Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country in the world – a total of 53, as of 2017. Of all the regions in Italy, Tuscany has the most UNESCO sites, with the seventh site added in 2013.
Now, you might be wondering just what UNESCO is or means (here’s a good reference for that), but even if you’ve never heard of the acronym there’s no doubt that some of the places and monuments on the list are also on your itinerary.
Here’s an overview of Tuscany’s seven UNESCO sites. How many have you visited? How many are on your must-see list?
The entire historic center of Florence, the regional capital, is on UNESCO’s list, and it was also the first Tuscan site to be added in 1982.
It includes major Florence attractions like the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Church of Santa Croce, the Pitti Palace, and more. UNESCO notes the city’s importance as the “symbol of the Renaissance,” and a place where visitors can see world-class art and architecture by masters like Michelangelo, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, and Giotto.
Most tourists in Florence will not, in fact, stray outside the UNESCO-listed historic center, so wander at will throughout the city and marvel at the beauty of it all.
San Gimignano is another UNESCO listing that encompasses the entirety of the historic center – and in this case, that’s essentially the whole city. This small Tuscan hill town is famous for its many Medieval towers. It’s sometimes called the Manhattan of Tuscany, although there are only 14 or so towers still standing and they were originally built in the 13th-14th centuries.
At one time, there were more than 70 of these towers – each constructed by a wealthy family to show off their power. Today, though most are gone, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine the skyline full of similar stone towers, and how majestic that must have looked from the surrounding area.
The historic center of San Gimignano was added to UNESCO’s list in 1990. UNESCO notes that the city was an important stop for pilgrims traveling along the Via Francigena. It’s an excellent day trip option from Florence or Siena, but since there’s no train station in San Gimignano you’ll need to either take a regional bus or book a guided tour.
The third Tuscan city center on UNESCO’s list is Siena, described by UNESCO as “the embodiment of a Medieval city.” The architecture in the historic center, inside the old city walls, dates primarily from the 12th-15th centuries. UNESCO added the historic center of Siena to its list in 1995.
Historic Siena spreads out from the Piazza del Campo in the center, a fan-shaped square that feels even more Medieval during the famous Palio horse race that takes place there twice each summer. The UNESCO listing includes Siena’s top attractions, such as the Duomo and the city hall that towers over the Piazza del Campo.
Siena is a perfect day trip from Florence, though it’s even better if you can spend the night in the historic center. There’s a train station in Siena, but if you’re coming from Florence it’s better to travel by bus. Note that during the Palio, the city is extremely crowded and hotel rooms book up well in advance.
The year after Siena’s historic center was added to UNESCO’s list, they added the final historic city center on Tuscany’s current list of UNESCO sites – Pienza. Pienza is another striking hill town in Tuscany, quite beautiful from a distance, but it’s the history of the city’s development that makes it a UNESCO site.
Pope Pius II was born in Pienza, and after he became pope he used his position to essentially revamp his hometown. The work began in 1459, with architect Bernardo Rossellino rebuilding the town from the ground up. Pienza (it was originally called Corsignano) was, in UNESCO’s words, where “Renaissance town-planning concepts were first put into practice.”
The centerpiece of the new Pienza is Piazza Pio II (named after the pope) and the buildings that surround it – including the Palazzo Piccolomini, which was the pope’s summer retreat.
The main attraction in Pisa is the famous leaning tower, which happens to be part of Pisa’s inclusion on UNESCO’s list. The entire listing is for the Piazza del Duomo and the buildings on it – the 11th-century cathedral, 12th-century baptistery (the largest in the country), the famous tower, and the Camposanto cemetery completed in the 15th century.
The Piazza del Duomo was added to UNESCO’s list in 1987, the second site after the historic center of Florence, and while the piazza itself is open to the public at any time the individual monuments are not. In fact, during high season getting in to climb the leaning tower of Pisa can mean a long wait – it’s recommended to book tickets in advance.
The tower will never be perfectly straight, especially since it had already begun to tilt before they were even finished building it, but it has been shored up in recent years so that it should be stable well into the future.
Though the tower draws almost all the attention in the square, don’t miss the other buildings – they’re phenomenal in their own right. All are cited by UNESCO as being “masterpieces of Medieval architecture.”
Although Pienza’s historic center was named to UNESCO’s list in 1996, it was enveloped by the addition of the Val d’Orcia to the list in 2004 – Pienza is one of the towns inside the valley. UNESCO still lists the two separately, however.
The landscape of the Val d’Orcia is noted by UNESCO for its “distinctive aesthetics,” images of which “have come to exemplify the beauty of well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscapes.” If you’ve seen what seem to be generic photographs of Tuscan hills, they’re likely from the Val d’Orcia. This area has also been depicted in many paintings.
Besides Pienza, other towns inside the Val d’Orcia are Montalcino and San Quirico d’Orcia. All of these can be good Tuscany day trips, but you’ll either need a car or to figure out the bus schedules.
The newest addition to Tuscany’s list of UNESCO sites is called “Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany,” which encompasses a dozen villas and two gardens in different parts of the region. All date from the 15th-17th centuries and were built by or improved upon by members of the powerful Medici family.
UNESCO added the Medici Villas and Gardens to its list in 2013, noting that this was “the first example of the connection between architecture, gardens, and the environment.” Palaces built later for wealthy families in Italy and beyond used these villas as a reference point.
Some of the villas on the list include the Villa Medici di Fiesole, Villa di Cafaggiolo, Villa di Castello, Villa di Poggio a Caiano, and the Villa di La Pretraia. Among the gardens listed are the huge Boboli Gardens located behind the Pitti Palace in Florence.