My Tuscany Holiday Diary - Caroline Dawson

On her visit to Tuscany, travel writer Caroline Dawson discovered the diverse range of must-see sights and lesser-known gems our tours have to offer. Here’s her holiday diary…

‘I’d never visited Tuscany before, but I was aware of certain tourist hot spots and famous landmarks that are ‘must-sees’ in the area – and I was determined to tick some of these off the list. Along the way, I also discovered some of Tuscany’s lesser-known gems, and I was surprised to find that many of these experiences were amongst the most memorable of my trip to Italy.

Famous Florence

Florence, Italy’s ‘Art City’, is undoubtedly one of the most famous sights in Tuscany – and it certainly didn’t disappoint. As we approached the city, we stopped at a vantage point to get our first glimpse of the beautiful red roofs and majestic cathedral with its iconic dome. The sight was truly breathtaking, and I couldn’t wait to get closer and explore.

Soon enough I found myself wandering Florence’s bustling streets, where I discovered shops to suit every taste, from upmarket stores to thriving market stalls. More cafés, restaurants and bars were unveiled at every turn, and I realised how easy it would be to while away days in this city.

The narrow roads soon opened up into Piazza Santa Croce, one of Florence’s main squares. With the intricately designed Basilica di Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in the world, the square is an impressive sight, teeming with tourists.

Michelangelo’s David

With less than a full day in the city, there wasn’t time to stop for long – just a short stroll away, Piazza della Signoria awaited discovery. This square plays host to the city’s town hall, Palazzo Vecchio, as well as a replica of Michelangelo’s David and the wide arches and dramatic sculptures of the Loggia dei Lanzi. Packed full of ancient relics, the square offers a moving glimpse into a bygone era and some of the world’s greatest artistic achievements.

After taking advantage of some of the square’s infinite photo opportunities, we headed to Piazza del Duomo, where we got our first close-up look at the towering Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral. Tourists are able to climb the steps of either the iconic dome or Giotto’s Campanile, the tower beside it, for a small fee. I chose to climb the 414 steps of the tower. This was no easy task, but I was rewarded with spectacular panoramic views. This was a fantastic way to end my visit to Florence – but not before I’d visited Il Porcellino and rubbed the boar’s snout to ensure I would return to the city one day.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

During my time in Tuscany, I managed to tick off another must-see sight – the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Much like Florence, the surrounding area was busy and full of other tourists, but this just added to the sense of excitement. The tower itself was impressive – imposing and intricately designed, with the magnificent Archdiocese of Pisa by its side. And the busy, vibrant atmosphere extended to the nearby market stalls, where I enjoyed honing my haggling skills.
Another highlight of my trip was Siena, one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in Europe. Here, the Piazza del Campo is famous for hosting the Palio horse race, and could hold the entire population of Siena when it was first built! With the Palazzo Pubblico on the square and the magnificent Siena Cathedral nearby, there was plenty to take in. Once again I sought out the best panoramic views of the area, this time by climbing the 400 steps to the top of the Palazzo Pubblico’s bell tower, Torre del Mangia.

Medieval buildings

Away from the square, I found that even the city’s narrow streets were fascinating, with an array of medieval buildings, cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops to discover at every turn.

While I enjoyed visiting these popular tourist attractions, the highlights of my trip also included some of the less obvious destinations. San Gimignano is one such example, a small but incredibly well-preserved medieval hilltop town. While other cities, including Florence, have lost most of their towers over time, San Gimignano has succeeded in conserving 14. And as we explored its narrow streets, churches and piazzas, I felt as though I had stepped back in time, a sensation reinforced by the town’s less touristy atmosphere.

Abbey of Sant’Antimo

The fascinating little town of Montalcino was another unexpectedly memorable destination on my Tuscany holiday. Occupying a spectacular spot high up in the hills, the area has been settled since Etruscan times and consists of narrow, sloping streets with stunning views over the surrounding valleys.
The nearby Abbey of Sant’Antimo is equally spectacular. Dating back to the 9th century, this magnificent abbey is nestled amongst rolling hills dotted with cypress trees – a spectacular sight that combines the area’s local culture with its classic Tuscan countryside. The architecture is fascinating, with influences from both the French and the local Lombardy traditions, and visitors are often treated to the memorable sound of the resident monks’ chanting when they venture inside.

The island of Elba

Perhaps another of Tuscany’s less obvious tourist destinations is the island of Elba. The third largest island in Italy, it’s known largely for its association with Napoleon, who was exiled here following his forced abdication in 1814. Despite the island’s claims to fame, I arrived knowing very little about Elba – but I was intrigued to learn more.

As we drove towards our resort, I discovered a beautiful, unspoilt island with rolling hills, beautiful beaches and unique wildlife. Our resort, Marciana Marina, was a pretty, coastal town with an historic centre, a weekly open-air market and quaint, colourful houses lining the shore. Tucking into a traditional Italian pizza in a local restaurant that evening, I was struck by a noticeable shortage of other tourists.

Real Italian life

With an hour-long ferry journey between the island and the mainland, Elba is less accessible than some of Tuscany’s more iconic areas, and felt far more authentic and peaceful in comparison. While the must-see sights were exactly that, it was the hidden gems like Elba that helped me to gain a much more genuine insight into real Italian life.’

Every Travelsphere holiday offers exceptional value for money. Included in the price are return scheduled flights/rail travel and internal flights, where applicable, overseas transfers and transportation, carefully chosen hotels, many meals and excursions and the services of a Travelsphere Holiday Director or Local Guide.