My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

Skip the Sistine Chapel? Alternatives for Avoiding Crowds in Rome

Tourists are fainting inside the Vatican Museums. Literally, about 10 times each day, someone drops to the ground from heat and exhaustion. It’s crowded — with up to 40,000 daily visitors. It can be sweltering — with temperatures soaring to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And everyone is squeezed through the pope’s sumptuous halls in one vast, slow-moving mosh pit of humanity…like hot toothpaste slowly moving through a tube. While home to some of the greatest art of human civilization — including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling — the Vatican Museums are also, for anyone claustrophobic or simply pooped, one of travel’s most unpleasant experiences.

On my recent visit to Rome, I talked to several Romans who, on a daily basis, interact with visitors (and specifically Rick Steves guidebook readers and tour members): hotel owners, local tour guides, restauranteurs, and so on. When I asked what was new, every single one of them mentioned the crushing crowds at a handful of world-famous sights — the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum topping the list. Every day, they see travelers exhausted, frustrated, frazzled, and demoralized after trying to see these great sights. Those poor visitors retreat home with their tails between their legs, feeling bruised and disillusioned and not liking Rome.

And in my informal straw poll, about half of these Roman experts propose (and strongly endorse) an unconventional solution — one that’s as revolutionary as it is infuriating to purists. Hear us out, now.

Skip the Sistine Chapel. Skip the Colosseum. Instead, experience a less famous, less trampled corner of Rome. Because that way, you will truly experience Rome — not just tick off an item on your bucket list.

What Is Your Purpose?

The Romans I talked to are sad. They’re sad that their grand city is getting a bum rap because visitors are forcing themselves, as if on a forced march, through the same three or four sights on a short visit — leaving themselves with not nearly enough time, money, or patience to experience all the rest of what Rome is about.

If you have dreamed your whole life of seeing the Sistine Chapel, then by all means, go to the Sistine Chapel. (Just be sure to use a good guidebook to do it smartly: Reserve ahead, ideally first thing in the morning or — even better — during their new Friday night opening hours.) But before you assume that you simply “have to” go there, ask yourself: Are you sure? And also: Why?

To put it another way: Why are you coming to Rome? Is it just to see the great sights, period? Or is it to have a transformative encounter with the art and history of the Eternal City? Are you determined to see the Sistine Chapel only because it’s famous — or is it to have a personal encounter with an artistic masterpiece?

If it’s the latter, I have some good news: Rome has more great art than perhaps any place on earth. They have a ridiculous bounty of world-class art. They possess such an embarrassment of cultural richness, it’s bursting out of their attics and basements.

If you could stand under the Sistine Chapel ceiling in a moment of tranquility and centered awareness, and take the time to simply be still and take it all in — to let Michelangelo speak to you — then yes, that would be a lifetime experience worth any amount of toil and tribulation. But that is, most likely, not what’s going to happen when you get to the Sistine Chapel.

First, you’ll already have had your patience stretched to its limits, after traversing a half-mile of congested hallways. You’ll be sweaty and flushed. And you’ll have been bumped and jostled and rubbed against by a thousand different art lovers, from every corner of the globe.

Then, once you finally reach that majestic space, as you crane your neck to make out the details, you’ll hear not the voice of God (or even the voice of Michelangelo), but the voice of an impatient security guard shouting “Si-len-zi-o!” again and again.

Within a few minutes, you’ll feel the need to leave…no, to escape. And so, having squinted at some great art — briefly — you’ll squirt out the exit door and finally take a deep breath. At long last, your vacation-turned-ordeal is over. When you get home and people ask what you thought of Michelangelo, you’ll say, “Michael who? Was he the guy who kept jabbing me with his selfie stick?”

Try Something Different

Instead of the Vatican Museums, go to the Borghese Gallery — a beautiful, concise art gallery that fills a grand old villa tucked in a verdant park, with exquisite works by many of the great artists you’ll see at the Vatican: Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Bernini, Canova, and much more. If you’ve seen Michelangelo’s David in Florence, head to the Borghese and stand toe-to-toe with Bernini’s David — carved about a century later — and contemplate the differences…without some stranger’s elbow in your ribs.

Or hop on a train for an hour to visit Orvieto, where you can stroll its relatively undiscovered cobbles, enjoy intoxicating views over the Umbrian countryside, and ogle the glorious, vibrantly colorful frescoes by Luca Signorelli in the town cathedral. Signorelli may be no Michelangelo. But gazing up at his masterful scenes of the Antichrist, the dead rising from their graves, and the Last Judgment…you might just not care. As a bonus, the chapel is uncrowded — and you can linger as long as you want.

Rome’s Colosseum is an astounding feat of engineering. It’s also — if I’m being frank — pretty dull inside. And, again, it’s crowded. Not quite “cramming two pounds into a one-pound bag” crowded, like the Vatican Museums. But still unpleasant.

My visit to the Colosseum earlier this summer was just fine…mostly. But when it was time to leave, things took a turn for the worse. From the upper-level cheap seats, I reached the exit staircase at the same time as a huge school group, which poured down the steep, vertiginous steps alongside the usual flow of tourists. It was a little scary; while I’m sure on my feet, I saw other visitors who looked a bit panicked as the crowd effectively swept them up and hurried them down the steep, unforgiving stone stairs.

So here’s your alternative plan: Walk all the way around the outside of the Colosseum. Twice, if you want. It’s free, and it’s so big that crowds are not really a problem. But — unless you can’t live without seeing the ancient Roman equivalent of the concourse in a football stadium where you buy nachos and use the bathroom at halftime — skip the interior…and the long, slow-moving security and ticket lines to get inside.

Instead, after doing your loop around the Colosseum, walk 15 minutes to the Baths of Caracalla. This gigantic, communal bathing complex — dating to the third century A.D., back when almost nobody had a bathtub at home — could wash 1,600 sweaty Romans at the same time. This is where plebs would come to scrub up and to socialize, in lavish tile tubs under vaulted marbled ceilings. While admittedly about one-hundredth as famous, the ruins of this bath complex are every bit as impressive — from an ancient engineering and architecture perspective — as the Colosseum.

At day’s end, let yourself be tempted to join the passeggiata — that wonderful late-afternoon Italian custom of strolling around aimlessly, perhaps licking a gelato or pausing for an aperitivo cocktail, while bumping into old friends and catching up. Just don’t do it where everyone else does it.

