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Things to Do in Tuscany - page 2

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Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti)
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The Pitti Palace was built by rivals of the powerful Medici family in the mid-1400s. A century later, the Medicis took over the huge Renaissance palace, and it was the home of Florentine rulers until the early 20th century.

Today the massive palace houses a number of picture galleries and museums, and is surrounded by gardens and ornate fortifications. To see the entire collection would take days if not weeks, so choose your favorites and plunge in!

A tour of the royal apartments reveals the Medicis' taste for over-the-top decor. An impressive collection of Renaissance masterpieces is housed in the Palatina Gallery, with works by Raphael, Titian and Rubens.

To see the Medicis family's silverware, head to the Silver Museum, or take a stroll around the Renaissance Boboli Gardens, with its statues and grottoes.

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Orsanmichele Church and Museum (Chiesa e Museo di Orsanmichele)
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Built over a former Benedictine monastery garden and grain market in the late 14th century, the wrongly often-overlooked church of Orsanmichele was designed along Gothic lines, with ornate tracery around the doors and windows. Each of the wealthy trade guilds in Florence were commissioned to provide statues of their patron saints to fit the 14 niches in the exterior walls but the project lingered on and was eventually completed with exquisite works from such Renaissance masters as Ghiberti, Della Robbia, and Donatello. Replicas now fill the niches while most of the originals have been restored and are displayed in the two-floor museum above the church, where the original Gothic architecture is exposed, giving views of wooden vaulting and decorative brickwork.

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Dante House Museum (Museo Casa di Dante)
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Although Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 and lived in the neighborhood, he never actually occupied the building now known as ‘Dante’s House’, a 14th-century labyrinthine townhouse with a small museum attached that is filled with reproduction memorabilia dedicated to the great Italian poet. There is a model of 13th-century Florence, a reconstruction of Dante’s bedroom, illustrations of his poems and reproductions of early manuscripts of his magnum opus The Divine Comedy, which was written after he was banished from Florence for backing the wrong side in political intrigue. As an exile from his home city, he was forced to wander around northern Italy for several years before ending his days in Ravenna in 1321. Although there is nothing on display that actually belonged to Dante, the museum does a decent job of recreating his life and times and goes some distance to explain the convoluted political system of the era.

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Ponte Santa Trinita
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The most famous bridge in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio, or old bridge, dating from the mid-14th century. But just downstream from the Ponte Vecchio is another beautiful bridge, the favorite of many Florentines - the Ponte Santa Trinita.

Although Italy and Germany were allies during World War II, Nazi troops destroyed every single bridge in Florence spanning the Arno except for one - the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Santa Trinita was turned to rubble. When the bridge was rebuilt in 1958, some of the stones used were from Ammanati’s 16th century bridge, recovered from the Arno after the war. The rest of the stones were quarried from the same place Ammanati went to get stone in 1567. Even the statues of the four seasons were recovered from the river, although the statue of “Spring” remained headless until her head was found in the river in 1961.

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Oltrarno
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Central Florence is split by the Arno River. The main sights - the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Accademia - are on one side of the river, while the neighborhood known as the Oltrarno is on the other. “Oltrarno” actually means “beyond the Arno,” or “the other side of the Arno.”

Among the attractions in the Oltrarno are the massive Pitti Palace, to which the ruling Medici family moved after leaving their residence in the Palazzo Vecchio, and the sprawling Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti. You can also visit the Santo Spirito Basilica (designed by Brunelleschi, who designed the cathedral’s famous dome) and the church of Santa Maria del Carmine (with the fantastic Brancacci Chapel and its Filippino Lippi frescoes). Keep going through the flatter part of the Oltrarno and you’ll eventually head up staircases and narrow streets into the hills overlooking the city. You know that postcard view you keep seeing all over town? You can see it for yourself from the Piazzale Michelangelo.

