5 amazing day trips from Florence

Do not mistake yourself; I love being in Florence. As a volunteer archivist in one of Florence’s libraries, I am used to spending long weekends in this captivating city. Just walking around and soaking up the beauty of its architecture, art, and even shop windows has always given me great pleasure.

But…deep down, I’m a country girl equally willing to escape the crowds, traffic and noise of the city, even if it means leaving the birthplace of the Renaissance and the home of Dante. Here are five of my favorite day trips from Florence, all of which promise to give you more of Tuscan beauty.

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1. Fiesole – A short bus ride up the hill

It’s easy to get away from this city, because you can take the number 7 bus from Santa Maria Novella station. Be sure to buy a bus ticket at the station or any kiosk, and don’t forget to stamp the ticket after boarding. If you get caught, it’s a whopping €50 ($52.75) fine that you have to pay on the spot. I have seen a number of tourists suffer this indignity! Taxis will also take you there.

The good part about taking the bus is that you get off at the last stop, so no frantic worries about when to jump off. About halfway you start climbing out of town and can catch a few snippets of views of the surrounding countryside. It’s the same climb ironically described in Forester’s famous novel A room with a view.

You arrive in Piazza Mino da Fiesole and are immediately struck by the expansive beauty of Florence below you. There are a number of well-signposted scenic walks with places where you can see the cathedral and baptistery, shimmering like tiny jewels in the Arno valley.

Having ancient Etruscan origins (8and–4and century BC. J.-C.), Fiesole is rich in important archaeological remains. Also, while enjoying its hiking trails, you can easily spend the day visiting the archaeological area and museum, the city’s cathedral, the Roman theater and the Bandini art museum. Don’t forget to enjoy a meal, a drink and the view at one of its many restaurants and cafes.

    San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia.
San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, in Pistoia (Photo credit: Caroline Schouten-van Parreren)

2. Pistoia – Take a train to a medieval marvel

Pistoia is one of those towns that most people speed past on their way to Lucca, but its medieval center is one of the best preserved in Italy and well worth a visit. About 30 minutes by train from Florence, it’s an easy day trip.

The Cathedral of San Zeno is unmistakable with its elegantly banded Pisan Romanesque facade adorned with Italian sculptor Andrea della Robbia’s lunette of the Virgin and Child between two angels. Directly opposite is the 4and century Baptistery of San Giovanni, designed in an octagonal shape.

Visit the Baptistery first and buy your tickets for the Chapel of San Jacopo and the bell tower, both located inside the cathedral. You won’t want to miss the chapel. Upon entering the cathedral, turn right to find the grated chapel with its unique treasure: a dazzling silver altarpiece called the Altare d’Argento di San Giacomo (Silver altarpiece of Saint-Jacques). The goldsmiths started the altarpiece in 1287 and the sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi finished it 2 centuries later. Led by a guide, climb the bell tower for a bird’s eye view of the iconic square.

Pistoia has many museums, but the one I visited is dedicated to the city’s most famous son, sculptor and modern painter, Marino Marini (1901-1980). His gallery is inside the Palazzo del Tau. I found dozens of his drawings and paintings there, mostly female nudes and horses that were a refreshing break from Renaissance art.

The daily market of Pistoia.
The daily market in Pistoia (Photo credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)

Pistoia has a lovely daily food market at Piazzetta dell’Ortaggio well guarded by the Pozzo del Leoncino (The Well of the Little Lion). Here you can also see Sole Tower (Spinning Sun) – contemporary Pistoia artist Roberto Barni’s striking life-size sculpture of three blindfolded men carrying oil lamps.

This square was once the entrance to the Jewish quarter, which consisted of a narrow arch closed by an iron gate, still visible today. As you walk through the former ghetto, you can see that the windows are smaller than in neighboring buildings, a typical feature of ghetto architecture.

Pistoia is packed with restaurants, specializes in alfresco dining, and is ready to serve you an aperitif while soaking up the atmosphere loved by locals and tourists alike.

Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, Lucca (Photo credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)

3. Lucca – An Afternoon with Puccini

Lucca, the former capital of a Lombard duchy and for more than 500 years an independent and powerful republic (1160-1805), is one of the highlights of Tuscan history and culture. From Florence to Lucca, train and car take about 1.5 hours.

One of Lucca’s standout features is the 3-mile walk along its city walls, which encircle the city center. As you walk in the shade of the trees, you can enjoy a magnificent view of the main buildings of the city. Most notable is the 13andGuinigi tower from the last century with trees growing on its roof. The roof garden originally belonged to the kitchen, located below.