The classic Roman passeggiata route meanders between Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. But it’s been eons since everyday Romans actually spent time in that area. While the landmarks are sumptuous, the streets are entirely given over to tourists. Don’t get me wrong: I love this part of Rome. The Pantheon is my favorite of Rome’s many great sights, and only the most hardened cynic could manage to not be just a little enchanted by the majestic Trevi Fountain. (The appeal of the Spanish Steps has always eluded me, but you get my point.)

However, don’t mistake this area for “Rome.” This is a theme park filling some old Roman streets. If you stroll here, you’ll see not Romans out and about, but grotesquely tacky souvenir stands, hacky restaurants with interchangeably uninspired menus, street performers singing opera arias or playing pop songs on the violin, and lots and lots and lots and lots of tourists.

Sure, check out the Pantheon and toss a coin into Trevi Fountain. But then head to a more local neighborhood for your evening stroll. Just a few minutes’ walk away, the tourists melt away and are replaced by actual Romans…just enjoying their city.

For example, wander Via dei Coronari, a little street with a few touristy shops and lots of local ones, which stretches west from Piazza Navona to the river. Being here at 5 or 6 p.m., you can watch Romans emerge from their apartments and prowl their characteristic streets. Earlier this summer, I got one of the best gelati of my trip at Gelateria del Teatro (their fruit flavors are explosively flavorful) and leaned against a pillar in the piazza at the Church of San Salvatore in Lauro. Neighborhood kids were out playing in the square, doing three-legged races and jumping rope. Their parents were trading gossip and enjoying the cool of the evening. Tourists are tolerated, but this part of Rome is decidedly not for tourists. And that’s a good thing.

Or go to Monti. My favorite little corner of central Rome, the Monti neighborhood hides a few minutes’ walk from the major archaeological sites. On my recent visit, I left the Forum at closing time, crossed Via dei Fori Imperiali, angled left to avoid the busy Via Cavour, and walked no more than three or four minutes through deserted cobbled streets. I popped out at Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, a humble Roman square with a too-big fountain alongside a narrow, traffic-choked street.

In the late afternoon, the fountain swarms with the après-work crowd: Romans who buy an aperitivo at the nearby bar, or a cheap bottle of beer at the convenience store. They’re all simply hanging out, catching up, flirting, and laughing. It’s a wonderful cross-section of Rome: well-dressed office workers, grungy young people, older folks from the neighborhood, American students, and just a handful of tourists.

The streets of Monti aren’t even in the running to be named Rome’s most glamorous, or most historic. This is simply a real neighborhood, a very short walk from the rushing river of tourism. Its streets teem with hip restaurants and hole-in-the-wall shops where you can grab a panino, a slice of pizza, or a cone of gelato. And yet, spending the evening here instead of around the Pantheon, you’ll come away with a stronger impression of having actually been to Rome, the living, modern city, rather than Rome, the touristy stage set.

The Bottom Line: Take the Time to Let Rome Breathe

I know, I know: It’s very easy — condescending, even — for someone who’s already seen the Sistine Chapel or the Colosseum to advise someone else to skip it. But honestly, seeing what I’ve seen recently, if I were going to Rome for the very first time, I really would skip them. Ultimately, I’d rather have an “A+ experience” at a lesser known sight than a “C- experience” at a famous one.

Of my Roman contacts, about half suggested skipping the biggies altogether. The other half felt that, despite the crowds and the stress, it really would be a shame to miss these great sights — just be aware that they will be crowded. But unanimously, the Romans agreed that it’s essential to complement the big sights with some time spent simply strolling the lesser-known corners of Rome: parks, piazzas, streets, and neighborhoods where Romans outnumber visitors.

A similar debate is going on at the Rick Steves’ Europe home office. In the age of overtourism, everyone still has the right to see the great sights. But that doesn’t mean the great sights are right for everyone. We would never give blanket advice to simply avoid the Sistine Chapel, but it’s important for travelers to recognize that it’s a choice — not an obligation. It comes down to an individual decision: balancing your personal desire to see the Sistine Chapel and Colosseum against your threshold for crowd headaches.

Big-picture, the crush of crowds has an impact on your itinerary planning. My Roman friends have noticed a trend: People come to Rome for a very short time. “We’re here for two days,” they say, “and then we’re going to Tuscany to rent a villa for a week.” Most visitors seem to take the “strategic strike” approach to Rome: Get in, tick off those bucket list sights as quickly as possible, then get out fast. They do this partly because they’ve heard that Rome is intense and grueling. Ironically, it’s visiting Rome in this way that fills their trips with the aspects of Rome that are intense and grueling (its major sights), instead of the many, many aspects of Rome that are exactly the opposite.

So, even if you do insist on doing the big sights — s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Take your time. Stay longer, and for every big sight you tour, offset that by watching the sunrise or sunset from an uncrowded park, or kicking around a soccer ball with neighborhood kids on a street with no English signs. Or, if time is short, be selective about which sights you see — and build in opportunities to take a deep breath and experience the true essence of Rome. Linger a bit, and you’ll find out why they call it the Eternal City.

What do you think? Sistine Chapel or no? Colosseum or any one of a dozen other great sights from ancient Rome? What has your experience been — and if you were (or are) going to Rome for the first time, would you skip the Sistine Chapel?


If you’re heading to Rome, and you do want to see the great sights, our Rick Steves Rome guidebook is an essential tool — with up-to-date advice on minimizing the impact of crowds.

If you’re heading to Rome, and you plan to skip some of the biggies — well, our Rick Steves Rome guidebook  is also perfect for you, since it includes detailed coverage on lesser-known, underappreciated sights right along with the biggies.

If you’re not going to Rome…to be honest, that’s really the only situation where our Rick Steves Rome guidebook  could be considered a bad purchase. Sorry!

10 MORE Europe Travel Hacks

Last year, I brainstormed a list of my 10 favorite travel hacks, tips, and expert insights gleaned from two decades traveling for Rick Steves’ Europe. It was one of my most-viewed posts ever…and ever since, I’ve been collecting a new batch. Here are 10 more practical strategies and how-tos to make your next European trip smoother than ever.

Visit major sights late in the day.

In this age of “overtourism,” Europe’s top sights are jam-packed. To avoid the crowds, your best bet is to make a reservation. But if you’re winging it, count on long lines.

One way to mitigate your wait is to show up as close to closing time as you think is reasonable. Figure out (conservatively) about how much time you need to see the sight, then subtract that from the closing time, and figure an extra 15-30 minutes of buffer in case there’s a short line.