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Giotto's Bell Tower (Campanile di Giotto)
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Giotto's elegant bell tower (Campanile di Giotto) flanks Florence's Duomo and Baptistery, rounding off Piazza del Duomo's prime attractions. Designed by Giotto in 1334, the Gothic tower is faced in the similar nougat-hued marbles of the Duomo. The design features five distinct tiers decorated with arched windows, sculptures and geometric patterns of different colored marbles.

Take a close-up look at the lovely plaques decorating the tower at ground level, sculpted by Pisano. The originals are housed in the nearby Duomo Museum.

More than 400 steps climb to the top of the 82-meter (25-foot) bell tower, for wonderful views of Florence and the River Arno.

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Pisa Cathedral (Duomo)
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Pisa’s marvelously striped marble cathedral is a textbook example of Pisan Romanesque architecture, dating back to 1064.

Roughly cross-shaped, the duomo features a galleried exterior topped with a small dome and completed with a rounded apse.

Inside, the building’s five naves create a sea of pillars rising to a golden coffered ceiling.

Much medieval detail was lost during a disastrous fire in 1595, but the mosaic by Cimabue surrounding the altar survived intact. Another highlight is the ornately carved pulpit by Giovanni Pisano.

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Basilica of San Lorenzo (Basilica di San Lorenzo)
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A visit to the enormous Basilica of San Lorenzo leads to things you may not expect from a church. What ties the church to its unexpected turns, however, is something very Florentine - Michelangelo.

In the 15th century Basilica of San Lorenzo are the tombs of the Medici, located in the New Sacristy (also designed by Michelangelo), which are adorned by Michelangelo sculptures. The two main tombs in the chapel are those of Lorenzo and Giuliano Medici. Lorenzo’s tomb has figures representing Dusk and Dawn, while Giuliano’s features figures representing Day and Night.

The unexpected sight is the Laurentian Library, designed by Michelangelo. The incredible curved stone staircase leads into a great reading room where even the desks were designed by Michelangelo. Other works of art inside the Basilica of San Lorenzo include some bronze works by Donatello and an altarpiece by Fra Filippo Lippi. You can get a combined ticket to visit both the church and the library.

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More Things to Do in Tuscany

Bargello Museum (Museo Nazionale del Bargello)

Bargello Museum (Museo Nazionale del Bargello)

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Housed in the medieval splendor of Florence’s Palazzo della Podestà – once a barracks and subsequently the city’s courts of justice – the National Museum opened in 1865 and showcases an abundance of glorious Renaissance artworks. As befits the oldest public building in the city, it has a fortified façade and a maze-like interior with fine halls, balconies and loggias overlooking an arcaded courtyard with walls smothered by the coats of arms of medieval aristocracy. Displayed in a series of vast apartments are collections of medieval gold work, 16th-century weaponry, a series of bronze animals made for the Medici family and hand-crafted tapestries, but the undoubted star of the Bargello’s collection is the statuary from big names of the Italian Renaissance, which has its birth in Florence. On display are the bronze relief panels created by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti when they were competing for the commission of the baptistery doors in Florence duomo (cathedral) in 1401.

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Piazza Santa Croce

Piazza Santa Croce

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The pretty Piazza Santa Croce is a public square in central Florence located just to the east of the Piazza della Signoria. The square gets its name from the main building facing the piazza, the Santa Croce Basilica.

The Basilica of Santa Croce is a 15th century Franciscan church in which you’ll find the tombs of many famous Florentines. Those buried at Santa Croce include Michelangelo, Maciavelli, Rossini, Ghiberti, and Galileo. The church’s interior also features some noteworthy Giotto frescoes.

Two other buildings of note facing the piazza are the Palazzo dell’Antella and the Palazzo Cocchi-Serristori. The former is a one-time residential palace with a 17th century facade covered in detailed murals, while the latter was a smaller private home built in the 15th century from a 14th century structure. In the Piazza Santa Croce itself there is a statue dedicated to Dante.

