WHY WE LOVE IT
- Home of the great Renaissance city Florence, this beautiful and historical Italian region is where one dreams of retiring.
- Startlingly intact medieval hill towns, wine-producing villages, countless amazing restaurants of all grades, exquisite hotels.
- Pisa (and its leaning tower); Siena (and the Palio); fortified towns like Lucca and Pienza; the medieval Manhattan, San Gimignano.
- The newly fashionable Maremma region and Monte Argentario with its port towns, Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano. Beach resorts such as Forte dei Marmi.
- Prehistoric thermal pools and caves, some now swanky spas. Cooking schools.
- Good buys: ceramics, alabaster carvings and bargain Prada, Balenciaga, Ungaro, La Perla and Ferragamo, to name a few. Extra-virgin olive oils; aged balsamic vinegar; Chianti, Montepulciano and Brunello wines; and Florentine leather goods and handmade papers.
WHEN TO GO
Tourist season runs from May to September making spring and early fall the best times to visit. We recommend you not go in August as most Italians vacation at that time and many shops, hotels, and restaurants will be closed.
Lungarno Corsini 4, Florence
These very glamorous dining rooms with vaulted ceilings, red-slipcovered armchairs, big French windows and little round tables are run by a Harry's Bar alum—hence the sexy little piano bar. The mod-Tuscan menus change all the time: Tangerine-scented lobster and gnocchi with cauliflower and truffle are typical dishes.
Via del Leone 50/R, Florence
If you want to experience a simulation of being Florentine, borrow the Brogi family for the duration of dinner. Sit in the back room—the cutest enclosed garden with tiny lights and lemon walls—and let yourselves be guided through the short homemade menu and appropriate wines. This is also the place for steak.
L'Andana, Tenuta La Badiola, Località Badiola, Castiglione della Pescaia, Grosseto
Not only is this new (summer 2005) hot spot in the Maremma set beautifully in the restored granary of this aristocratic estate but the food bears the stamp of the great Alain Ducasse—in rustic mode, as interpreted by protégé Christophe Martin, whom you can see working in the open kitchen. Though there is a discernible French accent, the menus are firmly Tuscan, and not too elaborate.
BUCA DI SAN FRANCESCO
Via San Francesco 1, Arezzo
If marveling at the Piero della Francesco frescoes in the Basilica of San Francesco gave you an appetite, cross the street to this exquisitely atmospheric 14th-century palazzo cellar for excellent Aretino dishes: local salami and other antipasti, and the signature beef braised in Chianti*, stracotto al Chianti*.
BUCA DI SANT'ANTONIO
Via della Cervia 3, Lucca
With its forest of copper pans hanging from the beams and a cotto floor beneath your farmhouse chair, you may worry you've wandered into the worst tourist trap in town. But don't: Since the 18th century, this sweet place has been serving classic Luccese dishes such as rabbit with olives and spit-roast kid to locals as well—not to mention Puccini and Ezra Pound!
Via del Molo 1/2 Porto Santo Stefano, Grosseto
In the less fancy but arguably more lively of Monte Argentario's two main towns, this is the place everyone sends you to—and with good reason. Its portside trellised terrace is a great people- and yacht-watching perch, and it's the source of the best and freshest seafood for miles.
LA TAVERNA DI MORANDA
Via di Mezzo 17–13, Monticchiello di Pienza, Siena
In this perfect medieval village, stone arches and beamed ceilings make a fittingly ancient setting for fine local cooking. All dishes are made with produce from the taverna's own estate. Try the venison, the stuffed pigeon or the hand-rolled irregular spaghetti called pici. The desserts are unusually good: The Italian chef-owner's wife—a pastry specialist from France—makes them.
7 Piazza della Repubblica, Florence
Like all of Sir Rocco Forte's select group of hotels, this 102-room establishment enjoyed the attentions of his genius designer sister, Olga Polizzi, who (unlike many a hip hotel designer) does contemporary-cool interiors without crushing a building's bones. Despite the Savoy's immense popularity, beautiful calm reigns here. Get in early to book the new Brunelleschi or Signoria suites, whose private steam rooms have chromotherapy (color therapy) and aromatherapy capability.
7 Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Florence
This hip 20-room town house hotel mixes coffered ceilings with wenge wood and steel, and 18th-century Florentine antiques with 1970s furniture and mid-century lamps—the overall effect being more neoclassical than mod. Rooms in cool slate, cream and stone colors overlook the glass-roofed internal courtyard breakfast room; the piano nobile (first-floor) Master Room with its four-poster bed is the one to get. The roof terrace lounge-bar exemplifies the general chill-out, private-house vibe.
__VILLA SAN MICHELE
__4 Via Doccia, Fiesole
Frescoes, archways, oils and antiques abound in this 15th-century monastery with close Michelangelo connections (they say he designed it) just north of Florence. It's not hard to see why it's one of Italy's best-known luxury addresses: historically correct rooms with graceful proportions and views over the Arno Valley; lush, landscaped gardens; a loggia (roofed yet open-air) restaurant with a panorama of Florence laid out below; a bucolic heated pool; brilliant service. Sure, it's way pricey, but it's worth it.
Località San Martino 370, Cortona
There's a personal feel to this country retreat thanks to its caring owner–managers, Silvia and Riccardo Baracchi. A dozen rooms in the 17th-century villa are big, with four-posters, cotto floors and antiques; the tower room is the smallest, but it's also a prize for its 360-degree views. A pool behind a rosemary hedge, a mighty fine restaurant in the old limonaia (where lemon trees wintered) and a divine horse-chestnut and cypress-lined cocktail terrace make you feel like staying for good.
