Tuscany is a beautiful part of Italy. Florence, Pisa, and Siena all boast some incredible sites. The Duomo is spectacular, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a must see, and the Piazza del Campo hosts one of the year’s most anticipated cultural events in the Palio. Chianti is home to fabulous wineries where homegrown grapes produce some of the world’s finest wines, and the countryside gives way to romantic hillside towns that boast breathtaking views. But, what if your after something a little different? What if you want to discover the undiscovered? The weird and wonderful? The unusual hidden gems? Well, we’re here to help. Here's our this list of some of the best and most unusual things to do in Tuscany
Okay, so we’re going to sidestep the Piazza del Duomo and forget about the magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. We’re going to ignore St. John’s Baptistry and consciously overlook Uffizi Gallery. We know they are there with their fantastic art and history. But, today, we’re not interested in them. No, today, we’re interested in different kinds of Tuscan secrets. That’s right, we want unusual things to do in Florence.
1. Galileo’s Middle Finger, Florence
Yup, Galileo Galilei, the polymath genius who discovered four of Jupiter's moons over 400 years ago, has, in Florence’s History of Science Museum, his middle finger on display.
This relic, removed from Galileo's corpse along with two fingers, a tooth, and a vertebra, belonged to a Florentine family. Until, they, and the container they were in, mysteriously disappeared. In 2009, they resurfaced at an auction, were bought, verified and given to the Florence History and Science Museum.
The Vatican condemned Galileo with the church viewing him as a heretic. So, if you so choose, you could interpret the final resting place of the astronomer’s skeletal finger as a final defiant message to the church.
To cop a glance at what has surely got to be one of the most unusual things to do in Florence.
2. Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Established in 1221 by Dominican monks, this is quite possibly the oldest pharmacy in the world. Here, balms, salves, and medicines were cooked up and mixed together for the monk’s infirmary in the Basilica Santa Maria Novella. The practice remains the same today, employing the same traditional methods to make their products.
The pharmacy is in a beautiful, but unassuming building. Inside, the nose tingles with the fragrance of herbs and spices and the eyes bulge at the fantastic decor. Frescoes and gilded ceilings give way to elegant wooden cabinetry in which old medicine bottles sit.
You can browse the space, which first sold to the public in the 17th century, and pick yourself up an ancient remedy. What makes the experience so special is exploring the history attached to the products and recipes.
The Acqua di Rose, concocted to serve as a disinfectant when the plague struck Florence, is still made using the original recipe and ingredients. All that has changed is its purpose. Now, it is a skin toner.
Included in the building is also a small museum, which features some low-key displays. However, it is the pharmacy that steals the show. There is a helpful computerized catalog that you can use to browse what’s on offer and read about the history of each product.
3. Perseus with the head of Medusa, Florence
Located in Florence's popular Piazza della Signoria is the greatest of Tuscan secrets, the statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa. This example of Italian Mannerist sculpture is one of the most important and sits discreetly under the Loggia dei Lanzi.
Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned Benvenuto Cellini, a renowned goldsmith, and sculptor, to make the statue in 1545. It depicts Perseus, who in Greek mythology was the son of Zeus, holding gorgon Medusa’s head high after he had killed her.
The statue, cast all at once and made entirely from bronze, is stunning in its detail. Most people flock to the Uffizi, for a glimpse of the Statue of David, but Cellini’s Perseus is a show stopper.
4. Isola Santa, Apuan Alps
Situated in the heart of the Apuane Alps a short trip from Florence, is this quiet, beautiful village. Built in the middle ages Isola Santa, served as a resting point for pilgrims traveling through. In the 1950s, the inhabitants left after the construction of a hydroelectric dam. However, in subsequent years, it has been restored and is now a charming oasis of lush greenery, centuries-old buildings, and a teal-blue lake. Take your cameras because this place is very, very photogenic.
5. Taste truffles, San Miniato
Sitting between Florence and Pisa is San Miniato, one of Europe’s most expansive areas for truffles. And, what’s more, this corner of Tuscany also bears the rarer of the delicious fungal fruit, the white truffle. Between September and December is the truffle harvest and hundreds of kilograms worth and picked. In November for 15 days, the town comes alive for a truffle fair. This is one of the best opportunities to sample some truly fantastic Italian cuisine topped, of course, by the beautifully aromatic white truffle. There is also a market where you can pick yourself up all kinds of fantastic truffle-based products.
6. Museo Piaggio, Pisa
Difficult as it may be, you’re going to steer clear of the Piazza dei Miracoli. You’re not here to see the Leaning Tower. No, you’re looking for unusual things to do in Tuscany and Pisa’s here to sort you out. They are perhaps the most popular mode of transport in Italy. You see them everywhere. People shoot up and down avenues and tear around narrow, windy side streets atop them. The Vespa, Piaggio’s racy, two-wheeled scooter is so much a part of Italian culture and identity, they should put it on the flag.
For a complete look into the history of the company, head 25 kilometers south of Pisa and enjoy their museum. Housed in a 3000 square meter former tool shop, you can now learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the company. From its start in 1921 all the way through to its production of aircraft, destruction during WWII and the eventual development and restyling of their famed Vespa.
7. The Charterhouse of Calci, Calci
Ten kilometers from Pisa, in Calci, at the foothills of the Pisan Mountains, is the Calci Charterhouse, a spectacular Carthusian monastery. Not exactly an unusual thing to do in Tuscany, but definitely something often overlooked.
Carthusian monks are part of the Carthusian Order, an enclosed Catholic religious order, founded by Bruno of Cologne in 1084. The Charterhouse in Calci, established in 1366, was a monastery where monks could retreat for a life of seclusion and contemplation.
