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Tuscany landscapes will transport you to another era. Driving around admiring medieval hilltop towns separated by rolling hills, cypress trees and vineyards lends to Tuscany’s dreamy feel. You can’t help but imagine you’ve stepped onto a movie set.
After being accepted to a Venetian photo workshop in October, I booked a week in Tuscany with friends. Although I’d been to Italy in the spring and summer, I’d never been in the fall. Given the combination of fewer crowds, beautiful colors and temperate weather, it’s now my favorite time of year to visit.
Base yourself in the heart of Tuscany
Staying at Borgo Argenina, a gorgeous Bed & Breakfast in Gaiole in Chianti, is highly recommended. The owner, Elena, has beautifully restored this historic and picturesque location. She, her angelic staff, and two dogs, Pasqualina and Giuseppina, will make sure you have a memorable visit.
Borgo Argenina epitomizes Tuscany. Dating from 998, this historic property has an amazing view. Watching the sunrise over the vineyards as the fog surrounds distant castles is a wonderful way to start each morning. Doing this while enjoying Elena’s scrumptious coffee cake and sipping tea is delightful.
Providing you with a beautiful hand drawn map that outlines towns and recommended restaurants, Elena will help you plan your time in Tuscany. Knowing that we wanted to indulge in Elena’s cooking class, we selected a night and planned our Tuscany schedule accordingly.
Don’t miss the opportunity to create Tuscan delights in her beautiful kitchen. Since Elena graciously gifts you a recipe book, you can recreate these dishes at home. Lasagne bolognese, ribollita (Tuscan bread soup), and cacciatore chicken are crowd pleasers.
TIP: If you are a truffle lover, make sure to treat yourself to a night at her friend Giorgio’s restaurant – Locanda del Tartufo. He is not only an amazing chef but also a great entertainer. You’ll enjoy six super tasty truffle courses and Chianti wine for an extremely reasonable price. If you are interested, you can join him and his dogs for truffle hunting.
Explore Tuscany’s magic & castles
To maximize our time enjoying sights and towns, we limited driving time to 90 minutes. There are endless picturesque villages and historic castles within that range, including Brolio Castle.
Although we planned to hike to Brolio Castle from Borgo Argenina, numerous wrong turns prevented us from doing this. While we enjoyed leisurely strolling the surrounding landscape, I’d recommend driving as the roundtrip hike will take a full day.
TIP: Visit Brolio Castle late in the day for fewer crowds and great light. Opt for the 5 Euro ticket to enjoy a stunning panoramic from the gardens. This also allows you to visit their tasting room down the hill where you can enjoy a free glass of wine from a historic Chianti winemaker.
Learn about Chianti from Tuscany
Wanting to experience a boutique Tuscany winery, we opted to visit I Sodi winery just down the street from Borgo Argenina. Producing only 19,000 bottles a year, it is a small operation. We enjoyed admiring the vines while gazing upon castles in the distance.
Some cool facts we learned while visiting the winery:
- DOCG on a label on the neck of many Italian wines means Denomination of Control and Guaranteed Origin. This signifies it’s a true wine from that region.
- The rooster seen throughout the Tuscany region is the symbol for Chianti Classico.
- Chianti Classico is a medium-bodied wine made from the small, Sangiovese piccolo grapes.
- 2011 and 2014 are good years for Chianti Classico.
TIP: I Sodi winery is open 8AM – 6PM each day. Make sure to stop in for a visit!
Enjoy the dichotomy of smaller and larger Tuscany towns
Tuscany abounds with gorgeous hilltop towns of varying sizes. While we preferred the smaller, quaint towns that felt like villages, it’s nice to see a larger one like Siena. Located only 20 minutes from Borgo Argenina, making a quick stop here is worthwhile. Enjoy a gelato while gazing upon the famous Piazza del Campo. The Palio di Siena horse race takes place here each year on July 2 and August 16.
TIP: While in this area, don’t miss Osteria del Borgo. This incredible restaurant is located 45 minutes west of Siena (Via Ricasoli 25, 53031 Casole d’ Elsa). Learning about this jewel in the tiny hamlet of Mensano from an agriturismo owner when I visited Tuscany in 2015, I was excited to return and relive one of the greatest meals I’d ever had.
Roberto, the owner, is not only a delight but also an amazing chef, preparing recipes passed down from his grandmother. Favorites include the truffle pasta, ribollita (Tuscan bread soup), wild boar pasta and butternut squash risotto. Make sure to ask him for wine pairing suggestions and save room for his delicious desserts. Tuscan bread soup is amazing. Try this dish at least once in Tuscany as it is divine and differs each place you go. I ate it everyday – sometimes twice a day!
Indulge in incredible wines and history in Montepulciano
Tasting Montelpulciano wines and wandering the historic town is a Tuscany highlight. Learning about this wine varietal and seeing the town from which it originates is fascinating. We loved exploring the narrow cobblestone streets and admiring the historic shuttered Renaissance architecture.
