Tuscany is one of Italy’s most famous regions. Heart of the Renaissance, it’s renowned for incredible landscapes, rich food, and delicate wine. But there’s also seven amazing Tuscany World Heritage sites! So if you’re curious to know more about Tuscany historical sites, then read on for our guide to the World Heritage sites in Tuscany.
Historic Centre of Florence – World Heritage Site
Let’s start in Florence, capital city in Tuscany and the largest UNESCO site. It’s not a stretch to say that Florence was for centuries, among the most important cities 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. It’s definitely the most important UNESCO city in Tuscany, and certainly one of the most impressive.
Piazza del Duomo in Pisa – World Heritage Site
Next up we visit Pisa, 90 minutes north of Florence and home to our next UNESCO World Heritage site in Tuscany. Pisa is of course home to one of the world’s most iconic buildings. But what I’d never realised is that the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa is actually just 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 – World Heritage Site
Next of our UNESCO World Heritage Sites Tuscany is the legacy of the Medici family. The Medicis are absolutely inseparable from Tuscany, and their legacy is everywhere. Originally a family of bankers and merchants, they accumulated political power in both Tuscany and across Europe. Their dynasty ultimately included several Popes, a Queen of France, plus centuries of directly ruling Florence and Tuscany. This World Heritage Garden 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 – World Heritage Site
South of Florence is the large town of Siena, our next UNESCO World Heritage site Tuscany. This is a very popular day-trip from Florence, and for good reason too. Siena is a beautiful town, one of our favourite Tuscany historical sites, and it’s genuinely 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 – World Heritage Site
Our next UNESCO site in Tuscany is Siena’s historic rival, nearby San Gimignano. 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 – World Heritage Site
Our last city in Tuscany World Heritage Site is also the smallest. Pienza was the sleepy little backwater of Corsignano for much of its history. But in 1458, Pius II became Pope and began using his money and influence to rebuild his birthplace. Following new Renaissance principles of town design, a large section of town was demolished to make 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 – World Heritage Site
And so finally we come to our last Tuscany UNESCO site: 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!
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!