Don’t get me wrong; I love being in Florence. As a volunteer archivist at one of Florence’s libraries, I am used to spending long weekends in this captivating city. Just walking around and drinking in the beauty of its architecture, art, and even shop windows have always given me great pleasure.
But… deep down I’m a country girl also ready to escape the city crowds, traffic, and noise, even if it means leaving the Cradle of the Renaissance and home of Dante. Here are five of my favorite day trips from Florence, all of which promise to offer you more Tuscan beauty.
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1. Fiesole – A Short Bus Ride Up The Hill
This town is easy to escape to, as you can catch the #7 bus from Santa Maria Novella train station. Make sure you buy a bus ticket at the train station or any kiosk, and be sure to stamp the ticket after boarding. If caught, it’s a whopping €50 ($52.75) fine that you must pay on the spot. I’ve seen a number of tourists suffer this indignity! Taxis will also take you there.
The nice part about catching the bus is you get off at the last stop, so no frantic worries about when to jump off. About half way there, you start climbing out of town and can catch some snippets of views of the surrounding countryside. This is the same climb ironically depicted in Forester’s famous novel A Room with a View.
You arrive at the Piazza Mino da Fiesole and are immediately struck by the expansive beauty of Florence below you. There are a number of well-marked panoramic walks with places where you can see the cathedral and baptistery, sparkling like tiny jewels in the Arno Valley.
Having ancient Etruscan origins (8th–4th century BC), Fiesole is rich with significant archeological remains. Besides, while enjoying its walking routes, you can easily spend the day visiting the archeological area and museum, the town’s cathedral, Roman Theatre, and the Bandini Art Museum. Don’t forget to enjoy a meal, a drink, and the view in any of its numerous restaurants and cafés.
San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, in Pistoia (Photo Credit: Caroline Schouten-van Parreren)
2. Pistoia – Catch A Train To A Medieval Wonder
Pistoia is one of those towns that most people whiz by on their way to Lucca, but its medieval center is one of the best preserved in Italy and well worth the visit. About a 30-minute train ride from Florence, it’s an easy day trip.
The Cathedral of San Zeno is unmistakable with its elegantly banded Pisa-Romanesque facade adorned with Italian sculptor Andrea della Robbia’s lunette of the Madonna and Child between two angels. Right across the street is the 4th century Baptistery of San Giovanni, designed in an octagonal shape.
Visit the baptistery first and buy your tickets to the Chapel of San Jacopo and the belltower, both located inside the cathedral. You won’t want to miss the chapel. As you enter the cathedral, turn right to find the grated chapel with its unique treasure: a dazzling silver altarpiece called the Altare d’Argento di San Giacomo (Silver Altarpiece of St. James). Silversmiths started the altarpiece in 1287 and sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi finished it 2 centuries later. Led by a guide, climb the belltower for a bird’s eye view of the iconic piazza.
Pistoia has many museums, but the one I visited is devoted to the city’s most famous modern son, sculptor, and painter, Marino Marini (1901–1980). His gallery is inside the Palazzo del Tau. There, I found dozens of his drawings and paintings, mainly of female nudes and horses that were a refreshing break from Renaissance art.
The Daily Market at Pistoia (Photo Credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)
Pistoia has a lovely daily food market at Piazzetta dell’Ortaggio guarded well by the Pozzo del Leoncino (The Well of the Little Lion). Here you can also see Giro del Sole (Turning of the Sun) — the striking, life-size sculpture from contemporary Pistoia artist Roberto Barni of three blindfolded men carrying oil lamps.
This piazza was once the entrance to the Jewish quarters, which consisted of a narrow arch closed by an iron gate, still visible today. Walking around the former ghetto, you can see that the windows are smaller than in the neighboring buildings, a feature typical of ghetto architecture.
Pistoia is full of eateries, specializes in outdoor dining, and is ready to serve you an aperitif as you soak in the atmosphere enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.
The Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, in Lucca (Photo Credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)
3. Lucca – An Afternoon With Puccini
A major highlight of Tuscan history and culture is Lucca, the former capital of a Longobard duchy and, for over 500 years, an independent and powerful republic (1160–1805). From Florence to Lucca, both train and car take approximately 1.5 hours.
One of Lucca’s remarkable features is the 3-mile-long walk along its city ramparts, which surround the city center. As you stroll under shady trees, you can enjoy wonderful views of the town’s main buildings. Most remarkable is the 13th-century Guinigi Tower with trees growing on its rooftop. The rooftop garden originally belonged to the kitchen, situated below.
