The Best Time to Visit Tuscany
(and a bunch of other useful tips!)
Enjoy a peaceful sunset from the Pienza balcony, looking over the “Gladiator’s House” and all the rolling hills of Val d’Orcia. Sip a glass of red wine through the streets of Montepulciano, while taking an afternoon break to wait for the best light to come. Drive on the winding roads of Montalcino, stopping after every corner to take a few pictures, because.. “wow”: that is going to be your explanation probably, if someone is asking why you stopped.
These are just the first experiences that came into my mind when I started to write about Tuscany; bear in mind that I could keep going on to talk about all the amazing activities you should do there for a very long time, but in this travel guide I’d prefer to give you some useful informations about Tuscany, so scroll down and get ready to learn everything you need to visit this part of Italy!
1. "Tuscany"'s Meaning
First of all, let’s define a bit the word “Tuscany”. When you say “hey, I want to go on a photographic trip in Tuscany”, what you probably mean is “hey, I want to go on a photographic trip in Val d’Orcia”. Yes, 99% of those amazing pictures of sinuous hills that you saw pretty much everywhere on the web are made in a 20km area, not more than that. And guess what? That area is called Val d’Orcia.
Now, let’s talk a bit about this Val d’Orcia: the word “Val” in italian means “valley”, so basically means Orcia Valley. Orcia is the name of the river that flows through it. This is the valley that lies in between three towns: Pienza, San Quirico d’Orcia and Montalcino. Pienza, the first town that you will find coming from the highway, is the smallest of the three, but arguably the most beautiful one; it has what they call a “balcony”, a footpath with an incredible view of the entire valley. San Quirico d’Orcia, the town you will find if you keep driving from Pienza after 9km, is famous to have been used in some scenes of the Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” movie, together with its architecture. Lastly, you will find Montalcino if you keep driving for another 15 minutes; I don’t think there’s any need to say what Montalcino is famous for.. The wine of course! You will get to try some of the finest wines in the world there, so be sure to have some wine-tasting while exploring the town.
Driving through this roughly 20km stretch of road, will also get you to a good 70% of all the most popular photographic spots of the area. Now I’m guessing most of you want to know where that remaining 30% is: not far from there! The Val d’Orcia is part of the Siena countryside, but it’s not the only valley there. There are plenty of other unnamed valleys that are just a 20-30 minutes drive from Pienza, or San Quirico d’Orcia. And they are all beautiful! So take the time to deeply explore the Val d’Orcia, but don’t stop there. Visit the whole Siena countryside, as you will find many other photographic locations as beautiful as the ones you saw in the main valley and with far less people around.
2. When to Visit Tuscany?
I’ll be quick: Tuscany has something to offer in every season, there’s not a time of the year when you won’t come back home with some fantastic shots.
Having said that, the two best seasons to come in Tuscany are spring and autumn for sure; in spring you get all the green blooming fields, possibly with rape flowers or poppies, while in autumn you get higher chances to catch some nice low fog on the hills and the foliage colors on most of the trees. In both these seasons, weather is just perfect and sunrise/sunset times are not too early/too late.
To be extremely precise, the best time in spring is between late April and early June, while in Autumn is between mid October and mid November. This is of course just ideal, as every year the dates are slightly changing depending on the weather.
A lot of photographers are still coming in summer though, because there’s the general thinking that it’s the best season to visit Tuscany; let me be clear, it’s not. Sunrise is really early in the morning and sunset late in the evening, it’s going to be really hot during the whole day and you’ll barely get to visit all the towns because of the heat, there will be a lot of tourists pretty much everywhere and because of the good weather you probably won’t get any interesting skies but just a lot of cloudless sunrises/sunsets. Anyway, at the start of the season (late June) you'll manage to see a beautiful flowering: sunflowers! You'll see these beautiful yellow flowers blooming everywhere in the region.
Winter would probably my second choice if I couldn’t come here in spring or autumn: chances to get some low fog are quite high, so if you give yourself a few days in Tuscany, you should be able to capture some really dramatic shots! You will have to deal with the cold and short days, but I think winter is a far better choice compared to summer.
