Tuscany is a region in central Italy, that has about the same size and population as Louisiana. Tuscany has a western coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea (part of the Mediterranean Sea), which contains the Tuscan Archipelago, of which the largest island is Elba.
Tuscany's largest cities lie on the banks of the Arno river, including the capital Florence, Empoli and Pisa. Other large cities include Livorno, Siena and Lucca.
Tuscany is one of the most fertile regions of Italy. It features an abundance of olive groves, vineyards, pasture for livestock, corn and vegetable fields, and obviously access to the sea and its wide variety of fish.
The basic ingredients of the region include peas, chickpeas, various beans, game, ox, fowl, pig offal, artichokes, chestnut and garlic. Most of those ingredients are found in the cuisines of many mediterranean countries and regions. Olive oil is an essential part of this cuisine. There is even a simple appetizer that is dedicated to two emblematic ingredients of the region, olive oil and Tuscan bread. Fettunta is the Tuscan version of bruschetta and nothing more than bread slices rubbed with garlic, with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkled with salt.
Tuscan cuisine is also very aromatic and makes wide use of several herbs and spices such as rosemary, basil, parsley, bay leaf, calamint, coriander, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper.
Like many ancient cuisines, Tuscany’s is deeply rooted in true peasant food, a cuisine that features inexpensive ingredients, and is usually prepared and spiced to make those ingredients more palatable.
Peasant food makes use of inexpensive local ingredients but transcends dishes by its ability to marry them with simple spices and by using techniques that have been perfected over generations.
Panzanella is an example of such a dish. This summer salad makes use of stale Tuscan bread that would otherwise be wasted. The bread is soaked in water and sometimes vinegar before it is mixed with fresh vegetables like ripe tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions. A simple, yet flavorful salad typical of Tuscan cuisine.
Another famous traditional Tuscan dish makes use of leftover Tuscan bread. This time, in a very simple and rich soup called pappa al pomodoro. This flavorful tomato soup incorporates bread as a thickening agent along with basil, garlic and olive oil. Although originally from Siena, it is now a staple of not only Tuscan cuisine, but also Italian cuisine.
Another soup dating back from the Middle Ages is ribollita. Ribollita, literally reboiled, is typically made with leftover minestrone soup to which bread is added. The soup has also become representative of the cuisine of the region.
Cucina povera or peasant cuisine, also had to be ingenious and make use of inexpensive ingredients like chestnut. Out of necessity, chestnut flour was invented and several recipes were created like castagnaccio, a plain chestnut flour cake, sometimes flavored with orange rinds, rosemary or fennel seeds, or necci, a thinner version closer to a pancake.
But Tuscan cuisine is not just for vegetarians. Meat is an essential ingredient of several recipes that are more common inland such as in Florence. Cibreo, for example, is a traditional secondo piatto (second main dish) made with offal, typically chicken liver. Trippa alla fiorentina, is another such dish made with inexpensive meat, here tripe. The more courageous street food aficionados will have to stop in Florence to try lampredotto, a sandwich made with the fourth and final stomach of a cow.
Scottiglia, originally from Pescina in the south of Tuscany, is a meat lover’s dish. This stew traditionally includes a mix of veal, pork, chicken, turkey, rabbit and lamb.
But the ultimate Tuscan dish for carnivores has to be bistecca alla Fiorentina, a thickly cut and large T-bone steak grilled over wood or charcoal fire, seasoned with salt, black pepper, and olive oil that is applied immediately after the meat is removed from the heat.
As for desserts, a discussion about Tuscan cuisine would not be complete without mentioning biscotti, also known as cantuccini. Those crisp, delicately almond-flavored treats are originally from Prato, birthplace of famous comedian Roberto Benigni. Talking about almonds, when in Tuscany, you should also try the lesser known ricciarelli, a type of macaron made with almonds, honey and egg whites, originally from Siena and dating from the fourteenth century.
Another delicacy from Siena is panforte di Siena, literally “strong bread” although this is more of a confection than a bread or cake. Panforte is Italy’s version of fruitcake, packed with nuts, dried fruits and candied fruits and held together by cooked sugar and honey syrup, with very little flour.
A number of Italian recipes are associated with Christian holidays. This is the case of befanini, these colorful sugar cookies that are associated with the Epiphany and the story of Befana, a generous and sweet old witch.
Panforte, as well as most Tuscan sweets, is often served with Vin Santo. Vin Santo is a straw wine, also called raisin wine. Straw wines are wines made with grapes that are typically dried on straw mats, hence the name. The name “Vin Santo”, holy wine in Italian, comes from the wine's historic use in religious Mass, where sweet wine was often preferred.
