Top Things to do in Florence and Tuscany

Florence Overview

Florence is an art lovers dream. You could easily spend two weeks or more here visiting a new museum filled with wonderous works of art, historical pieces and odes to religious devotion.

To begin with, the Duomo itself is an architectural masterpiece. The intricacy and color captured our imaginations immediately. I’ve never seen such a vibrant cathedral, it is uniquely decorated with stripes of green and white marble. It towers over the city. The designs remind me of something more eastern, more geometric, as opposed to the stone grey of most European churches. One can see how the Renaissance took hold and flourished here.

The city is incredibly walkable and easy to navigate, especially with the massive Duomo to help guide your way around the streets. Almost all the other buildings were the same height, nothing overwhelming, built to a very human scale. You don’t even need to use public transit to get around town. You can simply walk from one palace or site to the next.

The Uffizi is the most well know of these art palaces. To us it is only surpassed by the Louvre, which is unparalleled. The Uffizi contains the most beautiful medieval carvings Jamie and I have ever seen. I didn’t know medieval painted wooden works could be so transfixing to view. You sense the devotion and awe that these pieces must have inspired 500 years ago. The sentiment still runs strong today among modern visitors.

Another must see museum is Galleria dell’Accademia which contains possibly the most famous statue in the Western world, David.

The David statue left us staring in amazement alongside the other visitors. This sculpture is world famous for great reason, it is a marvelous carving with incredibly lifelike features. I simply could not stop staring at the intricacy of the sculpted hands. His pose is triumphant yet relaxed. Did he just kill Goliath or is he just about to complete this memorialized feat?

One recommendation we have when visiting the David statue is to continue upstairs, not to exit after seeing the ground floor. Everyone comes for the colossal giant slayer but the signage pointing guests up the dim staircase is virtually non existent.

We found ourselves nearly alone viewing incredible medieval pieces on par with the Uffizi. Albeit a smaller collection, the craftsmanship and beauty is stunning to behold. Do yourself a favor, after the crowded David continue to the upper floor to view more then you would think you could see.

Once you’ve feasted your eyes on the wonderful art galleries fill your stomach with out of this world delights in the Mercado Centrale. Freshly cut prosciutto, wonderful wheels of cheese and fruits you may have never heard of all await you on the bottom floor. Ask the grocer what is in season and you will be sure to taste the best that Italy has to offer. For us it was figs and kaki fruit, something I’ve never had so fresh before.

Florence Things To Do

The main attraction is the Uffizi Gallery, it is an absolute must with artwork from the late medieval to the Renaissance period. One of the most impressive galleries we’ve ever been to, the art was surprisingly intricate for being medieval. We had never seen this style of carved wood panels before. Even if you don’t like museums you need to give this place a chance, it might just surprise you.

The Duomo is one of the most stunning cathedral exteriors we have ever seen. We did not get a chance to go inside but even the outside is mind-blowing to behold. Walk around and see every angle, the colors are absolutely beautiful in every light.

This was our main “We’re Here” moment for sure. The Duomo is closed on Sundays to tourists, so be aware and plan accordingly. The option to climb to the top held the steep price of £20 per person, and with over 400 steps we opted to pass on this. In other cathedrals the climb to the top costs only a handful of Euros.

Galleria dell’Accademia is where Michelangelo’s world famous David statue is located. The museum itself is much smaller but the scale of David is much more impressive than anything else we had seen before. Continue on to the second floor, which is easily missed, to view more classic Florence Medieval works and painted wood carvings.

Ponte Vecchio is a beautiful bridge that connects both halves of city across the Arno river. Most of the shops in the bridge are very high end jewelery stores. This is a romantic spot to stop and watch the sun set over the river and the Tuscan Hills in the distance.

Palazzo Vecchio is another splendid palace. Unfortunately we only saw the ground floor, which can be accessed for free. Although you can still get a good feeling of the beauty contained inside by touring the bottom, you need to pay to go upstairs. We had the pleasure of listening to a wonderful piano player in the lobby area, the sounds of his melodies reverberated wonderfully off the marble walls. His playing added a lot to the beauty and atmosphere. If we had more time we would have explored this building and the Medici collections upstairs more.

Mercato Centrale is a must for anyone who enjoys exquisite food. The first floor is composed of market stalls for individual ingredients and speciality shops. Get your meat, cheeses, fruits and vegetables here. The best prosciutto of our life was found at a butcher stall, with the butcher cutting thin slices from an actual hanging leg of ham. Tartufo pecorino, sheep’s cheese with truffle, is simply delightful to taste. Don’t miss it!

The top floor of Mercato Centrale has restaurants with a wide selection from sushi and poke to traditional Italian meats and wine bars. It is a little pricey but absolutely worth the visit.

The leather market surrounding Mercato Centrale was also interesting to see. You can absolutely haggle down the prices and find yourself a quality belt, handbag or accessory here.

Piazzale Michelangelo is another great place to see the sun set over the entire city of Florence. It’s a bit of a climb but 100% worth it for the views. A great idea is to bring up your own wine and picnic food, preferably bought from Mercato Centrale! This Piazzale offers sweeping views of the Florentine domes, roofs and all the church spires. This is a must do for anyone visiting, but it can get busy at the top.

