Florence – city of the duomo, bistecca alla fiorentina and Michelangelo's David – has a relatively small population that is dwarfed by the millions of tourists who swarm to it annually. While the Florentines have a knack for ignoring the hordes, a visitor can feel like one of a herd. So, once you've had your fill of the city's amazing sights, use it as a base for fantastic day trips around and beyond Tuscany. Some are only a short distance apart, so if you have your own car, you can easily tied them together for longer days out. Here are 10 of the best day trips from Florence.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel and opening hours may vary. Check the latest guidance in Italy before planning a trip, and always follow local health advice.
1. San Gimignano
As you crest the nearby hills, the 14 towers of the walled town of San Gimignano rise up on the skyline. Day-trippers are lured here by a palpable sense of history, an intact medieval streetscape and the enchanting rural setting.
In Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral looks across to the late-13th-century Palazzo Vecchio del Podestà and its tower, the Torre della Rognosa. Admire medieval frescoes in Collegiata, the Romanesque cathedral, and climb the tower of Palazzo Communale. Once you're ready for something more contemporary, enjoy the art at Galleria Continua, one of Europe's best commercial art galleries.
How to get to San Gimignano: The drive from Florence is about one hour. If traveling by train go to Poggibonsi-San Gimignano and take a bus the rest of the way.
Siena is where the architecture soars, as do the souls of many of its visitors. Effectively a giant, open-air museum celebrating the Gothic, the city has spiritual and secular monuments that have retained both their medieval forms and their extraordinary art collections, providing the visitor with plenty to marvel at.
Visit the duomo, an art-laden Gothic cathedral with a baptistry, crypt and museum, and then head to the Museo Civico to marvel at magnificent frescoes commissioned by the city's medieval rulers. Piazza del Campo is Siena's social center, so take time to enjoy a coffee or aperitivo while watching the action unfold. The historic contrade (districts) are marvelous with vibrant streets full of artisanal boutiques, sweet-smelling pasticcerie (pastry shops) and tempting restaurants. Siena is an essential stop on every Tuscan itinerary.
How to get to Siena: Siena is about an hour's drive from Florence, and is served by a direct bus service.
Sure, the iconic Leaning Tower is the reason everyone wants to go to Pisa. But once you've put yourself through the Piazza dei Miracoli madness most people simply want to get out of town. It's worth saving your visit to the tower and its oversized square for the latter part of the day. Indulge instead in peaceful meanderings along the Arno river, over its bridges and through Pisa's medieval heart.
Discover the last monumental wall painting pop artist Keith Haring did before he died, enjoy low-key architectural and artistic genius at the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina and Palazzo Blu. Scale and stroll atop Pisa's ancient city walls for a bird's-eye view of the city. Only once you've fallen in love with these parts of Pisa should you head for the tower.
How to get to Pisa: Pisa is just over an hour by train from Florence, and takes nearer 90 minutes by car.
Often tied in with a visit to Pisa is lovely Lucca, which endears itself to everyone who visits. Hidden behind imposing Renaissance walls, its cobbled streets, handsome piazzas and shady promenades make it a perfect destination to explore by foot. Stone-paved Via Fillungo, with its fashion boutiques and car-free mantra, threads its way through the medieval heart of the old city. East is one of Tuscany's loveliest piazzas: oval cafe-ringed Piazza Anfiteatro, named for the amphitheater that was here in Roman times.
Lucca is known for its traditional cuisine and prized olive oil, so be sure to linger long enough to enjoy a meal here. Historic cafes and restaurants tempt visitors to relax over a glass or two of Lucchesi wine and a slow progression of rustic dishes prepared with fresh produce from nearby Garfagnana.
How to get to Lucca: The best way to get to Lucca from Florence is by car, and it's about a one-hour drive.
With a pristine medieval center and an international student population, Perugia is Umbria’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. Its centro storico (historic center), seemingly little changed in more than 400 years, rises in a helter-skelter of cobbled alleys, arched stairways and piazzas framed by solemn churches and magnificent Gothic palazzi (mansions). The Galleria Nazionale Dell'Umbria is Umbria's foremost museum, with works displayed chronologically over 40 different rooms.
