Florence to Pisa: A scenic train ride through Tuscany
The Eurail pass can take you anywhere in Italy, from Venice to Palermo and every city in between. And while it is certainly worth your while to ride the Frecciarossa high-speed trains from one destination to another, checking off cities such as Palermo, Naples and Rome as you go, you can have an equally enriching experience by riding the slower rails and digging deep into the landscape of a single region on regional trains. Plus, you don’t need to reserve a seat ahead of time; just hop on and off the train to your heart’s content.
No place adapts itself better to this exercise than Tuscany, and Florence is one of several ideal starting points. Plan to spend three to five days following the route – you want to take your time in each city.
Most Florentine landmark sits within an easy walk of the central Santa Maria Novella train station. So even if you’ve spent a few days here and want an early start to less well-known destinations, you might consider dropping your bag off by the left-luggage depot next to platform 15 and spend an hour or two taking in the city. Walk around the duomo one last time – making sure to stop for an ice cream at Grom, one of Italy’s best gelato vendors, located just down a sidestreet under the watchful eye of Giotto’s campanile. Or peruse the leather goods sold at the covered market and the storefront shops facing the Medici chapels. Then grab your bags, check the departures chart one last time, and get ready to leave the crowds behind.
I think it’s cities like Pistoia, some five stops on the regional train from Florence, that make Italy such an appealing draw. The city does not rank high on any tourist’s to-do list – in fact, it rarely makes the list at all. Yet Pistoia drips with charm, and I sometimes travel there when I want to disconnect from the crowds and find a window into Tuscan daily life. From the station, walk to the other side of the roundabout and join up with Via xx Settembre. A ten-minute stroll takes you to Via Camillo Benso Cavour at the outer ring of Pistoia’s historic center. Make your way to Piazza della Sala, the city’s old commercial hub, just off the square that holds Pistoia’s cathedral. Grab a beer at La Degna Tana. Directly in front of you, a resident fills a bucket with water pumped from a stone fountain. On the other side of the square, a calm covered market charts the distance between the palaces of long-departed nobles. Only the barks of market vendors and the chatter of their customers break the tranquility. Among Tuscany’s many treasures, you will feel like Pistoia belongs only to you.
I came to the industrial hub of Empoli hoping to find something of the Tuscan town life that I had never experienced before. And, well, it took me all of 20 minutes to figure out why no one from Tuscany had ever told me I should. This is where the Eurail pass worked its magic. Without waiting another minute, and without standing in line at the busy Empoli station, I took one of the many trains headed back to Florence and stepped out at Montelupo-Capraia. I first walked to Capraia, where a series of footpaths lead past stone facades clinging jealously to the sides of a hill. The views of Montelupo’s fortress on the other side of the Arno caught the corner of my eye as I followed the scent of grilled meat to find a pair of locals gabbing, one at street level and the other from an open window – a classic Tuscan tableau. At the top of Capraia, I stood still under the base of the 18th-century Santo Stefano church, which stands on a structure first built in the early 12th century, and took in the views at each side. The reward here isn’t a street café and a 90-cent cup of coffee – for that, head across the river to bustling Montelupo, with its cafes and art galleries. No price can be placed, though, on the views of the Tuscan hills stetching to the distance as far as the eye can see. Monteluop-Capraia is a 30-minute train ride from Florence.
Opera composer Giacomo Puccini was born in this small provincial capital, and it’s not hard to recognize the city as a source of his inspiration. Lucca’s historic city center unfolds like a love song. Atop the remarkably well preserved renaissance-era walls runs a steady stream of joggers, tracing an urban perimeter lined by elegant avenues that connect the city gates and a series of churches. Just within the walls, city life nestles around a hive of small piazzas placed at random intervals. At piazza Cittadella, Puccini in sculpted form lounges amid brick-and stucco residences, cafes and bistros. You will want to follow his example, but don’t stay too long, because otherwise you will miss the crowning movement of Lucca’s architectural symphony – Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, where a chorus of flamboyantly colored buildings hug against the foundations of Lucca’s Roman-era amphitheater. Lucca is around a 1-hour 20 minute train ride from Florence.
This coast-adjacent Italian city draws most visitors in Tuscany for one reason: Its famously leaning tower. It’s also a well-connected city, and at the far western edge of this itinerary, it only takes around an hour on a direct regional train from Florence. Pisa Centrale train station offers left luggage facilities, so if you want to simply make the 20-minute walk to the Leaning Tower before leaving, you can easily do so. Meanwhile, the station’s location at the opposite end of town from Piazza dei Miracoli, where the city’s most famous building towers over a field of grass and a handful of other breathtaking landmarks, offers the perfect chance to take in the other side of the city. Set out slow down Corso Italia and trod the cobbles of its warren of side streets, replete with mom-and-pop shops and bearing names, such as Via delle Belle Donne and Vicolo dell’Oro, that are tailormade for flights of fancy.
Ever dreamed of taking a relaxing train ride through Tuscany’s captivating landscape? Find out more about the Eurail experience