Tuscany is one of Italy's most popular regions and it's also the biggest. Most of the top places to go in Tuscany are in the central part of the region but if you branch out, especially to the north or south, you'll find a number of good places to visit that are off the usual tourist itinerary. Here are my picks for places in Tuscany to get off the tourist track, from the coast to the hills and mountains. Visit medieval towns and villages, marble quarries and caves, and the city sometimes called Little Florence. While most of these places are best visited by car, a few are easily accessed by train. Keep in mind that when you venture off the tourist track you may find shorter hours for stores and sites, often closing for lunch, and not everyone will speak English. But you're likely to find hidden treasures, have lunch with the locals, or have unique experiences by venturing a little away from the usual tourist spots.
Photo of Barga in the Garfagnana, Tuscany © by James Martin, Europe Travel
Imagine spending a week in a historic family palazzo, or mansion, right on the main square of the small but lively market town of Mercatello sul Metauro in central Italy's le Marche region. Luisa Donati, whose family owns Palazzo Donati, is offering one week stays in Palazzo Donati with guided excursions to visit places and see sights not easily accessible to tourists traveling on their own. Guests will visit artisan workshops and small medieval towns, taste wine, have a cooking class, and tour the famous Frassasi Caves and the Renaissance city of Urbino. A highlight is a dinner prepared by a local fraternity of men dedicated to wine and food, the Accademia del Padlot, an experience not normally available to tourists. This is a great way to have an authentic Italian experience since the arrangements will be made for you and you won't have to worry if you don't speak Italian since you'll have both a hostess and tour guide who speak English.
Le Marche Trip Details: One-week tour packages available in May and September or other dates by special request. See Authentic Italian Experience with Luisa.
Mercatello sul Metauro photo © by Martha Bakerjian
Visiting a food market anywhere in Italy can be a great experience but the market in Palermo, Sicily, is one of the best. Vucciria Market is one of the top things to see in Palermo and recently National Geographic included it in its list of the world's top 10 Food Markets. The historic Mercato della Vucciria has been around for about 700 years and makes a great introduction to the food, smells, sights, and people of Palermo. You'll find a wide assortment of stalls selling everything from produce, fish, and meat to clothing and crafts. Even if you don't want to buy anything, the market is a good source of free entertainment where you can spend an hour or two wandering through the stalls watching the sellers and buyers. Mercato della Vucciria is in the heart of the old city center, off Piazza San Domenico and Via Roma, open from Monday through Saturday until 2pm.
It's Carnival (also known as mardi gras, carnaval, carnevale, or karnaval) season, a time of colorful and outrageous festivals and parades in many parts of the western world. In 2014, Shrove or Fat Tuesday is March 4. Although many parades are now held the weekend before the actual carnival date, there are still many parades and unique festivals on Tuesday.
Take a look at how carnival and mardi gras are celebrated in Europe, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, and the United States with these pictures and articles from our About.com Travel Experts. Let the good times roll!
Pictures of Carnival Parades and Festivals:
- Carnaval Samba Parade in Rio de Janeiro - one of the greatest shows on earth features colorful floats and thousands of singers and dancers
- Carnival Parades in Viareggio, Tuscany - one of the world's biggest parades of allegorical paper mache' floats
- Mardi Gras in New Orleans - Most famous celebrations in the US
- Masks from Venice, Italy
- Orange-Throwing Battle in Ivrea, Italy
- Patras, Greece Carnival Images
- Trinidad and Tobago Carnival Photos
- Venice Carnevale Costumes
While the city of Venice itself is made up of many small islands, there are several bigger islands in the Venetian lagoon that can easily be visited on day trips from Venice. Murano Island, home to glass-making factories, is one of the largest and the most popular for visitors, especially those shopping for glass items or interested in seeing them made. Burano is probably the most colorful island in the lagoon and it's also a good place to shop for handmade lace or learn about the tradition at the Lace Museum. Torcello has a nature reserve and a church with stunning 11th and 12th century Byzantine mosaics.
Burano Island Photo © by James Martin, Europe Travel
If you're planning on driving for at least 3 weeks on your European vacation, a buy-back car lease may be a good alternative to simply renting a car. Although the car doesn't always cost less than a rental, there's nothing extra to worry about and there are a few advantages. With a lease buy-back, you get a brand new car, exactly the model you book. So if you need a car with automatic transmission you will be assured of getting it, not always the case when you rent. The French cars I've driven have gotten excellent gas mileage and since diesel usually costs less than gasoline, you can choose a diesel model to save a little more on fuel costs. Cars also come with excellent insurance and unlike rental cars, there's no processing cost if you need to use it.