The other Tuscan wine that is famous all over the world is Chianti, from the central region of Tuscany by the same name. Who doesn’t know the squat round bottle enclosed in a straw basket? This bottle, called a fiasco, now only used by a few select winemakers, is still emblematic of this wine. Tuscan cuisine is rich in traditions, with a number of recipes dating from the Middle Ages. It makes use of a lot of aromatic ingredients, which give the cuisine rich and flavorful mediterranean tones. With its diversity, Tuscan cuisine will satisfy vegetarians, carnivores and fish lovers alike.
Mike Benayoun is the co-creator of 196 flavors, a unique culinary blog he founded with Vera Abitbol and Joanne La Badjone. It is the only bilingual (French/English) world cuisine food blog with a mission to document every authentic and traditional recipe from the 196 countries that cover our planet, along with the history behind each recipe. Mike is “the daredevil”. Nicknamed as such by his sidekicks, he is constantly in search of unusual recipes and techniques with impossible to find ingredients. Some would say he lost his hair finding so many recipes with unpronounceable names, but he’s been bald for a while already. The daredevil is always pushing the envelope, whether it is with humor or culinary surprises.
Tuscany is famous throughout the world for some of its most beautiful cities, such as Florence, Siena, Pisa and Lucca. Outside these major centers though, there is a world of historical and artistic treasures to discover. The real beauty of Tuscany lies in the many smaller towns and villages that dot its spectacular countryside, in the castles that crown wooded hilltops, and in the small parish churches and the remote abbeys that appear before the traveler who dares to venture off the beaten path.
To fully appreciate what the region has to offer, one needs to rent a car and explore. Driving in Italy is not as scary as many say, and driving outside the major cities can be the goal of a daytrip in its own right.
We sometimes recommend to the more experienced guests of our vacation rentals the Casina di Rosa for trips south of Siena and Behind the Tower for Pisa. We also suggest that those guests looking for an alternative holiday in Tuscany plan thematic itineraries.
One of the themes we like best is "abbeys and minor churches". It is no secret that the most impressive buildings in the country and the ones that house the most beautiful artifacts are religious buildings, and Tuscany boasts a wealth of them.
Pisa Abbeys and Churches
Siena Abbeys and Churches
Bottom line: don't confine yourselves to the large cities, explore!
Gloria is a born and bred Tuscan. She and her husband Marcel operate two vacation rentals in Tuscany - Casina di Rosa, in the countryside, and Behind the Tower, in Pisa - and she blogs regularly about life in Tuscany. You can read more of her writing at www.athomeintuscany.org.
A trip to Tuscany doesn't have to leave you with an empty bank account. Between airfare and lodging, the logistics can consume a large portion of your budget, so follow these tips to enjoy your Tuscany vacation on the cheap.
Take the Train
A rental car offers a convenient way to navigate Tuscany, but it also strains the budget. Instead, rely on the train to explore the region along thousands of miles of interconnected tracks. From the coast to the verdant hill country, most tourist-friendly destinations in Tuscany can be accessed by at least one train.
Focus on Festivals
Festivals provide an inexpensive or even free way to entertain yourself during a Tuscan vacation. This Italian region celebrates everything from food and music and horse races to Patron saints, and these celebrations usually take the form of a vibrant festival. Listen to local artists on sound stages, or taste authentic Italian cuisine at numerous food carts and booths. Since festivals occur all year, you're sure to catch a few during your visit.
Stop for Street Performers
Walking the streets of Sienna or Florence becomes entertainment by itself thanks to the many street performers in urban areas. While you might want to toss a few Euros into the tip jars of the most talented artists, this activity doesn't cost any money up front. Kids and adults alike delight in the machinations and wild gesticulations of these performers.
Hike in the Hills
Another cost-effective entertainment option lies in the green hills of Tuscany. Pack a few bottles of water, a couple of sandwiches, and a bag of trail mix, then hit the hills with a backpack on your shoulders and a camera around your neck. From the easy trails surrounding Florence to the well-organized paths of Liguria, hikers of all ages and skill levels can find an outlet for their energy.
Mill Around the Museums
While Tuscany museums might charge admission, several state museums throughout Italy have launched an initiative for free admission on the first Sunday of every month. Additionally, these museums offer free or discounted rates for visitors under the age of 25. To get your fill of local culture, take advantage of similar deals at churches, vineyards, art galleries, and other venues.
Check Out Chianti
Expensive guided tours of the lovely Chiantigiana wine roads might exceed your budget, but a bus route through the same territory makes this excursion a possibility. Frequent bus stops allow you to disembark whenever you wish to explore small towns or take tours of vineyards.
Saving money on meals keeps money in your pocketbook for entertainment. If your accommodations include a small kitchen, consider visiting nearby supermarkets and farmer's markets for the ingredients to prepare your own meals. Alternatively, stick to street vendors instead of pricey restaurants to keep dining costs at a minimum.
