How to Explore Tuscany by Rail
Tuscany is a popular region in Italy. If you want to get around, rail is an easy way to travel between the main cities like Florence and Pisa. However, some of the ancient hill towns require a little planning. Rail networks are less comprehensive due to the mountainous terrain. But since this is one of Europe’s premiere travel destinations, it’s smart for you to know how to explore Tuscany by rail.
Tuscany by rail
Cities that have direct rail connections
When it comes to exploring Tuscany by rail, Florence is an obvious choice. In fact, it should be on everyone’s Italy itinerary. You couldn’t pack more fine art and architecture into a city if you tried. There’s the Accademia Gallery, which houses the David sculpture, and the Uffizi Gallery, which holds most other art treasures. Give yourself time to take it all in and comprehend its role in the rebirth of learning and culture.
Must-do: Don’t leave Florence without exploring the quieter streets and local piazzas of the south side of the Arno, or seeing the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo.
How to get there: Florence is about halfway between Rome and northern Italy. It’s an 1:20 direct ride from the Italian capital, and less than 2 hours from both Milan and Venice on the direct high-speed Freccia trains.
Siena was Florence’s main rival from the 13th to 15th centuries, until this proud, wealthy independent city-state met its final defeat. Today this gorgeous medieval city still fights Florence, but this time the battle is for tourists who need to choose their base when exploring Tuscany by rail. Siena’s 320-foot-tall Palazzo Pubblico rises 12 feet higher than the tower of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Take that, Florence!
Must-do: Marvel at Siena’s one-of-a-kind shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. It’s still the focal point of social life in the city and home to the famous Palio races.
How to get there: If you’re taking the train from Rome, Milan, and Venice, you’ll need to change in Florence. Regional trains make the 1.5 hour trip from Florence to Siena every hour. Siena’s city center is just over a mile from the rail station.
Most tourists flock to Pisa for a picture with the Leaning Tower. That’s fine, but travelers who are in the know come to see the whole white architectural complex known as the Field of Miracles. Featuring a massive cathedral, elegant baptistery, and the Leaning Tower, this masterpiece trio dominates the green square.
Must-do: Leave the Tower area. There are shopping streets, produce markets, and plenty of nightlife. You’ll notice that Pisa is a pleasantly untouristy student city – around 60% of the city’s 100,000 residents are students, and this gives Pisa a welcome injection of youth.
How to get there: Pisa is well-connected to Florence and Lucca by several regional trains every hour. The train station is about a mile south of the Field of Miracles. A 25-minute walk gets pedestrians to the main tourist zone, before a slow wander back to the station through the bulk of this historic city.
The fact that Lucca hasn’t been involved in a war since 1430 has a lot to do with it being Italy’s most impressive fortress city. I’ve missed Lucca on trips to Italy too many times. This was a mistake. The city is lively and void of tourist hordes, yet it offers so much to enjoy. Romanesque churches and shady piazzas dot Lucca. The entire city is surrounded by an intact wall, which is perfect for a leisurely bike ride or morning jog.
Must-do: Check out the oval-shaped Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, which is ringed by medieval houses over the site of a Roman amphitheater. For a splendid view over the rooftops climb the Torre Guinigi, a 14th-century brick tower topped with oak trees.
How to get there: Lucca is an easy one to reach by train. Trains from Pisa Central Station run approximately every 30 minutes throughout the day. Lucca is also on the main Viareggio-Florence Santa Maria Novella line. The rail station is just outside the walls on the southeast edge of the city.
Cities without direct rail connections
San Gimignano is the epitome of a hill town. It lies halfway between Florence and Siena. The small walled village is famous for its medieval architecture and towers, which rise above the rest of town. Although only 14 of the original 72 tower-houses have survived, San Gimignano still has a feudal atmosphere and appearance. The town is no secret, and tourists crowd the narrows streets by day. But they’re rewarded with the unmistakable sense of history, intact medieval streetscapes, and enchanting setting in the Tuscan countryside.
Must-do: Climb one of the towers and take in the panorama of the countryside from the Rocca (rock) in the southwestern part of the city.
How to get there: There is no rail station in San Gimignano itself, but Poggibonsi S.G. is the nearest. Buses make the 30-40 minute trip from here to San Gimignano about twice per hour. You’ll want to catch Bus 130, which actually originates in Siena, outside the rail station. If you’re coming from Siena or even Florence, then it makes sense to use the efficient and cost-effective bus service.
A little further off the beaten path, another hill town with a long history rises above the Tuscan countryside. The small town of Volterra has massive protective walls dating back to the 5th-4th centuries BC. You might recognize Volterra from Stephanie Meyer’s popular Twilight book series, but you’ll soon realize the real Volterra is much more hospitable. A wander around the cobbled streets will reveal a majestic town.
Must-do: The well-preserved city gates Porta dell’Arco and Porta Diana are impressive and should be at the top of your to-do-list. There’s also the Acropolis, which houses several buildings and the foundations of two ancient temples. The many Roman remains, including the theater, as well as its Romanesque Cathedral prove Volterra’s relevance throughout the centuries.
How to get there: The closest train station to Volterra is Saline di Volterra. You can only reach it by a line running from the coastal town of Cecina. Train service is intermittent, so most people choose to arrive in Colle di Val d’Elsa, Pontedera, or Cecina by train and then take the bus. Buses from Siena and Florence stop in Colle Val d’Elsa where you change buses for San Gimignano or Volterra. If you’re already in San Gimignano, then catch a bus to Volterra with a change in Colle di Val d’Elsa. Buses arrive in Volterra’s Piazza Martiri della Libertà. There aren’t many buses on Sundays and holidays, so plan ahead.
Montepulciano is a rugged town capping a ridge. It has splendid views of the countryside and a long-established wine culture. The medieval town is full of elegant Renaissance palaces, ancient churches, quiet squares, and hidden alleys. Passing under the imposing Porta al Prato gate will put you on the Corso, the long main street leading up toward the graceful Piazza Grande, with its Duomo and Palazzo Comunale and clocktower. A climb up the tower yields vast panoramas on a clear day over the Val d’Orcia and Val di Chiana surrounding Montepulciano.
Must-do: Don’t leave without doing a wine tasting at one of the local wine bars.
How to get there: The nearest railhead is a half hour away at Chiusi. There are frequent trains to Florence and Rome from here. A frequent bus service connects Montepulciano from the bus stop outside Chiusi’s rail station. Besides Siena, this is probably the easiest hill town to visit if you’re exploring Tuscany by rail. Montepulciano’s bus station is within walking distance below the old town on the northeast edge.
These sun-soaked hill towns of central Italy offer the quintessential Italian experience. If you combine them with the bigger urban cities of Tuscany like Florence, Lucca, and Pisa, then you’re looking at one exciting trip. It’ll be packed with art, history, and architecture, plus excellent food and wine. Traveling with a Eurail Italy Pass is a convenient and cost-effective option for discovering Tuscany by rail.