As always, the best inspiration I get for posts is from you guys, my faithful readers. You send me emails or facebook messages, which I always read, even if I can be a little late getting back to you on certain questions. Lately, it’s been all about Easter and ideas for day trips in Tuscany. Sadly, but not surprisingly, I never hear about any Easter events earlier than perhaps a week or two before but I will add them here. All I can guarentee, is that a cart will be exploding in front of piazza duomo in Florence around 11am. That might sound frightening, but that’s just another holiday in Italy where pyrotechnics and religion collides.
Instead this Thursday’s post is about three favorite spring destinations outside of Florence, and all are reachable by train. This is important since I know many of you guys aren’t comfortable driving a car in Italy. I don’t blame you, one Easter break, we nearly hit a wild boar somewhere in the middle of the Val d’Orcia. Lucky for you all, there is plenty to see beyond the touristy San Gimignano, Cinque Terre and the like. You’d be surprised by all of the awesome options out there, or rather shouldn’t be surprised — this is Italy after all! If you want other ideas in Tuscany, please read this post, about several places that I adore all around the region.
Arezzo – Antiques And Subdued Elegance
After almost 10 years in Italy, I finally visited the lovely town of Arezzo last month. A town that many forget to visit, which means that it is never really crowded, nor takes on a touristy feel like other famous Tuscan towns. I think I avoided visiting because I had a false idea that it was boring, but honestly I was proved very very wrong. We went during the first weekend, which was concurrent with the antique fair, which was spectacular to see in person, even if you can’t afford any of the goods. I’ve been to a fair share of antique fairs in Florence, but here, the city truly comes alive as you slide past nonni in full fur coats haggling over goods, or stop for a quick coffee at the elegant Cafe dei Costanti before continuing on to see the late Medieval church Basilica di San Francesco to see Piero della Francesca’s amazing fresco depicting the Legend of the True Cross.
How To get there? The town of Arezzo is just an hour by train from Florence on the ‘Roma’ line, and costs 8,40€ one way. From what I saw, there are about two trains per hour. I highly recommend visiting during the monthly antique fair, which is the first Sunday of every month and the subsequent Saturday (the next one is March 4th and 5th).
Notable events: The Antique Fair is the first Sunday of every month and the largest in Italy. Another wonderful event here is Giostra del Saracino, a historical reenactment that dates back from the middle ages takes place on the third Saturday in June and on the first Sunday in September in piazza grande.
“Those who don’t know Pistoia can’t even imagine what artistic treasures are hidden there” — Traveller, XIX century
Lovely Pistoia, just named Italy’s capital of culture in 2017 after fighting off competition from eight other contenders. under an hour by train from Florence on the foot of the Tuscan Apennines Mountains. I am particularly partial to this town since a few of my friends live there, and have all expressed a love for the town and people that naughty Michelangelo once referred to as the ‘enemies of heaven.’ It is also is known as the “the city of green” for all of the greenhouses & nurseries plants, and houses the largest library in Tuscany, Biblioteca San Giorgio — most famously it is known for its vast markets every Wednesday and Saturday. For a great panorama (and you know we all love that), climb the bell tower in piazza duomo, 200 steps later you will be rewarded with views over the town and surrounding countryside.
Recently I went for a visit guided by local Michela Ricciarelli of Passion4Tuscany. She’s exudes enthusiasm for her city, born and raised here and is a multi-tasker to the extreme, a certified tour leader guide, personal shopper in Tuscany & wedding planner in Italy. I feel like Michela has a young spirit, she seems to brim with energy and is happy every time I’ve seen her. She picked up my friend Sasha and I at the station before taking us for a cappuccino at a local bar where we delved into her love of the city.
She explained the city was shaped by Gallic, Ligurian and Etruscan settlements before becoming a strategic base for Romans, known as the ‘oppidum’ or market town, where weary soldiers would stop and rest before making their way to more war along the empire. You can see artifacts from this time period (and later) at the archaeological museum in the main square. Besides the beautiful architecture, you’ll find great examples of churches dating back from the Romanesque period to Baroque such as The Basilica of San Zeno or the Basilica of the Madonna dell’Umiltà , they also have the third largest dome in Italy after Rome and Florence.
