The gorgeous art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance draw millions of visitors to Florence, all eager to visit the Duomo, eat gelato on the Ponte Vecchio and see Michelangelo’s David. But as Florence becomes more crowded each year, it’s worth taking a looking at some of the day trips from Florence to other cities within Tuscany that are equally beautiful and historic.
If time is limited and you want to base yourself in Florence, why not hop on the train or take a tour, to visit cities like Pisa, Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano or even Cinque Terre? In this article we’ll take a look a some of the best day trips from Florence, what you can see and how to get there.
The pretty, walled town of Lucca is one of the less touristy places to visit in Tuscany, so even in the height of summer you’ll get a more authentic Italian experience. Lucca was a Renaissance city state that managed to remain free and independent and the people of Lucca are immensely proud that they were never conquered by their more powerful neighbours, the Florentines. For more information on Lucca, read my article about our Mediterranean Cruise for Culture lovers when we visited Lucca.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN LUCCA
Lucca is famous for its imposing city gates and thick city walls, made of compacted earth and stone, that deterred anyone from attacking the city. In 1805, however Lucca was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte, who installed his sister Eliza as Princess of Lucca and she made the city walls into a pleasant promenade and garden. You can hire a bike or walk right around the top of the walls on a broad pedestrian path.
Your walk will bring you to the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, an enclosed piazza that was built up on the site of Lucca’s Roman Amphitheatre, although now houses have been built where the crowd would have sat to watch the entertainments. The piazza is full of cafes and restaurants, so it’s a pleasant place to stop for lunch.
The Cathedral of San Martino was created in Gothic style in the 14th century, with ornately carved columns and facade. Inside the cathedral is a shrine containing the precious relic of Lucca, a wooden cross said to be carved by Jesus’s disciple Nicodemus, which made the cathedral a stopping point for pilgrims who were walking the Via Francigena to Rome.
In the 14th century many of the noble families in Lucca built towers as part of their palazzos, which were partly as a show of wealth and partly to keep a defensive eye on what was happening inside and outside the town walls. Now only a few of the 130 medieval towers remain, with the best known being the Torre Guinigi which has a garden of oak trees growing at its top. You can climb the 230 steps inside the tower to reach the garden with views over Lucca.
For a sweet snack, look out for the local speciality of Buccellato sweet bread that’s studded with raisins and flavoured with aniseed, traditionally carried home from the baker after mass on Sunday.
In this social media age it seems that everyone wants to get a fun picture of themselves “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Of course there’s more to Pisa than the ‘must see’ attractions of the Piazza dei Miracoli, where you’ll find the Cathedral, Baptistery and Leaning Tower.
But this compact area offers so much impressive Renaissance architecture that it makes an ideal half day trip from Florence, that can easily be combined with a stop at nearby Lucca. For a more in depth look at Pisa, check out my article on things to do in Pisa.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN PISA
If you are just making a short visit, head first for the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is actually the campanile or bell tower of the cathedral. There are a limited amount of timed tickets available, so if you’d like to climb the tower check out whether you can buy a ticket.
The tower started leaning soon after construction started in the 12th century due to the soft ground of the river floodplain, but after extensive stabilisation work in the last 20 years, you can now climb the 273 steps to take in the views from the 8th floor viewing platform.
Next stop will be the Duomo di Pisa cathedral, which is free to visit although you need a ticket for timed entry. The cathedral was devastated by a fire in 1595 but you can admire the original mosaic floor that was saved and the wooden coffered ceiling that was added after the fire.
The round, domed building in front of the cathedral is the Baptistery of San Giovanni which was completed in 1363 and is the largest Baptistery in Italy. Since the Baptistery is known for its acoustics, don’t be surprised if your guide breaks into song to demonstrate the echoes in the building. Within the Baptistery you can climb the stairs to the women’s gallery to look down on the central octagonal font where baptisms would have taken place.
If you have time, visit the Camposanto which sits along the northern wall of the cathedral campus. You can admire the marble monuments from graves that were previously scattered around the cathedral and frescoes decorating the walls on the theme of life and death.
Once you’ve visited the buildings of the Piazza dei Miracoli, you might want to wander along the famous Lungarni di Pisa or riverside walks that run beside the River Arno, lined with magnificent palaces built by the wealthy families of Pisa.
This beautiful city of Siena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the historic centre is closed to traffic, so it’s an ideal place to wander around, get lost in the narrow streets and alleys and soak up the atmosphere.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN SIENA
The heart of Siena is the Piazza del Campo, a huge open space that’s always thronging with people and has a curving paved surface to create a shallow shell shape surrounded by buildings. Within the piazza you can admire the Fonte Gaia, a fountain made of Carrara marble with beautiful sculptures.
