Featured image: Colourful buildings line the coast of Cinque Terre, one of many great day trips from Florence | Photo by Carolyn Ray
Short and easy train trips from Florence
by Carolyn Ray
With so much to love about Florence, it’s easy to see why millions of people visit each year. While Florence is beautiful all year round, there’s something special about it at Christmas, with lights strung across winding streets and shops decorated with garland. However, there is much pleasure to be found in visiting small towns like Cinque Terre, Lucca, and Siena in the low season. Not only are there are less crowds, but it’s an opportunity to see places as they are, without all the glitz and glamour. Even though not all the shops are open, I enjoy seeing these small villages as they are, without manufactured events for tourists.
January is the perfect time to do day trips from the Santa Maria Novella Train Station without too much planning. It can also be more affordable than in the high season. For example, in Cinque Terre, prices are reduced in the low season. During my two weeks in Florence, I took three separate day trips from Florence.to Cinque Terre, Lucca, and Siena, with a quick stop in Pisa for dinner. I also took a bus to the Florence American Cemetery, which is only about 30 minutes from central Florence.
Day trips by train in Italy
While many people like to can rent a car, I try to take the train as much as possible. In Italy, the trains are fast and reliable, with clean bathrooms and accessible train cars. There are several ways to purchase train tickets, including Trainline, Rail Europe and Omio, or direct from the train company. You can also buy a train pass. Even in the low season, it’s advised to book tickets in advance for the best prices.
Italy’s national train carrier is Trenitalia, which operates regional service in a typically two-story train similar to the GoTrain in Ontario. The regional trains look new and were very clean, with bright blue seats. For these, you can purchase tickets right at the station as the prices don’t vary. Trenitalia also operates long-distance high-speed trains, Frecciarossa, with speeds up to 400km/h and connections between farther distances.
Another high-speed train for longer distances is Italo, which offers comfortable plush seats with electrical outlets and a reading light. When I travelled from Florence to Bari, I purchased my train ticket in advance on Trainline. Italo also has cushy chairs and food service.
An aerial view of Siena cityscape / Photo by wirestock on Envato
Five easy day trips from Florence on the train
1. Feel the wind on your face at Cinque Terre
To get to Cinque Terre, take the train to La Spezia, which is about 2.5-hours from Florence. Once there, change to the regional train, which requires a separate ticket and park pass. Standing on the beach, I breathed in the Meditterrean breeze and dipped my fingers in the water. Not too cold either! There’s something charming about Cinque Terre in December, when fishing boats line the main streets. Since there are no crowds, it’s easy to plan your route on the fly and take stunning photographs. The weather was mild, and despite a cloudy start, the sunshine came out, making for a beautiful day.
To hike in the park, you need a Cinque Terre Trekking Card and Cinque Terre Card Treno MS tickets, which can be purchased in advance to avoid standing in line at the train station. In the low season, there is no charge to hike, so the train ticket and park pass combined are 11.70 euros for seniors over 70 and 14.00 euros for those under 70 (usually the cost is 18.20 euros). You can get on and off the regional train as often as you want, as the train runs between Levanto and La Spezia all day.
Since my time was limited, I started at Levanto, and then took the train to Monterosso al Mare to see the Giant. Afterwards, I hopped over to Manarola to hike to Riomaggiore. However, upon arriving in Manarola, I discovered that the main and most popular trail, Lover’s Lane, was closed for repairs (check trails here before you go). I took the alternate, which I thought would be an easy 1 km hike. Much to my surprise, this trail was so steep, I had to practically crawl on my hands to climb up! It took me a day to recover! Make sure you bring hiking shoes and poles and lots of water.
The Giant in Cinque Terre / Photo by Carolyn Ray
2. See a feat of engineering in Pisa
It has been decades since I went to Pisa, and since it’s on the way home from Cinque Terre, I decided why not! I jumped off the train at Pisa San Rossore to see the 850-year-old Leaning Tower of Pisa. Construction began in August 1173 and it started to learn shortly afterwards due to the soft ground below. It’s part of a cathedral complex called the Field of Miracles which includes a cathedral, baptistery, bell tower (the Tower of Pisa) and cemetery.
Shortly after my last visit here in 1986 when I climbed up the tower, the tower was closed and engineers started working to correct the 5.5-degree tilt (about 15 feet). In 1990, Earth was siphoned from underneath the foundations, decreasing the lean by 17 inches (44 cm) to 13.5 feet (4.1 metres). The tower continued to straighten without further excavation, until in May 2008 sensors showed that the motion had finally stopped. Engineers expect the tower to remain stable for at least 200 years. There’s a charming restaurant and shopping area near the Tower and I walked through the entire town to the Pisa Central Station, across the Arno River, which only took about 15 minutes.
