Tuscany is the perfect romantic spot for a couple's getaway. It consists of several provinces with Florence, Siena, and Pisa being the three most famous. We focused on provinces of Florence and Siena as our main destinations on this trip.
We made a list of the villages we wanted to visit but purposefully didn't prepare a detailed plan of which sites to see in each. Most of the villages are small and walkable. One can discover a whole town within a couple of hours of walking. Exploring the villages on foot helped us experience the Tuscan beauty in the old buildings and streets as well as in the little details of everyday life: the colorful animal paper weights, the plate with the village painting, and the fish-shaped street lantern.
Although Tuscan villages are walkable, you do need a car to get around from village to village. The scenic drive in this picturesque country side was a big highlight on our trip with its hilly landscape and the golden/green fields rolling through. Beautiful scenary can be easily spotted such as the magnificent cypress trees that symbolize the quintessential Tuscan landscape and the rising moon above the golden fields.
Siena and San Gimignano are probably the two most famous cities in Tuscany (other than the capital Florence of course). We squeezed the two of them into one day on our drive from Montalcino to Florence. You can also book one of the day tours from Florence that take you to those two cities. It was fairly easy to drive ourselves - you can park right outside the old town area and walk around on your own at a leisure pace.
colorful porcelain paper weights
Cypress-lined road leading to Banfi on a hilltop
a massive chandelier made out of used wine bottles
Castello Banfi - Il Borgo (short for "Banfi") rose from an ancient stone hamlet built in the 1700s, under the nurturing shade and protective towers of Castello di Poggio alle Mura. It served as the dwelling for the farmers who worked for the noble landowners but has been restored into a boutique luxury hotel today. The old structure is well-preserved and the hotel surrounds its guest with beautiful and elegant settings such as the green-covered castle, the cypress-adorned backyard, and the rolling vineyards expanding far into an hazy mountain range. The onsite wine cellar and Museum of Glass and Bottle are worth paying a visit too. We found interesting artifacts throughout the property, like the wine-bottle chandelier and the old family barware.
The hearty hotel breakfast is served daily on an outdoor terrace overlooking the vineyards. We also enjoyed a romantic dinner at the hotel restaurant: Sala dei Grappoli. Get the 7-course tasting menu with the wine pairing if you can.
Osteria Enoteca Osticcio is worth a visit for its fabulous view. If you book in advance, you can request window seating in the back which gives you a fantastic view of the open fields of Montalcino behind the restaurant.
Abbazia di Sant'Antimo (the Abbey of Sant'Antimo) is a beautiful Romanesque monastery , in a picture-perfect setting just south of Montalcino. The origins of the abbey are obscure and various accounts exist. The most popular version traces the founding of the abbey back to Charlemagne , also known as Charles the Great. In 781, Charlemagne was returning from Rome along the Via Francigena . While camped near Monte Amiata, many in his court and army were struck down by a plague. During the night, an angel appeared to the Emperor in his dream and recommended that he pick a particular grass, dry it and then make an infusion with some wine to be drunk by the soldiers. He did this and the army was cured. In return for an end to this scourge, the Emperor promised to found the abbey.
In the abbey today lives a goup of white-robed monks of the Olivetan Benedictine order. The monks chant prayers at scheduled times during the day, which has become a major attraction for the abbey. We attended the chant at 245pm and it was a beautiful experience that we highly recommend.
Plan your visit of the abbey accordingly so that you can catch one of the Gregorian chants. Each chant is about 10-15 mins long.
Brunello di Montalcino is the signature wine for Tuscan region, and is one of Italy's best-known and most expensive wines. We chose Ciacci Piccolomini D'Aragona for a Brunello tasting based on the excellent Tripadvisor reviews. This winery is also famous for a resident wolf pack raised by the owner. We were lucky enough to spot a few of the wolves on our way out, and one of them looked just like Arya's Direwolf Nymeria in Game of Thrones.
a good sunset spot in front of the restaurant
Siena is a lovely medieval city and many considered it the "second capital" of Tuscany after Florence. The two most famous sites in the old town area are Piazza del Campo, which hosts a famous horse race, called Palio, twice every summer (Jul 2 and Aug 16), and Siena Cathedral. We parked our car at Parcheggio Il Campo, a large parking lot right outside the limited traffic zone of the city center. You can also get a good panoramic shot of Siena from this parking area. There are a few other parking options in Siena too.
We highly recommend visiting San Gimignano 1300 Museum to see a miniature model of the ancient town, or buying a piece of souvenir to remember the glory towers of this charming town.
Along the rugged coast of the Italian Rivera, Cinque Terre (meaning "Five Lands") comprises five colorful cliffside villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. It is about a 2-2.5 hour-long car ride from Florence although it's not recommended to go by car. The roads into the villages are difficult, and parking is very limited. Most travelers to Cinque Terre arrive by train and then hike or boat from village to village. A new train line called "Cinque Terre Express" was introduced in 2016, which goes back and forth between La Spezia (which is a major train hub that you can find connecting trains to many other cities) and Levanto every 30 minutes.