In addition to saving time in line, arriving late in the day creates a mellower sightseeing experience: If a museum is ever going to be “quiet,” it’s during those serene moments just before the attendants start scurrying from room to room, shooing everyone out.

This “show up late” strategy worked like a charm for me this summer in London (St. Paul’s Cathedral, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Hampton Court Palace); Paris (the Orsay, Rodin Museum, Sainte-Chapelle, Versailles); and Rome (Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica). While I still had to wait in lines at some of those places, they were much shorter than they would’ve been a few hours earlier.

Bonus hack: Find out if the sight ever has extended hours. In Paris, my hotel was near the Orsay, and every time I walked past, I saw long lines snaking out the front door. So I waited until Thursday evening, when I knew it was open late (until 9:45 p.m.). I showed up around 6:30, waltzed right in, and had the world’s best collection of Impressionist paintings virtually to myself.

One caveat: A few super-popular sights effectively require reservations. For example, there’s never not a long line at the Eiffel Tower. A good guidebook will help you figure out which sights these are. (I happen to know one.)

Always ask for a quiet room.

At any hotel, someone has to take the noisy ground-floor room facing the busy street. And invariably, that “someone” will be the guest who doesn’t specify otherwise. Obviously, requesting a quiet room is essential for light sleepers like me. (Check out my tips for traveling insomniacs.) But it’s sound advice for anyone who doesn’t want to hear each and every bus rumble past, day and night.

There is one key exception: If you’re a rock-solid sleeper who enjoys having a view, you may want to skip this tip. In some hotels, the quietest rooms face away from the best views. The choice is yours. But one thing’s for sure: If you don’t make the choice for yourself, someone else will.

Save on bank fees.

It’s been many years since I exchanged money before arriving in a country. User-friendly ATMs are everywhere (I’ve never seen an airport without one, ever, anywhere) — and they offer generally better rates and fewer fees. But savvy travelers can choose their specific ATM carefully to minimize fees.

I always look for an ATM that’s affiliated with a major bank (like Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Barclays, or the local equivalent). I try to avoid ones that are owned and operated by a currency-exchange company. (These include Euronet, Travelex, Moneybox, Cardpoint, and Cashzone.)

Why? A major bank sticks to the standard, equitable bank-to-bank rate, whereas an exchange company will always use a rate that’s favorable to them. Unfortunately, in some cases — such as at certain airports, where an exchange company has a monopoly — you may not have a choice of ATMs. In that case, I might get a small amount on arrival, then top up later with a larger withdrawal at a bank-owned ATM.

Another hack: Whether using an ATM or making a purchase with your credit card, you’ll likely be asked whether you want to pay in dollars or in the local currency. Always choose the local currency. If you select dollars, you’re giving the vendor (or its bank) permission to dictate the exchange rate, which will always be unfavorable to you. When they ask, “Do you want to pay in dollars?”, they might as well be asking, “Do you want us to cheat you out of some money?”

For more details, check out our cash and currency tips for Europe.

When crossing a busy street, draft behind a sweet old lady.

In many parts of Europe — especially big cities — drivers enjoy playing chicken with pedestrians. Even when using a crosswalk, I take comfort when I’m able to cross in the shadow of a local. And the best possible blocker for navigating a busy intersection is Nonna Luisa. Not only does she know when it’s safe — but when cars see her crossing, they slam on the breaks. (When they see me crossing alone, they speed up.) A group of adorable preschoolers or a no-nonsense, power-dressing local businessperson works like a charm, too.

Pack smart for picnics on road trips.

One of my favorite parts of a road trip is enjoying a picnic of local foods in a stunning natural setting. When packing for a road trip, I bring along key picnic gear: a very lightweight, collapsible cooler; some picnic ware (reusable cutlery and light plastic plates save money and reduce waste); an ample supply of resealable plastic baggies; and — if I plan to check my bag — a Swiss army knife.

Armed with a cooler, I can stock on up perishable items (yogurt for breakfast, cream for my coffee) and memorable local treats (salami and other charcuterie, interesting local spreads, a world of funky French cheeses from the fromagerie).

On days when I’m in transit, I fill up a plastic water bottle not quite to the top and stick it in the freezer the night before (rather than bringing or buying ice packs). In the morning, the frozen bottle goes into the cooler with my perishables — and keeps things just cold enough until I arrive at that night’s stop.

Note: This assumes your accommodations have a fridge and freezer (such as an Airbnb or other rental apartment). If staying at hotels, you could keep your perishables in the minibar and fill up a resealable plastic baggie from the ice machine before you take off in the morning. At a B&B, try politely asking your host whether they’d mind storing a few items in the fridge for you overnight.

Dry out your swimsuit in seconds with a centrifuge.

There’s nothing quite as unappealing as wringing out a dripping swimsuit, wrapping it up in a plastic sack, and jamming it into your suitcase…only to pull out a moldy mess a few days later. Fortunately, many aquatic attractions — such as the world-class thermal baths in Hungary, and Iceland’s Blue Lagoon and thermal swimming pools — provide the perfect solution: a small centrifuge. Just stick in your suit, press down on the lid, feel it go for a super-spin-cycle lasting a few seconds, and pull out a suit that’s barely damp. Typically hidden away in some dark corner of in the locker room, these are very easy to miss, especially if you’re not looking for one. So…look for one.

Park carefully.

In densely populated, efficiency-minded Europe, everything is smaller: Pint-sized hotel rooms…tiny towels…miniscule parking spaces. When renting a car, I always request the smallest possible model — both for fuel efficiency, and because I know I’ll be wedging it into itsy-bitsy parking spaces. On the rare occasions when I’ve dinged a bumper, it was because the rental agent had upgraded me to a midsize. Like that time in Wales when parking my car in my B&B’s tiny, stone-walled lot felt like a real-life game of Tetris. (Whoops!)

Take your time when nudging your car through these tight squeezes, and don’t hesitate to have your navigator hop out so they can start screaming just before you scuff the Lambroghini in the next space. When parking in a soon-to-be-packed garage, I’ll back into my space (or, better yet, pull through to an outward-facing space) to avoid having to back out later.

Bonus hacks: When paying at a parking meter, you’ll often need to punch your rental car’s license plate number into the machine. It’s almost always printed on the keychain; otherwise, snap a photo of it on your phone (to avoid a long hike back through the parking lot to jot it down). If parking in a giant, multistory garage, I also snap a photo of my space number so I can find it later.

