City Life: Pleasures for every palate
When mother Nature was handing out charm, she really piled the goodies up high when it came to this above-the-knee patch of Italy.
If the slopes dotted with cypress trees and olive groves don't win your heart, the aromas and flavours of the flourishing farmlands will, via your stomach. Perfectly preserved Renaissance treasures in culture-packed ancient cities scream out for attention, while the quieter lure of Maremma, Italy's Wild West, is characterised by beautiful coastline, hot springs and marshes once patrolled by cowboys. Don't let Tuscany's popularity with tourists fool you into thinking you can't get away from it all here - sure, this beloved province will treat you to the gamut of holiday activities, but whether you feel like touring mediaeval hilltop villages, hitting the designer boutiques, or flopping on a lounger-for-two for poolside sun-kissed snoozing, Tuscany's allure can be enjoyed at every pace.
The cities are best explored on foot, but there's nothing more fun than putting the top down and exploring the Tuscan countryside by convertible. Hire classic and vintage cars from CLM Viaggi (+39 0577 287415).
Pisa's Galileo Galilei airport (www.pisa-airport.com) is the most convenient regional gateway, but Florence and Rome Fiumicino are options; a two-hour drive from either will get you into southern Tuscany. If you're a high-flier with your own jet, there is also a small airport in Siena (www.siena-airport.it).
The main station in Florence is behind Piazza Santa Maria Novella; Florence acts as a hub for services to other Tuscan cities, including Siena and Pisa (www.trenitalia.com). Grosseto is on the main Rome-Genoa line and has frequent express services. Once in the Tuscan countryside, however, public transport is fairly limited.
Country code for Italy: 39. Florence: 055; Grosseto: 0564; Pisa: 050; Siena: 0577.
Frances Mayes restores a villa and lives the rural dream in Under the Tuscan Sun; gothic novel In Maremma by Ouida recalls the grittier side of 19th-century romance; John Mortimer's Chiantishire comedy thriller Summer's Lease provides a witty take on holidays in Tuscany. Other classics include A Room with a View by EM Forster and Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron.
Do go / Don't Go
Tuscany can be busy with tourists throughout the summer months, although once you've escaped to your retreat you won't notice. The cities of Florence and Siena in particular are best enjoyed outside the peak summer season.
Peasant fare is at its finest in Tuscany, with fagioli-filled tasty soups and stews often the headline acts. Supporting roles are played by beautiful green cold-pressed olive oil, pecorino cheese, spinach, mushrooms, and wild boar from Maremma's pine forests. You'll certainly appreciate a hearty meal, to help you soak up the irresistible liquid enticements of Chiantis, Brunellos and Montepulcianos. The sweet-toothed should sample the rainbow of tempting flavours on offer at a gelateria, or try a slice of Panforte di Siena: a spicy, chewy calorie bomb of almonds, honey, cocoa and candied peel. Head to Nannini's patisserie in Siena at Conca d'Oro on Via Banchi di Sopra for the best panforte, cantucci and orange-infused riciarelli biscuits (+39 0577 236009).
Your best bet is to ask your hotel to organise pick-ups and transfers for you, as you won't be able to hail a taxi in the hills.
Service charges aren't a huge deal here, so forking out five or 10 per cent extra is the polite thing to do. It's cheaper to drink your coffee standing at the bar than sitting down; leave a couple of small coins if you like.
Bring tress-taming headscarves and caps for open-top touring; a designer bikini and some walking shoes will ensure you get the best of coast and country.
Great Renaissance treasures gild the entire region - not just Florence. Siena in particular has a wealth of Gothic riches, including the humbug-striped Duomo and its marble pulpit, as well as important works by Donatello (in the baptistery), Duccio (in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo) and Lorenzetti (in the Palazzo Pubblico). Mediaeval Arezzo boasts Piero della Francesca frescos. Maremma was once the heartland of the Etruscan civilisation, and their ruins can be seen around the beautiful hilltop towns of Savana, Sorana and Pitigliano, 20 miles southeast of Grosseto near Saturnia.
Grosseto and Siena have some fantastic boutiques, but with all the wonderful designer-label factory outlets on the outskirts of Florence, it's tempting to head there for cut-price Italian fashion; one of the most popular is the Mall on Via Europa in Leccio Reggello (+39 055 865 7775). If you like to browse more than buy, a local market's the place to head. We love the daily fish market at Castiglione della Pescaia; Siena's Wednesday-morning food market at La Lizza; and, on the third Sunday of every month, the antiques market at the city's Piazza del Mercato.
Tuscany has enough postcard-perfect vistas to fill a book; you'll soon find your own favourite. That said, to the south, there are spectacular views from the picture-perfect ruins of Scarlino Castle, and from Montepulciano's unfinished cathedral. Fiesole is the upmarket hillside suburb northeast of Florence from where you can enjoy the most magnificent panoramic views of the terracotta-tiled town and its Duomo below.
Siena's famous horse race - Il Palio - is contested twice a year by the city's 17 contrade (districts), each with their own loyalty-stirring symbol, such as eagle, panther and, um, snail. Enjoy a wonderfully haphazard tour of the city by trying to find statues or plaques representing all 17 (hint: usually somewhere near the contrada's museum). Or visit stunning Sant'Antimo (www.antimo.it), a 12th-century abbey and functioning Cistercian monastery in Montalcino late in the afternoon; stand outside afterwards, at 7pm (6.30pm on Sundays), and you'll hear the monks singing at vespers.
Late April-early July The auditory delights of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino are a must for lovers of classical music (www.maggiofiorentino.com). May A historic archery contest takes place in the main piazza of Massa Marittima on the first Sunday after the 20th; the crossbowmen get another go on the second Sunday of August. July/August The two Palio dates in Siena see bareback horsemen fight tooth and hoof to win the race round the Campo (www.paliosiena.com). Early September Where better to get stuck into a wine fair than at Greve, for the Chianti Classico festival. Head to the Joust of the Saracens in Arezzo for mediaeval mayhem and lance-waving; there's a second event at the end of June (www.portacrucifera.it). For more events and activities in Tuscany, also see our Florence destination guide.