It’s beautiful.  It’s interesting.  It is geographically mesmerizing.  It is a feast for the senses.  Culturally and architecturally it is exceptional.  Whatever your reason for visiting this region of Italy, you will discover so much wonderment and beauty to satisfy the most curious and intelligent traveler.

This is Tuscany.  Welcome!

A sunlit table laden with wholesome lunchytype foods on a balcony over-looking an exquisite tuscan landscape

Welcome to Tuscany!

With a footprint of almost 9,000 square miles, this central Italian region is a combination of glorious cities, like Florence, Sienna and Pisa, gorgeous picturesque towns like San Gimignano, Montepulciano and Volterra and tiny, villages of jewel-like perfection namely Monteriggioni and Cortona.

Where to start your exploration, is usually the dilemma.

Luckily, there are so many well-constructed guided tours of Tuscany, Italy that will make it easy for you to not only narrow down your preferences with ease but to enhance your trip exponentially.


Art and Culture

So starting with Art and Culture, let’s look at some of the really brilliant Viator Tours Florence has to offer.

The ‘Best of Florence Walking Tour’ will allow you to visit some of the busiest museums and galleries in the world without the dreary drudge of queuing.  This 6 hour walking tour, takes you on foot over the Ponte Vecchio which literally translates to ‘old bridge’.

A medieval, stone arched bridge with shops built on top, is over a thousand years old.  The shops on the bridge were historically owned by butchers but today offer jewelry and other tourist souvenirs.

An interesting fact is that in 1944 as the British Army advanced towards German occupied Florence, all of the bridges traversing the Arno were destroyed by the retreating army save for the Ponte Vecchio.

The Best Florence Walking Tour takes you to the Ponte Vecchio. Which is a bridge.

Ponte Vecchio

The tour guide told us that Hitler himself gave the order to save this landmark from destruction.  Whatever the reason, it is an extraordinary bridge to walk over.  Or better yet, get a side on view of the Ponte Vecchio from one of the neighboring bridges.

The golden glow of the rich ocher tones of the red-roofed buildings coupled with the pale yellow cloudy tones of the placid Arno is the view of Florence that for me is memorable.

Your Florentine day tour continues with a visit to the Academia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s statue of David.  The sheer scale and perfection of this 17 foot statue is hard to imagine.  When you consider that Michelangelo was still in his 20’s when he completed this masterpiece, it is the most compelling evidence of his early greatness that preceded his unequaled work in the Sistine Chapel.

After your exploration of the Academia Gallery, your tour will proceed to the Uffizi Gallery where equally spectacular and world famous art awaits.  Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is probably the most well-known artwork in this Gallery but prepare for rooms and rooms of some of the greatest examples of art dating from the Italian Renaissance.  If you are an art connoisseur you will glide through each of these galleries simply dazzled at the offerings on display.

The journey you take on foot through Florence between these galleries is a feast of architecture and statuary greatness.  The wonderful Fountain of Neptune, designed by Bandinelli in the Piazza della Signoria is one of the marvels you will encounter.

Adjacent to the dynamic fountain, is the gory statue of Perseus holding aloft the severed head of Medusa.  Free entry to the Duomo, the gigantic cathedral that dominates the ancient center of Florence is just one of many key buildings you will visit on your walk.

Your tour guide is a well-informed and usually tri-lingual history student that gives such in-depth detail as to breathe new life into all of this ancient splendor.


Cypresses on Hills – The Tuscan Picture Postcard

I don’t know about you, but after a day pounding the dusty pavements of urbanized Italy, I am always delighted to get out into the countryside, return to my salubrious Italian villa and soak up the natural beauty of the Tuscan terrain.  The picturesque cliche you might have imagined of cypresses standing sentinel around ancient stone farmhouses perched on rolling vine-draped hills are a happy reality.

This is the recurring image that will greet you as you curl around another beautiful bend in Tuscany.  If you book yourself onto one of the best bus tours in Tuscany, Italy you can sit back and watch as mother-nature unfurls her majesty.  Bellaitalia Tours, starting from Lucca, a walled city in Northern Tuscany, take smaller groups by bus or minivan to two of the most popular destinations in Tuscany:  San Gimignano and Siena.


