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Florence is definitely a must-see city. In fact, of the big cities in Italy, it is our favorite. But if you really want to enjoy Italy, you must explore the smaller towns too. Some of our favorite small towns can be found in Tuscany, not far from Florence.
Several of these towns can be enjoyed in a few hours, as a day trip from Florence. Others can easily provide several days worth of exploration and relaxation.
However you decide to plan your Italy vacation, we hope that at least one day will be spent enjoying the relaxed easiness of a small town.
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Updated February 2018
Perhaps the best-known small town in Tuscany is Pisa. Everyone has heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, right?
What everyone may not know is that the tower is just one of several buildings in Piazza dei Miracoli. Of course, the focus for most visitors is the tower, but the cathedral and baptistry are worth a visit as well.
The plaza is almost always filled with tons of tourists, 90% of whom will be trying to do a “hold the tower up” pose, or some other variation of it. We skipped that idea and just tried to get some interesting pictures (most, unfortunately, with a few tourists in the foreground).
If you really want to, you can pay to take a few hundred stairs up to the top of the tower. Supposedly the tower is perfectly stable and has been reinforced so that it will not lean any further. But, I am already a bit terrified of heights, so there is no part of me that wanted to climb to the top!
On our second trip, in 2017, we had a guided tour through the piazza, including the baptistry and cathedral. We were on a group trip, so we can’t recommend a specific tour, but get one if you can. The tour guide provided a lot of additional information that we missed on our first trip.
There is not much of interest in Pisa other than the tower, but it was certainly worth the visit. In 2013, we spent a couple of hours in Pisa on the way from Riomaggiore to Florence. In 2017, we visited as a half-day trip from Florence.
The train from Florence will probably take about an hour each way. A bus will likely take a little longer (1.5 – 2 hours). Once in Pisa, allow a couple of hours to get to the plaza and explore.
In 2013, we walked from the train station to the plaza. In 2017, we walked from the bus station. Both will take about 20 minutes of easy walking. I am sure there are local buses or taxis if you have limited mobility.
If you have luggage with you, there is a storage room at the train station. We stored our backpacks here and it was easy to use and reasonably priced.
Pisa is definitely worth a visit, but I don’t think it needs more than about half a day, at the most.
You may or may not have heard of Cortona. You probably have heard of the book and movie, Under the Tuscan Sun. Yep, that’s Cortona.
Throughout our month in Italy, we said “This is our favorite place so far” MANY times. Our trip just kept getting better and better. Ultimately, Cortona landed at the top of our favorite cities, especially among the small towns.
Cortona is very small. It is upon a hilltop in southern Tuscany. It is everything you’ve ever imagined Tuscany would be.
Things to Do
There really isn’t much “to do” here. There are a few small churches and a monastery just outside of town. I think there are a couple of museums about the history of the town.
We spent most of our time just wandering around. There is literally a wall around the city, so you can’t get lost here. Cortona is big enough that a map is helpful at times but small enough that it is not essential.
What is most amazing about Cortona is that you have to search to find a place that does not have an amazing view! Seriously, every corner, every peek between the buildings, offers another “oh wow” view of the countryside.
There are other towns in the distance, farmland, and towards the edge of the horizon, a lake. I can certainly understand the appeal of renting a house in Tuscany for the summer after about four seconds here!
We had dinner at Trattoria Dardano, which was delicious and reasonably priced. We absolutely loved the food in Tuscany; definitely the best we had throughout Italy.
The train from Florence will probably take about an hour and 30 minutes. It is important to note, however, that the closest train station is 3 km (nearly two miles) outside of town.
We did get a taxi from the train station to the hotel, one of only a handful of times we did not walk or use public transportation. A two-mile walk on winding hillside roads just did not seem like a great idea, especially since it was raining.
You could enjoy Cortona as a day trip from Florence, but spending at least one night would be much more enjoyable. Our stop here provided a great opportunity for us to slow down, relax and recharge.
We stayed at the Hotel San Luca, right at the entrance to the town with great views and a good restaurant.
After enjoying a relaxing morning wandering the streets of Cortona, it was time to move on to Siena. Siena is one of the “bigger” small towns of Tuscany. While it certainly is not as big as Florence, it is much bigger than Cortona.
While I’m sure there are lots of other reasons to spend time in Siena, in early July, the draw is the Palio. In fact, we planned our entire month-long itinerary around being in Siena for the Palio.
The Palio is a bareback horse race around the main piazza, Il Campo. It is run twice a year, on July 2 and August 16. If you have seen the James Bond movie Quantam of Solace, then you have seen at least a glimpse of the Palio.
Before the “main event,” there are six trials and many other events over several days. We arrived in town just before the first trial and stayed through the final race, a total of four nights. Without the Palio, I think that Siena would be worth a day or two, at the most.
The main square, Il Campo, where the Palio is held, is considered by some to be the best square in Italy. You should certainly spend some time in the square, Palio or not. Actually, relaxing in city squares (and people watching) is one of our favorite ways to enjoy a European town.