Pisa’s holiday streets near the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Cathedral Complex / Photo by Carolyn Ray
3. Be astounded at Siena Cathedral
I had heard that Siena was stunning and couldn’t wait to see it for myself. My main goal was the Cathedral, but first, a coffee was needed in the main square. Siena is only about 90 minutes from Florence. I walked from the train directly to the sunny Piazza del Campo square where I enjoyed a coffee and decadent sugar-covered croissant (the first of many in Italy!) This scallop-shaped square was built over the Roman Amphitheatre and is regarded as one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares, perfect for people-watching.
Italy’s most famous horse race, the Palio di Siena happens here twice a year, on July 2 (Palio of Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano) and on August 16 (Palio of the Assumption, in honour of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption). However, in January, the Plaza is fairly quiet. The streets are quaint with a lovely shopping area and many outdoor restaurants, with no lineups.
Siena is a scenic town with stunning views and one of its top attractions is the Siena Cathedral, which dates back to the 11th century. With its white and black striped marble and stunning façade, the cathedral contains stunning pieces of art, including The Feast of Herod by Donatello (c. 1427), frescoes from Pinturicchio, Donatello’s famous San Giovanni Battista (c 1455) and four sculptures by the young Michelangelo. In the Cathedral, the frescos are truly astounding, particularly in the Libreria Piccolomini.
While some sections of the Cathedral’s stunning marble floor are visible, if you want to see the entire floor, it is only visible twice a year, from late June to July and from August to October. Underneath is the crypt, which has a room painted with episodes from the Old Testament and the New. I climbed to the top of the Panorama dal Facciatone, part of the Cathedral, for stunning views of the countryside. The mist hovered over the valley, making it look mystical, just like Under the Tuscan Sun. The Porta del Cielo is an additional cost and requires an appointment to go into the rafters of the church, which frankly wasn’t worth it for me. The Siena Cathedral Monumental complex requires an OPA SI Pass for $20, which includes five buildings, allows you to visit all of the buildings and is good for three days after purchase.
Paintings depicting the Bible in the Crypt of the Siena Cathedral / Photo by Carolyn Ray
Libreria Piccolomini fresco / Photo by Carolyn Ray
4. Dance to the music in the streets in Lucca
About an hour from Florence, Lucca is an ancient walled city. I arrived in the morning and watched joggers fly by as I strolled along the wall on treed elevated pathways. After an hour of circumventing the city, it was time for a coffee. Fortunately, I discovered the lovely Santa Zita café and enjoyed a sunny breakfast on the patio, and one of the best Americanos of my life, avoiding the very tempting pastries.
In Lucca, there are many museums, historic monuments and churches. This is the home of Puccini and other famous composers, and needless to say, there are musicians everywhere playing in the streets. I stopped at St. Martin’s Cathedral to admire the frescoes and bell tower, but,what I was most interested in was the Torre Guinigi, which dates from the 14th century. In those days, having your own tower was a status symbol and this one is stunning, with oak trees up top. At only 233 steps, it’s a bit easier to climb than the Duomo in Florence, which has almost 500 steps to Dome, and there is a specular view to behold with a garden on the rooftop. Tickets are 6 euros and there is a reduced rate of 4 euros for those over 65.
Composer Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in December 1858/ Photo by Carolyn Ray
5. Pay your respects at Florence American Cemetery and Memorial Site
It’s a short 30-minute bus ride from Florence to the Florence American Cemetery, a 70-acre site that is run by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which administers, operates and maintains 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 31 federal memorials, monuments and markers to commemorate the service and sacrifice of Americans who served in World War I and World War II.
At the Florence American cemetery, dedicated in 1960, there are 4392 headstones, which represent 39 per cent of the U.S. Fifth Army burials originally made between Rome and the Alps. There is also a wall with the Tablets of the Missing including 1,409 names. I was surprised to find one of my own relatives among the dead on this beautiful hillside surrounded by tall cypress trees. Speaking with the staff, I learned that Memorial Day is the time to come here, when the flowers are in full bloom.
There are also powerful reminders about the privilege of freedom, like this one: “Freedom from fear and injustice and oppression is ours only in the measure that men who value such freedoms are ready to sustain its possession and to defend against every thrust from within or without” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
The FT bus is $3 in cash only and the Cemetery is free to visit.
There are over 4,000 headstones at the Florence American Cemetery / Photo credit Carolyn Ray
Map showing the locations of different day trips from Florence / Map provided by Google Maps
Read More on Traveling Italy
With thousands of restaurants in Florence, culinary tour entrepreneur Coral Sisk shares lesser-known places to enjoy in the off season.
Thinking of visiting Florence in the winter? In the low season, Florence is full of beauty, found in its people and piazzas.
Meet Jane Caporal of Row Venice, who is dedicated to preserving the ancient tradition of rowing with her all-woman company.