In Italy, the piazza is the town’s living room. This is where Italians practice the art of la dolce far niente — “the sweetness of doing nothing.” And Tuscany has some of the best piazzas in all of Italy.
Florence has two contenders. Majestic despite being jammed with tourists, the Piazza del Duomo peers up at the stunning, colorful facade of the cathedral, capped by Brunelleschi’s exquisite dome.
A few blocks away (down one of the most tourist-clogged streets in Italy) is the grand Piazza della Signoria. A replica of Michelangelo’s David stands guard at the base of the Palazzo Vecchio — the stout fortress of the Medici family that bankrolled so much of what tourists come here to see.
Next door are the former offices (uffizi) of the Medici — now occupied by one of the world’s great art collections. Unlike the Piazza del Duomo, the Piazza della Signoria feels expansive and airy — the kind of place you want to just hang out.
Grand as Florence is, the connoisseur’s favorite piazza is Siena’s Il Campo — a massive, gently sloping, oblong, red-brick-paved people zone that splays out from the mighty tower of City Hall.
This rounded “square” acts like a magnet on visitors to Siena — it’s impossible to resist its pull. This is one of those places where it’s worth paying way too much for an aperitivo and a bowl of potato chips, just for the privilege of people-watching. And twice each summer, the famous Palio horse race — in which Siena’s neighborhoods (contrade) vie against each other for bragging rights — turns the square into a wild racecourse.
Every Tuscan town has its own piazza where people gather. And each one has its own story. For example, little Pienza has a tiny main square that packs a huge Renaissance punch.
Pienza is named for Pope Pius II, who was born here in 1405. After he became pope, Pius brought an esteemed colleague to his hometown, and was deeply embarrassed by how humble and backwards it all seemed. So he hired some of the most accomplished architects of the day to come and transform it into a showcase Renaissance town.
The perfectly symmetrical, painstakingly geometrical result is the town that visitors tour today. The lines in the pavement align with the ones on the buildings — creating a three-dimensional gridded cube that frames the elegant cathedral facade. They even made the windows at the far end of the square larger than the ones at the near end, just to make the space feel even bigger and even more perfect.
In postcard-perfect Lucca, Piazza dell’Anfiteatro fills the footprint of the ancient Roman amphitheater.
A half-dozen other, smaller piazzas honeycomb the old center, connected by traffic-free streets. In the evening, the Lucchese stroll between these squares — chatting, promenading, licking gelato, catching up with neighbors, complimenting little kids on how much they’ve grown, talking vigorously with their hands, and simply being together with their community. This is that quintessentially Italian custom called the passeggiata.
The old-timers hang out on the stone benches built into the facade of the town post office, watching the world go by, grousing and reminiscing. It’s like one big communal living room. (I just love Lucca. How could you not?)
And even small, no-name, unspectacular Tuscan piazzas are very inviting. Montepulciano’s Piazza Grande is nothing special, but — like all things in this region — it’s draped in a rustic-yet-elegant harmony. The little stone well at the corner of the square is a fixture of many Tuscan hill towns — which needed to be self-sufficient and siege-resistant. On Montepulicano’s well, you can run your fingers through grooves carved by centuries’ worth of ropes, pulling buckets up and down.
Whether in a big city or a small town, Tuscan piazzas are a fixture of the community and a highlight for slow-down-and-smell-the-pecorino travelers.
Where are your favorite Italian piazzas?
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 ample free time to hang out on the piazzas and join the passeggiata in Florence and Lucca.
Or, to do it on your own, you’ll find all of the details you need in our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook.