If images of vineyards, tall cypress trees and hilltop fortresses don’t appear in your mind when I say Tuscany, there’s something very wrong.
Tuscany is famous for its hilltop towns, where you enter through gates in their surrounding walls and stroll through narrow alleyways to open squares. Since the towns have been around since the Middle Ages, there is so much history to explore – as well as natural sites – and, of course, gelato!
I visited four great towns last year: Cortona, Castiglione del Lago, Montalcino and Montepulciano. All of them are situated on hilltops, so you get there by steep, winding, sometimes narrow roads – but they’re definitely worth the trouble. Here’s a little bit about all of them.
Cortona is probably most known for its appearance in the book and screen adaptation “Under the Tuscan Sun.” If I hadn’t been staying there, I probably wouldn’t have visited it, but it was nice, nonetheless.
It has a gorgeous theatre, a massive hillside church, cute shops and cafes and beautiful views of typical Tuscan landscapes.
Depending on the week, there are different activities and entertainment for guests and locals. There was a photography festival when I was there, with its own hashtag to use and follow. There was also a little parade with music and dancers in costumes.
Castiglione del Lago
When arriving at Castiglione del Lago, there’s a long, wide staircase leading to the center. It’s very pretty and has some amazing architecture and beautiful views over the lake (whence, the name Lago). I had the most amazing pizza there, but I forgot to write down the name of the place or take any pictures (I must’ve been very hungry, ‘cause that rarely happens).
Around the fortress is a big garden with olive trees. And it was in this town that I completely fell in love with the kitchen utensils and cutting boards made of wood from olive trees, which is sold in little shops. I just had to take some home! You can buy it in almost all the small towns, I just saw it here first.
This little town is very famous for its wine, but I didn’t actually try it. I did, however, have a very expensive lunch – with a gorgeous view, at least – and later a very milky macchiato. If you want proper Italian coffee, you should probably go for an espresso!
It was pouring down all day, so I didn’t see much at all, but I’d love to go back to explore it properly someday. The little streets and buildings are very beautiful. And I have to taste the wine, of course!
Firstly, I should probably admit why I wanted to go here… Montepulciano appears as the home of the Volturi in the second installment of the Twilight Saga. I know, so geeky. Alas, there I was to walk in Robert Pattinson’s footsteps.
It’s a small town, so you’ll find the main square quickly. It was being used for an event when I was there, so I couldn’t really get a proper picture. It was still a cool fangirl experience, though!
Not long from the main square is The Museum of Torture, which is a “fun” way to kill (ha ha) some time after driving there. This museum is there permanently and takes about an hour to walk through. It costs €8 for adults or €6 for students.
Last year, there was a temporary Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in another nearby museum, but they change it every once in a while, so check out the official tourist website for more information.
As an avid Instagrammer, I was aware of the hot springs around Tuscany, and they were definitely on top of my list. Between Perugia and Grosseto, there are at least six thermal baths to visit.
The one I went to is called Bagni san Filippo – also known as Fosso Bianco, meaning white whale. You have to drive down a narrow road and then walk into a forest-looking area and keep going for a few minutes. Don’t stop when you see the first pools of water, as the most impressive sight is further down the path.
Toward the end, there is a huge “mountain” of calcium deposits derived from the hot spring. The rock formation has natural pools with hot water continuously running into them that you can sit in. It smells a little funky as there’s Sulphur in the water, but it’s such a cool and unique experience.
We were told not to climb onto the rock formation by an assigned guard, but everyone did it anyway – even locals – and he gave up after one remark. They probably know it’s hopeless, and I wasn’t one to leave without getting the perfect shot!
Some thermal pools are more popular than others, obviously, but try to visit early in the morning or around dinner time to have it more to yourself. If you choose one that’s popular with locals, visit it during the week to avoid large crowds.
Another thing that was relatively important to me was sunflower fields! There are SO many of them in Tuscany, and the fields are long and have tall sunflowers with enormous flower heads.
Pull over to the side of the road and jump in for some lovely pictures. But be mindful of the crops, as they’re probably someone’s livelihood.
How to get there
If you want to fly to Tuscany, the most convenient airports are Pisa, Florence and Bologna. From there, you can take buses and trains to major and small cities, but I highly recommend renting a car. Like I said, Tuscany is all about the open fields and hilltop towns with a fair distance between them, so you want to be able to get around independently (unless you’re going to a wine-tasting, in which case I’d suggest a cab!)