Things to do in Tuscany
Pizza, Pasta and Parmesan – exploring Tuscany with a teenager (check out My top 14 Things to do in Tuscany and travel guide below)
Just saying the word “Tuscany” evokes images of vineyards and villas and enjoying local wines on a sun-drenched patio overlooking the expansive hillside of olive groves. I have dreamed of making those images a reality ever since we moved to Germany several years ago, but I wanted to wait until my son was old enough to walk the cobblestone streets and impressive museums of Florence without (much) complaining. That meant he was a teenager when we took the opportunity to go, which might not be the best choice, as it also meant eating our way through Tuscany! I can, however, tell you which city has the best gelato.
Parma, Italy and Parmesan Cheese Farm and Factory
My husband, son (age 13) and I began our Italy road trip in Parma, which is in the Emilia-Romagna region north of Tuscany. Our son has a passion for Parmesan cheese, so what better way to start out our trip than with a tour of a Parmesan Cheese Farm and Factory, complete with a cheese-tasting? Guided tours might normally bore a young teenager but not when the topic of discussion is favorite-food-related! He hung on the guide’s every word and asked very intelligent questions, and then was thrilled to be able to try the home-made wine with his 18 and 24 year-old cheese (it was a very sweet grape juice/wine with a very low alcohol content). We opted for the add-on balsamic vinegar tour at another farm and then lunch at a nearby castle. There was another tour add-on to a Parma Ham factory which we did not choose as we are vegetarians. The balsamic vinegar tour was on a gorgeous farm in a vineyard and also included a tasting. This balsamic is not your typical store-bought vinegar! It is aged to perfection and each addition of years subtly changes the flavor. Lunch was pasta stuffed with mushrooms and cheeses drizzled with olive oil; soft, herbal focaccia; grilled vegetables paired with local wines. That was Day 1 – we were now thoroughly ready to drive on to Tuscany and continue our culinary explorations!
Impruneta monastery turned villa
In Tuscany we stayed just south of Florence, in a little town called Impruneta, in an old monastery turned villa. The owners were two brothers who were raised in the villa and had learned from their parents to grow grapes for wine and olives for oil. To bring in an extra income, they converted several rooms in the villa into guestrooms. We stayed in a two-bedroom, one bath with a separate sitting room and small kitchen area. My dream of enjoying a glass of wine while sitting on the patio overlooking the olive groves was not realized until about the 4th night when the sun finally broke free of the clouds. Lesson learned – travel to Tuscany from May to September to enjoy sunshine and warm enough days for pool use and poolside barbeques. We elected to go on the shoulder season of early October, mostly because that is when our son had his school break, and saw several days of drizzle. However, the weather did not dampen our spirits in the least, and off we set on Day 2 to explore Florence.
How did we motivate our teenager to walk for several hours around cathedrals and museums? With the promise of more food, of course! Our first full day in Florence was capped off with a pizza-making class complete with home-made gelato. Was the Florence Duomo (Cathedral) amazing? It was breath-taking. Was the Piazza della Signoria filled with history and unbelievably ornate sculptures? It was all that and more. Was the Ponte Vecchio – the bridge over the river Arno that is lined with peek-a-boo, picturesque shops and windows and a secret pathway for the Medici’s to get back to their castle on the hill – as stunning as the postcards? It was like a fairy-tale dream! What was the highlight of our day? You guessed it – making pizza!
We joined an evening pizza-making tour that walked our group from their office to their “restaurant” which was a small room with several long tables and a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Surprisingly, we were a large group of about 24 people, and our son was the youngest and the only one to burn himself on the scorching-hot pizza sauce! Well, that’s not true, he also burned my husband with it. So the story goes that the chefs gave us a lesson on making the pizza dough and then gave us the ingredients and instruction on how much of the ingredients to place on the pizza. We spent a lot of time making the dough, which the chef then perfected for us. There was little instruction on getting the uncooked pizza onto the wooden pizza-oven spatula or on bringing your piping-hot pizza back to the table. Perhaps little needs to be said. Hot from the oven pizza equals burn-your-tongue cheese and sauce. While my husband and I were still working on the makings of our pizzas, our son was cutting into his newly arrived cooked pizza, which slipped from under the cutter, and splattered sauce onto his hand and my husband’s arm! He did the “ouch that super hurts” dance, ran his fingers under cold water in the bathroom, and then returned with a blistered hand to eat his pizza! Like a mailman delivering the mail, through rain or snow or burned fingers, we will make and eat pizza! Most of the adults at the end of our table, though enjoying themselves, proclaimed the evening to be a bit “cheesy,” excuse my pun, and lacking in the one item that adults prefer with a meal, namely more than one glass of wine, but our son was victorious and wants to go back.
