“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”
– Eddie Cantor
Tuscany is exactly how I pictured it to be; sunny clear blue skies, golden sunsets over endless rolling hills of grapes in Chianti, fresh cured meats and aged cheeses, outstanding architecture, happy locals, and total foodie heaven. Tuscans slow down and enjoy life. They’re never in a rush because why would you need to be when you have daily views like this?
Sasha and I spent a week in inland Tuscany visiting the small towns of Siena and San Gimignano, and of course the capitol Firezne (Florence). We stayed in an Airbnb in Chianti, which we loved so much we decided to extend an extra day! Chianti was a great base for us because it was a one-hour drive from all three towns we visited. Below I will detail things to do in each town.
Siena is a small city in central Italy’s Toscana (Tuscany) region. It is known for its medieval architecture and sloping fan-shaped piazza called Piazza Del Campo, pictured above. It’s easy to sit in the shade for hours just chatting with friends, people-watching and eating gelato. Be sure to try one of the famous treats of Tuscany, called Ricciarelli, a light and airy almond cookie coated in powdered sugar. You can’t eat just one!
There was a wedding at the City Hall that particular day, and we got to witness the Italian tradition of throwing (uncooked) rice at the newlyweds, who arrived in an awesome Fiat500 that we stole a photo with while they were indoors. It’s okay, everyone was doing it. We didn’t touch it, I promise. 😉
Here are the cones of rice ready to be thrown at the bride and groom when they exit the building after getting married, and the guests lining up excitedly to throw it at them.
Zhenia and Sasha have been good friends since high school back in Boulder, Colorado. Zhenia lives in London and we got to see him three times in the last three months in different countries! We stayed with him in London in May, saw him in Russia last month, and now here in Italy. We love meeting up with friends internationally! His girlfriend, Marie’s family is from Tuscany, so we met up at their house for lunch. It’s very easy to be lazy here, especially after eating prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe, pesto pasta, white wine and espresso. Pair that with the sun and heat and you have total lethargy bliss.
Like most small towns in Italy, there are several markets along cobblestone streets selling locally-made goods, fruits and spices.
Visit the Siena Duomo (Cathedral)
Constructed in Gothic-Romanesque style, the Siena Duomo is a colorful and stunning work of art.
Eating in Siena
It’s a fairly well-known tip to not eat near the main piazza if you want good quality (and cheaper) food. Instead, it’s more fun and authentic to get lost within the town and find a small off-the-beaten path restaurant that is more local. You will know it’s local because the menu will be only in Italian (and usually hand-written), and the prices will be significantly cheaper. Below we had a sampler plate consisting of: charcuterie, cheese, sun dried tomatoes, onions, anchovies, bread salad and chicken pate. (The only thing I wasn’t fond of was the bread salad. Think soggy croutons in vinegar with tomatoes and onions…not super appetizing.)
The famous pasta dish of Siena is called Pici, a thick, hand-rolled pasta like a fat spaghetti. These noodles reminded me of Japanese udon, a very popular noodle dish in Hawai’i.
(From Wikipedia): The dough is typically made from flour and water only. The addition of egg is optional, being determined by family traditions. The dough is rolled out in a thick flat sheet, then cut into strips. In some families, the strip of dough is rolled between one palm and the table, while the other hand is wrapped with the rest of the strip. It can also be formed by rolling the strip between the palms. Either method forms a thick pasta, slightly thinner than a common pencil.
Another money-saving tip is quite obvious: cook at home! Now, I understand that the average person who visits Italy will only visit for a short time on holiday and therefore I understand that cooking is not ideal, especially when you’re in a country with such delicious food. However, because we are traveling for six months and on a budget, cooking is a great way for us to keep ourselves healthy and to save some money. (Plus, there’s only so much pasta and pizza we can eat!) So for the backpackers and long-term travelers reading this blog, cook away! There are so many fresh local ingredients available for half the price of eating out. I’m kind of a foodie nerd and really enjoy the experience of grocery shopping, typically because back home my grocery shopping is at local Seattle farmers markets, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. In Italy I could spend an hour at a small market simply because I can’t stop admiring all the various fresh ingredients Tuscany has to offer! Prosciuttos, cheeses, olives, sun dried tomatoes, breads, and the list goes on! Here are a few dishes I made in our Airbnb kitchen:
One of my favorite towns to say because it just rolls right off your tongue and you can feel like a true Italian and say it in a sing-songy voice like the locals do: san gee-mee-nya-no. Go ahead, try to say it out loud. Say it twice. Or three times. It’s fun. 🙂
The rolling hills of Tuscany were made even more famous by the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” which was released in 2003. Apparently tourism in Tuscany saw a big boost after the movie, especially from America. Oh, the power of the Hollywood film industry to put places on a map (After “Twilight”, tourism to Forks, Washington increased as well. For those of you not in the know, Forks is a total nowhere land in Washington State, but apparently it’s the perfect home for a vampire.)
Here’s a little Tuscan treat for your eyes:
When our German photographer told us to “look really serious”, Marie took that quite literally. 😉 I’m not sure we have many photos of us in Italy without a gelato in-hand. It just becomes kind of an accessory.