Get on the first or last car of the Metro.

Earlier this summer, I spent several weeks in London, Paris, and Rome — often traversing the congested city center at rush hour. And in all that time spent waiting on subway platforms, I noticed a stable pattern: On any given train, the middle cars were crammed like sardine cans, while the cars at the start and end had more room. I made it a habit to walk to either end of the platform, and it reliably earned me a less crowded, more enjoyable commute. Sometimes, I even got a seat.

This also works for intercity trains: When you reach the head of platform, rather than hopping on the first (cramped) car, walk a few cars down the line…and you’ll have your pick of seats.

Suffer through the tedious commute on your day of arrival…when you’re miserable anyway.

If you’re visiting both the capital city and an outlying smaller town — for example, London and Bath, or Madrid and Toledo, or Rome and Orvieto — consider this strategy: Fly into the big city, then travel onward to the secondary destination that same afternoon. There you can settle into a mellower environment, have some time to recover from your long flight, and adjust to jet lag. By the time you move on to the energy-draining big city, you’re already rested up and acclimated. I’ve done this again and again when planning itineraries, and I’m always glad that I did. I’d so much rather spend my first night in a floodlit small town than in an intense metropolis.

Sure, it adds a bit of stress to that day of arrival. But I assume that I’ll be a jet-lagged zombie anyway…so I might as well doze off on the train. Also, for me, the hardest part about jet lag is staying awake that first night until a reasonable bedtime. If I’m already checked into my hotel by lunchtime, I spend the rest of the day fighting the temptation to take a nap. Using that time for travel — and reaching my final destination closer to bedtime — is an ideal solution.

Check out more advice for crafting a European itinerary.

Take advantage of home remedies and travel gizmos to solve real problems.

You never really master the art of travel — you’re always on the learning curve. And the more I travel, the more I enjoy the challenge of finding the perfect solution to a long-vexing problem. Whether it’s an elegantly simple home remedy or a perfectly designed gizmo, there is a fix for your travel headache.

Recently I got a new pair of shoes that squeaked loudly once I inserted an insole. A quick online search revealed the elegantly simple solution: Just sprinkle in a little talcum powder. Problem solved.

For years, I’d simply throw my razor into the little mesh side-pouch of my toiletries kit. But over time, it ripped a hole in the pouch, and the exposed blade would occasional nick my finger. Finally, I searched for advice on this problem and discovered multiple solutions: You can clip one of those giant paper clips over the razor…or buy a “razor saver,” designed just for this purpose. (I just invested in one and plan to test-drive it on my upcoming trip.) Either of these solutions protects your bag (and your fingers) while also extending the life of your blade.

Here’s another example: While driving in Europe, I used to struggle to keep one eye on the road and the other on my smartphone’s GPS driving directions. Finally, I bought a suction-cup attachment for the windshield. It worked great, but it was bulky in my luggage, and some rental agencies forbid them (because they can leave a permanent ring on the glass). Looking around online for a better option, I finally discovered the perfect solution: A vent mount has rubbery prongs that you insert into your dashboard air vents. And, unlike those giant windshield suckers, it’s tiny and super-packable — about the size and weight of a pack of gum. Again — problem solved.

What problem have you come up with a creative solution for? Share your ideas — and your own favorite travel hacks — in the Comments.


Affiliate Disclosure: I receive not one dime from any product or service mentioned in this post. Like all of our travel advice at Rick Steves’ Europe, these hacks are based entirely on my own judgment, formed by years of European travel. If I help someone sell a few more razor protectors or vent mounts with this post, that’s just fine with me — but only if it helps you have a better trip.

Don’t miss my earlier list of 10 Europe Travel Hacks. And for packing-specific tips, check out my 10 Little Things I Won’t Go to Europe Without, and my Five Electronics Essentials for Traveling in Europe.

For a big ol’ book of travel hacks, tips, and advice, pick up a copy of our flagship travel-skills handbook: Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door.

Happy travels!

How to Experience the Best of Tuscany: 12 Travel Tips for Italy’s Heartland

I love Italy. (Who doesn’t?) And after years of traveling all up and down “The Boot,” one area in particular keeps drawing me back: Tuscany, Italy’s heartland. In this country notorious for its challenging idiosyncrasies, Tuscany is the one place where everything is in perfect, serene harmony. What’s not to love? Amazing art — check. Gregarious locals — check. Epic history — check. Stunning landscapes — check. Incredible food — check. Entertaining cities — check. Gelato — super-check.

Six months ago, as I was plotting out my summer travels, I volunteered to do some guidebook-updating work in Italy: Orvieto, Assisi, and, oh, I don’t know, maybe a few other places… like, say… Tuscany?

Jennifer Madison Davis, the managing editor who keeps our guidebook production schedule humming like a finely tuned machine, eyed me suspiciously. “Tuscany, eh?” She remembers all too well that the last time I went to Tuscany on a guidebook-updating expedition, I came home with a chapter twice as long as the one I left with…including a nine-page, fresco-by-fresco, self-guided tour of an obscure monastery tucked deep in the Tuscan hills. “Now, why might you want to go to Tuscany?”

I cut to the chase: “Look, I just want to go. I promise that I won’t get carried away. I’ll just update what’s already there. Honest!”

She went for it. And now I’m back in one of my favorite places on earth.

When I’m in the bucolic heart of Tuscany, I have trouble getting to sleep. I’m amped up, like I’m a toy-crazy little kid and every night is Christmas Eve. My head spins with the sublime experiences of the day that just ended, and my pulse quickens thinking about what tomorrow will bring. It’s like I’m on some sort of globetrotting drug…freebasing the essence of peak travel. And when I get home, it all feels like some sort of surreal fever dream. (Or maybe it’s just all the pecorino and truffles.)

Our tour company just announced a brand-new Best of Tuscany Tour for 2020. Impeccably designed by Heather Lawless and other experts and guides in our Tour Operations department, it weaves together 12 days of vivid Tuscan experiences. Comparing notes with Heather as she’s put this tour together, I’m both gratified to see many of my personal favorites on the list…and impressed by how many entirely new-to-me experiences Heather has sniffed out. I’ve led many Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, but I’ve never been on one just for fun. That’s about to change — my wife and I are signing up to be tour members on the Best of Tuscany in 2020.