How to get to Perugia: The city is about a two-hour drive from Florence, and is also served by a direct train link.
The vineyards in this picturesque part of Tuscany produce the grapes used in namesake Chianti and Chianti Classico: world-famous reds. It's a landscape where you'll encounter historic olive groves, honey-colored stone farmhouses, dense forests, graceful Romanesque pievi (rural churches), handsome Renaissance villas and imposing stone castles built in the Middle Ages by Florentine and Sienese warlords.
The main town in the Chianti Fiorentino, Greve is a hub of the local wine industry and has an amiable market-town air. It's not picturesque (most of the architecture is modern and unattractive), but it does boast an attractive, historic central square, and is a good place to join a cycling tour. The historic wine town of Radda is home of the Consorzio di Chianti Classico and an appealing, albeit low-key base for visits to some classic Tuscan vineyards.
How to get to Chianti: Greve in Chianti, San Casciano in Val di Pesa and Radda in Chianti can all be accessed via bus from Florence, which takes around an hour. To see more of the Chianti region, it's better to have your own car.
Bologna, in Emilia-Romagna, fuses haughty elegance with down-to-earth grit in one beautifully colonnaded medieval grid. It is the perfect day trip destination for foodies. Some of Italy's finest restaurants are here, with many traditional trattorias serving Bolognese specialties in unassuming surroundings. Stroll down Quadilatero, the historic gourmet food quarter packed with market stalls, delis and cafes and pick up some local treats to take away with you.
The two medieval leaning towers of the Torre degli Asinelli are symbols of the city. One of them is open to the public, and if you can handle the climb up 498 vertigo-inducing steps, you'll be rewarded with postcard-perfect views across Bologna.
How to get to Bologna: Bologna is about a 90-minute drive from Florence.
8. Montepulciano and Val d'Orcia
The picturesque agricultural valley of Val d'Orcia is a Unesco World Heritage site, as is the historic center of the town of Pienza on its northeastern edge. The valley's distinctive landscape features flat chalk plains, out of which rise almost conical hills topped with fortified settlements and magnificent abbeys that were once important staging points on the Via Francigena. For incredible views over the valley and beyond, the nearby medieval town of Montepulciano perched on a reclaimed narrow ridge of volcanic rock, will push your quadriceps to failure point.
The attractive hilltop town of Montalcino has a remarkable number of enoteche lining its medieval streets with well-preserved buildings within the historic city walls. It's surrounded by hugely picturesque vineyards. Monticchiello, 10km south of Pienza, makes a tranquil and convenient base when exploring the Val d'Orcia. A pause at Bagni San Filippo will allow for a long therapeutic soak in its thermal springs.
How to get to Val d'Orcia: Montepulciano and Pienza are less than a two-hour drive from Florence.
9. Cortona, Val di Chiana
Rooms with a view are the rule rather than the exception in the spectacularly sited hilltop town of Cortona. At the beginning of the 15th century, Fra' Angelico lived and worked here, and fellow artists Luca Signorelli and Pietro da Cortona were both born within the walls – all three are represented in the Museo Diocesano's small but sensational collection. Large chunks of Under the Tuscan Sun, the 2003 film of the book by Frances Mayes, were shot here and the town has been a popular tourist destination ever since.
How to get to Cortona: The town is slightly more than a 90-minute drive from Florence. The closest train station, Camucia-Cortona, is about 1.5 miles (2.4km) from the town.
If you haven't got much time to spare but are in desperate need of a break from the city, head to the bijou hilltop village of Fiesole just five miles from the center of Florence. The town was made famous with the help of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View, whose characters chose the town for its unsurpassed views of Florence. Fiesole has seduced for centuries with its cooler air, olive groves, scattering of Renaissance-styled villas and spectacular views of the plain. From here, continue driving into the surrounding countryside for green rolling hills dotted with farms and villas.
How to get to Fiesole: It takes just half an hour to drive to Fiesole from Florence.
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Original article by Renee Bergere published in June 2012, with a new version published in February 2021.