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

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.

Experience Tuscany: Ogle Great Art in a Forgotten Church

When in Tuscany, make a point to go to a town you’ve never heard of, and see works by an artist you’ve never heard of. Here, far from the tourist crowds, hidden gems demonstrate that the art world of 1400s and 1500s Tuscany boasted a world-class lineup of artistic geniuses. Even Tuscany’s “also-rans” would be a big deal just about anywhere else.

Sure, you want to see the biggies, too.  Florence — the cradle of the Renaissance — has some of the greatest artistic sights in the world: The Uffizi Gallery shows off the most sumptuous collection anywhere of Renaissance greats, from Botticelli and da Vinci to Raphael and Caravaggio. The Accademia Gallery is home to Michelangelo’s David — probably the most recognizable statue on earth. The Borghese Gallery is loaded with even more stunning sculptures, including masterpieces by Donatello, Michelangelo, Verrocchio, and Brunelleschi. And that’s just for starters.

But — without taking anything away from Florence — many of my favorite works of Tuscan art are far from the big cities and famous museums. These memorable masterpieces are tucked away in smaller, less-visited towns or remote countryside outposts.

On my recent trip, I took a day off from my guidebook-updating work in Arezzo, a provincial capital of about 100,000 people. I went to Arezzo specifically because it isn’t particularly famous, or particularly jammed with great museums. It’s just a great place to settle in, relax, eat, enjoy…and stop taking notes for a day. If it’s known for anything, Arezzo is famous for its weekend antiques market, which happened to be going on during my visit.

In the center of Arezzo is the rough-brick facade of the Basilica of San Francesco. Inside, the apse is lovingly frescoed with tales of the True Cross, created in the 1450s and 1460s by Piero della Francesca. These illustrations take the viewer on the epic journey of the very cross that, it’s believed, Jesus was crucified upon.

The narrative twists and turns through history — from Adam (yes, the Adam, of Adam and Eve fame) to the Queen of Sheba to Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena — while illustrating in starkly human terms the people who took part in the journey of the cross. In these scenes, della Francesca demonstrates his expertise in composition and perspective while also imbuing his figures with a graceful humanity — all of which was still relatively new to the art world, 50 years before Michelangelo or da Vinci.

Della Francesca barely rates “honorable mention” status in the panoply of astonishingly talented Renaissance artists from this part of Italy. If the Tuscan Renaissance Artists were a baseball team, della Francesca would spend most games in the dugout…maybe seeing a little action when Vasari or Fra Angelico needed a day off. And yet, those True Cross frescoes in Arezzo are a remarkable masterpiece that — if someone important had taken notice at a certain moment in history — might very well be on the globe’s bucket list today.

About an hour’s drive away are works by a guy who never even came close to making the cut: Il Sodoma. Deep in the Crete Senese — the clay hills that ripple across a desolate, sparsely populated terrain south of Siena — the abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore perches on a wooded hillside. Here, an order of Olivetan monks live far from modern society, keeping watch over the precious artwork that fills their home.

In 1497, the abbot commissioned the fresco artist Luca Signorelli to illustrate the cloister’s corridors with scenes from the life of St. Benedict. But Signorelli bailed out early — when he was only about a third finished — to take an even more plum gig down the road in Orvieto. His replacement was a highly irreverent and brutish painter named Giovanni Antonio Bazzi. The monks nicknamed him “The Madman” (Il Mattaccio), but history knows him as Il Sodoma. This nickname — “The Sodomite” — may have been a reference to his sexuality, or it may simply have been an insult applied by his mystified contemporaries…who didn’t know what to make of his bizarre behavior. Here he is in a self-portrait with, of course, two pet badgers:

Il Sodoma completed the work Signorelli had begun. The result is a series of 35 frescoes illustrating the life of St. Benedict. It would be easy for an impatient tourist to roll their eyes through these hallways, jaded and unimpressed. But a great guide brings the story of St. Benedict — and of the stories of the two dueling artists who decorated this space — to life.

Roberto Bechi— one of our favorite guides in Tuscany (who also helped us design our new Best of Tuscany Tour) — led me through the abbey’s frescoes. And it simply blew my mind. Roberto focused my attention on delightful little details, including hidden portraits of some of Il Sodoma’s contemporaries: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Lorenzo the Magnificent.