Why is Tuscany my first choice for a European vacation? I think it’s because it’s so experience-rich. And, after years of visits, I’ve assembled this “best of” list — a running tally of the intensely pleasurable experiences that put Tuscany in travel’s all-time hall of fame. Here my top dozen things to do in Tuscany — whether you’re going with a tour, or on your own.

Bask in Stunning Scenery

One of Tuscany’s calling cards is its mind-bending scenery: Sumptuous, extravagantly green, undulating farm fields that look like a painting. Hillsides grooved with twisty rural roads and lined with pointy cypress trees. Stately churches, humble chapels, rustic farmhouses, and circles of trees perched just so in resplendent tableaus. But it’s not just the landscape. Beauty is in the DNA of Tuscans. One Siena native recently told me that Tuscans consider themselves the inheritors and stewards of a centuries-long legacy of beauty. Every tree that’s planted, every farmhouse that’s restored, every road that’s re-routed — it’s all carefully considered not only on practical or economic merits, but also on aesthetics.

Here’s a list of the best viewpoints in Tuscany — where you can snap postcard-worthy photos of your own. 

Have a “Zero-Kilometer” Meal on a Farm

“Farm-to-table” was a thing in Tuscany centuries before it became trendy among 21st-century American foodies. Tuscans have always been keenly aware that the same produce can taste very different, depending on the specific conditions in which it’s grown — soil, sun exposure, micro-climate, and so on. Many Tuscan farms invite visitors to learn about how they make their wine, olive oil, and prosciutto. You can walk through the vineyards, check out the olive press, and step into the hut where giant ham hocks hang on racks, slowly curing in the dry air. The ultimate farm experience is having a “zero-kilometer” meal — meaning that all of the ingredients are sourced from within less than a kilometer of where they’re eaten. A meal like this is an interplay of earthy flavors, where the taste of each item enhances, and is enhanced by, the taste of every other item. At a zero-kilometer meal, you’re not just eating food. You are, in effect, eating a very specific place.

Read about a zero-kilometer meal you can experience just outside of Montalcino.

Ogle Great Art in a Forgotten Church

During the 1400s and 1500s, the Tuscan art world had a very, very, very deep bench: Michelangelo. Da Vinci. Raphael. Donatello. And many others (Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Giotto, Vasari, Fra Angelico) who don’t share their names with radioactive turtles. But many of my favorite works don’t hang in famous Florence museums; they’re hidden away in off-the-beaten-path towns and overlooked countryside churches. Two examples stick out in my mind: In Arezzo, you can step into the Technicolor apse of the town church to see luscious frescoes by Piero della Francesca. And deep in the Tuscan countryside, at the abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, the cloister is gloriously frescoed with fascinating works by Luca Signorelli and Il Sodoma — offering both a lesson in the life of St. Benedict, and countless examples of two dueling artists whose egos ran amuck 600 years ago. Best of all, because 99 percent of travelers have never heard of these sights, they’re all yours.

Read more about these two overlooked Tuscan masterpieces…and why Il Sodoma may be the quirkiest character in art history. 

Meet a Real-Life Artisan

Because of their deep dedication to beauty, many Tuscans have devoted their lives to mastering a craft — creating something with care and precision, while carrying on a proud aesthetic tradition going back centuries. If you take the time to slow down and seek out these modern-day masters, you’re left with indelible memories: Roberto the alabaster sculptor. Cesare the coppersmith. Adamo the vintner. Giulio the steak maestro. Nicola the gelato artist. (All of these craftspeople — and others — are recommended in our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook). If you want something done just right, with precision artistry and care…find yourself a Tuscan.

Here are four Tuscan artisans you can get to know in Montepulciano.

Sleep (and Eat) at an Agriturismo

Italy has more than 20,000 agriturismi: farms that are subsidized by the government to introduce travelers to a unique pastoral lifestyle. Agriturismi are required to be working farms (that is, they must actually produce something) while also offering accommodations, restaurants, educational activities, or all of the above. Settling into an agriturismo, you meet fascinating locals and feel close to the earth. It’s like summer camp for grownups. We recommend our favorites in the Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook, and you can also find a comprehensive list at Agriturismo.it.

Read more about one of our favorite agriturismi: Cretaiole, just outside of Pienza.

Play “King of the Castle” atop a Fortified Tower

Tuscany is crazy about its towers — whether it’s the turreted townhouse of a wealthy local bigwig in San Gimignano, the fancy facade of a humble town hall in  Montepulciano or Volterra, the towering City Hall of Siena, or the famously tipsy bell tower at Pisa’s Field of Miracles. Tuscany’s towers date from a time long before there was an “Italy” — when this area was a loose collection of city-states and wealthy families, all vying for the upper hand. Towers both served a defensive purpose and stood as status symbols for proud communities. That architectural legacy is a boon for today’s travelers, who enjoy climbing to the tops of these towers for views over the rooftops and rolling hills of Tuscany.

Learn more about the roots of Tuscany’s obsession with towers. 

Lick Artisanal Gelato

My favorite gelato artist in Tuscany, Nicola Sgarbi, is a perfectionist…a total gelato snob. He makes several batches fresh every morning, so they’re not even available until mid-day. And then, in the late afternoon, when they’re gone — they’re gone. But if you’re lucky enough to hit his shop when he’s all stocked up, you’ll enjoy his explosively flavorful creations. Nicola goes all-in on seasonal flavors (creamy basil), surprising combinations (carrot-ginger, kiwi-spinach), and top quality. Nicola’s gelaterie — in Pienza and in Montepulciano — are just two of many great places to try top-quality gelato in Tuscany.

Get to know my favorite gelato artist, Nicola. Or study up on how to sniff out the best gelato wherever you go, anywhere in Italy.

Get to Know the Etruscans

Hold on! Stick with me. Don’t let your eyes glaze over. I know — when compared to things like gelato and Michelangelo and pappardelle alla bolognese, it’s hard to get excited about the people who lived in Tuscany 3,000 years ago. But the Etruscans may well be the most fascinating prehistoric people you’ve never even thought about. Not only did their advanced culture lay a foundation for the ancient Romans, and ultimately for all of Western Civilization. Not only did they warn Julius Caesar about the Ides of March and give their name to the region of Tuscany. But, despite all of this, the Etruscans left virtually nothing tangible behind — shrouding their distant civilization in mystery. A few tragically under-visited museums around Tuscany display what does survive, including delicate artwork (like the hauntingly beautiful statue called The Evening Shadow, or L’Ombra della Sera) and evocative funerary urns, showing Etruscans with big personalities lounging at an eternal banquet for the gods. Give the Etruscans a little bit of your touristic attention…and you may just find yourself entranced by the stories they have to tell.

