Our Bitesize Guide to Holidays in Tuscany, Italy

The Italian dream

With its rolling hills, villas, vines, olives and cypresses, the landscape of Tuscany and Umbria is synonymous with the idyllic Italian dream. Settled and cultivated for 5,000 years, the regions are home to hilltop villages and serene towns and cities such as medieval Siena, fortified Lucca, Pisa, Perugia and Orvieto. If you still have any energy left after sightseeing you can escape to the Apennine peaks in the east.

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Visit Tuscany - Florence

Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance and the focal point of creative activity for some of the world's greatest artistic talents. The city's churches and museums contain familiar masterpieces, while the narrow streets are lined with splendid palaces and elegant shops. Highlights are the Duomo, the Piazza della Signoria and the Galleria degli Uffizi.

The Duomo is one of the most important early-Renaissance architectural complexes in Italy. The first freestanding dome to be constructed in the post-Roman period.

This 6th- to 7th century baptistery was originally Florence's cathedral, later replaced by the Church of Santa Reparata, whose remains lie beneath the present building. In the 13th century, the city fathers decided to replace it, largely to flaunt the city's political clout and growing wealth and size. In 1294 the project was entrusted to Arnolfo di Cambio, and work continued throughout the 14th century, with various architects realizing his plan.

The architect Filippo Brunelleschi offered his services, refusing to explain his solution, but exuding confidence. The building committee finally gave him the job, insisting that he work with his rival Lorenzo Ghiberti, who was responsible for the baptistery doors. In 1436 the dome was completed, and the cathedral consecrated. The lantern was finally completed in the 1460s.

Piazza della Signoria is Florence's most noble and famous piazza and is the place to get a real feel for the city. It is a vast open-air, traffic-free sculpture gallery with elegant cafés and restaurants. The area in front of the Palazzo Vecchio was named Piazza del Popolo in 1307. Read more on our blog

Our tips
Set aside plenty of time to see the Uffizi, the world's most important collection of Renaissance art - there is so much of such importance that you should not attempt to see the entire collection in one day. In a first visit concentrate on Rooms 1 through 15, which present major Florentine works, Tuscan Gothic and Early Renaissance in the East Corridor, and 16th-century artists in the West Corridor.

The gallery in the vast Palazzo degli Uffizi extends from Piazza della Signoria to the River Arno. Originally intended to be government offices (uffizi), the U-shaped building was constructed between 1560 and 1574 by Giorgio Vasari, under the orders of Cosimo I de Medici. Succeeding Medici dukes added to the collections, which were bequeathed to the people of Florence by the last member of the family, Anna Maria Lodovica, in 1737, on the condition that the works never leave the city. The museum continues to acquire paintings and drawings.

Visit Tuscany - Siena

One of the most beautiful medieval cities in Italy, second only to Florence in its artistic and architectural treasures. Siena ranges over three hills, and its extremely steep streets are tiring to explore. However, no-one will want to rush a visit, for Siena is a glorious Gothic concoction, and its soft yellow and reddish brown buildings are a visual feast.

The heart of the city, the semicircular Campo, acts like a magnet; just come and sit at the café tables and soak up the beauty of the scene. While practically any one of the churches are worth a visit, there are also plenty of good shops and some surprising sights, such as the ornately decorated 18th-century pharmacy, Quattro Cantoni on Via S. Pietro.

Every year, on 2 July and 16 August, the Campo fills up for the Palio, a vital part of Siena life since the Middle Ages. The three-lap horse-race is ridden by 10 riders in medieval costume, representing 10 of the city's 17 contrade (wards). The race is preceded by spectactacular parades and flag-throwing. Whatever the time of year, it is hard to tear yourself away from the scene in the Campo, but the Museo Civico in the Palazzo Pubblico, on the Campo, demands attention.

Siena was reputedly founded by Senius, son of Remus, one of the two founders of Rome. By 1125 Siena was a free commune, despite the rivalry with Florence that was to dominate its medieval history. The old enemy was defeated in 1260 at the Battle of Montaperti, the high point of a century during which Siena was one of Europe?s wealthiest cities. The Black Death of 1348 scarred the city, but two charismatic saints emerged and dominated the ensuing period of spiritual uncertainty: St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bernerdino. Siena struggled against a succession of papal, imperial and autocratic rulers; she owed allegiance to Charles V, suffered a devastating siege at the hands of Florence and eventually, in 1559, succumbed to the military might of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Today Siena is a bustling provincial city grown rich on banking, agriculture and tourism.

Our tips
Buy one of the combined tickets to save money. For a great view of the Campo and excellent ice cream, head for Gelateria La Costerella on Via di Città (corner of Costa dei Barbieri and Via di Fontebranda). Tickets for seats for the Palio are hard to come by and expensive, but you can, like most Sienese, watch free from the Campo. It can be very hot and crowded.

Visit Tuscany - San Gimignano

Nicknamed, the medieval Manhattan, for its ancient towers that spear the skyline. San Gimignano is a popular daytrip from Florence and Siena. It flourished throughout the Middle Ages, largely due to its position on the Via Francigena pilgrim route. The town split into factions over allegiance to the papacy and the empire. During these years of conflict, the wealthy families in the town built 72 protective towers, 14 of which still dominate the area.

The main street, Via San Giovanni, links the squares Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza del Duomo. Here is the Collegiata, a cathedral until it lost its status as a bishopric. Little on its façade prepares you for the interior, covered with dazzling frescoes. On the rear wall is a Last Judgement by Sienese painter Taddeo di Bartolo, alongside an Inferno, a Paradiso and a St. Sebastian. The second cycle on the right wall is by Barna di Siena and the Old Testament cycle opposite is by Bartolo di Fredi.

Our tips
Don't miss the Gelateria di Piazza, a famous ice-cream shop; Fonti Medie-Vali Lombard, Romanesque and Gothic fountain by the Porta delle Fonti; and the 54m Torre Grossa, the tallest tower, with the best views.

Visit Tuscany - Pisa

While Campo dei Miracoli is home of the famous leaning tower, a striking cathedral and Italy's largest baptistery, today's Pisa is a lively university city with bustling streets lined with shops, excellent museums and attractive old churches.

Pisa reached the peak of its power in the 11th and 12th centuries, but this golden age was followed by naval defeats, and the collapse of its commercial empire. In 1406 it was taken over by Florence, and the Medicis embarked on major rebuilding while turning Pisa into a focus for science and learning. Little of the city's former glory remains, as much of it was destroyed during World War II.

Pisa's most important treasures stand on the Campo dei Miracoli and include the Torre Pendente (Leaning Tower), the duomo, the baptistery and the Camposanto, a medieval cemetery. Begun in 1173, the Leaning Tower was intended as the cathedral's bell tower. As it was built on sandy soil, it began to lean before it had been completed. By 1284 the lean was 90cm (35in) from the vertical, and medieval engineers were attempting to correct it. By 1350, when the tower was completed, the lean was 1.45m (4.75ft). In 1990 the tower was closed to allow scientists to stabilize it, it was now 4.5m (14.75ft) from the vertical, and getting worse. Tons of lead were attached to the northern side, steel cables were attached to hold it in place, and a wedge of soil was removed. Gradually the structure began to settle into the cavity and within five months had returned to the position it held in 1890.

Our tips
It is much cheaper to buy a combined ticket to all the sights in the Campo dei Miracoli. There are excellent bus and train connections to the city, so leave the car behind. When visiting the leaning tower, leave handbags at the cloakroom; no children under 8 are allowed up.