__Cala dei Santi, Località Sbarcatello, Porto Ercole, Grosseto
The only deluxe resort on tony Monte Argentario is a stunner, perched on the rocks overlooking pretty Porto Ercole's harbor. The 50 rooms in various villas around the grounds vary: There are black-beamed ceilings; Vietri or cotto tiled floors; pale wicker furniture or solid antiques; canopy beds and divine palm-shaded terraces—you must get a terrace. There's a thalassotherapy spa, pool and gorgeous terraced restaurant. Many VIPs come back here year after year.
Tenuta La Badiola, Località Badiola, Castiglione della Pescaia
In the increasingly fashionable Maremma region is überchef Alain Ducasse's new (2004) 1,250-acre estate—the former residence of Leopold II, Duke of Tuscany. Of the 33 rooms, those in the Villa are grander than the fattoria (farmhouse) ones, but all have exquisite decor with heavy silk drapes, Louis loveseats, chandeliers, pillars, gilt-framed mirrors and fireplaces—even the bathrooms have posh TVs and chaise lounges. Another highlight is, of course, Trattoria Toscana, Ducasse's restaurant in the granary, where you can also sample the estate's wines and olive oils.
61, Strada della Vittoria. 53042 Chianciano Terme, Siena
The late writer Iris Origo's estate, now run by her daughters, is a working farm, a cultural center and a collection of idyllic rental apartments and houses in various 15th- to 17th-century farmhouses around the estate and the medieval castle, Castelluccio (site of the annual Incontri in Terra di Siena chamber music festival). Each residence has a private garden, a pool, antiques and a kitchen (with someone to cook for a modest charge). To top it all, this is a great touring base, and the geometrical gardens are not just gorgeous—they're famous.
__GRAND HOTEL CONTINENTAL
__Via Banchi di Sopra 85, Siena
Its pedestrian name gives no clue as to the ridiculous splendor of the 17th-century Palazzo Gori, right by Piazza del Campo. The place is lousy with frescoes, museum-quality art, massive crystal chandeliers and valuable antiques in the 51 rooms. Do splash out for a special one—the four-poster-bedded octagonal room or the two-level Tower Suite with its beamed aerie in the campanile. There's a winter garden courtyard restaurant and a huge brick vaulted medieval wine cellar where you can taste special vintages.
Here's one must-see in the great Renaissance city your Baedeker guidebook may have missed. Mercato Centrale, a 19th-century covered market on the Via del Ariento, is a window on the everyday life of Firenze; also a good source for those epicurean products you need to take home to prolong the memories. It's open every morning except Sunday.
A CHIANTI DRIVE
If you stick to Via Chiantigiana (S222), with a detour from Castellina in Chianti to explore Radda in Chianti, you can tour the Chianti Classico–producing area in one easy loop. Two cantina—wineries offering tastings—on that route are: Podere Terreno alla Via della Volpaia, Località Volpaia, Radda in Chianti (577-738312, podereterreno.it) and Castello di Querceto, Via Francois 2, Località Dudda, Greve in Chianti (055-85921, www.castellodiquerceto.it). Call ahead for opening times.
PARADISE, PURGATORY AND HELL
Grotta Giusti Spa, Via Grotta Giusti 1411, Monsummano Terme
Like no spa you've ever seen, this swanky version of a typically Tuscan hot-spring spa is fortunate to have the prehistoric underground cave system discovered in 1849 to itself—including Paradise, Purgatory and Hell—at a constant 93 degrees and 100 percent humidity. Imagine hanging out together in robes among the stalactites or on the shores of Limbo, the boiling hot mineral lake. You can also get pampering treatments, swim in the (above-ground) pools and eat healthy food at the new (2005) chic stainless-steel Bioquam Café.
BASILICA DI SAN FRANCESCO
Piazza San Francesco, Arezzo
The large Gothic church is worth a visit for the series of frescoes Pierro della Francesca painted on the walls of the apse between 1452 and 1466. Illustrating the *"*Legend of the True Cross," they are among the best examples of Renaissance painting in Tuscany; even better since their recent restoration. You must make a reservation to view.
Parco Naturale della Maremma
This large chunk of southern Tuscany includes beaches, the promontory Monte Argentario and a 25,000-acre geologically distinct territory that is a car-free national park protected by the World Wildlife Federation. Here are perfect beaches, pine forests and hilltop woodland you can access by foot (and jitney service) or horseback—just like the Butteri, the local cowboys who corral the Maremma oxen, brand the cattle once a year and track the indigenous wild boar.
Stabilimento Bagno America
Huh? No, really, why not? Nobody will believe you learned to surf on your Tuscan honeymoon, but the gentle swell off the orderly white beaches of jet-set resort town Forte dei Marmi makes for perfect beginner waters.
ALTA MODA OUTLET SHOPPING
Designer Italian labels off-load past collections—men's and women's—at Tuscan outlets, mostly around Florence. The best-known outlet is Prada (I Pellettieri d'Italia, Località Levanella 68, Montevarchi, Arezzo, 055-91901), but also try Dolce & Gabbana (Località Santa Maria Maddalena 49, Pian dell'Isola, Rignano Sull'Arno, Florence, 055-833-1300) and the magnificent one-stop, The Mall (Via Europa 8, Leccio, Regello, Florence, 055-865-7775), which stocks Balenciaga, Fendi, Armani, Gucci, Hogan, La Perla, Loro Piana, Ferragamo, Tod's and Valentino, among others. Oh, my!