When you visit Tuscany, take the time to plan each day of your vacation with an eye toward maximizing every dollar. By taking advantage of free or low-cost entertainment and dining, you'll enjoy your trip without guilt.
Tuscany is massive - finding a list of top 10 places to visit is close to impossible. There are hundreds of statues, towns, churches, restaurants, wineries, hillsides, palaces, museums, and squares to enjoy. Every time you turn your head there is somewhere else to explore and be wowed by.
Still though, you need to narrow things down before you go out on your big Tuscan adventure, and we've done our best to handle that for you. You'll see some of the typical, must-visit areas on our list and there's a reason for that. You'll also see a few off-the-beat-path choices that will lead you to discover some of the hidden gems of Tuscany:
Florence: Florene was the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and the center of Europe for over 250 years. Give up all hope that you'll see everything you need to in one trip to Florence. There are so many cathedrals, monuments, churches, and statues that you'll need to map out a to-the-minute itinerary to even see a chunk. Florence (Firenze) housed some of the most famous artists and philosophers in recorded history including Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Da Vinci to name a few. You'll see some fo the more rare and expensive art pieces in the world in Florence. There is so much more than art in the Tuscan capital though, it is a busy metropolis where tourism reigns supreme. Florence is an important city in Italian fashion, consistently named one of the most influential cities on Earth. The Piazza del Duomo and the Accademia Galleria are two of the main attractions, along with Palazzo Vecchio and the Boboli Gardens. Florence will wow you at every turn, there's a reason it is so well visited.
Siena: An intellectual rival of Florence during the Renaissance, Siena runs neck and neck with the more famous city when it comes to tourist attractions and beauty. If you're only in Tuscany for a few days, you'll want to hit this location right after Florence. Siena's heart is its central piazza known as Il Campo, known worldwide for the famous Palio run here, a horse race run around the piazza two times every summer. The city sits over three hills with its heart the huge piazza del Campo, where the Roman forum used to be. Siena is surrounded by beautiful landscapes on all sides - the Chianti wine region and the Arbia valley to name two. Some of the famous artists who lived and worked in Siena are Duccio, Simone Martini, and Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti.
Pisa: On the banks of the Arno River you'll find Pisa, home to the world's most famous leaning tower. Pisa was actually one of the four great maritime republics in the middle ages and retains a good selection of monuments from that era. The Campo dei Miracoli or, in English, the Field of Miracles is home to the buildings that have made Pisa famous. The four most notable Pisan buildings are the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Cathedral (Duomo) of Pisa, the Baptistery, and the burial grounds of the Campo Santo. The Leaning Tower can have a raucous, touristy atmosphere - but but it is a must-see anyway. The nearby University of Pisa fills the city with live as the students create a fun atmosphere at night, and organize lots of entertainment by day. Enjoy pizza and wine at some of the fine establishments in Pisa. Come in July for the Luminara festival where the lights along the Arno are dimmed and 10,000 candles are lit for patron saint's day!
Chianti: The most popular rural area for visitors in Tuscany, the Chianti wine region is comprised of eight surrounding towns each with its own distinct features. The living culture proves attractive to so many tourists, with delicious wine being the main product. Since it is situated higher than Florence and the valleys, it provides a welcome respite from the heat of the main areas. Tour the wineries and get your drink on during a much needed day trip away from the clustered touristy cities in Tuscany.
Lucca: The massively thick 16th century walls surrounding Lucca are the calling card of this distinct town. Visitors can walk or bike around the city via a walkway on the top of the walls. Lucca is one of Tuscany's hidden gems with incredible architecture, antique markets, and plenty of restaurants. You can escape the hearty toursim of Florence or Pisa by being a bit more choosey and heading to Lucca instead. The pace of life here, as in most of Tuscany, is extremely slow. With no cars allowed inside the walls, cycling and walking are the top modes of transportation. The maze of winding roads will lead you to discover some historical buildings, some of which date back to the 8th century! The Guinigi Tower is 44 meters tall and has an oak tree growing from the top, it is a very popular landmark in Lucca. Another famous landmark is the 'Piazza dell´Anfiteatro', a small oval piazza with entrances at the four points of the compass and stands on the site of what was once a Roman ampitheatre.
Elba: You've probably heard of Elba before - it housed Napoleon during his exile in 1814 - but there is so much more happening here than that old story. Elba is the biggest island of the Tuscan Archipelago and the third largest in Italy after Sardinia and Sicily. This island offers more than 130 beaches, so you'll have no problem finding sun, surf, and sand here. The mild climate supports olive groves and vineyards, like many of the other Tuscan regions. Popular summer resorts are Procchio, Marciana Marina, Marciana, and those on the Gulf of Biodola in the north, Marina di Campo on the south coast, and Porto Azzurro, with its great Spanish fort (1602; now a prison), facing the mainland. The Mineral Park and Museum has a really cool exhibit about the mining history of Elba. There are two important ruins on Elba: Villa Romana alle Grotte and Villa Romana di Capo Castello - both date to the first century BC. Enjoy the thermal baths of San Giovanni, or dive under the sea with the world-class snorkeling and scuba.
