti Classico and the bowl of al dente pici in a light pecorino "sauce" as I type. We all can't help but associate good food and plentiful wine when we think of Tuscany. And that's for good reason. Tuscany is home to hundreds of wineries and serves up some of the most simple yet delicious food around. And Florence, being the capital of Tuscany, is full of amazing dining experiences. I love the Italian approach to eating--whatever's in season and whatever's nearby. Here in the States it's become trendy to "eat local" but in Italy it's just what you do. And I also love that in this region in particular, the dishes are quite simple but so incredibly delicious thanks to the fresh, quality ingredients used. That pici that I mentioned above, I recall having for lunch in a casual trattoria one day and being blown away only by 4 ingredients-- pasta (homemade of course), olive oil, pecorino cheese, and black pepper. My husband ordered penne alla pomodoro (pasta with tomato sauce, yup that's all) and he still talks about it.

With good food must come good wine and luckily there is plenty of that available. Tuscany is known for its reds thanks to the sangiovese grape that grows on its vines. There are some whites available (Vernaccia di San Gimignano being a good one) but reds definitely dominate this region--Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano to name a few. And we can't forget about the lovely dessert wine--Vin Santo. The local thing to do is to sip that with cantucci (what biscotti are known as in this region) for dipping.

Italy takes their wine very seriously (no new info there) and has a rating system which can help consumers distinguish the quality. Top quality wines are labeled DOCG, followed by DOC, and lastly IGT. You will see this on menus and on a label on the bottleneck. Now, let me say that IGT doesn't mean the wine is bad, it just means that it hasn't met the strict regulations (certain percentage of grape variety, location in which it's produced, etc.) that DOCG and DOC wines must meet to wear the label. Unless you're a sommelier or wine connoisseur, chances are the house chianti you order with dinner that is labeled IGT will be fantastic and only about 8 euro a bottle.

Tip: When ordering wine, do yourself a favor and choose something from Tuscany. Just like eating local the Italians like to drink local as well. And when else are you going to be in the middle of wine country able to sip a red made by Giovanni down the street? It doesn't get any better than that. 

So it's pretty much a no-brainer that your visit to this region will involve lots and lots of great eating and drinking (better pack elastic-waisted pants...) so here's a list of my favorite places to dine in Florence:

- Il Santo Bevitore - My absolute favorite place for dinner but reservations are a must. They also have a tiny little wine bar next door to the restaurant that was super quaint and great for a glass. It's located in a great neighborhood--Oltrarno--which (as the word translates) is on the other side of the river, away from the touristy crowd and with some great boutique shopping nearby. (Via di Santo Spirito, 66r)

- Ristorante Parione - Another great place for dinner. At first I was nervous when I was being led to my table in the basement, until I saw that the basement was actually a wine cellar. Such a cool atmosphere! Food was delicious and the owner makes you feel like you're at home. Reservations recommended. (Via di Parione, 74/76r)

- Il Pizzaiuolo - Pizzeria with the best pizza I've ever had outside of Naples. Very casual but buzzing atmosphere and pretty inexpensive meal for a lot of food. Reservations are recommended because this place is always busy. Closed on Sundays. (Via de Macci, 113)

- Il Borgo Antico - Outdoor seating in a really cute piazza. Yummy food. They don't take reservations but I've been told if you have to wait they give you a glass of prosecco! I went for an early dinner so I didn't have to wait but by the time I left the place was hopping. This is also in the Oltrarno neighborhood I mentioned above, away from the touristy crowd. (Piazza Santo Spirito)

- Il Latini - They seat you family style here at either 7:30pm or 9pm. You can make reservations but it didn't seem to matter. I showed up for the first seating at 7 and people were already lined up. I just hopped in line and they opened the doors at 7:30. Really good tuscan food including the locally-famous Florentine Steaks. Closed on Mondays. (Via del Pachetti, 6R)

- Trattoria ZaZa - Great for pasta. Casual place. The truffle fettuccine was ridic. (Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 26r)

- Alla Vecchia Bettola - Slightly outside the old walls of the city, but a nice walk on the other side of the river. Definitely off the beaten path and so totally worth the walk. Had an awesome traditional tuscan lunch with checkered tablecloths, wooden stools, and 4 euro all you can drink house chianti. (Via Pratolini, 3)

- Gelateria La Carraia - There are literally gelaterias on every street corner of this city but this one had the yummiest flavors. Latte di mandorla? Si, per favore! (Piazza Nazario Sauro, 25r)

The only thing I've failed to mention is coffee or caffé as it's known in Italy. Stay tuned for Caffé Cultura:101 in which I will fill you in on what you need to know about ordering coffee in Italy. In the meantime, buon appetito! And sorry if I made you hungry.

Tuscan style lunch in Florence
Tuscan style lunch in Florence
Pizza in Florence
Pizza in Florence
Vin Santo e cantucci in Florence

Vin Santo e cantucci in Florence

Family Style at Il Latini
Family Style at Il Latini