The best advice for an unforgettable Florentine experience is simply not to leave Italy on weekends. Traveling within the country is an excellent way to save money, practice your Italian, and experience many diverse regions and people. Luckily, Florence is well positioned for extensive budget travel-in fact, all towns listed below are just a train or bus ride away and perfect for a day of exploring. Rise early and return in the evening and you won’t even have to pay for a hostel. After so many spectacular day trips around Tuscany, you’ll realize that there’s more to Italy than Venice, Rome, Florence, Milan and the Amalfi Coast … and that the towns below are just a few of the amazing nearby places to visit!
Arezzo is a simple half-day jaunt from Florence to see Piero della Francesca’s chapel (pay the €6 only if you want to view the frescoes up close) and the Duomo’s beautiful stained glass windows. At the top of the hill across from the Duomo is a pretty garden view over Tuscany. Visit the picturesque Piazza Grande, the site of an antique fair the first Sunday of each month; the nearby Romanesque church; and Vasari’s home, covered in his frescoes. The best part about Arezzo: you will hear virtually no English the entire day.
Although you’ll probably see many Americans in Cortona, thanks to the popular book and film Under the Tuscan Sun, this small hill town is charming nonetheless. From the Camucia train station, wait for a bus or share a taxi (about €10) into the town center. A combo-ticket provides entry into the Museo Diocesano featuring Fra Angelico’s Annunciation as well as the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca, with an ornate nautical bronze Etruscan chandelier and a whole room dedicated to Futurist artist Gino Severini. Admire Severini’s mosaics along the steep via Crucis, leading up to the Basilica di Santa Margherita (with a decaying body!) and continue on to the Medici fortezza with unparalleled countryside views, including Lake Trasimeno. June brings the Giostra Dell’Archidado, a heavily touristed crossbow contest in which citizens dress to the nines in medieval costume. See www.cortonaweb.net/archidado/index.htm.
Escape from Florence to Fiesole for a quick afternoon getaway. From the train station take ATAF bus #7. Settled by the Etruscans in the ninth century BC-about 600 years before the Romans arrived- Fiesole boasts pretty scenery and an ancient Roman theatre. Bring ingredients for a picnic with friends and watch the sun set from the terrace above the city.
Spend the day dodging bicycles while wandering through Lucca‘s cheerful streets. Its pristine medieval ramparts are perfect for a book, picnic, or passeggiata. Climbing up the tree-topped Torre Guinigi is a must to see much of Tuscany and Lucca’s private gardens-as is standing in the middle of the perfectly circular Piazza Anfiteatro imagining the glory of the Roman amphitheatre beneath. The day isn’t complete without a stroll around the tree-lined walls, or browsing the many boutiques along the bustling via Fillungo, including the Benetton outlet on via Antonio Mordini.
Hop on the train to Pisa and take your picture shamelessly supporting the Leaning Tower. Afterwards, climb its winding staircase for a lovely view overlooking the city. Don’t forget to explore the rest of the Field of Miracles-visit the Baptistery with Nicola Pisano’s revolutionary 1260 carved pulpit showcasing the first classical three-dimensional nude since ancient times, and the enormous Duomo with another Pisano pulpit and gorgeous gilded ceiling. Finish the day admiring the houses along the Arno River and shopping in the fashionable boutiques of Corso Italia.
Although overrun by Americans, San Gimignano, with its 14 medieval towers, picturesque hilltop views, Vernaccia wine, award-winning restaurants, and ‘best gelato in Italy’ are a fun day trip from Firenze. Have lunch at Trattoria Chiribiri to the left of Porta San Giovanni and continue along the main drag to finish with gelato at Pluripremiata Gelateria in Piazza della Cisterna. Climb the Torre Grossa for spectacular Tuscan scenery and visit the Duomo for Ghirlandaio’s Capella di Santa Fina and endless other frescoes. In the afternoon, relax at the nearby fortezza with more beautiful views or wander through the less trespassed area near Sant’Agostino, home to a decorated chapel by Benozzo Gozzoli. SITA is the fastest way to get to San Gimignano from Siena.
Spend a relaxing morning sipping café and people watching in sunny Il Campo, the main square of Siena. (SITA is the best way to get here.) Buy a combo-ticket to climb the city tower for breathtaking views of Tuscany. Visit the Museo Civico to see Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 1340 Effects of Good and Bad Government. Then stroll to the impressive Duomo to admire the stunningly vivid early 1500s frescoes and manuscripts within the Piccolomini Library. Check out the Baptistery for the work of Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti as well as the Duomo Museum for Duccio’s stained-glass rose window and another panoramic view. But make sure you’re outside at dusk to soak up the beauty of Siena at twilight and spend some time wandering through the medieval streets. For an unforgettable dinner, Paolo at Papei in Piazza Mercato will take care of you.