Val d'Orcia: The valley of the river Orcia was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is characterized by wide expanses of sown fields that stretch over low hills. These fields have inspired artists for centuries, and are a prime example of what Tuscany looks like in popular media. Stretching between Siena and Grosetto, Val d'Orcia has a smattering of olive groves, small hillside towns, and rows of vineyards. This area seems like it has been untouched for many years, but it is an extremely popular wine region. Time moves slowly here, so relax in the village of Pienza known as the "Ideal City." Stop in to as many museums, castles, and abbeys as you can here.
San Gimignano: Within Siena you'll find San Gimignano, a walled medieval hill town with remarkably kept tower houses that form an incredible skyline for a small village. Come for the Roman and Gothic architecture, stay for the famous white wine made from the rare Vernaccia grape. Tour the fresco-covered Collegiate Church, the Civic Museum and enjoy the views from atop 177-foot Torre Grossa.
Arezzo: For a bit of the whimsical, Arezzo is home to an annual medieval festival called the Joust of the Saracens. During the festival virtually all the town's people dress-up in medieval costume and enthusiastically cheer on the competitors. Outside of the festival there are plenty of churches, museums, and monuments to visit. The Arezzo antiques fair happens on the first weekend of every month with over 100 booths selling trinkets and a very festive atmosphere.
Cortona: Within Arezzo and 50 miles from Florence, you'll find the village of Cortona. Many scenes from the feature film "Under the Tuscan Sun" were shot in and around Cortona due to its picturesque landscape. Want a room with a view? Come to Cortona. The Cortona Museums house world-class art, ranging from Etruscan and Egyptian in the Cortona Etruscan Museum, through early Renaissance in the Cortona Diocesan Museum. A very active city, there are always street performers and theater shows happening. You should not miss a visit to the beautiful Santa Margherita Sanctuary, patron of the city, and to the Girifalco Fortress. Both are on the highest point on the hill and are easy to reach after a short, uphill walk.
Tuscany, with its rolling hills and unparalleled history is a global top tourist destination annually. With so much action happening in the area, it is no surprise that some of the strongest writers and bloggers are based in Tuscany. We've created a list of our favorite 8, along with a bit about each award-winner.
A Dusty Olive Green: "A DUSTY OLIVE GREEN is a travel and photography blog written by a Danish girl living in Florence. Focus is on the local places and you can find city guides to both Florence, Rome and Copenhagen."
ArtTrav: "Alexandra is a Canadian "ex art historian" who moved to Italy about 15 years ago and has been blogging on ArtTrav for the past 10. Her stated mission is to "make art accessible" by writing about the kind of art you'll see in Italy (especially Renaissance) as well as writing sometimes scathing reviews of temporary exhibitions in Florence and beyond. As a long term expat, she also sometimes writes about life in Italy in general."
At Home in Tuscany: "This blog is written by a born and bred Tuscan who wishes to share her love for this region with as many people as possible. It's about living here, but also about travelling, learning, experiencing, and enjoying life in Tuscany. It's about feeling at home in Tuscany."
Girl in Florence: "Girl in Florence is like meeting an old friend, here you will find insider tips on unique places and interesting events all over Tuscany (and Europe) dashed with a bit of sardonic humor to keep topics fresh. Traveling, drinking and especially eating play a big role in posts which is one of the major reasons I moved to Italy."
Juls' Kitchen: "Juls' Kitchen is an authentic Tuscan blog, plunged in the countryside in between Siena and Florence. Food and traditions are illustrated with vivid photos, recipes are simple and hearty, with a family and cozy mood."
Living in Florence: "Even after many years of living in Florence, Melinda continues to explore, discover, and appreciate her beloved city. She believes that to know Florence is to let go and truly immerse yourself in it. In her blog, she writes about the effect the city has on her. Join her on her while she deepens her appreciation of Florence."
Surviving in Italy: "Surviving In Italy is an award winning blog that uses humor to honestly portray the expat life of a thirty-something married to an Italian man. The author aims to paint a three-dimensional picture of her life abroad, the good, the bad, and the downright weird."
Tiana's Travels: "Tiana Kai, from Miami, shares her Tuscan travel adventures and cultural mishaps in a humorous and honest tone. Besides her writing, her strength also lies in her photography as she always tries to find that angle that is so rarely taken."
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