Vacationing in the rolling hillsides of Tuscany conjures up images of summer and warmer months but traveling to these charming historical spots in the winter provides a variety of activities and places to explore. Visiting during the low season in Italy means you won’t have to wait in lines or worry about the availability of museum tickets and restaurant reservations. In the countryside surrounding our Signature Residence options are countless villages and provinces ripe for long day trips of exploration. I review a few here that I had the pleasure of experiencing with my husband and friends during a mild and pleasant week in January.
This lovely city is the capital of the province of Siena and its historic center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Siena Duomo: Construction on this marble masterpiece began in 1215 and it has been carefully maintained in the centuries that followed. A few euros grant you access to walk around its staggering church, library and Cripta, which was recently rediscovered in 1999 during excavations and used to function as a sort of porch entrance for the structure. Be sure to access the narrow spiral staircase up the tall, square belltower to get a panoramic view of the city and surrounding valley.
Piazza del Campo: The city’s main piazza is home to the Palio di Siena, a famous horse race held twice a year dating back to medieval times. Today you can buy a cup of creamy gelato and enjoy it picnic-style on the piazza’s sloped surface or cozy up to one of the many restaurant patios surrounding the square. Outdoor seating areas are heated so that you can dine alfresco and enjoy prime people watching even on chillier days.
Everything begins and ends in Firenze, the capital city of the Tuscan region. Long considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, the city is an economic center and most business in the region happens within its rich architecture.
Libreria Brac: Tucked away in an unassuming side street and sans signage, Libreria Brac is a local favorite and a hidden gem. Just a handful of tables are positioned around full bookshelves for a playful library atmosphere. This vegetarian spot will win over the biggest carnivore in your group; food is farm to table and features unlikely combinations such as pear carpaccio with balsamic or crostini with eggplant. Insider tip: order one of their combo plates, which includes your choice of pasta or rice, a vegetable or cheese and carpaccio or salad. Portions are generous and prices are reasonable.
Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori: When your stomach grumbles, steer clear of the countless tourist traps in Florence. Have your Destination Concierge call ahead to make you a reservation at this family-owned bistro. It has been lovingly managed by the same family for four generations and photos clutter the walls of the dining room, which is so small that the owner locks the door when tables are full, even during business hours. A handwritten menu with thoughtful versions of Italian classics will be given to you after you’re seated. So obvious is the experience by the chefs in the kitchen that you can’t go wrong with any order. The grandfather of the family oversees his patrons from a counter where he slices prosciutto fresh to order. The servers are incredibly warm and playful, even grinding pepper into our laps in jest after taking care of the same on our salads. Don’t leave without trying the daily-made raspberry tiramisu.
See: San Gimignano
Affectionately nicknamed the “Manhattan of Tuscany” for the medieval towers that comprise its skyline, this small, walled city is in the province of Siena and most famous for its churches and frescoes.
iScuplture Gallery: Housed in an old tower, this rare contemporary gallery features art by only Italian sculptors. You’ll see creations made of bronze, ceramic, wood and marble. The studio is currently open by appointment and the knowledgeable staff will guide you through elegant pieces by 24 different artists.
La Bottega del Sale di Duccio Nacci: Duccio Nacci was born and raised in San Gimagnano and sells his stunning photography in both black and white and color at a reasonable price at his workshop near the Piazza Duomo. His snapshots range from memorable portraits and candid snapshots of people to scenic images of the Tuscan landscape he knows so well.