Accademia and Uffizi galleries, Florence
Day 3 saw us standing in the “reserved tickets” lines at both the Accademia and Uffizi galleries, so that we could say we’ve seen the “real” statue of David (there are several replicas around the city) and the gorgeous Uffizi buildings, built in 1581 for the de’ Medici family and housing works by da Vinci, Botticelli, Titian, Michelangelo and Raphael, among others. During the high season, visitors may stand in line for 5 hours to gain entrance! We were smart and booked ahead, which only meant a mere 45 minute wait at the Accademia and about 40 minutes at the Uffizi. Here is where we might have lost our son’s momentum if it wasn’t for Rick Steves’ walking tours. Before we left home, we downloaded all of Rick Steves’ free walking tours for the area to our ipods, and let our son loose upon arrival of the museum. We quizzed him a little bit after each museum – he really did listen to it! But having the ipod handy meant he could also find a bench and take a break with some cartoons or music of choice and leave us in peace. Not a bad compromise, all in all. We completed our museum day by….you guessed it – eating! Well, what else would you do at the end of the day? Especially in Italy! We sought out a little non-descript sandwich shop called Pino’s Sandwiches, recommended to us by another couple at the pizza class, and had the most amazing dinner at the best prices we found. The food wasn’t gourmet or presented with fair – it was served on plastic plates – but it was delicious and plentiful. The proprietress/server spoke little English but was helpful and cheery and when our son went back to the counter after our “primo” (first course) meal of pesto pasta to request that his “secondo” (second course) be a “second” helping of the other pasta, she complied with a large helping of spicy pasta! My husband and I had grilled veggies, which she heaped onto the plate when I said “no meat.” We paired our meal with local wines and went back to our villa satisfied and satiated.
Pisa and Lucca
Over the remaining three days we spent one day in Pisa and Lucca, one day driving the Chianti Classico wine route to Siena, and the final day taking a more relaxing walk through Florence one last time. The sun came out for our day in Pisa and though we did not pre-book a climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa because the guide books say it is treacherous to climb in the rain, we got lucky and there was one space left for the time slot while we were there. My husband did the long climb and my son and I stayed below for the photo ops. My son’s response to the Tower? “I thought it would be bigger.” The town of Lucca is very close to Pisa and is a completely walled city which has a maze of small, shop-lined streets. Unfortunately, we arrived at siesta time when most shops close for a long lunch, so we walked the streets, climbed the old bell tower, and tasted their gelato. It was a beautiful town and well worth the stop. That night we enjoyed our first true sunset with a glass of wine out on the pool terrace of our villa. We loved the rustic look of our villa and the many resident cats who visited our door throughout the day. Our son loved that it had wifi.
Chianti Classico wine route to Siena
The next day we struck out by car following the Chianti Classico wine route. Most tourists travel this route by tour bus – which makes sense when one wants to taste the wine at each vineyard! After our first stop, which included 4 different and thankfully small glasses of wine, we decided that it was high time that our son learn to drive so he could chauffer us around while we sampled the area’s many offerings. Okay, not really, instead we shared small sips at various vineyards and took the time to have a picnic in one vineyard’s courtyard under an olive tree. I would highly recommend that if you want to try this route and actually sample many wines, take the guided tour bus. The road winds through picturesque villages and the drive took us longer than expected due to many stops for the views. We arrived in Siena close to 5pm with just enough time to park, hike up the hill to the city, and make our way into the Duomo. By sunset, we were in the Piazza del Campo, the main square in Siena where the semi-annual horse race, or Palio, has been run since 1656. As we watched the sun move over the square, we recognized three ladies from our pizza-making class in Florence, who were making a tour of Italy as a promise they had made to one-another as friends in their 20’s and were now making a reality in their 60’s. They were so thoroughly enjoying a local gelato, which they claimed was the best they’d tasted, that we strolled in the direction of their gelateria , and while my husband and son bought large gelato cones, I purchased warm bread from the bakery next door, and thus, we had dinner while we strolled back through town and down the hill to our car. Not nearly enough time to explore Siena, but now I have an excuse to go back!
