If you want to discover the true magic of Tuscany – one of the world’s most spectacular places – you must rent a car. It’s easy and it is no more expensive than using trains or buses. Having a car allows you to explore the region on your own terms, on your own schedule, and get a true feel of Tuscany. Most of renowned Tuscan beauty lies in the rural area full of sunflower fields, rolling hills and myriad of farms and vineyards, as well as historic hilltop villages and towns. You will miss out on most of this unless you have a car.
One of my favorite things on this trip was driving on little dusty country roads and pulling off whenever we wanted. We stopped to take photos (including this amazing sunflower field photo below – my “Under the Tuscan Sun” moment!), to visit wineries or to have lunch. A quick search on Google Maps, and you discover a nearby quiet village and find a family-run restaurant with home cooking. It’s pretty incredible. Being the only tourist there is even more incredible.
We spent time in Florence and loved it (my dream was to see Michelangelo’s David ever since I saw its replica in The Pushkin Museum of Art in Moscow, as a teenager). Aside from Florence (and an hour in Pisa), we tried to go off the beaten path as much as possible and the payoff was great! We experienced many locations away from busloads of tourists. Many places where Nick & I stayed we had pretty much to ourselves, like a 500 year old castle in the middle of Rural Umbria (Castello di Casigliano), a 1,000 year old abbey in the Chianti region of Tuscany (Badia a Coltibuono) or a boutique hot springs resort (Calidario Terme Etrusche), which is popular with locals, but not with tourists.
Can you stay in, let’s say, Florence and take day trips on buses & trains? Of course you can, but then you won’t get to experience those quintessential Tuscan hilltowns and villages in the evenings, when most tourists leave and only the locals remain. You won’t get to roam these ancient streets in the quiet of night or hear the roosters in the morning. Also, you’ll probably end up paying more for staying in a city (when rural prices are always lower, both for lodging and food). And please note, that some of the Tuscan regions, like near Siena, don’t have as much accessibility by public transport as the Northern part (near Florence and Pisa). And, of course, without a car you won’t get a chance to stop by a sunflower field.
Aren’t Italian drivers insane, you ask? I’ve always heard they were but in reality, not at all. In fact, I find them to be much more respectful and careful than Los Angeles drivers, for example. You won’t see as many “dick moves” (don’t you love this term? :)) on the road.
Will you get lost? No more lost than you would get in the US. The Italian road signs are easy and great, often better than we encounter in the States. With amazing GPS in cars and our smartphones you’ll have to work hard to get lost. There are plenty of public parking spots even in the bigger towns, some are free, some have nominal fees.
Let’s see, what are some of the other perks of having your own car in Tuscany?
– pulling up to your lodging and not having to drag or carry your suitcase from a train/bus station;
– having your own personal AC! Which is important during summer travel – as many restaurants and shops in Europe do not have AC. A few minutes in a car with air conditioner on could be a nice reprieve from a hot and sweaty summer day;
– being able to have your own space. I sometimes take micronaps, reapply makeup or even change clothes;
– you won’t spend more money than using public transport. While gas is more expensive in Europe (than in the US), the distances are shorter (than in the US). Tuscany’s total area is only 8,875 mi² (which is twice the size of the greater Los Angeles area, for example).
Here are just a few photos we took from the road. I’ll be posting a LOT more in individual blogs on each town/destination within Tuscany.
So what do you think? Did I convince you? Do you have any questions? Thoughts? What did I miss?
For this trip, Nick & I collaborated and rented with Auto Europe (http://autoeurope.com/car-rental-italy ). They sell car rentals through a number of companies (like Hertz, Dollar, Sixt, etc), so you have quite a big choice of vehicles and pick up locations when you book. What I liked about Auto Europe is the fact that they include collision damage waiver, theft protection and third party liability insurance in the quoted price (with most other car rental companies, from my experience, it’s a separate and quite high daily surcharge). And there is zero deductible for this insurance. That meant we could drive worry-free. If there is a scratch or a dent in the car, or a fender bender, or anything else, we walk away without paying anything extra. It was great to have this peace of mind.
The only extra feature you have to pay for (on top of the quoted price) at the rental counter (ours was at Rome FCO airport) is GPS. We paid for ours, but, strangely enough, ended up using my phone’s Google Maps 95% of the time (it was easier somehow).
TRAVEL TIP: on Google Maps app on your phone you can download a map of a particular region to make it available offline. Then you can use the directions and the voice guided navigation features even when there is no cell signal. Yay for Google Maps!