Growing up close to California’s wine countries, it’s safe to say we’ve been spoiled. We’ve driven among rolling vineyards. We’ve sipped wine with a view. We’ve met kind, passionate people who spend their days with their hands in the soil, and their evenings enjoying meals slowly.
But still, areas like Napa, Sonoma, Lodi and Livermore aren’t Tuscany. After spending a week there in the spring, on days where the air was cool but the sun shone each afternoon, we knew we could visit 100 times and never grow tired of the Italian countryside. The iconic region is unmatched in its beauty, culture and food.
We were lucky to visit with a dear family friend who booked us a beautiful farmhouse in Sieci, just 20 minutes by train from Florence. For a week, Sieci became our home base, as we took day trips to places including the medieval cities of Lucca and Siena.
Since then, we’ve come across many online discussions where travelers with limited time ask if they should visit Lucca or Siena. Our answer? It’d be a shame to have to choose between the two. Here’s what we loved about each.
After several days in Rome and Florence, Lucca was a breath of fresh air. Known for its well-preserved Renaissance wall that encircles the city, it was calming to walk through the cobblestone and tree-lined streets.
We hopped off the train and walked toward the wall. We didn’t need a map, as the small city is easy to navigate. As we passed through its old stone gates, we were struck by the unique charm of Lucca: a carousel rotated cheerfully and parents pushed strollers through the streets. We also liked that it wasn’t nearly as crowded as other cities.
We spent the next hour roaming around. We snapped photos of Lucca Cathedral and San Michele in Foro – built right over the ancient Roman forum – and Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, which was once the second-century Roman Amphitheater of Lucca. We passed quaint shops selling leather, accessories, wine, cheese and sweet treats.
After forgoing a few trattorias with pages-long menus (not a good sign), we spotted a vine-covered courtyard with a restaurant inside. It was there, at Local Food Market, that we had one of our most memorable meals of the trip. Inspired ingredients like fennel sausage, onion chutney and fava beans made the menu stand out from others we’d seen around Italy.
By the time we finished our meal, we only had time for a cup of gelato before we had to catch our train back to Florence. However, if we had arrived earlier, we definitely would have spent twilight climbing up Torre Guinigi, a tower that offers stunning views of the city.
Getting to Lucca from Florence: There are hourly trains from Firenze Santa Maria Novella, the main Florence train station, to Lucca. These trains also stop just north of Florence at Firenze Rifredi. The trip takes about 1 hour 15 minutes. Because parking can be a challenge, train is really the way to go.
Better known than Lucca, Siena is popular for its Palio, a horse race that’s held twice each summer. After finally finding our way out of the train station, we made our way toward the town’s historic center, which has been declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With its narrow streets, brick buildings and occasional hills, Sienna is a place where it’s easy to get lost – the good kind of lost. We stopped on a whim for an Aperol spritz and then followed signs to the Piazza del Campo. One of the biggest medieval squares in the world, it has a famous shell shape and is the site of the Palio.
The square was bustling with activity. Young locals sat directly on the ground, sometimes laying back against the curved concrete. Tourists filled the outdoor eating areas at the restaurants lining the square. Steps down a narrow alley, our travel companions spotted a truffle hunter with a stand. They spent the next hour learning about his trade and sampling truffle products – accompanied by a glass of chianti, of course.
From there, we picked a street at random and continued our wandering. Like the other tourists, we were mesmerized by a chocolate fountain wall in the window of Nino & Friends. Again, our travel companions paused for a tasting.
Signage in Siena is excellent, so it was easy to wind past sites of interest – Siena Cathedral, which represents a blend of French Gothic, Romanesque and Classical architecture; as well as Torre del Mangia, one of Italy’s tallest secular towers, to name a couple.
As the clock called for us to enjoy our afternoon apertivo, we found a restaurant off-the-beaten path and enjoyed a light meal with the historic city as our backdrop. Just steps down the street, the view opened up to this, making for one of our favorite photos captured in Italy.
Getting to Siena from Florence: Because the bus station is closer to Siena’s historic center than the train station, it may be best to travel by bus. The Florence bus station is right across the street from Santa Maria Novella, and the trip to Siena (Piazza Gramsci station) takes about 1 hour 25 minutes on the fast bus. Buses leave several times an hour depending on the company.
Alternatively, you can take the train from Florence to Siena. Trains leave about once an hour, and the direct train takes about 1 hour 30 minutes. The non-direct trains require a transfer in Empoli. When you reach Siena, you can walk the 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles) to the city center, but it’s mostly uphill. You can also take a bus into the center, which takes about five minutes.