In case you missed it, I’m doing a five-part blog series all about the details of our travels to Europe the past 2 years. So far, I’ve covered Rome and the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Today, I’m sharing about our week-long journey to the central-northern part of Italy including Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence, Lucca, Maranello & Venice.
We rented a car in Rome and my brave husband drove the windy roads of Tuscany with the daring Italian drivers. We found the most incredible Tuscan villa on Homeaway… located on an olive farm in the country up on a hill, close to the town of Lucca. It was about a 3-hour drive north from Rome and was was our home-base for most of the week and we either drove or took the train to each destination as day-trips from there. The benefit of staying in a rental home is that we were able to cook breakfast and dinner at home and just eat lunch while we were out for the day – it saved lots of money, especially compared to the cost of a hotel. And our experience felt so much more authentic! Here’s how we spent our whirlwind week:
Tuscany – Day 1
If you can rent a car and drive through Tuscany, I highly recommend it. It was absolutely a dream seeing the rolling hills, walled towns, fields of poppies and vineyards. As we drove north from Rome, we made two stops:
Montepulciano – This beautiful walled town sits up on a hill and offers stunning views of the countryside. We visited the Piazza Grande for a quick lunch, enjoying the view of a medieval church and town tower. Next, we visited a couple of the town wine cellars built underground in Etruscan caves. We only had a couple hours here but I probably could have spent a day wandering the whole town.
Siena – Visiting the enormous main square – the Piazza il Campo – and its tall Palazza Pubblico tower was our first stop in town. Get a gelato and join the crowd of locals enjoying the day. Then, we visited the gothic Duomo – quite beautiful. I’ve heard great things about climbing to the top to see the views, but we didn’t have the time. Siena is charming and retains so much of its medieval vibe!
Note: If you drive and visit any of these towns, be sure to park outside the city (you’ll pay for parking) and walk in. They will charge you a fee for driving within the city… it’s only open to locals with a special permit.
Pisa – Day 2
Pisa is the most touristy place we visited in all of Italy. There are tons of people visiting from cruise ships and lots of tour groups. When you arrive in town, you are accosted by vendors selling cheesy souvenirs and the traffic is crazy. But, if you can make it past all that and through the wall separating the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) – it’s all worth it. Those vendors aren’t allowed in there and the craziness dies down a bit… you are met with the most beautiful green lawn area, a perfect setting for the sites:
- Baptistery – Italy’s largest; climb to the top of this domed building for great views of the area. The wooden pulpit made by Pisano is also quite interesting.
- Duomo – FREE! Enter through the last remaining Romanesque bronze doors into the stunning church, covered with gilded ceilings and medieval paintings. You’ll also find the open tomb of the patron saint of Pisa.
- Leaning Tower – The church bell tower is the main site, of course. We didn’t go inside, but it’s still fascinating to look at from the outside. Grab a gelato and enjoy the people-watching of everyone taking pictures with the tower.
We only spent a couple of hours in Pisa, so it’s the perfect road trip for a day when you want to get some rest!
Florence – Day 3
Getting There: Taking the train to Florence was super easy – it puts you right in the center of town for a quick walk to the sites. We arrived in the morning and then took a train out that evening, buying our tickets right at the station. Most station workers speak enough English to help guide you to the right platform, so definitely ask for help.
Sites to See:
- Duomo – FREE! The exterior is over-the-top, while the interior is quite simple compared to other churches we saw. The frescoes on the dome are quite amazing.
- Baptistery – Right across the street, this was under construction when we visited so we didn’t go inside, but the bronze doors on the outside are gorgeous – known as the Gates of Paradise.
- Ponte Vecchio – The main bridge over the Arno river offers a beautiful view of the city and a chance to do some jewelry shopping as it is lined with vendor stalls.
- Accademia Gallery – Reserve tickets online in advance (10.50 €) and pick them up in a shop across the street. Even the “reserved” line was an hour wait because of the limit of people in the building at one time. Walk-ups were sure to wait for hours. This museum is where you’ll find the famous statue of David – it is so much larger than I expected and really was amazing (I snuck a picture on my phone!). The half-finished Slaves statues by Michelangelo were also pretty neat.
- Uffizi Gallery – Again, reserve your tickets online in advance (10.50 €); you’ll walk right in here. This museum is huge and would take hours to fully explore. It’s filled with Renaissance paintings and several masterpieces you’ll remember from art history: The Birth of Venus and Primavera by Botticelli, The Annunciation by Leonardo di Vinci, Holy Family by Michelangelo and Giotto’s Maesta, Madonna of the Long Neck and Venus of Urbino. Download Rick Steves’ audio guide to help you find the highlights of the museum if you only have a couple hours.
Spending just one day in Florence was certainly a whirlwind. If I went back, I would spread it out over two days to get a better feel for the city. Plus, two museums in one day is always exhausting, but it would be hard to pick just one!
Where to Eat:
- Il Due Fratellini – Visit this tiny shop in an alley to get a delicious, fresh panini and glass of wine for only 5€ – I got the arugula, truffle & pecorino with champagne. Stand in the shade of the alley to eat and drink so you can return your glass when you finish. This was one of my favorite meal experiences in Italy!
- Cafe Carrozze – Grab a gelato and enjoy the view of the Arno river.
- Venchi – Another place to stop for delicious gelato – this place is famous for their chocolate, so that’s certainly the flavor to pick.