Lucca has 130 towers in all, including the bell towers of Romanesque San Frediano Basilica and St. Martin’s Cathedral, the tower of San Michele in Foro that marks the old Roman forum, and the nearby Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower).
Since most of the city center is traffic-free, Lucca is a great place for strolling around, shopping on its famous Via Fillungo, and visiting medieval churches. Discover small and large squares with fountains and cosy cafés, and enter beautiful buildings like Palazzo Pfanner with its remarkable architecture and enchanted garden. Don’t miss one of Lucca’s jewels, the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, whose buildings stand on the ruins of the 2nd-century Roman amphitheater. This is one of Lucca’s popular meeting places, full of taverns and restaurants.
Lucca is the birthplace of famous musicians. Don’t miss the Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805) statue right outside the town’s music academy or the Puccini Museum, former home of Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924). Lovers of his music are treated to daily performances in the former baptistery.
The Forest around Vallombrosa (Photo Credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)
4. Vallombrosa – Drive Away For A Day In Nature
If Fiesole, Pistoia, and Lucca still feel too city-like for you, then jump into a rental car, pack a lunch, and drive east towards the Casentino Valley at the foot of the central Apennine Mountains. This is a part of Tuscany where you simply cannot go wrong, full of sanctuaries, churches, castles, and beautiful forests.
One of the closest and interesting places to visit is Vallombrosa Monastery and National Reserve. From Florence, take SS 67 along the river Arno through Pontassieve and follow signs that indicate which way to arrive. It’s about a 45-minute trip from Florence.
Vallombrosa, which means “Valley of Shade,” is best known for its ancient monastery and will satisfy both nature lovers and art aficionados alike. The Abbey itself contains many works of art and lies on the edge of a pristine forest. Here, you are at the medieval birthplace of Italian forestry and should note the Paradisino or “Little Paradise.” The Paradisino is the former forestry school situated on a rock right above the monastery from where you have a great view of the buildings and their surroundings.
During your visit, also take note of the large pool in front of the Abbey. It’s not for swimming (even in the hot, humid summer), but rather for cultivating fish for the monks’ lenten fasts.
But what I truly love about Vallombrosa are the hiking trails through the more than 3,000 acres of quiet woodland, always cool and shady in the summer months. Many Florentines escape the summer heat here and there are several hotels and restaurants nearby. This is a protected natural area and is spectacular in the autumn when the trees are turning their colors.
The Monastery of Vallombrosa (Photo Credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)
5. Camaldoli – Another Drive To A Spiritual World
From Vallombrosa, drive another 45 minutes to the unique spiritual setting of Camaldoli. When you start, pause for a moment at the mountaintop above Vallombrosa for a spectacular view of the Casentino Valley. If you look far east, you will see the curious mountain landmark of La Verna.
Going down the mountainside, at the bottom of the valley, you’ll reach picturesque Poppi (also worth a visit), from where you ascend again to the double-monastic settlement of Camaldoli.
Saint Romuald of Ravenna arrived here in 1012 with some disciples and they constructed a group of hermitages, each with its own bedroom, meditation room, and vegetable-garden. Within the enclosure, he also built a small chapel where monks would gather for community prayers. Here, you can visit Romuald’s own hermitage, the church, and a shop with many different monastic products. Nine hermits currently live here.
From the sacro eremo, walk about 50 minutes down a path, through another beautiful forest, and you’ll arrive at the monastery. Originally the hermitage’s guest house, it was soon transformed into a monastery where currently more than 40 monks live. This combination of community and solitary life is a characteristic of the Camaldolesi.
The Closter inside the Holy Hermitage and Monastery of Camaldoli (Photo Credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)
The buildings comprise two cloisters (in the larger one, you can find a bookshop), the refectory, guest-rooms, and the monks’ cells. The church, modernized in 1700, preserves five tables painted by Italian painter Giorgio Vasari.
Antique Pharmacy in Camaldoli (Photo Credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)
Of special interest is the Old Pharmacy of the Monastery. Constructed in 1543, it is furnished with beautiful walnut cupboards and old objects used by the monks for the preparation of medicines. Pharmacies were once a fundamental part of many monasteries, where both spiritual and physical healing were dispersed. Today, you can indulge in the monks’ elixirs of honey, homemade grappa, and sweets.
By the end of the day, when you return to Florence, you’ll not only have all the great memories from an enchanting outing, but hopefully renewed energy to return and conquer the city’s never-ending sights, wonders, and (gulp!) shopping.
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