Florence, as the primary Renaissance city, is a mandatory holiday destination for history, food, and culture lovers. Sitting at the north of Tuscany, Florence was founded by the Romans and maintained its status as a commercial centre during the middle ages before becoming the cultural hub it is known as today. Sixteen million tourists visit Florence each year, making the city one of the major tourist attractions on the globe.
While visiting downtown Florence visitors are spoilt for choice with a large selection of museums, art galleries, restaurants, and an excess of Italianate buildings. The surrounding countryside is world-famous for its calming no-rush atmosphere, wine tasting tours, and Cypress trees, painting a picture for visitors of old Italy, reminiscent of the beauty of the south but with the charm of the north.
Day tours within the city and to the surrounding countryside are very popular and below are listed some of the major attractions in the area.
Castello dell'Imperatore, Prato, Tuscany, Italy
1. A self-tour of the nearby town of Prato is a convenient way to see more of the real Italy and how Italians live today. Accessible by train from Florence’s city centre, the town is less than thirty minutes away. The journey will pass through smaller towns, allowing the traveller to catch glimpses of day-to-day Italian life outside a tourist hot spot. Once you arrive in Prato, you’ll have a castle and a large selection of museums to visit. The Castello dell'Imperatore, Castle of the Emperor, is a thirteenth-century castle built over the space of a decade for the King of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. The imposing structure in Prato city centre is built on older foundations, of which two towers remain, and is surrounded by dining options serving a range of budgets. Local museums include the Luigi Pecci Center for Contemporary Art, the Textile Museum, and the Palazzo Pretorio Museum, a fine place to see some great examples of chiaroscuro in paintings and traditional and modern sculpture.
Cathedral of San Zeno, Pistoia, Tuscany, Italy
2. Pistoia, another train-accessible town, has a zebra-esque stripped brick cathedral fifteen minutes walk from the train station in the town centre. The Cathedral of San Zeno sits in the middle of a very medieval-looking square and was first mentioned in 923 by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. The cathedral and its gold-plated interior dome have undergone many renovations and additions over the years, surviving fires and an earthquake, and is a typical example of middle-aged Italian architecture. Sharing its name with the fortress in Siena, the fourteenth century Fortezza di Santa Barbara was named after the patron saint of artillerymen. The fortress, a fine example of a typical medieval European building, is open to the public and was patronized by the Medici family, bearing their crest at the double-height, arched entrance portal. Surrounding restaurants and cafes include sushi and tapas bars, bistros serving meaty antipasti and burgers, and bars selling a variety of chocolates and frothy coffees. Pistoia’s windy streets are like a mini-trip back in time, with beige finished stucco walls and cafe’s selling dresses, the town makes a nice break from the crowds of Florence.
3. Nearby Siena, accessible via public bus, train, or guided day tour, is famous for its cuisine, art, museums, and cityscape. The medieval city was also mentioned in the espionage TV show Alias as the birthplace of a Leonardo da Vinci-type prophetic character. The city has an old-world feel about it and is a must-see for those wishing to experience ancestral Italy. The Basilica of San Domenico is Siena’s highlight, a large hilltop church overlooking the city. It’s fronted by overgrown Cypress trees and boasts an impressive interior vaulted ceiling. Also known as St. Catherine’s church, the building's rusted colour exterior is reminiscent of times long ago, and looking at it feels like you’re in the past marvelling at Italy’s architectural prowess.
San Gimignano, Italy
4. On the way to Siena is San Gimignano, a UNESCO heritage site, known as the Manhattan of the Past and City of Beautiful Towers. The small town boasts an unpainted town square housing an old well and views of six of San Gimignano’s towers. The exposed brick on the buildings surrounding the square is a sight to behold and looks eerily similar to how it would have looked hundreds of years in the past. In the adjacent cathedral's square sits a cafe beside a quaint art gallery, selling paintings and photographs of the romantic surrounding countryside. The Rocca of Montestaffoli, the town fort, contains a park where you can climb the stairs to the roof terrace to capture beautiful views of the surrounding countryside and the town’s many towers. Views of fields and countryside roll for miles to the east and you can watch the captivating sunset beneath a blue sky to the west. The town is a great place to soak up an atmosphere of centuries gone by and feel like you’re standing hundreds of years in the past, a must-visit town for history lovers.
5. No trip to Italy would be complete without the mandatory wine and cheese tour! Famous for food and wine, the Chianti region of Italy, where Florence is situated, exports food around the world. There are many day tours available from Florence, including private tours for you and your friends. Tour company Walkabout sells a € 150 day trip from Florence where you’ll see the Italian hills from a 4x4, listen to your guide talk about the history of winemaking in the region and stop for lunch at a historic villa and wine estate. You’ll enjoy wine, cheese, and extra virgin olive oil tasting, stopping at a second winery on the way home to sample the local, famous Chianti Classico wine. Walkabout also offers a pizza and gelato cooking class from a local Tuscan farmhouse. You’ll gather your own ingredients grown on-site under the sun at the farmhouse to make your pizza, tossing the dough in the air as you look out over the terrace at the Cypress trees and sun setting in the distance. You’ll have your choice of unusual ingredients for your gelato, including red salt and a variety of nuts. Gelato is made with milk, cream, sugar, and the other ingredients of your choice, inside the farmhouse before you sit down with your friends to enjoy both your self-made main course and dessert. The day trip is a great way to spend the day, meeting new people and looking out over the terrace as you learn how to cook traditional Italian food from scratch.
Pitti Palace, Florence, Tuscany, Italy
6. All trips to Florence are complete with visits to the city’s most famous landmarks, museums, and galleries. You can skip the queue with Italian Vista Travel and enjoy ten incredible sights around the city to see what Florence is all about. You’ll pass by the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence that also has houses built with multicoloured wooden shutters sitting on it, as you go to Galleria dell'Accademia to admire Michaelangelo’s David among other famous sculptures. The guided day tour will introduce you to the Palazzo Strozzi, a typical Florentine palace, and Via de' Tornabuoni, Florence’s high-end fashion street. Oltrarno is the bohemian neighbourhood on the other side of the Arno river. There you’ll find the Palazzo Pitti, a large structure behind a square with small statues of metal dogs roaming around. Visit the inside of the palace to see the red throne room and stare into the face of the stone lion as his crown floats above his head. The very large palace grounds are a destination unto themselves with large hedges, very tall trees, a forested area, and statues of the goddesses lining the paths. A large pond sits at the far end of the palace grounds where you can feed grapes to the ducks before exiting the palace gardens to enjoy your choice of tiny, pretty, pricey, and worthwhile dishes from the restaurants nearby.
Florence will treat you to cakes you can’t find anywhere else, wines you’ll be bringing home to your friends, cheeses that’ll make your mouth water by looking at them, and buildings so ornate you’ll be squinting to capture every detail. There are museums and galleries housing some of the world’s most famous artworks, a city that shaped history to explore, and cakes topped in powdered sugar that’ll keep you wishing the shops stayed open all night. Between overindulging on creamy pasta and marvelling at views you can’t find anywhere else, Florence and the surrounding countryside is a must-see for anyone looking to experience a corner of the world-famous for its everything.
Written by: Dmitri Alyona, Volunteer Writer for Amunì Travel Forum