Towers and tunnels. When my kids were young (and even not so young), we spent weeks every year travelling around Tuscany. This region sometimes has a reputation of being an “adult-centred” destination — with all that wine, architecture and Renaissance art. But my kids were never bored. Why? Because Italian history is full of people who liked to build up, or dig down.
There are towers you can climb all over Tuscany. Some of them have stood for almost a millennium. A few have “lifts” to help you up part of the way. All have memorable views from the top. Below are 6 of our favourites.
La Torre Pendente, Pisa
The most famous tower in the world may not have the height of some — it’s only 58m / 191 ft. — but it does have that lean, plus time is on its side. The first stones were laid in 1173. Even without the lean, it would be an architectural icon, with marble arcades, delicate Romanesque columns and a 14th-century bell tower capping it all off.
Walking up the Leaning Tower is a disorientating experience; at times, your brain is telling you that you’re walking downhill. Note: kids must be 8 by the end of the current year to climb it.
Torre Grossa, San Gimignano
All those towers look impressive from the perspective of one of our San Gimignano villas. But these relics of the medieval era were not just built for show. The town’s powerful families were notoriously quarrelsome and when trouble broke out, each would quickly take cover inside their own tower. Should a rival attempt to break in, they’d find heavy things or hot stuff raining down from above.
At San Gimignano’s peak, before the Black Death of 1348–9 decimated the population, over 70 towers stood in the centre. The Torre Grossa is the tallest to survive, at 54m / 177 ft., and you can climb it on the same ticket as the town art museum (which is also excellent).
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
The medieval Torre di Arnolfo stands 94m / 308 ft. above Florence’s most famous square, Piazza della Signoria. It’s a narrow climb, and definitely not one for claustrophobes, but the view at the top is a serious reward.
An added bonus: the tower is open after dark in summer.
Torre di Guinigi, Lucca
If you bike around Lucca’s walls, you will spot a red-brick medieval tower with trees growing out the top of it. This is the 45m / 148 ft. summit of the Guinigi Tower, named after a family who were power players in Lucca for 5 centuries until the 1800s. The trees are ilex, and have been part of the tower’s “rooftop garden” for over 400 years; the views stretch across the plains north of Lucca to the Apennine mountain range beyond.
Fortezza, Castellina in Chianti
The Chianti is spoilt for unforgettable views, but few beat the outlook from the top of Castellina’s former fortress.
This fortified palace is now an Etruscan and wine museum, but climb to its roof and you quickly grasp why Castellina was such an important outpost for Florence in its tit-for-tat conflict with Siena between the 1200s and the final fall of the Sienese Republic in 1555 (1559 if you count an exile government installed in Montalcino for 4 years).
Palazzo Comunale, Montepulciano
You have probably seen photos of the Leaning Tower. Perhaps the skylines of Florence, with the Palazzo Vecchio, or spiky San Gimignano are also familiar? Montepulciano’s crenellated town hall probably slipped under the radar… or did it?
If you watched Netflix show about Cosimo de’ Medici, “Medici: Masters of Florence”, this palace doubled as the Palazzo Vecchio. (Indeed, its architect, Michelozzo specifically chose to reflect its more famous ancestor in his design.) The square and its travertine-fronted palace also featured in teen-vampire movie “Twilight New Moon”, this time standing in for Volterra.
The summit of its clock tower is the best spot in town to appreciate the Renaissance palaces of Piazza Grande, below, or survey the rolling winelands that are the source of this town’s fame, as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. You may even spot a few of our Montepulciano villas from up there.