This post is written by Harry Balfour and taken from his new blog called “Gap Year 360” where you can find the full version with additional photos.
In the heart of Europe, lies the beautiful country of Italy, packed full of awe-inspiring beauty and rich in culture. The Tuscan region of Italy has so much to offer. Full of the ripe renaissance art and architecture, the City of Florence is a must see.
Pisa is of course held in high regards, as no trip to Tuscany is complete without a visit to the leaning tower of Pisa. There are also a few hidden gems within this region, and the less touristy Lucca is a terrific way to spend a few days.
If you are an art connoisseur or are a fan of culture, then a trip to Tuscany should be high on your agenda. With so much to see in one region of the country, it makes it difficult to cut it down into ten things to do… but I’ll give it a go.
THE CATHEDRAL OF FLORENCE
By far the most notable and impressive building to see, is the Cathedral of Florence, the 450 ft structure towers over the old rustic roofs of the surrounding buildings. The fact that Assassins creed was based around Florence makes it even cooler.
The Dome was constructed by Filippo Brunelleschi between 1420 and 1434. This dome is significant as it wasn’t built the conventional way but instead had an inner and outer layer with a staircase in the middle. From the inside of the cathedral, you can see the beautiful fresco on the ceiling depicting the Last Judgement.
It is the cupola (dome) that catches most attention, however the bell tower (the campanile) is also a stunning structure. The 414 steps it takes to reach the top are certainly worthwhile as you gain a full viewpoint of the Duomo and the scenery behind.
The Cathedral is certainly worth a visit and if you have enough time, you are able to climb the stairs inside the dome itself which leads to wonderful view of Firenze (Florence).
PONTE VECCHIO (THE OLD BRIDGE)
The Ponte Vecchio crosses the Arno River and is the oldest bridge in Florence. This bridge was constructed and completed in 1565 and was reserved for the goldsmiths in the 1500s.
The old bridge is a magnificent structure and unusual as it has shops situated along the bridge itself. We visited the Ponte Vecchio during the night, when all the lights were on and buskers were playing on the bridge.
After a long day of sight seeing around the old town in Firenze, the best way to spend your evening is to go to a restaurant, and what better way to do so then Il Latini, a local Tuscan restaurant with outstanding authentic food.
Situated on a cobbled street near the river Arno, Il Latini has a beautiful atmosphere. The food is delicious and has all sorts of local delicacies ranging from the al dente pastas to something a bit more unusual like rabbit.
UFFIZI AND ACCADEMIA ART GALLERIES
I’m not the biggest art enthusiast myself but even I can appreciate the amazing works of some of the greatest sculptors and artists on show at the galleries in Firenze. The Uffizi art gallery is situated by the Palazzo Vecchio and the river Arno. Work from great artists such as Botticelli, da Vinci and Raphael are all found in the Uffizi gallery.
The Accademia was a highlight of my trip to Florence as it is adorned with the famous work of Michelangelo, ‘David’. In 1501 he was commissioned to sculpt the figure. It supposedly represents perfect beauty. At 13.6 ft, David towers above and sticks out like a giant.
Although the figure, attracts most attention, for me what surrounds the sculpture is more interesting. Four statues light the way to the David, known as the Prisoners. These gifts for Cosimo I from Michelangelo were never finished but that is what stirs debate amongst artists as we never know whether or not he was meant to finish the sculptures, as the sculptures are depicted trapped in stone, hence the name.
BASILLICA OF SAINT MICHAELANGELO
If you’re looking for the perfect photo of Firenze, then the Basillica of Saint Michaelangelo is worth a visit. With breathtaking views of the Duomo and the rustic rooftops of Firenze, it’s almost impossible to mess up a photo of it (unless you’re my brother).
Not only is it complete with the views, the basilica is also unique as it’s outside the old city walls and up a hillside unlike most which are situated in the old town. Blessed with lush gardens full of cypress trees and adorned with the most beautiful frescos inside the church, the basilica is well worth a pit stop.
WINE TASTING IN TUSCANY
As an 18-year-old boy, most people would expect me not to be interested in wine, unfortunately I have a rather expensive taste for wines, which comes as a disappointment to my parents. Nevertheless, the Tuscan region is renowned for its great tasting wine and fresh olives, which I had to try. Try and go out in to the more rural areas of the region and visit a few vineyards along the way.
Situated one street away from the San Lorenzo church, the Medici Palace is easily accessible and easy to find. This was where Cosimo the Elder, Piero and Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ resided. At the Medici palace, you gain an insight in to the most powerful family during the renaissance period.
In the summer of 2015, when we visited the Tuscan region, we thought it would be a good idea to bring our dog (the most well traveled dog). Stupidly, it never crossed our minds why you didn’t see many dogs in art galleries, especially a large black Labrador. Before we went into the Medici Palace, we saw a sign that said ‘no dogs allowed’ but we thought they would be lenient anyway. The women behind the counter, kindly asked if it was a small dog, which we nodded, before dragging this huge black Labrador more like a bear across the floor, trying to sneak him past the counter. As a rule of thumb, if you want to go sight-seeing in Tuscany, don’t bring a dog.
Most people who visit Tuscany, end up spending most time in Florence or Pisa, however if you want to explore the real Italia, then a day trip to Lucca should be on your itinerary. Lucca is most famous for its in-tact renaissance city walls which surrounds the beautiful city. There are tonnes of shops which rent out bikes for the day, which is perfect for those people who want to ride across the city walls. Lucca also holds many Gelato (Ice cream) shops which has the true taste of Italy.
THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA
The leaning tower of Pisa is the true landmark of not only Tuscany, but Italy as a whole. It’s funny to watch the swarms of people coming to the landmark to take the almost obligatory photo now, like the one below. Pisa is ideal for a two-three day trip but all activities could be fitted into one day. Once the photos have been taken, and for those who chose to climb it have done so, then a lunch seems fitting. We went across the main square and found a restaurant still in sight of the tower and had a pizza. The Cathedral which stands next to the tower is just as interesting and is worth a look after lunch.
PISA STREET MARKET
During our time in Tuscany, we visited a few street markets and found almost all of them to be unique and versatile. In Florence, we visited the San Lorenzo market which is full of cheap football shirts, chorizo, olives and wines, perfect for a backpacker on a budget.
Tuscany is so rich in culture that it was almost impossible to narrow it down to 10 things to do, feel free to comment if you feel I have missed out any things to see and don’t hesitate to ask questions about my trip and if you are looking for certain itineraries for Tuscany then feel free to ask.