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Guide to the World Heritage Sites of Tuscany

WorldHeritageSitesTuscany

Tuscany is one of Italy’s most famous regions. Heart of the Renaissance, it’s renowned for incredible landscapes, rich food, and delicate wine. No wonder then, that it’s at the top of every tourist’s Italian bucket list. But Tuscany is also home to seven incredible World Heritage sites, all of which are amazing. Read on, for our guide to the World Heritage sites of Tuscany.

Historic Centre of Florence

Let’s start in the capital of Tuscany, Florence. It’s not a stretch to say that Florence was for centuries, the most important city in all of Europe. The centre of the old town is dominated by the gorgeous Duomo, clad in white, green and pink marble and topped with an iconic red dome, designed by the Renaissance master Brunelleschi. There’s a statue of him in the piazza below, looking up at his masterpiece, tools in hand. Florence is also home to the continent’s second-busiest art gallery, the Uffizi, located in a former palace of the ruling Medici family. Here you’ll find works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Rafael, amongst many many others. There’s also the Palazzo Vecchio, the Galleria dell’Accademia housing Michelangelo’s David, the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, the Ponte Vecchio, and innumerable churches, chapels and piazzas.

There’s just so much to see here it’s incredible – we spent four days and barely even scratched the surface. It’s one place we will definitely be coming back to.

Piazza del Duomo in Pisa

Next up we visit Pisa, about 90 minutes to the north of Florence. And here we find possibly the world’s most iconic building? Certainly in the top five, anyway. But what I’d never realised is that the famous Leaning Tower is actually the bell tower for a magnificent cathedral. The cathedral is huge, and clad in white, green and red marble after the same fashion as Florence’s cathedral. Opposite the Cathedral is the Bapistry, a circular domed building constructed of white marble and red tiles, and which has perfect acoustics inside. The whole complex is known as the Piazza dei Miracoli, or the square of miracles.

It’s a really striking place! I’d strongly encourage you to hurry through your obligatory “holding up the Leaning Tower” photo and spend some quality time with the other buildings nearby. I do love the Tower though, and I love its completely off-kilter appearance. Since it started leaning during the early phases of construction, you can actually see how engineers tried to correct it while they built; the upper floors are quite a bit taller on one side than the other, and the crown is almost vertical!

Medici Gardens and Villas in Tuscany

Next up, we explore the legacy of the Medici. This family is absolutely inseparable from Tuscany, and their legacy is everywhere. Originally a family of bankers and merchants, they acquired more and more political power in first the region and later across Europe including several Popes, a Queen of France, and centuries of directly ruling Florence and Tuscany. This site covers twelve villas and two gardens in various parts of Tuscany, built at different times during the 15th to 17th centuries. We visited their main residence, the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens in the centre of Florence, along with Villa di Castello and Villa La Petraia.

These were fascinating to see, as they’re sort of halfway between a medieval lord’s fortified dwelling and a typical Renaissance nobleman’s farmhouse. The Medici were also famous for their patronage of the arts and sciences, and this really shines through in the decoration of these houses, particularly in the interior of Villa La Petraia.

Historic Centre of Siena

Heading now out of Florence to the south, we reach the large town of Siena. This is a very popular day-trip from Florence, and for good reason too. Siena is a beautiful town, and very authentically medieval-feeling. The stone buildings loom over narrow streets, and the cobbles are rough and uneven – you half expect to see horses and carts with roughly dressed peasants around every corner!

There’s some unmissable stops here, including Siena Cathedral which is one of my absolute favourites. The interior is built from alternating black and white marble stripes, giving it a very striking and totally unique look. Another must-visit is the Piazza del Campo, a shell-shaped square at the centre of town. Every year this square hosts a crazy horse ride called “Il Palio“, where jockeys ride seven laps bareback around the square. Over the square looms the Palazzo Pubblico with its magnificent Torre del Mangia tower. At 300 steps, it’s a huge climb and not for the faint-hearted, but the views from the top are well worth it!

Historic Centre of San Gimignano

Siena’s historic rival has always been nearby San Gimignano, but these days San Gimignano is much smaller and quieter. But that doesn’t make it any less appealing, quite the opposite in fact! San Gimignano is home to the famous “tower houses“, or tall slender houses built in medieval and Renaissance times by local nobles. The idea was to build the tallest house you could, and whoever had the tallest house was considered the richest and most important. At one point there were 72 houses crammed into a fairly small city, so it must have looked like Manhattan or Chicago!

Sadly most have been lost to the ages, but 14 of them still remain and many can be climbed, affording great panoramas of the city, the other tower houses, and of course the gorgeous Tuscan countryside. There’s also a ruined fortress built into the walls that’s well worth a look. San Gimignano is somewhere I’d strongly recommend staying overnight. It’s an easy day trip from Florence and Siena, but that means it can get overrun with tourists, particularly during the summer. Staying the night means you get to enjoy the quiet atmosphere of the morning and evening.

Historic Town of Pienza

The smallest of the World Heritage towns in Tuscany, Pienza was the sleepy little backwater of Corsignano for much of its history. Until 1458, when Pius II was elected Pope and started using his money and influence to redevelop birthplace in accordance with new Renaissance principles of town design. A large section of town was demolished, making way for a square, cathedral, and a new papal palace. There’s even a palace built by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, the controversial cardinal who became Pope himself a few years later.

It’s a beautiful little spot, sitting on a hill surrounded by gorgeous Tuscan countryside. The town itself is very small and doesn’t take long to explore, but it’s still great to just wander around and imagine life in the Renaissance era. My tip for Pienza: try and visit off season, or stay overnight if you can. As an easy day trip from Florence, Siena or Montepulciano, it tends to get very crowded with tourists during the hot summer months. But we visited on a beautiful sunny winter’s day and had almost the entire town to ourselves! Great for meeting locals, getting the best seats at every restaurant, and not a single queue in sight!

Val d’Orcia, Tuscany

And so finally we come to the Val d’Orcia. This large valley covers much of central Tuscany, and is probably the most quintessentially “Italian” landscape in the whole country. Gently rolling hills, winding roads, rows of cypress trees, vineyards, large country villas, and little stone hilltop towns. Pienza, mentioned above, lies within the valley, but you’ll also find other beautiful towns like San Quirico, Montalcino, Bagni San Filippo, and Castiglione d’Orcia.

So many fantastic Italian products hail from this region, like pecorino cheese, various salamis, Brunello wines, and many more. We had a wonderful couple of days just enjoying the countryside and driving around to various spots. I’d strongly recommend visiting Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta near San Quirico; it’s down the end of a gravel road but it has spectacular views! And honestly – spend a couple of nights staying in an agriturismo (farmhouse-style B&B). Stay with the farmers, chat with them, consume their local produce and cooking – it is positively mindblowing!

Conclusion

Tuscany is one of our favourite regions in Italy, and for good reason too. There’s something here for everyone: art lovers, historians, foodies, photographers, drop-everything-and-relaxers. Tuscany is such a magical place, and one that I imagine we’ll return to again and again. There’s little wonder it’s home to so many UNESCO World Heritage sites, and a tourist attraction for centuries!

Interested in other regions of Italy? Check out our guide to the World Heritage sites of Sicily. Or for a complete change of pace, why not see the World Heritage sites that Denmark has to offer!

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