We found a lot of helpful online guides on hiking in the Cinque Terre area but it still seemed overwhelmingly complicated to plan a visit ourselves. Then we came across Walkabout's Cinque Terre Trek Tour. Hitting ALL 5 villages in a day from Florence, this is a long yet well-organized tour starting at 8am and ending at 830pm. There is a lot of walking involved but they break it up with plenty of resting stops for lunch, ice-cream, wine tasting, afternoon snacks, a dip in the sea, a boat ride, souvenir shopping, or simply relaxing and appreciating the gorgeous views. It was a great way to explore this hard-to-get-to area without worrying about all the planning details and logistics. We highly recommend this tour!
Florence, the Capital of Tuscany and the Cradle of the Renaissance, is a vibrant city enriched with art, history, and architecture. There is a lot to see and do in Florence ... it's a city you can easily spend 2-3 days if you want to explore it at a more leisure pace. Since we had visited Florence before and the main destination of this trip was the Tuscany countryside, we decided to only make a one-day stop in this capital city to revisit some of our favorite sites.
Almost all the major sites in Florence are located in the historical town center which is an easily walkable area.The one notable exception is Piazzale Michelangelo, which is a bit out of the way. However, the beautiful sunset view of the city from its top is totally worth the treck. We highly recommend visiting it especially if it's your first time in Florence.
We started our day in Florence with Piazza del Duomo, and ended with Ponte Vecchio. This walking route without stopping only takes ~15 mins. But then what's the fun in walking in Florence without making stops? Climb the Duomo cupola (450+ steps) to an extraordinary view of Florence, wander off the side streets to visit Piazza della Repubblica and Museo Nazionale del Bargello, snap photos of the famous statue of Neptune on Piazza della Signoria, tour Uffizi Gallery to soak in the Renaissance art, and haggle w/ the shop owners on Ponte Vecchio that always try to rip off tourists.
Tuscan region is known for both of its wine and food. Castello di Monterinaldi in Chianti was one of the wineries we chose to go for a lunch with wine tasting (advanced booking required). Unexpectedly, we were served the best pasta dish on the trip - it was home-made pasta with a simple yet delicious sauce. It had such an exquisite taste when paired with their wine. Outside of this wonderful experience, we generally found the pasta in Tuscany much less salty or saucy than the ones we were used to in New York. Occasionally the Tuscan pasta even tasted bland to us. Our acquaintance with heavier and saltier American-Italian cuisine must have biased our palate enough such that we could not appreciate the delicate flavors of home-made pasta in Italy! To be fair, the texture of the pasta in Italy was superior. We later learned how to make our own pasta in a cooking class at Fattoria Tregole, and finally understood what made the pasta texture superior in Italy.
a beautiful evening rainbow
looking out to a fairytale Tuscan village
We signed up for Fattoria Tregole Cooking Class during our stay to learn how to make a 3-course home-cooked meal: Tuscan pasta with tomato pinenut sauce, Aromatic chicken with olives, and Soufflè of caramelized pears and pecorino. The class was all about cooking simple Italian staples from scratch. We made our own olive oil bread, rolled our own pasta doll, and cut our own egg tagliolini, and etc. Italian cooking turned out much more complicated than we expected. Our teachers, Edith and Margarita, were very patient and really looked after us. The end result was a super fresh and delicious dinner, especially after our own hard work. We probably wouldn't be able to repeat on our own all the cooking steps once back in the States. But it was a great experience nevertheless!
The Scavi Tour goes through the excavations below Saint Peter’s Basilica where the sacred tomb of Saint Peter is located. It is one of the most exclusive tours in Rome. Only 250 people are allowed through each day – compared to the 30,000 that visit the Vatican Museums. As a result, it's quite complicated to get tickets to this tour (you need to request by email or fax) and the tickets can sell out many months in advance. The details and instructions on how to request the tickets can be found on the official Excavations Office webpage. We thought the tour was interesting and informative but did not consider it the highlight of our Vatican visit like some of our fellow tour participants did.
The main destination of our Rome day was actually the Vatican City, the home to the Pope and the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. We did two tours of the Vatican in one afternoon (it was doable but we did feel a bit rushed) - Ufficio Scavi Tour and Vatican Museums & Sistine Chapel Tour. We really enjoyed the popular mainstream tour of the Vatican Museums & Sistine Chapel a bit more. If you have a strong interest in religion and/or archeology, we think the Scavi tour is a must-do. Otherwise there are just so many more art and architectural masterpieces to see in the Vatican Museums & Sistine Chapel. We were very impressed by the collections inside the Vatican Museums and wished we could have spent more time there.
Skip the queue and reserve your tickets online to the Vatican Museums & Sistine Chapel on the official site. They do charge €4 extra per ticket as a reservation fee (so you pay €20 online for a full-priced ticket vs. €16 if you buy in person) but you save a lot of time.
As our flight back to the States departed from Rome, we decided to spend an extra day in this historic city. Rome is filled with treasures, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Colosseum, etc. Like Florence, it's a city where you can walk around and come across another architectural wonder every other street corner. We did just that in the evening, revisiting some of our favorite sites from our previous Rome trips and admiring the grandeur of the Colosseum lit up by lights at night.