Cinque Terre – Day 4
Cinque Terre, part of the Italian Riviera, is a section of the coast with a cluster of 5 small towns covered in colorful homes. There is a train and plenty of hiking trails that join each them together. Depending on the amount of time you have to explore, you can visit all five or pick a few – we picked three to see.
Getting There: We drove to La Spezia, a port city just south of Cinque Terre, and took the train from there to the towns. We started by going to the furthest town which is only a 15 minute train ride away – Monterosso al Mare.
Monterosso al Mare – This was my favorite town that we visited in the area. It’s more spacious than the rest and has a large, beautiful beach. It offers a great view of the town next to it – Vernazza. We ate lunch in town at Via Venti – incredible, fresh seafood and a glass of the local white wine.
Vernazza – A two minute train ride from the previous town has a cool natural harbor and a small beach you can access through a cave right off the main street. If you’ve seen pictures of Cinque Terre, this is one of the most common ones – apparently there are some great views of it from the hiking trails above, but they were closed due to mudslides from rain earlier in the year. This town was quite touristy and not so clean, so we ate some gelato on the beach, then hopped a train to the next town.
Manarola – You’ll ride the train through a tunnel where locals slept during the WWII bombing raids and arrive in the colorful town to a piazza full of children playing. There’s no beach here, but there’s a rocky, deep swimming hole. We enjoyed limoncello (there’s debate if the beverage originated in this region or the Amalfi Coast) at a bar balled Zio Bramante and then followed the Rick Steves’ walking tour hike to see the town from the hills. There were so many stairs that I lost count, but walking through vineyards and lemon trees to see the colorful landscape was so worth it.
Lucca – Day 5
This beautiful town is known for the Renaissance walls that still stand around the historic city center. Trees line the path all the way around the top of the wall. Rent a bike for an hour or two and ride around the top of the wall, enjoying the surrounding landscape and a peak into the gardens and homes below. Then, ride through the town on its cobblestone streets and explore the lovely old churches. We stopped for a refreshing glass of wine after our bike ride at a place called Fuordi di Piazza.
After visiting the main town, we drove just outside town to a private cooking class with Chef Paolo Monti at the Cucina Italiana cooking school. We learned how to make fresh pasta and thirteen different pasta sauces. It was incredible to go behind-the-scenes with a chef who cooks for his restaurant daily and learn his authentic recipes. He told us about how he visits the local farmer’s market daily to get fresh seafood, meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables. We started by chopping lots of fresh produce and then throwing it in pots on the stove with plenty of locally grown & produced olive oil. The sauces were all made from fresh veggies and tomatoes, real cream, pancetta, and lots of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. One of the best parts was that he had his pots of fresh herbs right on the kitchen counter and would pick them straight off the plant, tear them up and throw them in the pots as we cooked. Every ingredient was simple and fresh. If you ever go to Italy – do this! It’s in my top lifetime experiences and taught us so much more about the culture we were visiting. Plus, it was the best meal of our trip! My brother wrote all about the class on his travel blog here.
Maranello – Day 6
This day was mainly a travel day for us as we packed up from our home in Tuscany and drove across the country to the other coast. Maranello was a perfect mid-way point and a reward for my husband for driving us all over Italy as it is the home of Ferrari! We had an incredible pizza for lunch at Pizzeria Bufala – the owner taught us all about the farms where he gets his organic mozzarella.
Then, we drove down the red rose-lined streets to the Ferrari Museum. The exhibits are very well done and fascinating for even those who are not into cars (me!). They had a California Dreaming exhibit while we were there with all the old cars in famous movies and tv shows. If you’d like to test-drive a Ferrari, there are plenty of places to rent them all over town.
Venice – Day 7
Where to Stay: Venice is a bit expensive, and we had a hard time finding a place that fit our budget. So, we opted to stay in a town just north – Treviso – at the modern, intimate Hotel Rovere, with a lovely breakfast included.
Getting There: From Treviso, we took the train (only 6€ round-trip) into Venice St. Lucia station – a quick ride that puts you right in front of the Grand Canal.
Sites to See:
- The streets, bridges and canals of Venice are romantic and beautiful! Get lost. Wander around aimlessly. You won’t regret it.
- St. Mark’s Square – This square is filled with cafes, pigeons, orchestras and lots of tourists. You’ll notice the crowds thicken as you get closer. It offers a great view of the lagoon and is surrounded by the beautiful Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica (visit the inside for free if the line isn’t too long).
- Rialto Bridge – Stop for a quick picture or pass under it as you take the vaporetto water taxi through the Grand Canal.
- Gondolier Lessons – Instead of paying for an expensive gondola ride, get the experience of what its like to steer one. My brother, dad and husband took the lessons – you can read all about their experience here.
Where to Eat & Drink:
- Cantina Aziendale Agricola – Take a break from the heat in a bar filled with locals. We we got the best (& cheapest!) Aperol Spritz – a cocktail created in Venice.
- de Mamo – Down the tiniest alley, we found this romantic little spot for lunch and had the most incredible meal – maccheroni with asparagus and crab. Plus, they bring you complimentary truffles for dessert.
- Grom – Yummy, organic gelato!
P.S. Looking for more details? I reviewed hotels, restaurants and sites on TripAdvisor here. Or, feel free to email me with questions and for more details at healthyhopefulblog(at)gmail.com.