Here are a few of Tuscany’s top Etruscan artifacts, and where to find them.

Sail Away to Elba for an Island Getaway

So much of the traveler’s Tuscany is rolling farm fields, world-class art, stony hill towns, and hearty, meaty cuisine. For a change of pace, consider hopping a ferry for the one-hour crossing to the little isle of Elba. I went there earlier this summer (researching a new chapter for the upcoming 18th edition of our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook) and was totally charmed by the place. Elba is synonymous with Napoleon, who was exiled here for 10 months after his bitter defeat. Today, touring his now-shabby residences is poignant. But there’s much more to this rocky little island: pebbly beaches, hardworking harbors, seafood dinners, and a truly terrifying gondola ride. Elba makes for a relaxing island escape from a busy Tuscan itinerary.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of splicing a little Tuscan seaside into your trip, check out my full report on Elba.

Take a Cooking Class

“Tuscan cooking classes” are an entire subgenre of travel. I’ve blogged more about that subject than I have about entire countries. That’s because this region has an outrageously appealing food culture — ranging from big, sloppy plates of pasta to refined high cuisine. And there’s a cooking class for every taste: hand-rolling pasta in a casual, family-friendly setting; going to the private residence of a talented home chef to assemble a seasonal feast; hanging out in the kitchen of a Michelin-star chef; and everything in between. Also remember to look beyond the kitchen. While not technically a “cooking class,” going on a truffle hunt in a Tuscan forest — chasing after a smart-as-a-whip dog who has the scent of those precious deposits — gives you a whole new appreciation for a plate of truffle pasta.

For inspiration, here’s a rundown of my all-time-favorite Tuscan cooking classes.

Linger on a Convivial Piazza and Join the Passeggiata

Tuscany is all about community. And there’s no better place to commune with the Tuscans than on the piazza, or main square — particularly in the late afternoon, when families are out strolling…doing those aimless laps that they call the passeggiata. Each Tuscan town’s piazza has its own special character: Florence’s is in the shadow of the towering Palazzo Vecchio. Pienza’s is a perfect Renaissance cube. Lucca’s follows the footprint of an old Roman amphitheater. And Siena’s — the best of them all — is a vast, slanted, brick-paved oblong that hosts a twice-yearly horse race. These are places where it’s actually worth paying way too much for a fancy aperitivo for the privilege of just hanging out at an al fresco table and getting serious about people-watching. Then, hop out of your chair and join the informal people parade as it promenades through the traffic-free town center. Become a temporary Tuscan. Come to understand the local saying, il dolce far niente — “the sweetness of doing nothing.”

Looking for the ultimate Tuscan piazza? Check out this “best of” list.

Visit Off-Season — and Have the Place to Yourself

Tuscany — like other popular European destinations — can be extremely crowded. Fortunately, the region remains entertaining off-season, when things are much quieter. One of my all-time favorite trips to Tuscany came in late November. It was chilly but not cold, a crop of winter wheat blanketed the hillsides with a green vibrancy, seasonal ingredients (like chestnuts, persimmons, and truffles) infused each meal with autumnal flavors, and — best of all — we could simply show up spontaneously at museums and restaurants that would have been mobbed a few months before. While off-season travel comes with its downsides (cooler weather, earlier closing times, fewer daylight hours), visiting Tuscany outside of peak season can be a great plan for flexible travelers.

Here’s what to expect in off-season Tuscany.

There’s so much more that I haven’t covered here — cycling around Lucca’s ramparts, taking a dip in the Roman-era hot springs of Bagno Vignoni, doing a tasting of high-end “Super Tuscan” wines at a Florentine enoteca — but hopefully this is enough to stoke your wanderlust for your next trip to Tuscany.

What have I forgotten? What are some of your favorite Tuscan experiences?


This roundup is designed to inspire you to pack your trip with quintessential Tuscan experiences. For all of the details on everything described here, check out our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook.

Or…let someone else do all that planning. My inspiration for this piece is the arrival of our just-announced Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour, which weaves together, in some form or another, virtually all of the experiences I’ve described here. I’ve already signed up for one of the 2020 departures — just for fun (no work this time, I promise). Maybe I’ll see you there.

Experience Tuscany: Bask in Stunning Scenery

One of Tuscany’s calling cards is its scenery:  Sumptuous, extravagantly green, undulating farm fields that look like a painting. Hillsides grooved with twisty rural roads, lined with pointy cypress trees. Stately churches, humble chapels, rustic farmhouses, and circles of trees perched just so in resplendent tableaus.

There are a handful of places I’ve been that I describe as “mind-bending” — places with a unique, otherworldly quality: Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Australia’s Uluru. Slovenia’s Julian Alps. The Oregon Coast. And, of course, the Heart of Tuscany.

“Heart of Tuscany” is my nickname for the corridor connecting the hill towns of Montepulciano, Pienza, and Montalcino, plus a few little side-trips within about a 30-minute drive of that spine. Italians know this area as the Val d’Orcia.

It’s not just the landscape. Beauty is in the DNA of Tuscans. One Siena native recently told me that Tuscans consider themselves the inheritors and stewards of a centuries-long legacy of beauty. Every tree that’s planted, every farmhouse that’s restored, every road that’s re-routed — it’s all carefully considered not only on practical or economic merits, but also on aesthetics. If Tuscans sometimes come on a little strong preaching the glories of their land…well, that’s why.

A few years back, drunk on all this wondrous scenery, I decided to scour the Val d’Orcia to compile a “greatest hits” list of calendar-worthy Tuscan tableaus. I got suggestions from several Tuscan friends, who nominated their picks. And I came up with this rundown for our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook (where you’ll find all the details):

Cypress-Lined Driveways

You’ll find dozens upon dozens of these in your Tuscan travels. But two classics are the perfectly twisty road near La Foce gardens (pictured above), and the one cresting a hill adjacent to Monticchiello.

Circle of Cypresses (Rondò)

This ring of cypress trees stands dramatically alone on a gently sloping hillside of brilliant-green-in-springtime crops, alongside a highway just west of San Quirico d’Orcia. Planted as a shelter for shepherds caught out in the elements, today it’s one of Tuscany’s top photo ops.

Chapel with Trees

The super-scenic road between San Quirico d’Orcia and Pienza (SP-146) has several fine viewpoints, but the best-known is the tidy little Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta on a ridge, flanked by pudgy cypress trees.

