In no particular order, here are my personal top five favourite things about Tuscany.
- The Duomo Group, Florence – Every time I step out of the shadows of the Florence’s buildings and onto the Piazza del Duomo my jaw drops at the sight of the jewel in the Florentine crown. The stunning cathedral group consists of three main attractions: Brunelleschi’s miracle dome constructed without scaffolding, the beautiful Campanile designed by Giotto and Andrea Pisano and the Baptistry with its gilded bronze Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti (the ones on site are copies but no less impressive). Oddly enough the interior of the cathedral is very plain, practically barren in comparison to the amazing neo-gothic marble exterior. You can climb up the dome but I would opt for the Campanile climb so you can have a magnificent view of the Dome and the Florence skyline. It’s also one of the easier belltower climbs as you have the opportunity to rest at each level. This is my favourite Italian cathedral.
- Statue of David, Florence – There is a replica of Michelangelo’s David which stands outside the Palazzo Vecchio where the original stood, open to the elements and at the mercy of pigeons. Do not be fooled into thinking you don’t need to see the real thing, which now resides in the Galleria dell’Accademia. The museum holds very little else of much interest but seeing David is worth the price of entry alone. Standing in an alcove which seems to have been been built exclusively for it, the 5.17m tall sculpture carved out of one single marble block is an astonishing piece of art that has to be seen to be believed. Its sheer size is breathtaking.
- Siena – This lovely Tuscan hill town is one of my favourite places to stay whilst in Tuscany. It’s not exactly off the tourist trail but it’s small enough to be ‘digestible’. The UNESCO-listed historic centre, with its cobblestoned streets winding their way around the old buildings is absolutely charming. The Siena duomo is one of the best and at its heart lies the Piazza del Campo (or simply Il Campo), the massive, scallop-shaped main square where they run the world-famous Palio horse race. This grand piazza is one of the best public squares in Italy and as the sun begins its descent there’s no better place to have a sitdown and people-watch.
- Val d’Orcia – In my first two trips to Tuscany I came away befuddled that I didn’t see any of those amazing Tuscan vistas you see in books, the rolling hills of green with cypress trees. It was this reason that I embarked upon my self-drive tour of Tuscany and Umbria in 2008. And on one memorable day as I drove from Siena to San Quirico d’Orcia, I found what I had come to see. My drives around the Val d’Orcia region just south of Siena was absolutely picturesque.
- San Gimignano – One of the must-visits when you’re in Tuscany, a small walled medieval hill town famed for its many towers which can be seen many kms away. These days only 14 survive, the others lost to various circumstances. The small town is a pleasure to walk around and has two very pleasant squares – Piazza della Cisterna (with the titular well in the centre) and the Piazza Duomo. And to put the cherry on the cake, there are just the most splendid views of the gorgeous surrounding countryside to be had from La Rocca. It took me three visits to see it without fog but I got there!