San Gimignano

San Gimignano, sitting atop a hill overlooking some of the best vineyards in Tuscany, has 15 high towers, built by merchants in medieval times to display their power and wealth.  This walled town, a UNESCO protected site, sees large numbers of tours arrive early each day, flowing like a tide through the large heavy Gothic gates.

San Gimignano

Late afternoon sees these tourist tides recede and the Town enjoys a peaceful evening when you can quietly walk around the narrow streets, perhaps stopping for dinner in the garden terrace of Le Vecchie Mura – there is no restaurant in Tuscany to rival this view at sunset!  The divine Gelateria Dondoli in the main square is considered one of the greatest ice cream parlors in the world.  Enjoy looking at the many celebrity letters and endorsements that cover the walls.  A pink champagne sorbet topped off my wonderful visit to San Gimignano before heading onto Siena.

The beauty of travelling on a day tour through Tuscany becomes immediately apparent as any respectable expedition in Italy involves a leisurely lunch accompanied by delicious wine.  Chianti is undoubtedly the most famous wine of the region followed by the other tremendous red from Montepulciano and Brunello.  But if a delicious white wine is your tipple of choice, I heartily recommend the Vernaccia di San Gimignano.  It is a local and pretty splendid wine.  This grape is not dissimilar to Pinot Grigio but is, in my opinion, probably more refined.  Don’t leave San Gimignano without trying a little glass.


Siena

And now onto Siena.  Another masterpiece of medieval architecture in Tuscany.  For an afternoon of just rambling around the historic center and the winding cobbled streets, it is sheer perfection.

Siena

There is so much to see and admire.  Museums, galleries, the botanical gardens.  If you are clever and get on a tour that will get you into Siena on 2nd of July or the 16th of August, you will get to experience probably one of the best tours Tuscany has to offer. The famous Palio di Siena medieval horse race.  Unlike the carnage and chaos of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, this exhilarating and colourful spectacle where seventeen horses and riders representing the neighborhoods of the City of Siena, race at break-neck speed around the shell shaped center of the Piazza del Campo is a local event of epic proportions.  The entire city is in full fiesta mode.

It really is one of the best tours of Tuscany, certainly the most memorable and unique.

Your bus tour will allow you to engage fully with all of the sights and scenes as you visit San Gimignano and the glorious Siena without the worry of tackling the twisty roads and fearless local drivers.

You will be decanted in Lucca replete after a wonderful day of sightseeing experiences.


Wine – From Chianti, Montepulciano to Brunello

Visiting vineyards always sounds like such a good idea.

Learning about wine production, sampling the delicious wines, perched in a cool cellar in some remote yet beautiful landscape.  Well, in theory it is all wonderful but definitely not if you are travelling with a large group and it takes on the appearance of a rather badly run school tour!

Of course when you are in Tuscany, you cannot leave without visiting a few select vineyards.

In my opinion, a great day tour in Tuscany is to book a private car and driver with Tuscan Wine Tasting Tours so you can dip in and out of some of the best known and lesser known boutique vineyards in this part of Italy.

With tours that take in the Chianti region, Montepulciano or Brunello di Montelcino hill towns and surrounding vineyards, you can travel along more out of the way routes, get a very personalized perspective from your dedicated driver and enjoy a lovely lunch during your 8 hour tour.

With no waiting around for fellow tourists to rejoin your group or being tied to following the main tourist routes, you will get a wonderful overview of wine production in Tuscany and be dropped to your villa delighted with your day among the vines!


The Flavour of Florence

Anyone who reads my blogs knows that when it comes to Italian food I am a true fan.

I am one of those enthusiasts who gets excited rambling through an open farmers market or stalking the aisles of local supermarkets.  The ingredients that inform the regional table grow in abundance along the fertile slopes of the Tuscan countryside.

How better than to really understand and experience the Taste of Tuscany than to sign up for one of the most enjoyable cooking classes I have experienced?

Walk About Florence offers visitors an opportunity to join a small group of amateur or more experienced cooks in a day of culinary exploration in Florence.

A cooking class, hosted in a traditional farmhouse overlooking the Tuscan countryside follows a morning guided walk through the famous central food market of Florence.  Your capable host for the day, educates the group about the various ingredients and what to choose for the cooking class that will fill the remainder of the day.

Classic staples like bruschetta, handmade fresh pasta, roasted pork with herbed potatoes all topped off with the creamy coffee confection that is Tiramisu are all on the menu.

