If you close your eyes and picture 'Italy', chances are, it's the rows of vineyards and cypress trees, villas and farmhouses, fabled towns and household-name works of art of Tuscany that come to mind.
There are a million reasons why Tuscany is the setting of so many escapist novels, movies and life-changing travels. Here are our favorites:
The red rooftops of Florence are the symbol of Tuscany's capital and epic Italian Renaissance magic. Wandering the alleys and cobblestoned streets, the Boboli Gardens and the Ponte Vecchio lets you drink in Firenze's one-of-a-kind atmosphere.
But its greatest attractions are indoors. Italy's greatest collection of art is housed in Florence's Uffizi Gallery. The richness of its collection is unparalleled; so many Renaissance masterpieces – recognizable even if you weren't an art history student - you'll hit Botticelli sensory overload quickly, so you'll want to break up your visit into multiple days. Michelangelo's statue of David at the Galleria dell'Accademia makes visitors gasp in awe at the 17-foot marble nude – as does its replica placed in its original 1504 setting outside the Palazzo Vecchio.
Art lovers may argue whether it's Renaissance Florence or Gothic Siena that is the most breathtaking Tuscan city for art and architecture. Luckily, you don't have to choose, immerse yourself in the cathedrals and squares and museums in both. In a part of the world teeming with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Siena's Piazza del Campo stands out in its majesty cradled at the foot of three hills surrounding it. Work off some of that extraordinary Tuscan cuisine climbing the Torre del Mangia, a tower at the Palazzo Pubblico. Your reward is a breathtaking viewpoint over Siena.
Time your visit to Siena right, and you can be a part of one of the world's most famous and storied sports/ cultural historic events. The Palio di Siena is a bareback horse race that feels like a Gothic time capsule. The 10 horses and riders are decked out like, knights of yore, in the medieval colors representing city wards; flags hang from the balconies and buildings in the city.
It's one of the most exciting 90 seconds in sport/ pageantry. The riders cling desperately to their horses for three laps of Siena's packed Piazza del Campo, and often, a few are thrown especially at the tight turns along the way, with riderless horses running into the crowds in the middle of the square or crossing the finish line with the other horses. The Palio is run twice a summer, on July 2nd and August 16th, and the Corteo Storico, a boisterous pageant, precedes the race. Tip: arrange your visit to Siena's Palio through a tour operator that has balcony access overlooking the Piazza for the best view above the throngs.
'Five Villages' sounds quite humble, but in Tuscany, it's magic. Clinging to the sides of the cliffs overlooking the sea, these five colorful villages are among the most recognizable images of Italy. The area is a national park and also protected by UNESCO World Heritage status that attempts to shield these seaside jewels from excessive tourism/ commercialism.
It's an epic view from the sea, if you're lucky enough to be on a Mediterranean cruise that sails along the Ligurian coast; smaller ships especially may sail close enough. On land, hiking trails provide both a wonderful outdoor activity and spectacular views of the different villages. There is also a coastal train that stops in each town.
Pisa's 12th century Leaning Tower has been touristy since there were tourists in Italy – and that's a long time. You too will join the millions of people on Instagram in a photo of yourself 'propping up' the 180-foot tower that is about 4 degrees off a perfect vertical. That doesn't sound like much, but it means the top is 13 feet off center!
The tower began leaning during construction due to poor foundations. In recent years, hundreds of millions have been spent re-stabilizing the bell tower. Unbelievably, it is safe enough you can even climb 300 steps to the top in a medieval version of a funhouse.
Tuscany is the home of the original, and world's favorite scooter. The Vespa isn't just quaint, retro memorabilia. It was designed (its name means 'wasp' for the insect its shape and handlebars evoke) to lead a transportation revolution: vehicles that are inexpensive and easily parked and maneuvered in urban areas.
Vespas are still made at the Piaggio factory in the Tuscan city of Pontedera, not far from Pisa, which has a museum displaying the Vespa customized by Salvador Dali. They have a cult following around the world. Renting one to tour around Tuscany may be one of the most authentic, fun, and heartwarming local experiences.
WATCH VIDEO AT THE TOP: MEETING A VESPA COLLECTOR/ RESTORER IN TUSCANY
WINE AND DINE IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
As captivating are Tuscany's cities, the iconic scenery of region's rural areas are transformative. Chianti vineyards, white truffle farms, olive groves along country lanes lines with sculpted-looking cypress trees, with villas, farmhouses, and chapels integrated by the centuries into the gently rolling landscape.
To visit Tuscany is to spend time, by vespa or bicycle or on foot, in the countryside, and even better, to stay in a rural castello or villa with its own vineyard and restaurant to treat all of your senses to a taste of Tuscany.
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