Farmhouse with Trees

On the same road, just outside of Pienza, is a classic “farmhouse with trees” scene.

Farmhouse with Twisty Driveway

From anywhere along Pienza’s panoramic terrace, just gaze off to the south. In the foreground, you’ll see a perfect little farmhouse with a meandering driveway (made famous as the home of Russell Crowe in Gladiator).

Honorable Mention

The list goes on and on. Just to round out our scenic little loop through the Val d’Orcia, here’s a little more “honorable mention” eye candy:

The view down from Montepulciano’s summit, with the Church of San Biagio

A driveway off of road SP-146, near Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta

Sant’Antimo Abbey, outside of Montalcino

Tuscan Street Scenes

And, if you’ve never thought of town streets as “scenery,” Tuscany might just change your mind:

Lucca

Back-streets Pisa

Lucca again

Pienza

Lucca yet again

What’s your favorite Tuscan tableau?


Heading to Tuscany? I share a dozen of my favorite Tuscan experiences here.

Our new Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour — which begins in 2020 — incorporates many vivid experiences in Italy’s heartland…including drives through sumptuous scenery like what I’ve described here.

Or, to do it on your own, you’ll find all of the details you need in our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook.

Experience Tuscany: Have a “Zero-Kilometer” Meal on a Farm

“Farm-to-table” was a thing in Tuscany centuries before it became trendy among 21st-century American foodies. Tuscans are keenly, fundamentally aware that the “same” produce can taste quite different, depending on the specific conditions in which it’s grown — soil, sun exposure, micro-climate, and so on. And an Italian gourmand will tell you that the best possible meal is a zero-kilometer meal, meaning that all of the ingredients are sourced from within less than a kilometer of where they’re eaten. To fully — and deliciously — grasp this concept, make a point to visit a Tuscan farm, get to know the farmer…and then sit down for a zero-kilometer meal.

Gianluca Terzuoli’s family has worked the Santa Giulia farm for 70 years, since his grandfather was a young man. Today, Gianluca and his wife, Kae, produce Brunello di Montalcino wine, prosciutto and other cured meats, extra virgin olive oil, and pecorino cheese, and invite curious travelers for a lesson in down-home Tuscan farming and hospitality.

I arrive on a sunny early-summer day and am warmly greeted by Gianluca, who’s just driven his shiny new tractor in from the fields. While his farm fills a broad, flat valley that’s not particularly scenic by Tuscan standards, it’s bursting with produce and enjoys a view of the wine-crazy town of Montalcino, which teeters on a distant ridge.

Proud yet modest, and a little shy, Gianluca shows me around his farm — explaining how he produces each of his delicacies.

First, the cured meats — most importantly, prosciutto. Gianluca gestures to a forest at the edge of the property, where his pigs run free. He explains that each night, they stable and feed the pigs, but by day, they’re free-range…rooting around in the woods, munching on acorns that fall from the trees. The pigs have a much better life than factory-farmed pigs, but it takes much longer for them to reach full size: around 18 months, compared to about 10 months for industrial hogs. But the results in a starkly better quality of meat.

Around Christmastime — when it’s cold outside, and there are no flies to interfere with the work — Gianluca’s father slaughters and butchers the pigs, then prepares the meat. The ham hocks are covered in salt for about three weeks. Then they’re rinsed in a combination of vinegar, garlic, and rosemary. A few days later, they coat the ham hocks in crushed pepper and hang them in the drying hut, where they ever-so-gradually cure over the course of at least 12 months.

Stepping into the drying hut, Gianluca points out how the special louvred windows are designed to let fresh air pass through — blowing in from the sea, about 50 miles away. I clarify that, unlike American ham, this meat is never smoked. “No, no,” Gianluca says. “Never cooked, never smoked. Just salt, pepper, and air.”

It’s hard to imagine the prosciutto living up to all this build-up. But when I pop a delicate slice into my mouth, it explodes with tender salt-and-umami flavor, then gradually vaporizes on my tongue…like the most delicious communion wafer you can imagine. In an instant, Gianluca’s prosciutto — which qualifies as a near-religious experience — transforms the way I think about cured meats…setting a new high bar that, I’m certain, will never be surpassed. When I rave about how tender it is, Gianluca grins and agrees: “You don’t need fork and knife!”

Gobsmacked, I try to understand how Gianluca’s creation can so far exceed every other prosciutto I’ve tasted. He shrugs modestly and recaps: Happy, free-range pigs that eat acorns from the forest floor. Time-tested preparation. And lots and lots of patience. Gianluca points out that the invariably, chewy, stringy “prosciutto” I’ve had in the States, by contrast, comes from factory-farmed pigs that are kept in small cages and prematurely plumped with vitamins and chemicals. Then the meat ages for a few months in refrigerators…rather than being slowly, naturally cured by the salty Tuscan sea air. Even understanding this, the difference is staggering.

Gianluca also produces capocollo, pork that is prepared similarly but comes from the pig’s neck. It’s equally tender and equally delicious as the prosciutto, but it’s embedded with dried fennel seeds, which explode with peppery flavor. Gianluca also produces salami and sausage, all of which hang alongside the ham hocks in his drying hut.

Gianluca explains that his prosciutto and other meats can taste different, from year to year, depending on the specific weather conditions, which affect what his pigs eat. But he sees this variation as a feature, not as a bug: He wants his food to taste different, because in the zero-kilometer world, that’s a benchmark of quality. Again I’m struck by the contrast between this rustic farm and an American supermarket, which aspires for complete, predictable — and boring — consistency.

Next we move on to the wine and the oil — which are the yin and yang of Gianluca’s farm. While they’re grown side-by-side, and harvested at the same time, they’re handled very differently: Wine must be aged to achieve perfection, while olive oil is best when just pressed.

First, the wine — and specifically, Brunello di Montalcino, one of the most sought-after of all Italian wines. Like all government-protected foods in Italy, Brunello di Montalcino is made according to exacting standards. To be called a “Brunello di Montalcino,” it must be produced in the area immediately surrounding he town of Montalcino (which you can see from Gianluca’s driveway), and it must be made of 100 percent Sangiovese grapes (evocatively named for “the blood of Jupiter”). The wine ages for two years in Slovenian oak barrels, then at least another five years once bottled, in a cellar. And only then does it qualify as a Brunello di Montalcino.