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Brunelleschi's Dome (Cupola del Brunelleschi)

Brunelleschi's Dome (Cupola del Brunelleschi)

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Standing tall over the city of Florence, Brunelleschi’s Dome is an architectural feat, the most prominent part of the Florence Cathedral, and a symbol of Florence itself. Located in the city's historic center, the cathedral complex that holds the dome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The whole area is known to locals as the “Duomo” or dome, after the structure. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and completed in 1436, it took sixteen years to build. And at 45 meters wide, it is the single largest masonry dome in the world.

Brunelleschi came to the rescue when, after over 100 years of cathedral construction, there were plans for to add a dome but no idea how to erect one. He went against existing construction norms and resolved to build a dome without wooden scaffolding — one that would support itself as it was built. It was an engineering and design marvel at the time, and the fact that it still stands tall more than 600 years later is a testament to its masterpiece.

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Piazza di Santa Maria Novella

Piazza di Santa Maria Novella

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At first just a busy square and basilica in the middle of Florence, at a closer glance the church and museum reveals much about the city. It was decreed to the Dominicans in 1287 by the Florentine Republic, to decorate as the new church was being built on site. The piazza quickly became a popular public gathering place, home to artists, theater, festivals, tournaments, and more. It later became the sight of the carriage race, or Giambologna show, which took place between the basilica and the Hospital of San Paulo.

Today the piazza remains central to Florentine life. It faces the intricately designed green and white marble facade of the basilica, which was built in the 13th and 15th centuries and is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance art. As it was recently renovated and surrounded with hotels and restaurants, it is popular with visitors as well — particularly at night when the square is spectacularly lit up.

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Vasari Corridor (Corridoio Vasariano)

Vasari Corridor (Corridoio Vasariano)

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Built in 1564, the Vasari Corridor was designed to enable the Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici to move between the Pitti Palace where he lived, the Uffizi where he had his offices, and on to the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florentine government. Almost one kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) long, the elevated corridor passes overhead from the Uffizi, across the Arno River over the top of the shops lining the Ponte Vecchio, through the church of Santa Felicita until it reaches the Palazzo Pitti.

Built in just five months, Vasari Corridor was a major feat of both architecture and civic power.

The Vasari Corridor is lined with self-portraits by artists, nearly 1,000 paintings, dating from the 16th century. Access to the corridor is only by guided tour.

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Palazzo Davanzati

Palazzo Davanzati

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This ancient home grants a peek into history going back to the Middle Ages, and is a way to experience the wealthy merchant homes of the Renaissance era. It was built by the Davizzi family in the mid-14th century and later purchased by the Davanzatis in the 16th century. With three towers and five stories, it is decorated from floor to ceiling — complete with period furniture and frescoed walls. There are both medieval and Renaissance architectural elements, allowing for a comparison of the two styles and the history of the transition.

The traditional layout of the home makes it a magnificent example of a medieval Florentine home. Some of its highlights include a central courtyard, stone and wood staircase, and underground gallery. Historic art, lace, furnishings and even coats-of-arms throughout the palace demonstrate the trends and styles as they have progressed through the ages.

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Lucca Cathedral (Duomo di Lucca)

Lucca Cathedral (Duomo di Lucca)

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The main church in Lucca is its cathedral, the Duomo di Lucca, built in the 11th century. The structure stands at one side of the Piazza San Martino, and inside, visitors will find the most revered relic in town: the Holy Face of Lucca (Volto Santo). This wooden cross is said to have been carved by Nicodemus, and although the one on display is a 13th-century copy, it's no less important to the church or town. There are two times each year when the Volto Santo is celebrated, dressed in special vestments in the cathedral. The church was rebuilt in the 14th century, although the campanile (bell tower) from the original structure remains, which is why one arch is quite a bit smaller than the other.

Other points of interest inside the Duomo are paintings by Ghirlandaio and Tintoretto, as well as the 15th-century tomb of Ilaria del Carretto of the Guinigi family. There is a museum in the cathedral as well.

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Val d'Orcia

Val d'Orcia

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The Renaissance period was born in the hills of Italy, and nowhere is this more evident than at Val D’Orcia, an architectural wonderland and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the countryside of Tuscany. Here, the low-lying chalk planes and rolling hills have inspired many an artist to cover canvases with depictions of rural Italian life.