He also clued me into details that spoke to the huge personalities of the artists. Il Sodoma grew tired of hearing about how masterful Signorelli’s 3-D illusion table was — so he topped it with an even more striking one of his own. Different items on the table snap into focus depending on the angle and distance you’re viewing from.

Il Sodoma clashed with the abbot — who, already well behind schedule and over budget, prodded him to work ever faster. This conflict came through in the artist’s work. In one panel, two donkeys share six legs — an intentional error. (A snarky Il Sodoma wrote in his journal: “Working too fast causes mistakes.”) In another scene, Il Sodoma painted a horse’s rear end, and above it, the window of a house where a shirt hangs in the breeze. During this era, a typical person owned seven shirts: six for workdays, and a seventh for Sunday, when they could rest (and do laundry). With this detail, Sodoma is saying to the abbot: “You made me work on Sunday — made me sweat through my seventh shirt. You horse’s ass!” Cheeky. Take that, Michelangelo.

If you haven’t heard of Monte Oliveto Maggiore or Il Sodoma, you’re not alone. They are but a blip on the radar of the mainstream art world. But the longer you spend in Tuscany, and the deeper you dig, the more you realize that the top museums in Florence and Siena barely scratch the surface of the artistic bounty here. Seek out some of these hidden masterpieces, and make a point to linger over them. Come for the art…but stick around for the huge personalities.


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 guided tour of Il Sodoma’s frescoes at Monte Oliveto Maggiore.

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: Meet a Real-Life Artisan

In the hill town of Volterra, tucked down a narrow lane a few steps from the main drag, Roberto delicately chips away at an alabaster statue. Everything in the cluttered workshop is covered in a thin layer of white dust — including Roberto. You can practically taste the gritty powder in the air. But Roberto doesn’t seem to notice, or to care. With intense concentration, he chisels and carves and tap-tap-taps — like Michelangelo 500 years before him, slowly revealing the form that already exists within the stones.

What’s striking about Roberto’s shop is that, while it welcomes curious travelers, it doesn’t exist for the sake of tourism. It’s real.

Tuscany’s rich aesthetic heritage means that contemporary Tuscans still find great meaning and beauty in their work, whatever it may be. Sculptors, leatherworkers, carpenters, mosaicists, potters, coppersmiths, jewelers, weavers, painters, vintners, chefs — everyone does their work with deep pride and conviction, as if tourism didn’t exist. Meeting a few of these artisans is both educational and inspiring.

In the little hill town of Montepulciano alone, I’m struck by the high concentration of uncompromising artists. On the street below the main square, in the course of just a few blocks, you can get to know four different masters of their crafts.

At Cantina Contucci, Adamo has been making wine for decades. Every time I visit, he tours me through the caverns of giant wooden casks that burrow deep into the stony hill upon which Montepulciano sits — and, as if for the first time, evangelizes about his wine with the passion of someone who has truly found his life’s work. (On a recent visit, he announced to me, “Last year, I finally retired…but they still let me come to work every day!”)

Just down the street from Adamo is the copper shop of Cesare, who — clad in a heavy leather apron — hammers out delicate copper artwork. Cesare has a big Roadrunner-style anvil and a set of heirloom stencils dating back to the 1850s. He still crafts his copper vessels the way he was taught as a young boy. And he still brings the same care and attention to detail to his work as he has his entire life.

A few more doors down is a different type of craftsman: Giulio, who runs Osteria dell’Acquacheta — the best steak house I’ve ever experienced. While his diners dig into big, steaming plates of pasta (a primo — supposedly a “starter” — is more than enough for an entire meal), Giulio walks up the stairs in the back of his restaurant and carves off giant hunks of steak from a slab of the local, prized Chianina beef.

After verifying the steak with his customer, Giulio throws it onto his wood-fired grill, cooks it until it’s barely browned, sprinkles it with coarse sea salt, and delivers it to your table — an edible work of art.

As of my latest visit, this unofficial fraternity of precise Montepulciano craftspeople has been joined by a new member: Nicola, who makes artisanal gelato along the main street into town. (Read more about Nicola here.)

Nicola, who is obsessed with making gelato fresh every day, and only from locally sourced ingredients, is just the latest in a long string of the Tuscans I’ve met who have impressed me with their careful, precise attention to their craft. If you want something done just right, with precision, artistry, and care…find yourself a Tuscan.


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

Read more about the artisans of Montepulciano here.

Our new Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour — which begins in 2020 — incorporates many vivid experiences in Italy’s heartland…including the chance to meet an alabaster artisan.

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