Imagine this for a moment: a brilliant blue sky with puffy, pillowy white clouds, vineyards with rows and rows of tangled grapevines, rolling hillsides that seemingly go on forever, and secluded farmhouses and homes surrounded by groves of lush olive trees. I know it sounds like a dream, right? But, anyone who has traveled through Tuscany in Italy knows that the location described is actually real.
Considered one of the most beautiful regions in all of Europe, Tuscany offers picturesque views, as well as myriad places to see, things to do, and some of the best food and wine in the world.
“Tuscany is a great place for a travel destination because of its outstanding beauty, its central location, breathtaking views, rolling hills and miles of coastlines on the Tyrrhenian Sea,” says Gina Vinaccia, public relations manager in Chicago for The Italian National Tourist Board North America. “Tuscany also produces some of Italy’s finest wines and olive oils, and there are an abundance of wine and olive oil tours that make visiting the region fun. Of course, art and architecture are a big part of Tuscany’s draw. The food in Tuscany is delicious, and dare I say simple—simple in the way that the ingredients themselves are super fresh and don’t need a lot of seasoning. The combination of the gorgeous views, delicious wines, outstanding art and architecture, delicious food and super-friendly people make Tuscany a beyond special place. The options are endless.”
For the perfect trip combination, consider this itinerary: start out in Tuscany, where you can enjoy the views, the vineyards, the food, and the authentic Italian life in the Tuscan countryside, as well as the art and architecture in its cities.
“Picture postcard landscapes, centuries of history, but mostly the allegria (or cheerfulness) of the Tuscan locals is something to experience,” says Penny Gatward, Tuscany trip designer at the Madison, Wisconsin-based Trek Travel.
Next, gear up for an active day of hiking and walking along the five villages of the Cinque Terre, where spectacular views can be seen on nearly every turn. Then truly relax in the lap of luxury, otherwise known as Portofino. Be sure to pack casual elegant clothes to wander through the piazzas in the evenings, comfortable walking shoes for exploring Florence and the Cinque Terre, and, according to Gatward, don’t forget to bring your appetite to enjoy the incredible cuisine and world-renowned wine.
While there are many high-end hotel options in Tuscany, for a truly authentic Tuscan experience, try out what many refer to as agritourism (a combination of agriculture and tourism). Visiting Tuscany in this manner allows the traveler to experience real life in rural Tuscany, including staying on working farms, a nicely appointed farmhouse, or vineyards with accommodations for visitors. For example, at Agriturismo Cretaiole in Siena, guests stay in a large stone farmhouse, which was built in the 1400s and offers a panoramic view of the Tuscan countryside, including the farm’s own olive orchard and vineyard. Guests can partake in a pasta-making class, followed by a traditional Tuscan dinner, an olive oil and wine tasting, as well as a tour of the family’s working farm where they are treated to tastings of the family’s homemade products, including cheese, meats, and eggs.
While staying at an authentic Tuscan farmhouse offers a variety of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, one must also be sure to visit some of the more popular places in the area during a trip to the region. The famous wine towns of Montalcino and Montepulciano offer an abundant amount of wine bars and wineries that provide a fun day for visitors. The Avignonesi winery in Montepulciano, for example, offers wine tastings, a wine tour, a gourmet wine-paired lunch and cooking classes.
Tuscany also consists of many towns and cities that provide a look at ancient architecture and history. Take a walk along the pedestrian promenade on top of the walls surrounding the charming town of Lucca before checking out the town’s beautiful and ancient churches. After exploring Lucca, be sure to visit the more well-known cities of Pisa and Florence to experience their vast history, rich culture, amazing art, stunning architecture and the urban al fresco dining options these lovely cities provide. If some exercise is what you seek while in Pisa, consider climbing up the steps inside the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and enjoy the striking views from the top. Otherwise, enjoy the tower from the ground (but be sure to take the obligatory “holding-the-tower-up-with-your-hand photo”) and stop in to appreciate the early 14th-century sculptures and liturgical items at the Museo dell’Opera Del Duomo (The Museum of the Cathedral).
In Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, admire the art throughout the city and take in the Italian history and culture on every corner. Walk across the Ponte Vecchio, also known as the Bridge of Gold (and maybe treat yourself to a piece of jewelry—when in Florence, right?). Gaze up at the magnificent Brunelleschi’s Dome at the Piazza del Duomo, which also features the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Giotto's Bell Tower, the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Crypt of Santa Reparata and the Opera Museum. Be sure to check out the Galleria dell’Accademia, which is home of the famous David statue. Get there early, because the line can be very long.
Other Options in Nearby Liguria
Head North to the Liguria region of Italy to the Cinque Terre, a six-mile stretch of land along the Italian Riviera coastline, which is comprised of five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, each connected by hiking trails. If the thought of hiking between all five villages while on vacation isn’t your cup of espresso, consider hiking a portion and then doing the rest via one of the hourly trains that run between all five villages. Although a very popular tourist destination today, it’s a day trip that is sure to be unforgettable. All along the hiking trails and walking paths are colorful houses and vineyards that lead to unbelievable views of the countryside and Ligurian Sea.
“The Cinque Terre is known for its hikes, fresh fish and simple living,” says Vinaccia. “There really is no way to describe the beauty of this area without visiting it, as it is quite captivating and seductive. Just the experience on the local train arriving in the vicinity can be quite magical, as the smell of the sea encompasses your senses and you somehow feel instantly relaxed and excited about what is to come.”
Santa Margherita Ligure
After a day of walking, hiking and/or riding through the villages of the Cinque Terre, board the train for Santa Margherita Ligure. While most travelers are anxious to reach nearby Portofino once they arrive at this stop, do yourself a favor and spend a little time in this municipality in the city of Genoa. Santa Margherita Ligure is a beautiful old seaside resort town, which offers the same look and feel of all of the Riviera towns, while being more spacious than the Cinque Terre, but less glitzy than Portofino. Plus, you can get to Portofino by car (but it will cost you), local bus, or if you want to really earn that cup of gelato, an approximately one-hour walk, which offers even more spectacular views.
Finally, complete your journey with a stop in the luxurious fishing village of Portofino, along the Italian Riviera. A favorite among the rich and famous, Portofino is known for its extravagant glamour as well as its local, easygoing charm, according to Vinaccia.
“The village’s signature rustic beauty and seaside loveliness are what makes Portofino one of the most beautiful seaside villages to visit anywhere in the world,” she says. “The area offers high-end boutiques, exquisite seafood restaurants, and views that are beyond belief.” While Vinaccia believes that “anytime is a great time to visit Portofino,” it is more commonly visited during the warmer months because of the beaches and the many events and festivals that take place in the area during that time of the year.
From fantastic, breathtaking views, delicious foods, myriad museums and attractions, olive oil, wine and gelato just about everywhere you go, a trip to Tuscany and the Italian Riviera is good for the mind, body and soul. It’s the perfect journey for experiencing what the Italians call la dolce vita—the sweet life. Buon viaggio!
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