We also learned about the city’s long history of organs, which started in the 17th century thanks to the arrival of a Jesuit from Flanders, Willem Hermans. He created a very splendid organ for the Church of S. Ignazio which then served as a model for future craftsman in the area. Two brothers, Antonio and Filippo Tronci, then set up an organ-making business which took off to the extreme, one of their creations is now in the center of the city of Jerusalem
I’ve only ever been to Pistoia during the day, but I have it under good authority that the evening hours are quite fun here, especially for your late-afternoon aperitif and ‘movida’ (nightlife) in sala square. Pour me a spritz and I’ll be your bestie if it includes a charming Italian square on a Thursday afternoon. The plus of Pistoia is that I bet that same spritz won’t set you back 8 or 10 euros like many places in Florence.
How to get there? Hop on the regional train from Florence, which is an easy 30-50 minute train ride, setting you back only 4,40€ one way. My advice is to also give it a chance during the late afternoon hours and for dinner, which is when the city takes on an even more pleasant vibe.
Sweet Treats: Stop at one of the city’s greatest pasticceria, Cafe du Globe for a sweet snack before getting a cappuccino at the seriously cute Caffetteria Museo Marino Marini.
Notable Events. To see Pistoia at its most lively best, head there in July. The first notable reason is for the annual Pistoia Blues Festival where major artists perform in Piazza Duomo, Teatro Bolognini and Teatro Manzoni . Also go to the Giostra dell’Orso, an ancient festival that dates back to the 1200’s, it takes place every 25th of July, on the feast day for the city’s patron saint, St. Jacob.
*Top tip — try to get a visit to the underground layer of the city, Pistoia Sotterranea, there is a long underground passageway that connected the area to the Porta al Borgo with the Santa Barbara Castle which was discovered in the 1970’s. Visitors can now tour the oldest architectural remains of the city, visible under the ground, by guided tour. More info here,
One of my favorite understated towns in Tuscany is the lovely Lucca, elegantly placed at the foot of the Apuan Alps and in between both mountains and sea. What I love about this place is the feeling of tranquility, that we don’t always get in Florence. After too many times trying to get out of everyone’s selfies on ponte santa trinita, a girl needs a break and a little fresh air. In lucca, you’ll discover clean cobblestone streets, art galleries and small trattorie, its also home to an ancient 1st century A.D. Roman Amphitheater at Piazza dell´ Anfiteatro where gladiator shows were once held.
I also love its beautiful, Romanesque Churches — like the gorgeous San Martino (see below), the main cathedral and San Michele in Foro. Visit Puccini’s old house or stop by the 17th century Palazzo Pfanner where some scenes from the film Portrait of a Lady were shot. Despite the fact that ‘Pfanner’ sounds like something naughty in German, it is quite the place to see. Stunning frescoes in the main palazzo and a beautiful, baroque garden where summer musical concerts are often held — apparently you can even sleep there.
The trees seem bigger here too, could be because they’re high above on the ancient walls surrounding the town, on any given day you will see locals taking a walk here, biking and picnicking. I made my dad go for a walk before out lunch, explaining that in Italy, one must work for their ragu.
When it comes to food, Lucca rocks — a lot of Garfagnana influence here. For meat eaters, you’ll love the tortelli pasta with a hearty meat ragu — this is pretty much a must every time we’re here. Otherwise go for garmugia, a traditional local soup dating back to the 16th century made with veggies and veal. Nico and I took my dad last November before our wedding, stopping at Osteria Vispateresa, Via S.Croce, 88, a small rustic joint in the center of town, recommended by a friend. My dad was as happy as he could be, wine cheaper by the liter than a cocktail in San Antonio, I was more than happy to share why I love this country so much. It at times, takes an outsider to see what you have in front of your face.
After digging into our heart antipasto of cured meats and crumbly pecorino cheese, we moved onto tortelli, finishing off with sides of sweet and sour peperonata — a favorite for this girl. Slow-cooked bell peppers and anything sour always have a special place in my heart, must have been all of the pickles I devoured in Texas.
How to get there? You actually double up a visit here with Pisa if you’re feeling frisky (20 minutes by train). From Florence, the train is an easy one and a half (mostly less) for 7,50€ one way, trains are quite frequent.
Must do? For a great view of the town, climb Guinigi Tower in the main square or the Delle Ore Tower for the best views. Also Rent bikes from Cicli Bizzari (Piazza Santa Maria 32, tel. 0583 496682, open daily from 8:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.) and ride the 4.9 kilometer loop.
Nearby? You have it all here, proximity to the beaches of Versilia and the Apuan Alps, I also highly recommend a visit to Borgo a Mozzano, home to the iconic ‘devil’s bridge’ with its high-arched shape.