I ask Gianluca to describe the characteristics of this wine. He explains that Sangiovese grapes have fruity notes of plum and cherry. But the oak barrels infuse the wine with complexity: notes of vanilla, tobacco, pepper, and leather. “It’s not a very easy wine,” he admits — it’s hearty and complex. And it’s designed to be paired with food. A good Brunello goes perfectly with steak, grilled meat, and aged pecorino. It’s not intended to be drunk on its own.

“So,” I ask him, “if it’s five o’clock and you’re out relaxing on the terrace, you wouldn’t kick back with a glass of Brunello?” He recoils — as politely as someone can recoil — and says, “Um, no. We have another wine for that.” They save only the best grapes for Brunello. The lesser grapes are processed in a similar way, but without the barrel or bottle aging — creating a lighter, less robust table wine called Rosso di Montalcino.

Next up: olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil, to be exact. Gianluca’s olive groves contain three different types of olives, which are carefully hand-picked in late October or November. They take the olives to the community olive-oil press, where the vivid-green, grassy-smelling liquid languidly dribbles out into metal cans for storage. (It’s interesting to see how modern technology does — and does not — work its way into Tuscan traditions. While pressing the olives with modern machinery produces a better-quality oil, no machine can carry out the gentle task of picking the olives — which is still done, stubbornly, by hand.)

Gianluca emphasizes that, unlike wine, olive oil is a fresh product. Extra virgin olive oil is at its very best the moment it’s pressed. In Tuscany, you use fresh olive oil for salad dressings, finishing dishes, and other situations where you really want to taste the oil. After just a few short months, as the oil begins to lose its flavor, you switch to use it for cooking. And after about a year — a year and a half, tops — you simply throw out any unused olive oil. Or, if you’re unscrupulous, you bottle it up in opaque bottles with schlocky Tuscan-scenery paintings and sell it to gullible tourists. (If this seems draconian to you, make a point to taste fresh olive oil and year-old olive oil during your time in Tuscany. Old olive oil will never again touch your lips.)

Hearing persistent bleating, I turn my eyes to where a flock of sheep graze on a grassy, steep hill. Gianluca explains that his neighbor makes another Tuscan staple: pecorino cheese. Named for the ewes (pecora) that produce it, pecorino is versatile. When young (fresco), it’s soft, creamy, and mild. But it ages to hard, salty, pungent perfection. When it comes to grating on pasta, pecorino stagionato is a suitable substitute for parmigiano reggiano.

Gianluca explains that they purchase little wheels of pecorino fresco as soon as their neighbors produce it — often in the month of May. (The late springtime — when the earth is bursting with a cornucopia of fresh grass and herbs, and livestock are feeding their babies — is the best time to make cheese. In fact, that’s the origin of the Italian word for “cheese”: formaggio is formed in the month of Maggio.) Then Gianluca ages the pecorino himself, gently covering it with walnut leaves. Over several months, as the cheese hardens, concentrates, and becomes salty and crumbly, it also absorbs earthy, nutty notes from the walnut leaves — rounding out its complex flavor.

“When you eat this food, you want to really taste the animal,” Gianluca says. Asking for clarification, I’m told this is an Italian saying. You know that ingredients — whether prosciutto or pecorino — are top-quality when the flavors linger in your mouth for a long time. This is a clue that it was produced according to traditional methods, like Gianluca’s. Processed prosciutto and pecorino are less complex and are overly salted for preservation and to boost the flavor. But this just makes saliva wash away the faint flavors immediately. Proper produce sticks around in your mouth for a long, long time.

After seeing how everything is made, the highlight of a visit to Gianluca’s farm is tasting how it all comes together on the plate. We sit down at a table laden with everything the farm produces. While each item — prosciutto, Brunello di Montalcino, olive oil, salami, aged pecorino cheese, veggies from the pea patch — is delicious in isolation, when eaten together they crescendo into a harmonious concert for the taste buds. It’s an interplay of earthy flavors, where the taste of each item enhances, and is enhanced by, the taste of every other item. At a zero-kilometer meal, you’re not just eating food. You are, in effect, eating a very specific place.

Explaining the concept of “zero-kilometer” — or, he explains sweetly, “for you Americans it would be ‘zero-mile'” — Gianluca emphasizes that everything comes from right here. Looking out from the covered terrace where we sit, we can see the neat rows of vines and the olive groves, which stand right next to each other. Forget “kilometer” — these are centimeters apart. When I press him on the point of whether it’s all truly local, Gianluca sheepishly waves a hand toward the woods and says, “well, the pigs free-range over there…500 meters away.” “Yes, but that’s still within a kilometer,” I point out. Gianluca beams in agreement.

I ask Gianluca about the similar French concept of terrior — from terre, earth — meaning that food is shaped by the specific conditions in which it’s grown. Gianluca smiles kindly, but seems to be fighting the urge to say something impolite about the French. He recovers quickly and simply chuckles. “Yes, I know this word. It’s a similar idea. But we don’t have this word here.” Apparently, Tuscan farmers don’t need a fancy word to understand this concept in their bones. It’s just common sense.

To be entirely fair, one thing on the table may not be produced right here: the bread. And if you’ve been to Tuscany, you know that the only fault to be found with Tuscan food is that the bread is unsalted. Gianluca explains that the origins of this go way back, but likely have to do with ancient tax laws. In any event, today’s Tuscans have acclimated to their bland bread, and have come to see it as an asset.

Turning philosophical, Gianluca suggests that Tuscany’s unsalted bread allows the region’s top-quality ingredients to take center stage. Just like a Brunello di Montalcino should never be drunk on its own, Tuscans never eat bread by itself. They always eat it with food, and who wants the bread to upstage or overpower the food? It’s a starch, not seasoning — like white rice in Asian cuisines. And rice isn’t salted, is it?

Savoring one of the best meals I’ve ever had, I can only heartily agree. Dining with Gianluca, it’s clear I’m in the hands of a master. And who am I to question the master? Nope, I’ll keep quiet…and ask Gianluca to pass the prosciutto.


Santa Giulia is just one of many farms that invite curious visitors for a tour and a meal. Several others are recommended in our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook. Or ask when you’re booking your accommodations. Hoteliers in this area tend to be well-connected, and can easily set up an experience like this for you.

Heading to Tuscany? I share a dozen of my favorite Tuscan experiences here.

Our new Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour — which begins in 2020 — incorporates many vivid experiences in Italy’s heartland…including a farm-to-table feast.