The Ten Top Towns of Tuscany

May 11, 2011

Much more than the home of Florence or of rolling countryside, Tuscany is also the home of some of Italy’s most beautiful, and fascinating towns. Whether you’re considering a day trip from Florence, or just hoping to make your base in Italy somewhere off the beaten path, here are our top 5 Tuscan towns. For other five, Check out our Top Ten Towns of Tuscany, Round II.

1. Lucca

Tuscan architecture of Lucca's churches

In a word, Lucca, located just an hour’s drive west from Florence, is lovely. Graced with medieval streets and a ring of Renaissance-era fortification walls — today, a bike and walking path — Lucca’s architecture is some of the most exquisite in Tuscany. If you think Florence’s Duomo is elaborate, just wait till you see Lucca’s Duomo or its Church of San Michele in Foro, which look like they were created out of icing! Don’t miss the Piazza Anfiteatro, a ring of medieval buildings on the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre (some of it still remaining). Here, too, is where the composer Giacomo Puccini was born.

2. Pienza

The Tuscan town of Pienza, one of the top ten in Tuscany, is not far from Florence

Pienza, one of Tuscany’s true gems

Located in the gorgeous Val d’Orcia (a hilly region renowned for its hiking), Pienza itself is such a gem, it’s been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It’s also where Zeffirelli filmed Rome and Juliet. Pienza’s history is a little odd: Pope Pius II was born here, and after becoming pope, he in 1458, he had the town completely rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town. Vain? Yes. But also the reason for Pienza’s stunning architecture and harmonious layout. Only 2,500 people live here today, giving it a little bit of a wistful, forgotten air.

3. Pitigliano

Pitigliano, one of the top ten Tuscan towns outside Florence

Pitigliano is one of those towns that makes you wonder: “What on earth were these people thinking?” Built into tufa cliffs high in the sky, the village looks like it’s actually hovering above you as you approach. Tiny and tranquil, the town doesn’t boast just spectacular views. Thanks to its ties to the Jewish community, it’s also called “Little Jerusalem.” Jews started moving here from Rome in the 13th century, and by 1860, one-third of the town was Jewish. Tragically, during World War II, most Jewish residents fled for safer hiding places, and today, there are hardly any Jewish inhabitants. But the old Jewish quarter, synagogue, and Jewish Museum remain, testaments to this once-thriving culture.

4. Siena

Main church of Siena, a Tuscan day trip from Florence

Siena’s Duomo: breathtaking.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Siena. This thoroughly-medieval city  has so much to offer, it’s not surprising that more and more people are choosing it as a Tuscan base, even over Florence (it’s an hour’s drive south). In a way, that’s appropriate: From the 13th to 15th centuries, Siena was Florence’s main rival. That explains the medieval, 320-foot-tall tower built on top of the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s town hall: It’s just 12 feet taller than the tower of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio… and you can bet that was done on purpose! Most of Siena revolves around its 13th-century main piazza, Il Campo, which is unlike any other public space in Italy. (It is also where the world-famous Palio horse races are held twice yearly). Don’t miss the Palazzo Pubblico and its gorgeous frescoes, or the incredible Duomo, one of Italy’s most jaw-dropping churches. Here, too, is where the famous St. Catherine was born, and you can still visit her family home and even see her head in the Church of San Domenico (eek!). If you’re planning a trip to Siena, read our blog on what to do in Siena.

The main piazza or town square of Siena, Italy, with Palazzo Pubblico

Il Campo, Siena’s medieval piazza, is alive at all hours.

5. Volterra

Thanks to the Twilight series, Volterra’s been put on the tourism map. But, a handful of American teenagers dragging along their parents aside, it remains a quiet, off-the-beaten-path town… that happens to boast medieval, winding streets and gorgeous views from its hilltop perch. Volterra’s roots date back to an 8th century B.C. Etruscan settlement; big parts of the defensive wall they built in the 4th century B.C. are still standing, as is the 3rd century B.C. gate into the city! But that’s not all for the ancient side of Volterra. Here, too, are remains of an ancient Roman amphitheatre and bathhouse, as well as the renowned Museo Etrusco Guarnacci, boasting numerous Etruscan finds from the area.

by Walks of Italy

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14 responses to “The Ten Top Towns of Tuscany”

  1. Camille says:

    Lucca is definitely our #1 Tuscan town. We stumbled upon another fascinating site in Lucca — San Frediano church with its mummified St. Zita in a glass coffin (as well as an amazing baptistery).

  2. It’s absolutely divine to take a bike ride along Lucca’s walls!

  3. massimo says:

    Lovely Post!!!
    Thanks for sharing with us…

  4. Julie says:

    Thank you for your info…..great help reading your reviews when trying to organize a trip and unsure where we should go.. Thanks

  5. there’s only 5 and it says there are 10
    but other than that, very helpful

  6. The headline on the home page says “top ten towns” but there are only 5 on the first page and I can’t figure out how to get to 6-10!

  7. Michael says:

    We really liked Porto Ercole (a coastal town in Southern Tuscany) because it offered a scenic harbor view and wasn’t overrun by tourists. Just be prepared to speak a bit more Italian there as the town is more of a vacation spot for Italians rather than American tourists. Siena was a little disappointing to us but still a must see town due its history and gorgeous Duomo. I would love to go back to see one of the Palio horse races. Some friends of ours were really wow’ed by the views from Volterra. Another town that is a sleeper is Montecatini Terme and it is perfectly centered between Pisa and Florence.

    • Mark says:

      Hi Michael, I’m thinkzing of heading to Siena soon, interested to know why you thought it a bit disappointing?
      I stayed in Lucca for a week a few years ago, that was great, but am now looking for a more countryside central Tuscan area for the next trip, around Siena. What’s not so good?
      Cheers, Mark

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