Best events: The most well-known is most definitely the Lucca Summer Festival in Piazza Napoleone which showcases some of the most important musical artists in the world. Just to give you an idea of the caliber of stars, last year alone there was Lenny Kravitz, Bob Dylan, John Legend, Paolo Nutini, Elton John performing in Lucca. This year will be the 19th edition, where you can listen to Lionel Ritchie, Van Morrison this coming July. More info here. Keep an eye out for Murabilia in September, a plant and flower festival held on the walls of the city. Of course in late October is prime-time to come, with the Lucca Comics & Games showcasing the best in nerd-fun, I mean comic-lovers, which you could easily pair with a trip to the Halloween festivities at nearby Borgo a Mozzano.
Don’t forget to check out the posts of my fellow Italophiles of COSI who have chosen Spring destinations or Easter in Italy as today’s topic of the month.
- Rock’s Rome – Favorite Spring Destinations In Italy
- Surviving in Italy – Spring break Italy – Agriturismo Eco-Travel
- Englishman in Italy – Spring is in the air
- Sicily Inside and Out – Easter in Sicily
- Sex, Lies, and Nutella – Food Traditions That Win Easter
- The Florence Diaries
Great suggestions! I can vouch for both Lucca and Pistoia–wonderful for day trips or even a long weekend. I haven’t been to Arezzo yet, but heard that much of “La Vita E’ Bella” was filmed there.
Thanks Rick! This was a fun one to write, Pistoia was a welcome surprise that gets better with every visit. Arezzo is such a gem too, in fact this weekend would be the perfect time to soak of the fair atmosphere..
Ciao, I am an American (NC) tour guide in Tuscany and have been bringing travelers to Florence for the last eight years. Lovely Lucca is always on our itinerary and it is a “must” for any Tuscan traveler! I have also been to Arezzo several times which I enjoyed very much. I’m back in Florence for Easter this month and will entertain a group in early April. Pistoia will certainly be on my “to do” list this time. Thanks for all your informative posts – they help me with my business! Patrizia
Ciao Pat! I agree that Lucca is a must! I’ve only been twice in 10 years but I am more motivated to make this a regular stop when Florence gets too frenetic. It’s such an easy train ride. I definitely think your group will love Pistoia, it has a lot of history and the vibe is truly charming!
Wonderful suggestions. Your site has been invaluable tool to help in planning our 2 month stay April & May 2017! Arezzo was already on the list but now Pistoila has made it as well!
Thanks Lorrie! I am thrilled that you found my blog useful :). Pistoia is an underrated gem, and let me know if you need a guide!
Lucca was a pleasant surprise for me, last summer I visited during the Music Festival and I saw John Legend in concert. Great city to bike around. Summer festival was a hot hot day but work the heat to discover Lucca.
How lovely that you got to go to a John Legend concert there! He rocks.. (at least in my opinion). A lot of our Italian friends go religiously to Lucca’s music festival and I have yet to go, I think this year though, I’m going to try and book tickets ahead of time..
Your site is wonderful! We will be in Florence, Lucca and Abruzzi in June and July. You have given me so much to look forward to! ♥️
Hello Gina, why thank you! I am sure you will have a wonderful time visiting those places and you’ll have to keep me posted on what you think of Abruzzo, that is an area I am really dying to visit.
I heartily concur with your assessment of Pistoia and Lucca. I spent 2 weeks in Lucca in February, and found so much to explore there and in the nearby towns. Pistoia would be a great place to live! I really enjoyed the subterranean tour, and wished I could be there when they hold musical concerts under the city!
I also discovered there is a branch of the Marino Marini museum there, after stumbling across the one in Florence.
Ciao Yvonne, thank you for commenting! I just don’t get why these two towns don’t get as much notice as Pisa or San Gimignano? To me they are utterly charming and you are so right about Pistoia being a great place to live, I have several friends who call it their home and adore it. Plus it is an easy ride from Florence, and the rents are much cheaper. The Marino Museum is cool, I heard the Ceppo one is a must-see as well, where the underground tour starts..
Great insight here, Georgette! Makes me want to get back to Tuscany stat. Loved Arezzo, but haven’t been to the others yet. Dying to take my little Luca to Lucca, just because!
Thank you Andrea, I appreciate you taking the time to comment. You really should come back and visit, in fact let me know if you do! I think you would appreciate both Pistoia and Lucca, they too have that quiet, yet elegant feel. Definitely less crazyness than Florence during high season. Luca to Lucca… how perfect 😉
Love, love, love your posts!! Gary & I will be moving there soon and we are compiling our list of places we need to visit. I have an entire folder on my computer dedicated just to you Georgette!! We have not been to any of these towns and of course, you have inspired us once again. Thank you so much for your time (and talent) to your blog!!
