Tour of the cities of art in Tuscany

San Gimignano (c) Lowell Monke/
If you love cities of art, then you’ve chosen the right region. Indeed, within an hour’s range from the Tuscan regional capital, Florence, there are architectural wonders that will catapult you into medieval and Renaissance Tuscany such as Lucca, Pisa, Siena and San Gimignano.

About an hour by train from Florence is Lucca, one of Tuscany’s most fascinating historic centres, surrounded by ancient 16th-century walls, today still practically fully intact and walkable in their entirely. You can cycle along the tree-lined walls, stop for a tasty ice cream or simply cool down on the benches. The picturesque historic centre has remained almost intact, including countless medieval churches, which have earned Lucca the nickname of “city of the 100 churches”, Renaissance squares and buildings and Roman amphitheatres.

The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa can also be easily reached from Florence in about an hour by train. Loved by tourists from all over the world for its peculiar tilt, the Tower of Pisa is in reality the bell tower of the Cathedral, which stands in a unique monumental context, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Piazza dei Miracoli. Once you’ve completed your visit to this unbelievable square, if you have a little time left, you can relax with a walk along the Arno to the historic centre and Piazza dei Cavalieri, the political fulcrum of medieval Pisa. Facing onto the square is Palazzo della Carovana, which today houses the Scuola Normale Superiore, one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

With a brief trip by coach from Florence (looking at the idyllic landscape of the Tuscan countryside through the window) you reach Siena, one of the most loved medieval centres in Italy, which is also included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The city’s nerve centre is Piazza del Campo, which is renowned for its unique shell shape, for its architectural integrity, and because twice a year (2 July and 16 August) it holds the Palio di Siena, a horse race that is of fundamental importance for the Sienese. The square is dominated by a series of buildings of inestimable historical and architectural value, including the Palazzo Pubblico and the attached Torre del Mangia, as well as the Cappella di Piazza. But Siena is not just Piazza del Campo: lose yourself along the picturesque medieval alleys, with their succession of churches, palaces and shops where you can purchase the local hand-crafted goods or taste the traditional panforte.

And a few kilometres from Siena, another town declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO awaits you with its towers and its characteristic medieval architecture. It is the unmissable San Gimignano, reachable by coach from Siena and Florence and situated in the heart of the Tuscan countryside. Walking around this small town, the 13th/14th-century appearance of which is still practically unchanged is almost like going back in time. San Gimignano is famous above all for its medieval towers, which were as many as 72 at one time and today are just fifteen, including some in ruins and without their tops but still visible as part of the urban fabric. Nevertheless, the effect of arriving from the countryside and seeing the outline of the town emerge still leaves you breathless.

Arezzo, in the southeast of the region, is also worth a day trip. Home to the oldest university in Tuscany, it is also famous for being the city where Roberto Benigni’s film “Life is Beautiful” was shot. It is the home of artists and poets such as Francesco Petrarca and Giorgio Vasari. Famous for Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in the Basilica of San Francesco and Cimabue’s restored wooden crucifix in the Church of San Domenico. Twice a year (in June and September) the Piazza Grande hosts the Giostra del Saracino, an ancient competition in medieval costumes.