Visit the Palazzo Comunale or Town Hall, the most imposing building on the square, which houses an art museum with several paintings by Sienese masters. You can also climb the Torre del Mangia, an 87 metre high tower, for views over the town.
Continue your walk around the historic streets of Siena until you find the Piazza del Duomo, with the Romanesque Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, which is heavily decorated with white and dark green marble, to reflect the colours of Siena. Inside the cathedral is the Piccolomini library, with a richly painted ceiling showing scenes from the life of Pope Pius II that were created in the 1500s.
The Palio is the famous race taking place in July and August in Siena, in which the 17 districts or Contrade in Siena compete in a bareback horse race, three times around the main square. Even if you can’t be there during the Palio, you’ll see the coloured flags and emblems of each Contrade around the city and decorating many souvenirs.
For a sweet treat, look out in cakes shops for the ricciarelli , a small chewy almond biscuit that has been made in Siena since the 14th century and the panforte di Siena, a dense cake that’s packed with nuts and dried fruit.
San Gimignano is perhaps best known for the Medieval towers that reach up to the sky, fourteen in all that were built by the wealthiest families in the 14th century to demonstrate their power and prestige. There were originally 72 tower houses, but many fell into disrepair after the town declined in the 15th century, when after a period of plague and famine, it came under Florentine control.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN SAN GIMIGNANO
This hilltop town is so picturesque, you’ll want to spend some time just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere, meandering between the two main squares of Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Cisterna.
If you are feeling energetic, you can climb the Torre Grossa, which is the only one of the towers that’s open to the public and stands 54 metres high, offering panoramic views over the town and surrounding countryside.
San Gimignano is in the heart of the Chianti wine region, so it’s unsurprising that there’s plenty of opportunity for wine tasting here. Look out for the Vernaccia di San Gimignano, the white wine that is made from grapes grown within the town limits. It’s unusual in that most of the wines of Chianti are red and is sold in many small enoteca or wine bars around the town, where you can buy it by the glass.
Another great spot for wine tasting is the La Rocca Wine Experience where you can learn about the local wines in a multimedia tour and then taste a wide selection of the Vernaccia and other Chianti wines.
There are plenty of shops and boutiques where you can shop for delicious local produce, like the wild boar sausages, saffron, truffles and gelato at Gelateria Dondoli which is famous for its flavours made only with fresh ingredients.
The five picturesque Cinque Terre villages date back to Roman times, but until the construction of the railway line, they were inaccessible and could only reached by mule tracks or from the sea. Now designated a UNESCO heritage site, it’s unsurprising that these pretty seaside villages with coloured houses perched on the cliff tops, attract such crowds of visitors.
A day trip to Cinque Terre from Florence takes longer than the other cities I’ve already mentioned, but if you are short of time on your Italian holiday, it’s certainly possible. Read my article for a more in depth look on what to do in Cinque Terre in one day.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN CINQUE TERRE
Each of the Cinque Terre villages has its own charm and character and you can travel between them by the 5 Terre Express train or by ferry.
Manarola is the village that’s closest to your starting point at La Spezia. Set on a rugged headland, with pastel painted houses that cling to the cliff, the maze of cobbled streets lead down to the sea where there’s a small marina with boat ramp.
Visit the main square at the top of the town, with the church of San Lorenzo and its campanile bell tower then explore the craft shops and cafes. There’s no beach, but you can swim and snorkel off the rocks.
Vernazza is a relaxed fishing village with a small harbour, where there are no cars. The main street of Via Roma leads down to the sea and there’s a small beach here, with a more secluded beach also available if you walk through a rock passage.
Monterosso is known as The Pearl of Cinque Terre, and has one of the best beaches in Cinque Terre, packed in summer with colourful sun umbrellas and sun worshippers. In the older part of the village you can still see the walls of an ancient fortress and tower, while in the newer part of town (Fegina) is the beach with a lively seafront promenade, overlooked by a giant statue of Neptune. On restaurant menus, look out for the famous Monterosso anchovies and a glass of Sciacchetrà, the sweet white wine that is produced locally.
At Riomaggiore, you can take in the view from the medieval castle, set high on the hill, which was built to defend the town from pirate attacks. The houses tumble down the hill from Piazza Vignaioli to the tiny harbour, with bars and restaurants along the village’s main street of Via Colombo. Look out for the local speciality of musculi cin; mussels stuffed with bread, eggs and parmesan, washed down by a glass of chilled white wine from the region.