Seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Tuscany You Can’t Miss
UNESCO World Heritage Sites are the world’s most intriguing places to visit for travellers. These are places that are globally recognized for their educational, cultural, scientifically or physically importance and as such, are protected by the United Nations. Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country in the world, and Tuscany has the most sites even within Italy. So you can’t miss these seven fantastic sites!
Florence, known as the Cradle of the Renaissance, was the first Tuscan site to be inducted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its historical center is often referred to as an open-air museum with its magnificent architecture and masterpieces of art by luminaries such as Michaelangelo, Giotto, Brunelleschi, Botticelli and Vasari.
Built on an ancient Etruscan settlement, Florence rose to fame during the Medici era in the 15th and 16th centuries. Over the next 600 years, there was an astonishing amount of artistic and cultural activities such as the Santa Maria del Fiore, the Church of Santa Croce, the Uffizi Museum, the Bell Tower and the Pitti Palace. The historic city center is bounded by 14th century walls, gates, towers and two Medici strongholds: Saint John the Baptist and the Fort of San Giorgio del Belvedere. Along the Arno River, the UNESCO site is bounded by a series of bridges including the Ponte Vecchio and Ponte Santa Trinita.
Pisa: The Piazza dei Miracoli
The Piazza dei Miracoli, also known as the Piazza del Duomo, was the second site in Tuscany to be given UNESCO World Heritage status. Beginning in the 11th century, the Piazza dei Miracoli, which means ‘Square of Miracles’, began to be constructed, starting with the Romanesque Cathedral, then the Baptistery, followed by the Leaning Tower and then finally the Graveyard, which was completed in the 14th century. The most famous of these is the Leaning Tower, which overlooks the square. Its peculiar inclination is due to its weak foundation and inadequate support of the tower’s structure. In fact, the tower began to tilt even before it was finished, but has been shored up in recent years so that it’s stable for the long term. Our recommendation if you want to climb it is to book tickets in advance as the wait can be ridiculously long! While the tower is the most famous, don’t miss the other buildings! All are cited by UNESCO as being ‘masterpieces of Medieval architecture’.
The Historic Center of San Gimignano
This small medieval Tuscan town is famous for its medieval towers, 14 of which are still standing. There were once 70 of these towers, each built by important families that lived in San Gimignano, trying to show off their wealth. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it was once an important stopping point for pilgrims traveling along the Via Francigena to or from Rome. The historical center contains two principle squares: the Piazza della Cisterna with its lovely natural pool and the Piazza Duomo, which has an intricate layout full of public and private monuments.
The Historical Center of Siena
Siena is internationally famous both for the Palio, a horse race tradition that takes place twice a year, and for being one of the most beautiful cities in Italy. The UNESCO site includes the Piazza del Campo, which was planned as a work of art between the 12th and 15th centuries, as well as a 43 mile long fortified wall with protected gates that doubled as strategic military points. Inside the walls, towerhouses, palaces and churches still survive. It’s also important to note that the city’s medieval fountains continue to work through an extensive system of underground tunnels. The city had a huge influence on art, architecture and urban planning during the Middle Ages throughout Italy and Europe.
The Historical Center of Pienza
Pienza was home to the Renaissance humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius II. Through his influence and money he transformed his birthplace into his own Utopia. He hired the architect Bernardo Rossellino to create the historical center, a superb square known as Piazza Pio II and the buildings around it: the Piccolomini Palace, the Borgia Palace and the Cathedral with streets that lead to stunning vista points.
Probably my favorite thing to do in this hilltop town is wander the cobblestone streets while Pecorino cheese tasting. Pecorino is a delectable cheese that has its origins in the sheep farms surrounding this town. You can sample such fare as pecorino cheese slathered with fig-infused balsamic vinegar. It’s heaven on earth.
The Val d’Orcia is one of our favorite regions in Tuscany, known for its stunningly beautiful landscapes that has inspired Renaissance artists and modern photographers alike. Set in a valley that extends from the hills of Siena to the dormant volcano Monte Amiata, it is full of rolling hills of cypress trees, country villas, natural hot springs, hilltop towns and castles. Within the valley are also the DOCG zones of two of our favorite wines, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. To enjoy Val d’Orcia in its entirety, we highly recommend renting a car. As you drive through the winding roads, be prepared to see new sites and gorgeous vistas at every bend. It was proclaimed a World Heritage Site because it was part of the agricultural hinterland of Siena, redrawn and developed when it was integrated in the territory of the city-state in the 14th and 15th centuries to reflect an idealized model of good governance and to create a an aesthetically pleasing picture.
The Medici Villas and Gardens
The Medici Villas and Gardens were the most recent site to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. These were the numerous summer residences and hunting lodges of the influential Medici family, which you can visit for free and hold important artworks from the Renaissance. In total they are twelve villas and two gardens spread across Tuscany. Built between the 15th and 17th centuries, they were selected by UNESCO for their “innovative system of construction in harmony with nature and dedicated to leisure, the arts and knowledge.” The most famous of the villas included on the list are the Villa Medici di Fiesole, Villa di Cafaggiolo, Villa di Castello, Villa di Poggio a Caiano and the Villa di la Pretraia. The Boboli Gardens, which are located behind the Pitti Palace in Florence, are also extremely popular.