Backpacker’s Guide to Tuscany

Tuscany.

The name immediately brings up images of red brick, beautiful landscapes, friendly people, and great food. All of these stereotypes and more are true of the region. Tuscany was my home for five weeks and I thoroughly and undeniably fell in love with it — as many do.

Here is a guide to some of the places I went during my own travels, all of which I would recommend to you if you are traveling through beautiful Tuscany. As a tip for each of these cities — GET A MAP if you can. All of these cities are historically complex and slightly confusing (which only adds to their charm), but a map can certainly be helpful.

SIENA

Having stayed in this town for the majority of my five weeks, I now feel qualified to boast about just how great it is. Located on top of a large hill, getting to Siena may be a bit strenuous without the use of public transportation, but the trip is well worth it.

History

The town itself consists of numerous neighborhoods, all of which have their own historic mascot, making for constant entertainment while exploring the city. From the “oca” or Goose contrada, to the Caterpillar neighborhood, each neighborhood has a local fountain and often hangs flags on their buildings depicting their mascot. Almost all of the buildings are from the medieval or gothic era, making for quaint and character-filled streetscapes.

Sites

siena campoThe Campo : In terms of places to see, the first place I would recommend you go is the town square, called the “Campo.” It is a large, ovular shaped area of pavement surrounded by shops and restaurants, as well as the historic town hall with its famous Mangia Tower. The Campo is a great place to sit down, eat up some delicious gelato, and take in some of the sites and sounds that make Siena so charming.

 

duomo siena

Siena Cathedral/Duomo :  A Gothically-designed space that is fitted with ornate sculpture from bottom to top, Siena’s Cathedral is one of the best and most recognized in the area.

Torrefazione Fiorella : Although I am not as much as a coffee-lover as some, this place was seriously the best coffee/cappuccino/bakery cafe I have ever been to. Very reasonable prices, friendly staff, and a location within the heart of the city….what more can you ask for?

Zest Ristorante & Winebar : This restaurant was close to my group’s apartment block, and we were so very happy it was. Resting on an uphill sloping pathway (commonplace in hilly Siena), Zest has an atmosphere and prices that are hard to beat. With a unique spin on traditional Tuscan cuisine as well as phenomenal bread and wine selections, this was a must-stop restaurant.

-Besides these sites, Siena is all about the atmosphere, meaning that exploring the city is the way to find its other secret treasures!

Lodging

Siena has a wealth of bed & breakfast options at relatively low nightly rates, as well as several hostel accommodations as well. Although I stayed in an apartment (the Alma Domus — which I would definitely recommend) during my long-term stay in Siena, a friend who visited me suggested using Hostel World to find housing options that are both high-quality and inexpensive.

PIENZA

History

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Pienza is a historical city that showcases one of the first city planning projects. A Renaissance-style town that shows the more urbanized direction of the time period, Pienza is known for its spectacular views and beautiful structures.

Sites

Enoteca di Ghino : For you wine-lovers out there, I would recommend visiting this gem, a winery and wine shop that offers a great selection of wonderful Italian wines as well as wine tastings.

pienza2Piazza Pio II : Serving as the town center, this plaza houses the city’s administrative buildings as well as the numerous social events and parties that Pienza hosts during the year.

 

 

 

pienza1Palazzo Piccolomini : A famous palace in the town, Piccolomini offers tours to visitors interested in seeing a previous Pope’s residence, on top of offering up more great views of the Tuscan hills.

 

 

Lodging

Once again, I’d recommend HostelWorld as the best way to find lodging options, as Pienza is a relatively small town with limited options for accommodations. I stayed one night at B&B Rossellino, a small but charming Bed & Breakfast in the city.

PISA

History

Hosting several elite universities, Pisa is a compact yet energetic city that is home to a large number of students, giving it a definite youthful energy. Pisa has a wide variety of beautiful building styles, ranging from Romanesque structures to Gothic cathedrals, giving it a unique and historical character that anyone can enjoy.

Sites

Although known for its leaning tower (which is fantastic), Pisa hosts a number of other great attractions to visit as well as an atmosphere of local culture that isn’t riddled with touristy hot-spots.

Some spots to make sure you go see:

pisa towerThe Leaning Tower : Enough said. It’s still one of my favorite architectural puzzles…and it offers visitors some great (and funny) photo opportunities as well.

The Pisa Cathedral & Duomo : another frequented historical gem, this cathedral is just beautiful and hosts a large and impressive dome as its centerpiece.

palazzo-bluPalazzo Blu art gallery : Called “The Blue Palace” based on its signature paint color, this gallery always houses a new variety of artistic exhibition, from a contemporary Andy Warhol exhibit to a showcase of Picasso’s work.

 

 

Il Montino Pizzeria : a low-key ridiculously tasty eatery frequented by locals of Pisa

Sottobosco : a quirky bookshop/cafe with great decor…and even greater cappuccino.

Lodging

Although I myself just made a day trip here, there are numerous options for lodging in Pisa, many of which are quite affordable. Once again, HostelWorld offers up some reasonably-priced hostels close to the city center, as does LonelyPlanet, with their variety of slightly higher-quality hotel options.

VOLTERRA

History

Once again, my group and I only were able to spend a day here, but it was by far one of my favorite towns we visited throughout Tuscany. Volterra’s historic gateway entrance, sitting on top of a rather steep hill, is one of the best preserved archways in all of Tuscany, and this respect for historic preservation is well-seen throughout all of Volterra’s Gothic and Romanesque structures.

Sites

Museo Etrusco Guarnacci : a museum housing a fantastic assortment of ancient Etruscan artifacts from the region

balze cliffs - volterraBalze Cliffs : if you feel like taking an adventure on foot, I’d recommend a short (slightly strenuous) hike up the Balze Cliffs, which surround Volterra. Atop these cliffs sits a beautiful old church structure as well as a phenomenal view that truly makes the trek worthwhile.

 

 

Volterra-alabaster-shop-ANY alabaster shop : Volterra is known as the city of alabaster, and its assortment of gift shops and craft businesses show why. From alabaster clocks to figurines, every one of these alabaster creations are delicately formed, and make great souvenirs for loved ones back home.

 

 

La Carabaccia : a family owned “trattoria,” this is one of Volterra’s best lunch spots. It offers a small but specialized menu that changes daily. I personally recommend their panini options, as it was one of the best paninis I had in Italy.

Lodging

A friend of mine has stayed in Chiostro delle Monache, an old Franciscan convent that is now a hostel just outside of Volterra’s city wall. He loved the price as well as the high quality rooms, so this could be a really good option for travelers to look into. And once again, I also must plug HostelWorld, who has other great options within the city that would be perfectly comfortable to stay in.

And that sums up my advice for Tuscan travels. As you embark on your journey into the beauty that is Tuscany, I hope this quick reference guide can serve you well in some way!