Travelers can explore the quiet tons, like Pienza and Radicofani, and sip incredible wines in the cafes of Montalcino. Whether it’s wandering the hills in search of a true taste of Italy, or traversing the planes with a camera in search of the perfect iconic image of Italy, visitors will find exactly what they’re looking for in Val D’Orcia.

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Knights' Square (Piazza dei Cavalieri)

Knights' Square (Piazza dei Cavalieri)

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In Roman and medieval days, the Knights’ Square was Pisa’s central city square, a place for meetings and discussion.

The piazza was lavishly remodeled by the famous architect Vasari in the 16th century, creating a landmark example of spacious Renaissance town planning.

The grand space is gracefully lined with palatial palazzos and the church of the Knights of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri. The church was also designed by Vasari, and named for the religious and military order founded by Cosimo de’ Medici.

A statue of Cosimo stands in front of the Palazzo dei Cavalieri, which features detailed monochromatic etchings on its facade known as sgraffiti, also contributed by Vasari.

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Pisa Baptistery (Battistero)

Pisa Baptistery (Battistero)

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The wedding cake white marble of the Pisa Baptistery, or Battistero, is one of the stunning collection of buildings on the Piazza dei Miracoli.

The Leaning Tower may be more famous, but the Baptistery captivates visitors with its ornate round shape and mix of architectural styles.

Rounded Romanesque arches make up the ground level, while pointed Gothic shapes take over on the remaining arches and the building’s cupcake dome.

Inside, there’s a beautifully carved pulpit by Nicola Pisano and a huge ornate marble font, used for total-immersion baptisms.

While you’re here, climb the stairs to the gallery for a bird’s-eye view, and discover the building’s remarkable acoustics by whispering sweet nothings beneath the dome.

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Loggia dei Lanzi

Loggia dei Lanzi

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In a corner square of Florence, Loggia dei Lanzi is an open-air museum containing some of the world’s greatest works of art. Known most for its collection of Renaissance art statues, which many consider to be masterpieces, it contains works such as Cellini’s Perseus, Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, and an ancient Roman statue of Menelaus that used to be part of the Ponte Vecchio.

Originally intended to be a space for public ceremonies, construction on the area began in 1376. It was designed in a late Gothic style, a predecessor to the emerging Renaissance style. It is named for the Swiss personal guards (‘lanzi’) of emperor Cosimo I, who were once encamped here. The loggia opens to the street under three wide arches, seamlessly integrating with the rest of the city. The arches are supported by Corinthian capital, creating a canopy over the sculptures. It remains completely free and open to the public.

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Piazza dell'Anfiteatro

Piazza dell'Anfiteatro

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The Piazza dell'Anfiteatro is a large square in the center of historic Lucca. As the name suggests, it was once the site of a Roman amphitheatre, one that was built in the first century and could hold up to 10,000 people. The remains of that structure now lie more than nine feet underground, but the oval shape of the piazza is a direct result of the outline of the amphitheatre. The Piazza dell'Anfiteatro was built in 1830 by demolishing some buildings that had been constructed in the space. It became the site of the town's market, and is the heart of the old city today.

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Arno River

Arno River

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Visitors to Florence will no doubt walk along and cross over the river that runs through the city center; and while it’s possible to see the city these days without paying much attention to the river, that wasn’t always the case. The Arno River was once an incredibly important river to central Italy, serving as a “highway” that brought shipments from the sea and brought warring soldiers from neighboring cities. Today, the River Arno may not be as critical an avenue for shipping or armies, but it’s no less important to the identity of Tuscany. The Arno River runs through Florence, as well as the cities of Pisa, Empoli, and Arezzo. Florence’s famous Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”) spans the Arno, and hotel rooms with a river view usually command high prices. Also note that the part of central Florence located on the opposite side of the river from the Duomo and train station is known as the “Oltrarno,” or “other Arno,” meaning the other side of the Arno River.
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