Shopping in Siena
Like Florence, Siena has a lot of leather goods. There are several shops that sell genuine leather. I haven’t purchased many “things” during our four months of travel so far (some artisanal jewelry and comfortable walking shoes), but I couldn’t pass up this adorable leather purse, made in Italy. For €19,99, I found it to be quite a good deal!
What do you notice in this next picture?…
Absolutely nobody, not a single person, is on their cell phone (well, okay, one guy on the far left, but it looks like he’s just sharing photos). If this were a square in a town in America, every single person in this photo would be on their phones, lost in cyberspace in nowhere land, turning their brains to mush on social media sites or taking selfies. Perhaps many people aren’t on their phones because they’re in Italy and don’t have service, but don’t burst my bubble. I’d like to think that they’re merely engaged in the moment. Travel…it keeps you engaged, present and in real life. 🙂
Firenze is Tuscany’s capitol and a very fun city to visit. We visited on day trips from Chianti three days in a row. If you have a rental car, it’s an easy straight shot on the main highway, but you will pass tolls which were €2,60 each way. There is a public parking area along the street with pay stations that accept both cash and credit card. The cost is €3 per hour. Be very careful about driving in restricted zones, which are all over big cities in Italy. Sometimes the signs are easy to miss, but there are cameras and as soon as you cross the restricted zone line, the camera takes a photo of your license plate and you will be sent a ticket in the mail (from your car rental agency) up to one year later. Unfortunately there’s no way to play dumb tourist out of that one.
Firenze is a vibrant city filled with gelaterias on every corner, and plenty of ristorantes and panini shops to fill all your gastronomic desires. Daytime temperatures in August can reach the mid 40’s C (over 100 F.) so it’s best to go either early in the morning and hang out in an air-conditioned cafe during the hot afternoons, or go later in the evening when it cools down a bit. Once the sun hits the brick buildings, it retains the heat, and since Firenze is inland, sometimes there is no breeze, or if there is a breeze, it’s hot air. There are plenty of entertaining scenes in Firenze, such as this one.
The famous Duomo in the central square.
Our Favorite Panini Shop and Gelateria in Firenze
The most popular (as in, a line out the door and down the street at all times) panini shop that we kept passing each day was called All’antico Vinaio. We tried it once and were not impressed. They were so busy that they simply slapped on all the pre-made ingredients and moved you down the line to help the next guest. It was rushed and had no personality. My philosophy is that when people see a big line or a crowd of gathering people, they join simply because they’re intrigued and want to see what all the fuss is about. My advice is to skip all the panini shops and go straight to SandwiChic.
We accidentally discovered this place when I wanted an afternoon snack. Located on an off-shoot side street from the main pedestrian path, we walked in and were greeted by one of the owners, Andreas. When I asked what they offered, he informed me that they didn’t have a menu, but proceeded to explain to me all of the options that were available, all of which he comes up with based on which flavors pair well together and what is in season.
Lingering on his every words as they melodically danced from his mouth in his beautiful Italian accent, such as truffle spread, capicolo, melted cheese and family-owned farm, I was reeled in and smiling ear-to-ear. As a foodie, I live for these experiences, especially whilst traveling because they make me feel completely immersed in the experience and learning something new about a different culture’s cuisine (one of the most fascinating things in life, in my opinion.)
At the time we visited, there were only two other couples in the tiny shop, which is lined with stools along the narrow entryway, giving it a more intimate feel. We sat on the stools and chatted with Andreas as he explained the process of how salumi and prosciutto are made, and where the ingredients come from (they buy from a family farm and everything is made right here in Tuscany.) Andreas was patient, friendly and made the experience a great one. Compared to the other panini shop where you’re rushed to order from a menu only in Italian and try to squeeze your way to the cash register to pay, we much preferred the experience at SandwiChic and decided to come back again on our last day in Firenze! Just be aware that they close at 7:30 PM!
Our Favorite Gelato
If I were to guess, I would say that there are well over 100 gelaterias in Firenze alone. They are literally on every street, so once that craving hits, you won’t have to look far to get it satisfied! We had two favorite gelaterias in Firenze:
- Gelateria Dei Neri – locally owned and operated with delicious flavors and lots to choose from. Excellent quality and nice service.
- Amorino Gelato – chain store with locations in several big cities around the world. The service was not as friendly, and the prices are a bit higher, but this is because all ingredients are biological (organic) and natural.
Kiss your Lover Overlooking the Ponte Vecchio Bridge
And don’t forget to go for sunset as well!
Visit the Uffizi Gallery
It is recommended to purchase tickets online in advance, because during peak season they can be sold out several days in advance. The cost is €18 per person, so we paid €36 for the two of us. The audio guide (optional) is an additional €10 for a shared device, however, I do not recommend the audio guide for this particular museum. We usually purchase audio guides at museums and most of the time they are excellent and add to the experience. However, the commentary for this particular museum was not as detailed, and quite didactic to be perfectly honest. Instead, Sasha used our handy-dandy Izi Travel, the amazing app that provides museum audio guides and city tours all completely for FREE! No signing up required. Just visit their site and check out if anything is available in the city you are visiting. We have used this app now countless times and received great value and information from it!
NEXT UP: DOLOMITES, ITALY