10 Top-Rated Day Trips from Florence
With Bologna less than an hour's train ride to the north, Siena to the south, and the combination of Pisa and Lucca to the west, Florence is ideally located for tourists exploring the attractions of central Italy. But even closer than these cities are the Chianti hills, the beautiful rolling Tuscan countryside, art-filled Prato, Fiesole's Roman excavations, and a dazzling group of villas built by the Medici as country houses.
The best reasons for taking the short ride on the #7 bus from Piazza San Marco up to Fiesole is to see the Roman/Etruscan ruins and to watch the sunset with Florence and the Arno spread out below. The Zona Archeologica, behind the cathedral with its battlemented campanile, is highlighted by a Roman theater, built in the first century BC and extended under the emperors Claudius and Septimius Severus. The semi-circular amphitheater is used for concerts in the summer. Near it are ruins of Roman baths and at the northwest corner, you'll find the remains of a Roman temple (first century BC) and an Etruscan temple from the third century BC.
Prato's Castello dell'Imperatore, a battlemented stronghold built between 1237 and 1248, incorporates two older 10th-century towers. The church of Santa Maria delle Carceri, near its north corner, contains terracotta medallions of the Evangelists by Andrea della Robbia. A few streets away, the Palazzo Pretorio houses the Museo Civico (Municipal Gallery), with works by Filippo Lippi, Bernardo Daddi, and Fra Bartolommeo. The Museo di Pittura Murale (Museum of Mural Painting) explores the art and techniques of fresco from the 13th to the 17th centuries. The Centro per l'Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci (Museum of Contemporary Art) is a forum for painting, sculpture, design, video, and other forms of creative expression. Inside is a research center and an arena in the form of a Greek amphitheater for performance arts.
Prato's claim to its place on the art map of Italy, however, is its cathedral. On the walls of the choir are two outstanding cycles of frescoes that Filippo Lippi painted at the height of his artistic powers, 1452-66. On the left are scenes from the life of St. Stephen; on the right, the life of John the Baptist. In the north aisle look for the Cappella del Sacro Cíngolo (Chapel of the Holy Belt), constructed in the late 14th century to house the much-venerated relic, a belt given by Mary to the Apostle Thomas at her Assumption. The legend is detailed here in luminous frescoes by Agnolo Gaddi (1392-95). The relic is taken out and displayed from the Pérgamo del Sacro Cíngolo, a beautifully carved balcony on the façade that was created for this purpose by Donatello and Michelozzo in 1438. This ceremony happens at Christmas, Easter, May 1, August 15, and September 8, accompanied by parades and fairs.
Address: Piazza del Duomo 49, Prato
3 Palazzo Pretorio
In the hill town of Certaldo, where you will want to stroll through the narrow streets of the Castello quarter to see the restored medieval houses, the Counts Alberti built their residence, Palazzo Pretorio. It later became the palace of the Florentine Vicars, whose judgments were pronounced from its front loggia. The handsome building is richly decorated with terracotta coats of arms, inlaid marble, and frescoes, and from the tower, you can see lovely views of the surrounding hilly countryside of wheat fields, cypresses, and olive groves.
Address: Piazza Vicariato 2, Certaldo
4 Villa Gamberaia
Not far from the little town of Settignano is Villa Gamberaia, one of the finest of the 16th-century villas and gardens. Although badly damaged in World War II, it has been restored to its former beauty and is surrounded by a typical Renaissance garden, with geometrically trimmed box hedges, a classically arranged parterre garden, fountains, terraces, and architectural features. It has been praised and studied by garden historians, and has inspired garden designers for more than a century; Edith Wharton, in her book Italian Villas and Their Gardens called it, "Probably the most perfect example of the art of producing a great effect on a small scale..."
Address: Via del Rossellino 72, Settignano
The industrial town of Émpoli, west of Florence on the road to Pisa, might not merit your stopping, except for two museums. Facing the arcaded Piazza Fárinata degli Uberti in the center of town is the beautiful banded marble façade of the 11th-century Sant'Andrea church, and the adjoining Museo della Collegiata. Its fine collection of pictures and sculpture is particularly strong in Tuscan paintings of the 14th to the 17th centuries. The other museum, Museo del Vetri di Emploi, follows the town's glass-making tradition from its pre-15th-century beginnings.