Now, on-site, there is the Natural History Museum which beautifully combines art, history, and faith. A walk around the grounds makes for a beautiful afternoon. And, when you make your way into the church, you’re sure to have your breath taken away. There are stunning frescoes, beautiful marble floors and Bernardino Poccetti’s The Last Supper.
8. San Rossore Nature Park, Pisa & Luca
The San Rossore Park covers 24,000 hectares and stretches across both Pisa and Lucca. It consists of several estates which each offer diverse features, all of which, except one, can be visited without a guide. This being a nature park, there is plenty of greenery and wildlife to be enjoyed. You can visit the park on foot, by bike or on horseback. But, those after something a little different and very special can also tour parts of the park by horse-drawn carriage.
9. Visit Carrara marble quarries, Carrara
For one of the most unique things to do in Tuscany, visit the Carrara marble quarries a short drive north of Pisa. If you’re wondering what Carrara marble is, then look no further than the Statue of David. Michelangelo’s masterpiece was carved from the beautiful marble that is sourced from the quarries that surround Carrara. Provided you have a car you can take your own self-guided tour. But, and we cannot recommend this enough, for a truly spectacular experience complete with great views and interesting insights grab a guided jeep tour. You will head 1000 meters above sea level, and the carved, white mountainsides will leave you in awe.
10. Saint Catherine’s Severed Head, Siena
Continuing our exploration of unusual things to do in Tuscany we arrive at Siena. So, trek away from the Piazza del Campo and wind your way through the medieval town’s streets to uncover the weird and wonderful Tuscan secrets the place has to offer. That’s right, on display in Siena is Saint Catherine’s severed head. This relic, dependent on how you feel about severed heads, will either captivate you or, leave you a little queasy.
Saint Catherine is an incredibly intriguing figure. Born into a family of 25 in Siena, she was charitable from a young age. Catherine often gave food and clothes to the city’s poor at the expense of her family.
In her teenage years, Catherine joined the Third Order of Saint Dominic. And, by her early 20s claimed that Jesus had married her, placing an invisible ring made from his skin on her wedding finger.
Later in her life, Catherine was a diplomat for the Catholic Church. She helped to strengthen and fix deteriorating relationships between cities and the Church.
At the age of 28, she claimed to have received the stigmata. She practiced strict abstinence, and before her death in Rome, was unable to eat or swallow water.
Catherine was buried in Rome. But Raymond of Capua, wanting to assuage Catherine’s family and the Sienese, endeavored to send back part of her body. In 1383 while moving Catherine’s tomb, Raymond, without permission, removed her head and had it shipped back to Siena. Now, it sits in an ornate, gilded box in the St. Dominica Basilica.
11. Montesiepi Chapel’s “Sword in the Stone,” Siena
You’ve undoubtedly heard the story of King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone. Well, here, 20 kilometers from Siena in Chiusdino, life imitates legend. Inside the Montesiepi Chapel, buried deep into a rock is a medieval sword.
The man responsible, Galgano Guidotti, was a wealthy knight who turned himself over to God. In a vision, Archangel Michael guided Galgano to a hill. Here, Michael told Galgano to renounce his possessions. The Knight insisted this would be as difficult as thrusting his sword into stone. And, to illustrate his point, Galgano drove his sword into a nearby stone. But, to his amazement, he cut through it like butter.
The following day Galgano found himself atop the very hilltop from his vision. Wishing to commemorate the spot with a cross, but having no wood, he plunged his sword into the same stone. It remains to this day. In 1184 Galgano died. The following year, Pope Lucius III canonized him and a chapel erected around the sword.
Although many claim the sword is fake, it is not. After examination archaeologists determined that it does date back to the 1100s. We will never know if there is truth to the legend. But, the sword in the stone is remarkable nonetheless.
12. Parco dei Mulini, Siena
If you’re in Siena and you’ve had enough of sightseeing, but are still after unique things to do in Tuscany, then make your way to Bagno Vignoni. In this little village located up in the hills of Val d’Orcia, there are thermal baths aplenty. And, if one thing’s for sure, sitting in a hot bath is second to none. So, take a short walk from the center of the town over to Parco dei Mulini and enjoy an afternoon soak in their relaxing warm waters. Not to worry, settling into the steamy baths will cost you a grand total of zero dollars because, that’s right, they are completely free.
13. Vie Cave, Siena Province
Visit the Vie Cave, a short way from Siena proper, to see one of the most mysterious and unusual things to do in Tuscany. Located just 80 kilometers from Grosetto these elaborate sunken routes date back to the times of the Etruscans. Carved into the earth, these enormous passageways - some up to 20 feet deep and 3 meters wide - are believed to have once been sacred Etruscan routes. For those with the legs for it, there is a fantastic 8-kilometer walk from Pitigliano to Sovana Vie Cave. Or, if you’d rather, 500 meters from the Pitigliano itself, there are two great examples of the underground routes the Via Cava di Fratenuti and Via Cava di San Giuseppe.
14. Horse riding in Maremma
If horse riding is your thing, then head south of Siena to this discreet stretch of southern Tuscany. Maremma is a stunning slice of coastline that boasts the kind of country that will make you swoon. Pine groves and low slung hills give way to stunning landscapes that scream to be explored. And, what better way to do it than atop a horse. The area is ripe with riding schools who offer day trips on horseback. Those without substantial riding experience need not worry as most places will provide quick courses to make sure everyone’s comfortable before heading out.
So, now, when you make your way over to Tuscany for your next trip, you’ve been armed. You can head off the beaten track and forget the major attractions. If not for a day, then at least a couple of hours. Go on, make some time and explore all the unusual things to do in Tuscany. You’ll discover a whole world of weird and wonderful.
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