Other Things to Do
Additional must-see sights in Siena include the Duomo and Baptistry, both of which are very ornate. At some point, Siena and Florence were in a “battle” to be the “better” city. Thus, there are some fairly impressive and ornate sites that you would not generally find in a small town.
The Santa Maria della Scalla Museum had a Steve McCurry photography exhibit while we were there. He is a National Geographic photographer, so we got to see some amazing photos. You may not recognize the name, but you probably know his photo “The Afghan Girl.”
This exhibit was definitely an unexpected treat! Even if you can’t catch a Steve McCurry exhibit, this museum is worth a visit.
Siena is a little over an hour from Florence via direct bus or car. The train may take a little longer, as it will likely have other stops. There really is no reason to have a car in Siena, so train or bus is our suggestion.
While the bus may be a little faster, the train will likely be more comfortable and more scenic, especially through Tuscany. Note that the Siena train station is at the bottom of a hill, so you may want to take a local bus to the city center. It is certainly walkable, though, if you prefer to get some exercise.
While you can see the highlights of Siena as a day trip from Florence, it is a big enough city to justify spending a night or two. If you really like some of the “comforts” of a big city, but want to experience the charm of a small town, Siena is a good mid-size city.
And, if you can manage to be in town for the Palio, it will be that much better.
We stayed at the Hotel Albergo Chiusarelli, which was amazing! Great location, great food, and managed to accommodate us when we decided to add an extra night at the last-minute… Not easy to do on the day of The Palio!
Ok, so we are cheating a little here, as Assis it not actually in Tuscany. Assisi is a neat little town in Umbria, which is just south of Tuscany. You probably already know that it was home to Saint Francis, who is most often remembered as the patron saint of animals.
The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi is another very pretty church. That said, it really was not super-special for us. While we certainly appreciate the beauty of the church and the life and work of St. Francis, we saw a lot of amazing churches throughout Italy, and this one was no different.
Unfortunately, we saw so many gorgeous churches and awesome views, it started losing some of the “wow factor.” I feel bad even thinking that much less writing it, but it’s true.
The city itself is very clean, the streets are easy to navigate and overall, the town is very peaceful. Like Cortona, Assisi is situated on a hilltop with fabulous views of the Italian countryside below.
While we enjoyed Assisi, we probably would have gotten a lot more excited about the church and the city if we had visited two or three weeks earlier in our trip.
It took us about four hours and four different trains to get from Siena to Assisi. As mentioned before, train travel is not always the most efficient, but it is generally more comfortable and more scenic.
A direct train from Florence will likely take about 2.5 hours; add another 30 minutes, or so, if you have to change trains. From the train station, you will probably need to take a bus into town.
There are a few buses from Florence to Assisi, but it probably will not save you a lot of time or money. Definitely do your research, though, because transportation options can change at any time.
Again, Assisi could be seen as a day trip from Florence, but an overnight stay might make it more relaxing. I certainly think seeing Assisi on the way to or from Florence is a good option. A few hours, or maybe half a day, should be ample to see the sites. Add on a bit longer if this is your one and only small town.
The Hotel Sorella Luna was very comfortable and conveniently-located.
Small Town Tips
Visiting a small town is a wonderful experience, but it does take a bit more advance planning and research. Train stations are not always convenient, especially in the hill towns of Tuscany. Even the regional bus station may not be right in town.
A car could be useful if you want to do a “tour” of several small towns. That said, you will likely only use it to get from one town to another, as you can typically walk everywhere once you arrive.
You likely will not find any chain hotels, such as Hilton or Marriott, in the small towns. We love booking.com for finding hotels and bed-and-breakfasts when traveling in Europe.
Choosing the Right Town
These are just four of the MANY amazing small towns in Tuscany. There are plenty of other towns that we would love to visit and that would make a fabulous side trip from Florence.
There are also tons of amazing small towns in other regions of Italy, such as Varenna, Amalfi or any of the towns of the Cinque Terre. We just happen to think that Tuscany has some of the best. There is just something about the views from a hilltop, especially when combined with the amazing Tuscan wines!
So, how do you choose where to go? Honestly, just do some research and go with what feels right. Cortona was our favorite small town and would be our recommendation, hands down. That said, we have found that one person’s favorite is not always another’s.
Go with what interests you…wine-making, cheese-making, beach or lakeside, or maybe you want to do some hiking. There are tons of great options for just about any interest.
If you are in Italy for the Palio (July 2 and August 16 of each year), then we highly suggest you go to Siena for at least a couple of days. The experience of the Palio is unlike anything else. Seriously, do anything you can to be in Siena for the Palio if it is at all a possibility. Be sure to read our article on the Palio here.
Regardless of where you end up, our goal is to get you out of the big city, into a smaller town. For that is where you will find the true beauty, charm and authenticity of Italy.
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