Bistecca alla Fiorentino, or Florentine Steak, is the most well known dish in the city. It is a fancy thing to try, raw steak seared on the outside with simple yet wonderful salt and pepper seasoning. If you love a good steak this needs to be on the top of your to-do list.

Head to All’Antico Vinaio for the best sandwich of your life. The long line outside moves fast and indicates just how popular and beloved this spot it. The meat is overflowing, the sauces perfect and the bread is fantastic. The simple yet stunning ingredients will leave you in awe.

Trattoria Sabatino is a very local and affordable restaurant. Infact we might have been the only Americans inside. Great prices and very traditional dishes are to be had at this lively local spot.

For any higher end or fancy restaurant, especially if they serve Florentine Steak, be sure to make reservations ahead of time. Some looked rather empty but they fill up fast and the staff assumes that everyone will stay for several hours, which is often the case when dining out across Europe.

If you are getting tired of the taste of pasta and pizza make sure to go to Royal India for high quality Indian food. We ordered the lamb madras curry and chicken tikka masala. The kind staff included lots of little free things like fennel seeds for after dinner digestion as well as end of dinner liquors. One of the best Indian places we have ever been to, hands down.

For cheap eats check out the Sri Lankan stalls and food places as well. Some of them offer very affordable and tasty Tandoori chicken meals. There are lots of take away options with small spices pastries and rice dishes to grab and keep exploring the city. They are a great way to save money and spice things up, literally. We really liked the Asian food options here.

Views of the Florentine skyline, featuring the Duomo

Gelato was fantastic at My Sugar. We personally love the hazelnut and pistachio flavors. It was the best gelato of the whole trip. Avoid the touristy piled up presentations of gelato, those are to catch your attention whereas the small metal containers covered up are the way to go, more authentic and delicious. Also, if you see it, try the lavender flavor!

Really good Enotecas, or wine bars, with great small plates and insanely good wines are to be found across Florence. There is always lots of Chianti to try as well as other spicy and wonderful reds.

If we had one more day we would have explored Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace, located right next to each other. There is a combo ticket for these venues plus the Uffizi Gallery that would be worth it to buy.

Side note most museums are closed on Mondays and most churches and religious sites are closed on Sundays. Plan around those two days accordingly.

Overall Florence did not feel too crowded. We were able to book things the day before and still get in, a welcome change from Rome. In high season you may need to book further in advance however.

Everything felt so clean and safe. The streets were immaculate. Everyone was polite and generally quiet. It holds a very different vibe from Naples and even from Rome. A wonderful classic Italy trip would be to visit Rome, Florence and Venice, something we may have to do again in the near future! Luckily Florence connects very easily to Rome and Venice by train.

Tuscany Overview

Driving our rented BMW through the winding Chianti hills our jaws dropped at the exquisite beauty of Tuscany in the fall. Every green mountain was topped with a stone castle and the rolling hills below were dotted with small villages connected by endless vineyards. This is true beauty.

We reached our accommodation in the one-street village of Gaiole after an hour and a half of pure loveliness. The scenic roads twisted and turned as our eyes feasted on the views. Our mouths watered for the delicious food, every village smelled like a burning campfire as the locals warmed their homes and cooked their food with wood stoves.

We arrived just after wine harvest season. The master wine makers were just begining the process of transforming the grapes into the incredible variety of flavors that wine can display. Chianti, the region we were in, is know for having a fruit forward complexity rarely tasted at home.

Chianti must be over 80% Sangiovese grapes. These grapes are also grown near our home in California yet the flavors are entirely different. One winemaker explained that it is due to the age and composition of the soil. Italy has been making wine since time immemorial whereas California can trace it’s first vines only back to the late 1700s at most, but with a gap around the Prohibition era where most vineyards were shut down. In reality most California vines are only from about 1980 or so.

Our favorite meals in all of Italy were found in this region. From wild boar sausage to peccorino fondue we couldn’t go wrong.

The Chianti Hills region extends generally from just below Florence to the medieval town of Sienna. We stayed in the heart of the Chianti Hills, a subset of the larger Tuscany region, where the vibrant Chianti Classico is made.

Classico is the even more traditional version of Chianti, made with even stricter standards. While chatting with another couple from the US and with the winemaker at our last tasting for the day we learned about the complex set of regulations and standards all Italian wine must pass in order to be certified.

It is these stringent standards that allow the centuries old process to continue to achieve the same results of richness and fruitiness. We may experiment more with different varieties and purities in California, but Chianti has their recipes down pat. Every Chianti Classico is signified with a black rooster, no other wines can carry this mark.

Gaiole in Chianti, such a wonderful little village to stay in

Gaiole-in-Chianti itself was the epitome of charm. Just a single main street connected the entire community. The smell of wood fired ovens and fireplaces, like everywhere in Tuscany, warmed our senses to the aromatic delicacies we were to taste and drink. Every building was made of stone, and every home had a trickle of white smoke releasing it’s glorious scents to flavor the region.