As you dine on the fruits of your labors on the farmhouse terrace, sipping delicious wines, you will be making memories that you can relive at home each time you recreate the fresh plates of foods that you will learn how to prepare.

It is a day of laughter, relaxation and stimulation:  as tours in Tuscany go, it is well-run and so friendly and fun.


Pisa

The river Arno meanders through Tuscany, dissecting Florence.  If you are a fan of E M Forster’s novel, A Room with a View, you will know that the ‘View’ in question denied to the heroine at the start of the novel is in fact a view of the Arno from her hotel window.  The Arno dissects another famous Tuscan destination:  Pisa.  This lovely city is rather overlooked in many respects.  Tourists charge into the City, rush to the famous leaning tower, take their selfies and rush back to where they’ve come from.

In my opinion, Pisa is a welcome respite from the feverish heat and crowding of Florence in high season.  The Tower and cathedral occupy such a spacious green area in the old city that allows visitors to take in the architectural phenomenon that is the tower and the wonderful buildings in its vicinity.

Prepare yourself for a narrow tilted walk up the curved steps to the top of the tower.  By booking a tour of Pisa you can short circuit some of the lengthy queues that can form at this landmark.

Other interesting points of interest in Pisa is the Palazzo Reale on the banks of the Arno.  This wonderful building, once a summer palace residence for a member of the Medici family, now contains spectacular ancient costumes and tapestries along with arts works and sculpture.

On my walking tour of Pisa, we were the first visitors through the museum doors early one morning and the Director of the Museum kindly stepped away from his duties to walk us through each room and give us the history, not just of the great building but the eclectic contents therein.

For a more laid back and less touristy experience, Pisa is very apt.  It is a Tuscany Tour that really appeals to families as children are fascinated by the Tower.


And now for something rather different …

Visitors to Tuscany rarely consider that it is a region with a coast line.

More so, the group of islands that make up the Tuscan archipelago are rarely thought of by tourists.

As a slice of history, the island of Elba, the third largest island off the Italian coast after Sardinia and Sicily, is an extremely lovely island that can be reached within an hour by ferry from Piombino on the mainland.  The Moby Lines company runs a number of ferry connections to the island and it can be a really fun adventure for you and your family.

Arriving into Portoferraio on the island of Elba, you can pre-book a private tour through the Gruppo Guide Turistiche.

A day in Elba should include a visit to the museum centered round the residence that Napoleon occupied when he was sent into exile.  There are other more ancient ruins around the island referencing its distant past, some divine beaches and coves.  A day of many activities awaits you and your group on Elba.  It is a rather overlooked destination but for me the combination of history and natural beauty make it one of the tours in Tuscany that is most memorable.


Conclusion

It is impossible to cover all of the wonderfully diverse activities that await you in Tuscany.

The region has earned its reputation as a destination that appeals to individuals or groups who want to relax and explore among some of the most beautiful countryside of not just Italy but Europe generally.

The graciousness with which the local Italians welcome guests to this sublime region is everywhere apparent when you join any of the tours that allow you to experience the best of Tuscan hospitality.

I’ve joined many tours of Tuscany over the years and have never been disappointed by the experience.  Tuscany is a region that has so much to offer on so many levels.

Tuscany is universally acknowledged as the home of the Italian Renaissance and it is no small statement to say that you will indeed experience your own personal renaissance after some quiet time spent resting under a cypress tree, on an ancient hill in majestic Tuscany.

About Mairead Moriarty

Born and raised in Co Kerry, lived in London, New York, San Francisco, Dublin. Owner of one very battered suitcase, a well-worn passport and a million memories. It seems very fitting for a travel writer that my surname translates as ‘Skilled Navigator’. Apart from an occasion when, aged 3, I got lost in a Supermarket in Tralee, I have managed to live up to my name! Curiosity is probably the driver that has sent me on magical mystery tours around the world. I want to ‘feel’ a place. I want all my senses to be engaged: from the history and geography that has influenced a country or city, the arts and achievements of its natives, anything and everything really. Regardless of whether I am on a local train travelling through Morocco, or poking around in Marconi’s study in Bologna or on a canal boat weaving through the heart of the English countryside, the same rules apply - ask questions, talk to locals, eat what they eat, sit quietly with nature and simply be. Assimilate as much as is possible so as to understand the soul of a place. That is my passion. That is the compass by which I navigate.

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