Although it’s only a 20 minute walk across this medieval hilltop village, adorable shops will entice you. Venture down narrow alleys for jaw-dropping views of the beautiful surrounding Val d’Orcia countryside.
The picturesque main square has been a filming location for the “English Patient” and “Twilight Series.” During our visit, we found ABC shooting a show. Spotting someone looking like Priyanka Chopra, I tried to capture pictures. However, staff quickly ran over, forbidding me from photographing or filming.
TIP: Allow at least a half day for Montelpulciano. This will afford you plenty of time to shop for beautiful ceramics, jewelry, and soaps and enjoy a leisurely lunch. We found Montepulciano the most enchanting of all the towns we visited.
On Roberto’s recommendation, we checked out Gattavecchi winery in Montelpulciano (Via di Collazzi, 74 Loc. Santa Maria, 53045 Montepulciano). After strolling through the gorgeous town, we enjoyed a leisurely outdoor lunch. To learn more about this wine and maximize variety, we opted for wine flight pairings.
Interesting Montepulciano and Gattavecchi facts
- A Montelpulciano wine’s primary component is the Sangiovese Grosso grape (Prugnole Gentile). It’s typically comprised of 70-100% Prugnole Gentile, up to 20% Canaiolo Nero, and up to 20% of other varietals.
- Montepulciano is considered less tannic and softer than Brunello wines.
- During the tasting, we preferred Nobile’s bolder taste to the simpler, lighter Rosso.
- Nobile is aged at least two years.
- Rosso is a young wine, aged six months in a barrel.
- The Gattavecchi location served as a monastery from 1200 to mid 1800s. It’s been in the Gattavecchi family since the 1950s.
- When excavating their wine cellars, the Gattavecchi’s found an Etruscan tomb with cups and goblets. Using skills learned from the Greeks, Etruscans made wine.
- In the U.S, Gattavecchi wines can be purchased from Total Wine.
Delight in Pienza’s pecorino cheese
If you love Pecorino cheese, don’t miss out on visiting Pienza. Since it’s only 20 minutes from Montepulciano or Montalcino, it’s worth a quick stop.
Walking along the narrow streets, the delicious window displays will call your name. As a result of those enticing offerings, we indulged in a tasty melted Pecorino with honey and walnuts.
TIP: Stop in Pienza late in the day for fewer crowds and beautiful golden hour light. Make a quick detour to the viewpoint behind the church in the main square for a stunning panoramic view. Then, wander the enchanting streets after sunset to capture cool images after the street lights come on.
End an amazing Tuscany trip in Montalcino
When planning the Tuscany trip, visiting Montalcino to learn more about Brunello di Montalcino wines was a top priority. Given that these are premium priced wines in the U.S., I wanted to educate myself about choosing them.
With numerous restaurants and wine bars throughout the town, many tasting options exist. A waitress at our restaurant recommended checking out Bruno Dalmazo (BD) Enoteca Wine Shop (Via Traversa dei Monti, 214, 53024 Montalcino). This sizeable wine store not only has a huge selection of Italian wines but also has a number available for you to sample.
Interesting facts about Montalcino wines:
- Aging requirements:
- Rosso – 2 years
- Brunello – 5 years – typically 3 years in barrels
- Reserve – 6 years
- Montalcino wines are strong, robust wines
- 2010 and 2012 are two of the best recent vintages
- You can also pick up Crème Toscana alla Nocciolla, a hazelnut and chocolate spread similar to Nutella, but without palm oil at BD wine shop.
- Conservation tip: Given the negative environmental impact of palm oil, I now read all labels and avoid buying any products containing palm oil. Sadly, rainforests are being cleared at an alarming rate to plant palm oil. This is significantly decreasing orangutan and other wildlife habitats.
TUSCANY LOGISTICAL TIPS:
- Rent a smaller car to simplify parking and navigation in Tuscany. A Volkswagen Golf is perfect to fit two large suitcases and one carry on suitcase in the trunk.
- Opt for full coverage insurance as Italian driving is aggressive
- Make sure to get an international driver’s permit before leaving home
- Be aware that Italy uses electronic speed traps so be mindful of your speed or you will get a “surprise” ticket in the mail when you return home
- Borgo Argenina Room options
- Two people: Opt for Suite Fiory for a beautiful view from the second floor of the main house
- Three people: Piccola Villa has its own kitchen and outdoor terrace
- Four people: Villa Oliviera is perfect for a group of 4 or more and impeccably decorated
- Bring layers as mornings and evenings can be chilly in Tuscany
- Bring wine skins or a wine suitcase to transport Tuscany wine purchases back home
- Book accommodation well in advance as places do fill up, especially if you are visiting Tuscany between June – August
- Heading to Venice? Check out my Venice blog post for tips