There is no greater pleasure in all of Italy to me then winding our way through these fragrant hills and sampling the incredible offerings each winery had.

Florence and Sienna battled each other for centuries over this productive region. The castles stand testament to the wars waged and lives lost over this territory. Today however you are able to tour and taste at true medieval castles. The views from their battlements are mind boggling. You can see why each spot was chosen, arable land below with far reaching views from above for protection.

Tuscany things to do

Tuscany is a large region and it can be a bit intimidating to plan your own trip here. Our priority was the rolling hills, castles and ruby red wines. We focused our research on the Chianti Hills area and found an adorable AirBnB run by a small family in Gaiole, somewhat near the center of the region.

Our drive from Florence was about an hour and a half. The scenic route there is pretty windy and full of hills but absolutely beautiful, especially in the Fall. Gaiole is exactly what you would picture Tuscany to be, a quaint stone town, the definition of charm.

We got very lucky with the weather being in the 70s and sunny, something that doesn’t always happen as the leaves change colors.

Castello di Brolio was our first wine stop. The view from the top is stunning, the greatest castle view we have ever seen. True sites of endless hills vineyards and villages await your eyes.

The actual wine tasting is down below in the small collection of buildings right before turning up the road to the castle. A castle visit includes one free tasting as well. Chianti Classico was invented here making this a famous must see for any wine or history lover.

Le Meccine winery was our next stop. The lady giving us tastings was from France so you know she knows her stuff. She, along with her colleagues, picks the grapes, works in the vineyards and then sevres you the wine. A true start to finish all inclusive winery. It is very small with handcrafted wines so make sure to call ahead for a reservation. It was some of the best of the wine in the region. All done by hand, no fertilizer or machines used, it is a purely organic winery.

We drove back to Gaiole to eat dinner in town. Tuscany was the best food region for us in all of Italy. I had a rooster with pecarino fondue and Jamie had the pappardelle with duck sauce. Like most small towns the restaurants close down early so make sure to get dinner before say 8pm or so. Jamie discovered pappardelle was her favorite noodle and ordered it a few more times along the Tuscan leg of our trip.

The next day we drove 45 minutes to Siena, the main city in the lower Tuscany region. This was a true medieval town located atop a hill for protection. We went inside the cathedral in Siena and did the full tour including the library with ancient books artfully handcrafted, museum and crypt. The cathedral looks similar to the Florence Duomo from the outside, although a bit smaller, and we were so happy to be able to see inside.

The town of Siena is very small and is a great half day excursion in this region. There are several escalators to take you up to the town to save your legs a bit.

The main square is shell shaped and slightly sloping downwards like a bowl. On the outer rim were restaurant and drink options that were surprisingly good for being located on a main square. I had the veal cheek which was tender and soaked in a red wine sauce and Jamie had wild boar pappardelle. The wild boar is a classic dish in this region for good reason, it is delicious.

We also had amazing chocolate samples including a pistachio chocolate ball. If you see the store with chocolate running down in waterfalls and people handing out free samples do your taste buds a favor and go inside.

After this excursion we drove back and cooked a dinner at our place. This is one of the perks of renting a full apartment, you can save a bit on food costs and make a meal at home. I cooked us chicken thighs and pesto pasta that we found at a local market. Luckily they had gluten free pasta for me and hand made pesto to top it off.

The last day was our pure Tuscan wine tasting experience.

First up was Castello di Meleto with some Chianti Classico along with an olive oil tasting. Try to do some olive oil tasting to see just how good it can truly be. It might just ruin normal olive oil for you, in the best way! We wished we could have sat outside to see the views when tasting however they only allowed tasting indoors here.

Next was a small, privately owned family wine tasting at La Casa di Bricciano. You should probably call ahead to book, we got so lucky being the only ones there. The kind lady running the tastings gave us multiple wines to try as we talked with her about our trip and upcoming ideas of where to go. She was so kind to accommodate us and provided a truly personal touch to our trip. The views were outstanding from her adorable garden and lovely patio area.

She also suggested some lunch places but our tasting lasted longer then expected, time flew by, and we realized most spots would be closed already. Side note, most places close down mid day after lunchtime and before dinner. From about 3 to 6pm it can be hard to find food if you don’t make it yourself. She kindly made us a charcuterie platter with tomatoes from her own garden. They were the best tomatoes we ever had, ripe and juicy. That along with sheep’s cheese and salami made for an unforgettable tasting experience. This was like eating in someone’s home it was so intimate and personal. An absolute highlight of our already wonderful Tuscan experience.

Riecine was our last stop. Again the views from the tasting were phenomenal. We met another American couple from Washington DC who were also doing a long Europe trip. They had a baby and showed us it may be possible to travel in the future with children as well. We got a small tour to see the wine making process and learned so much about the quality and purity of the wine that is so strictly enforced. You need to pass several checks to be called a Chianti Classico.

All in all we adored this region and strongly recommend staying in a small village and really taking your time to explore and wander throughout. Renting a car is a must! Although day trip tours from Florence were available, traversing Tuscany by car is absolutely the way to go for an unforgettable experience.

Wishing you all the best,

Austin & Jamie

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