The program is offered by several French companies, including Renault Eurodrive and Peugeot through Auto Europe, so pick up and drop off is less expensive in France (I pick up in Nice to drive to northern Italy) . Pick up and drop off in Italy is only available at Rome and Milan airports. Since there's a limited availability of most models, it's best to book as soon as you know your dates. I've been advised by Renault that it's likely they will run out of several models early this year. Another reason to book now - Renault is offering discounted rates for bookings made through February 28, 2014. Read more about the Renault Eurodrive Car Lease Buy-Back Program.
An exhibition of the Shroud of Turin has been announced for 2015, to be held for a 45 day period some time between the Easter season (mid-April) and mid-August in the Cathedral of Turin, according to the Shroud of Turin web site. Thousands of visitors flocked to Turin for the last exhibition, held in 2010, and the Shroud could be seen by reservation for a period of 15 minutes. We'll have updates about dates and how to make reservations as soon as they're available.
Although the Shroud itself is not on display now you can visit the Museum of the Holy Shroud in the crypt of the Church of the Holy Shroud, Via San Domenico 28, in Turin. The museum is currently open 9:00-12:00 and 15:00-19:00 daily (last entrance one hour before closing) and admission is 6 euro.
February is the month often associated with romance and it's a great time to plan your romantic visit to Italy. Since Italy is one of the world's most romantic places, it's full of great choices. Whether your idea of romance is a vacation by the sea or on an island, in a luxurious Tuscan villa or a romantic hotel in Venice, or even staying in a castle or declaring your love from Juliet's balcony in Verona, you're sure to find something that suits your fancy in Italy.
Start by looking at our choices for Top Romantic Places to choose a destination or two that appeals to you. Then think about staying in a couple of Italy's romantic hotels since choosing the right accommodation can really set the mood. If this is your first trip to Italy, you might also want to look at our Italy Travel Planning Overview to get started.
Lake Como photo © by Martha Bakerjian
The Versilia Coast town of Viareggio, known for its long expanse of beaches and its Liberty style architecture, is also famous for its fantastic Carnival parades featuring large allegorical floats made of paper mache'. Running along the seafront promenade, the huge parades are not only on Shrove Tuesday but also three Sundays before and once more the weekend following, drawing more than a million visitors total and making it one of Italy's most popular carnevale events. This year Shrove Tuesday is on March 4 so the 2014 Viareggio parade dates are February 16 and 23 and March 2, 4, and 9. See floats from the 2012 parade in these Viareggio Carnival Parade Photos.
Theater, music, masked balls, children's activities, and other events are held during carnival season and there's even a carnival museum in town, Museo Cittadella del Carnevale, where you can see floats, masks, paper mache' figures and other carnival memorabilia.
Viareggio Carnival Parade photo © by Serena Giovannoni, Wishversilia
Venice is one of the world's top places to celebrate Carnival, or carnevale in Italian. The historic Luna Hotel Baglioni, one of the top romantic hotels in Venice, is a great place to experience a traditional carnevale costume party. For the 2014 carnival season, Luna Hotel Baglioni is hosting three exclusive costume parties in their Marco Polo Ballroom, decorated with original 18th century frescoes of the School of Tiepolo. Parties include a welcome apertivo, masquerade parade, dance performance, and Venetian carnival dinner. Atelier Flavia will be available right in the hotel for costume and mask rentals or purchases.
During carnival season, Venice comes alive with costumed characters, entertainment, food stalls, and special parades and events. Going to a masquerade ball can be a highlight of carnevale in Venice. Transport yourself back in time for a memorable evening at the Moon Masquerade Party on February 22, Gran Baglioni Party on February 28, or the Gran Carnival Gala, the grande finale that also includes the Dance and Opera show, on March 1. See our Tips for Going to Carnevale in Venice for more about Venice's carnival events.
Luna Hotel Baglioni, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, is a 5-star hotel just off Saint Mark's Square. The hotel offers two 2014 Carnival in Venice packages that include admission to one of these carnival parties and 10% discount on costume and mask rentals.
Venice Costume Ball and hotel photo by Luna Hotel Baglioni, used by permission