Lucca has 130 towers in all, including the bell towers of the Romanesque Basilica of San Frediano and St. Martin’s Cathedral, the tower of San Michele in Foro which marks the ancient Roman Forum, and proximity Torre dell’Orologio (Clock tower).

Since most of the city center is traffic-free, Lucca is a great place to stroll, shop on its famous Via Fillungo, and visit medieval churches. Discover small and large squares with fountains and cozy cafes, and enter beautiful buildings like the Palazzo Pfanner with its remarkable architecture and enchanted garden. Don’t miss one of Lucca’s jewels, Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, whose buildings stand on the ruins of the 2n/a-century Roman amphitheater. It is one of Lucca’s popular meeting places, full of taverns and restaurants.

Lucca is the birthplace of famous musicians. Don’t miss the statue of Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) just in front of the city’s music academy or the Puccini Museum, former home of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). Lovers of his music are entitled to daily performances in the old baptistery.

    The forest around Vallombrosa.
The forest around Vallombrosa (Photo credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)

4. Vallombrosa – Go by car for a day in nature

If Fiesole, Pistoia and Lucca still seem too urban to you, hop in a rental car, pack some lunch and head east towards the Casentino Valley at the foot of the central Apennine mountains. It’s a part of Tuscany where you simply can’t go wrong, full of shrines, churches, castles and beautiful forests.

One of the closest and most interesting places to visit is Vallombrosa Monastery and National Reserve. From Florence, take the SS 67 along the Arno river passing through Pontassieve and follow the signs that indicate the way to follow. It’s about 45 minutes from Florence.

Vallombrosa, which means “Valley of Shadow”, is best known for its old monastery and will satisfy nature lovers and art lovers alike. The abbey itself contains many works of art and sits on the edge of a primeval forest. Here you are at the medieval cradle of Italian forestry and you should note the Paradisino or “Little Paradise”. The Paradisino is the old forestry school located on a rock just above the monastery from where you have a magnificent view of the buildings and their surroundings.

During your visit, also note the large basin in front of the Abbey. It’s not for swimming (even in the hot and humid summer), but rather for raising fish for the monks’ slow fasts.

But what I really love about Vallombrosa are the hiking trails through over 3,000 acres of quiet woods that are always cool and shady during the summer months. Many Florentines escape the summer heat here and there are several hotels and restaurants nearby. It is a protected natural area and spectacular in autumn when the trees change color.

Vallombrosa Monastery (Photo credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)

5. Camaldoli – Another road to a spiritual world

From Vallombrosa, drive another 45 minutes to the unique spiritual setting of Camaldoli. As you begin, pause at the top of the mountain above Vallombrosa for spectacular views across the Casentino Valley. If you look far to the east you will see the curious mountainous landmark of La Verna.

Descending down the mountainside, at the bottom of the valley, you will reach the picturesque Poppi (which is also worth a visit), from where you will climb again to the double-monastery village of Camaldoli.

Saint Romuald of Ravenna arrived here in 1012 with some disciples and they built a group of hermitages, each with its own bedroom, meditation hall and vegetable garden. Inside the enclosure, he also built a small chapel where the monks met for community prayers. Here you can visit Romuald’s hermitage, the church and a shop with many different monastic products. Nine hermits currently live here.

From the sacro eremo, walk about 50 minutes on a path, through another beautiful forest, and you will arrive at the monastery. Originally a guest house of the hermitage, it was quickly transformed into a monastery where more than 40 monks currently live. This combination of communal and solitary life is a characteristic of the Camaldolesi.

The cloister inside the Holy Hermitage and Camaldoli Monastery.
The cloister inside the Holy Hermitage and Camaldoli Monastery (Photo credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)

The buildings include two cloisters (in the largest there is a library), the refectory, the guest rooms and the monks’ cells. The church, modernized in 1700, retains five paintings by the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari.

Ancient pharmacy in Camaldoli.
Ancient pharmacy in Camaldoli (Photo credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)

Of particular interest is the old monastery pharmacy. Built in 1543, it is furnished with beautiful walnut cupboards and old objects used by the monks for the preparation of medicines. Pharmacies were once a fundamental part of many monasteries, where spiritual and physical healing were dispersed. Today you can indulge in the monks’ honey elixirs, homemade grappa and sweets.

At the end of the day, when you return to Florence, you will not only have all the fond memories of an enchanting outing, but also hopefully renewed energy to return and conquer the sights, wonders and (sip!) shopping.

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