I think Italy is a treasure trove of fabulous places to stay and Lucca is no exception, a couple of years ago on one of our yearly migrations to Sicily, we stayed with some of Mrs Sensible’s relatives in Lucca. We were very tired but I remember the food was fabulous.
I need to return ASAP! So many places to go, so many sights to see, so much wine to drink and so much amazing food to eat…why am I still sitting on my couch in Phoenix?! 😉
Hi. I just started reading this and it’s great. We recently discovered Gecko which we think is a great treat for those ready for something other than pasta. Their burgers, soups, ribs and everything we’ve had there are great local takes on American classics.
I have to say I left my heart in Lucca, while working there on a Summer festival many years ago, I’d happily live there and while away the hours around the walls. Such a beautiful place which is often forgotten by tourists, which for me makes it perfect. Thanks for your suggestions. Great article as usual Georgette!
I adore Michela from Pistoia. She not only knows the town perfectly well, she also is so passionate about it. The way she introduces the places shows how much she is in love with Pistoia. She made me see/ know Pistoia much better than from a tourist book.
And I would love to revisit Arezzo as well. It seems a city worth multi-visits.
Sasha, Michela is fantastic isn’t she? She brims with excitement for her city and I think we both noticed that. You must visit Arezzo, I have a feeling you would appreciate it 🙂
All three look great! We visited Lucca for a day (from Florence) in June 2011 and loved it. Haven’t made it to Arezzo yet, even though it’s been on our “possible” list subsequent trips in September/October 2014 and November 2015. Next time, for sure. Pistoia seems like another good choice. Thanks for the suggestions. http://barrydecarli.blogspot.com/
Thanks so much for this coverage on daytrips from Florence. Your blog helps me a lot in planning my itinerary for my coming trip to Florence. Do you have any recommendation of short-courses on learning Italian in Florence for beginner? Since I will stay for a month might as well learn Italian. I know there are a couple of *almost* free classes in Milan for tourist but somehow can’t find it in Florence.
My pleasure Putri, I’m always happy to share. Regarding classes, there are really so many, I haven’t taken any personally so it’s hard to recommend a specific course but I do like those at the British Institute (they also have classes in italian). Also think about reaching out to someone in this facebook group where people are constantly searching for language tandem partners 🙂
Thank you for these great suggestions! We’ll be in Florence for 3 weeks from soon and will explore these towns. Just wondered what you think of Montecatini Terme, which is an hour train ride from Florence. Aside from spa treatments, is it worth visiting? Thank you!
You are very welcome Pamela! To be honest, I have never been to Montecatini Terme but I’m sure it’s a lovely town :).
We traveled to Lucca a few weeks ago – such a beautiful city! And we stopped to see Pisa on the way too 🙂
Thank you for the other tips – I have added Arezzo and Pistoia to our to-visit list!
Just re-read your wonderful ideas here, since we’ll be there in Florence again in just 56 days (yes, I am counting), and noticed that you said that the Arezzo Antique Market is the first Sunday every month and the “subsequent Saturday,” but isn’t it the first Sunday and the proceeding Saturday?
Your blog is great!
Have you been back to Lucca recently and have any restaurant recommendations for there? 🙂
Hey Katie! I was in Lucca not that long ago but I don’t have specific restaurant recommendations, I wouldn’t be worried though, you are likely to find anything quite good there.
Your blog is really beautiful, you make me want to travel …
I was in Tuscany, in addition to Florence, I also visited San Gimignano, you know it?
I stayed in villaducci.com, beautiful villa with swimming pool surrounded by greenery. You should go.
We were just in Lucca today,it was so much warmer than Florence, and so quiet and calm inside the city walls. The walk along the top of the wall was fabulous – I’ve never seen so many runners and cyclists in an Italian City,
Georgette you are a wealth of information!! Thanks for the tip of low cost living in Pistoia. I will have to look at that alternative but how can I resist living in Florence? It has my heart.
On another note I have some clients who will be traveling from Florence to Lucca by train and want a guided tour of the city and then want to rent bikes. So thank you for the bike referral. Any chance you know a reputable guide to show them around?
Any ideas for a guided tour of Lucca? Do you know of anyone that can lead us for a late morning tour? We are taking a train like you suggest, but can find a good guide? After the tour we are going to rent bikes and explore more on our own.
Reach out to Alexandra Lawrence, she’s a local guide here and could meet you there for a tour (she’s really just one of my favourite people of all time) – http://exploreflorence.net
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