The weather could have been better, the drives could have been shorter, but the food was delicious, the history and architecture were fascinating, and the views around every corner were breath-taking. My husband loved Florence, I loved the small walled cities like Siena and Lucca, and our son loved the Parmesan Cheese Tour and the pizza-making. We all came home with a greater appreciation for some of the many virtues of Italy. And the best gelato, hands-down, was in Siena. Try the mango – it was divine – you can see how my husband is eye-balling it even though he has his own.
Things to do in Tuscany
My top 14 Things to do in Tuscany:
- Wander the vineyard and sample local wines
- Eat gelato
- Visit Parma and the Parmesan Cheese Farm and Factory
- Sleep in a villa
- Take a pizza-making class
- Florence Duomo (Cathedral)
- Piazza della Signoria in Florence
- Picnic in an olive grove or vineyard
- Ponte Vecchio – the bridge over the river Arno in Florence
- Accademia and Uffizi galleries with Michelangelo’s statue of David and the gorgeous Uffizi buildings
- Leaning Tower of Pisa, in Pisa
- Driving the Chianti Classico wine route to Siena
- Wander the walled city of Lucca
- Explore Siena, including the Duomo and Piazza del Campo
Tuscany Vacation Guide
Ready to take your Tuscany vacation? Start planning with these tips and resources:
Book ahead for the Accademia and Uffizi galleries:
The official website for purchasing advance tickets for the galleries in Florence is a tad ill-natured – it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t and is very slow. Have patience and watch for your confirmation email. The website has an English version but your confirmation email will be in Italian. Check for correct dates and times. There are other sites claiming to sell advance tickets, and while they may be legit, they will all charge a surcharge on top of the advance booking fee.
Download the Rick Steve’s walking tours:
Rick Steves offers free audio walking tours online. You can also load his walking tours app to your iPhone or iTouch device: look for Rick Steves’ Audio Europe on iTunes.
Pizza making class:
Book your pizza-making class through Florencetown. They also offer cooking classes, bike tours, vespa tours and more. The chef’s names were Giovanni and Giuseppe. We thought Giuseppe was hilarious and enjoyed the class because of him, but sadly he is moving on this year to begin working in a restaurant in Alberta, Canada.
Impruneta Monastery / Villa:
There are so many choices for places to stay in Tuscany. If arriving by air and then traveling the region by train, look for accommodation in the city. This is very easy and we met many travelers who were using the trains and busses to explore Italy.
We traveled by car so we opted to stay in the countryside.
Our villa/monastery is called Agriturismo I Poggi. The term Agriturismo is given to villas that farm. You can find them at agriturismoipoggi.it and they can also be found on www.booking.com. The owner, Giovanni, is very happy to return queries by email.
Parmesan Cheese Farm and Factory:
Book your cheese/vinegar/ham tours with Parma Golosa. The staff is quick to respond to your emails and will cater the tour to your requests. Pick up is at your hotel but the tour is in your own vehicle – you pay extra if you need a car + driver.
We stayed in the Holiday Inn Express Parma.
We live in Germany and traveled to Italy in our own car, via Switzerland. Having a car is not necessarily needed in Italy as the train and bus systems are extensive and reliable, plus parking in the towns is expensive and exhausting. Most tourists arrive by air via Pisa, as Pisa is the hub airport for Tuscany. From Pisa you can travel by train to Florence and then by bus or train to Siena or Parma.
The Pisa Airport website gives good information in English for the train connection: Florence to Siena and Florence to Parma.
Name of the hole-in-the-wall restaurant:
Pino’s Sandwiches on Via Giuseppe Verdi, just up from the Church Santa Croce
They are part of restaurant Salumeria Verdi S.A.S., 36/R. Via Verdi Giuseppe, Firenze, FI 50122 50122 Italy
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