- Museo della Collegiata: Piazza della Propositura, Émpoli
- Museo del Vetri di Emploi: Via Ridolfi 70, Empoli
6 Following Leonardo in Vinci
The medieval castle in Vinci, subsequently rebuilt several times, was opened in 1986 as the Museo Leonardiano (Leonardo Museum). The museum has since grown to include the adjacent Palazzina Uzielli and presents models and machines, alongside Leonardo's drawings and handwritten notes, digital animations, and interactive exhibits. The collections and original exhibits address Leonardo's multiple and widely varied interests -- technological, architectural, scientific, and artistic. After you've played with the exhibits here, pick up or download the guide mapping a route of other Leonardo sights, including the baptistery in the Church of the Holy Cross with the 15th-century font where he was christened. You can drive or follow the three-kilometer walking path to the town of Archiano and the house where Leonardo was born. Here, his painting is explored using holograms, multimedia, and all the latest technology that Leonardo would have loved.
Address: Castello dei Conti Guidi, Vinci
7 Monti del Chianti
A drive through the Monti del Chianti takes you through some of the most attractive scenery in Italy. The Chianti Hills, with their olive groves and woods of chestnut and oak, lie between Florence and Siena, and Route 222, the Via Chiantigiana, twists and turns through this region. Greve, in the heart of Chianti Classico, has an impressive piazza lined with arched colonnades, and beyond Greve, the landscape grows even more picturesque. An outstanding viewpoint is from the medieval fortress in Castellina.
8 Villa di Poggio a Caiano
About 18 kilometers northwest of Florence on the main road to Pistoia, in Poggio a Caiano, is the villa generally considered to be the Medici's finest and most splendid summer residence. It was built by Giuliano da Sangallo for Lorenzo the Magnificent and altered and extended by later Medici. You can appreciate their artistic tastes in details such as the entrance loggia; the terracotta reliefs in the entrance hall; and the large drawing room with its frescoes by Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo, Franciabigio, and Allori. Some of the furnishings were left by King Victor Emmanuel II, who lived here. You'll want to see this villa for its interior, but don't miss the chance to stroll among the old trees in the park surrounding it.
Location: Poggio a Caiano
9 Villa la Petraia
Ferdinando de' Medici acquired the estate between Florence and Sesto in 1575 and had it remodeled by Buontalenti, but kept the old tower from the original fortified residence. In the 19th century, the villa was a summer residence for the kings of Italy, and is still owned by the government. The covered courtyard is decorated with frescoes by Volterrano and Cosimo Daddi. It has lovely grounds with terraced gardens and groves of orange trees; as you walk through you'll be treated to beautiful views of Florence.
Address: Via della Petraia 40, Castello
10 Villa di Castello
Just a few hundred yards west of Villa la Petraia, the Medici Villa di Castello is not open to the public, but the grounds are, with their magnificent fountains, grottos, and statuary. The most elaborate grotto with mosaics and animal sculptures is believed to be the work of Giorgio Vasari, and the Hercules fountain is by Niccolò Tribolo. Jasmine and a collection of other fragrant plants make this a garden for all the senses.
Address: Via Castello 47, Castello
Other Villas and Attractions of Interest Near Florence
The little town of Castelfiorentino lies in the valley of the River Elsa, southwest of Florence. In addition to several interesting churches and a town art gallery with some impressive works by medieval artists, the Museo Benozzo Gozzoli, displays a cycle of 15th-century frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli depicting the life of the Virgin Mary.
Address: Via Tilli 27, Castelfiorentino
Villa of Cerreto Guidi
Built as a fortified hunting lodge for Cosimo de'Medici in 1565, Villa di Cerreto Guidi was completed with the architect Buontalenti's grand staircase known also as "Ponti Medicei." The villa is now a museum with period furniture, hunting weapons, and Medici portraits
Address: Via dei Ponti Medicei 7, Cerreto Guidi
Villa Demidoff Park
Little remains of the splendid villa that Buontalenti built for Francesco I de 'Medici in 1575 just outside of Florence, but the park has been completely restored, and is open April through October. Giambologna's monumental statue, Apennines, is an outstanding example of Florentine Mannerism.
Address: Via Fiorentina 6, Pratolino