Now that we have covered in generally the best time to come here, keep reading to discover some more useful tips for your Tuscany visit!
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3. What to Pack
Tuscany’s weather is exactly what you would expect from a trip in Italy: really hot in summer, mild during spring and autumn, quite cold in winter.
So, let’s see now in particular which is the way to go, talking about the clothing, for each season:
- Summer: nothing will beat a good old shirt with short pants and sneakers. If you are a girl, I’d suggest some kind of light summer dress. This is my personal way to go for the whole summer! Temperatures will be really high, mostly around 30/40 Celsius degrees (86/104 Fahrenheit degrees) from late June to late August (and sometimes till early September), so even if you stay up till late in the night to shot some stars or you wake up early in the morning to shot sunrise, you’ll never have to worry about being cold, trust me. A hat to cover your head from the sunlight is recommended too!
- Spring/Autumn: I decided to put together the two seasons since, weather wise, they are quite similar. Both in spring and in autumn, you will get some nice sunny days, where temperatures during the day will be up to around 20/25 Celsius degrees (68/77 Fahrenheit degrees); in the mornings and the evenings though, it’s normal to have temperatures around 10/15 Celsius degrees (50/59 Fahrenheit degrees), so be sure to pack some light jackets and some heavier sweaters. If you dress with light boots, long pants, a t-shirt with a sweater on and a light jacket, you should be fine for most of the times; it will never be really cold, and if it gets warmer you are ready to take off some layers and be fine anyway. Remember that rain is quite common here during these season, so if you could bring as many waterproof stuffs as you can, it will be much better.
- Winter: winter is the only season when things can get a little bit… trickier, let’s say. The Val d’Orcia, being situated inland far from the Mediterranean sea, has not the same mild winter weather of the coastal areas; during the cold season, temperatures can get as low as -5 Celsius degrees (around 20 Fahrenheit degrees), so my tip is to bring all of your heavy clothing equiment, specially if you are planning to stay out till late in the evening or early in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes temperatures are more than acceptable, but it’s better to pack something more than something less. A good winter jacket should be on your essentials list, as well as some warm winter boots and some heavy sweater. Scarf, gloves and a warm cap should be on that list too!
3.2 Camera Gear
Now, let’s talk a little bit about what kind of equipment you will need and what you will actually use during you photo trip in Tuscany; I’m sure you will have lots of doubts about what it’s really useful and what will be just added weight in your (probably already heavy) backpack. Let’s see right away if I can manage to clear your mind a little bit from some of those doubts!
The weather here doesn’t get as bad as in many other countries that landscape photographers usually visit (es. Iceland, Norway, Patagonia, etc.); you don’t get any gale force winds here, and if you get some rain, you are most likely close to the car or to some building where you can go and stay dry (together with your camera!). What I’m saying here is that you don’t need some weather-proof camera to visit Tuscany, because most of the times you are going to shot with acceptable weather conditions; this doesn’t mean that you don’t need a good camera though!
I’d say, in terms of image quality, that any full-frame camera (reflex or mirrorless) would be perfect for all the possible situations, but don’t worry if you are used to work with an APS-C or a micro 4/3 camera: they will be more than fine too!
Now, let’s see what is really making the difference when it comes to shot Tuscany: the lenses!
Most of us landscape photographers are used to work a lot with super-wide angle lenses, generally in the 12mm-24mm range; while in spring you can get some nice foregrounds (using flowers) and take a fair amount of pictures with that kind of lenses, most of the times you’ll find yourself having a telephoto lens mounted on your camera.
So, my advice is to absolutely bring a lens to cover the 70-200mm focal range, possibly another one to cover the standard-tele range (24-70mm) and a super-long telephoto that can arrive up to 400/500mm or even 600mm. In Tuscany shooting is more about capturing some part of the surrounding landscape and less about going wide to include the whole landscape. A wide-angle lens is recommended for sure, but first I would think about bringing a good 70-200mm or 70-300mm, because that lens is going to be your workhorse for the whole trip.
A good, sturdy tripod is always the first thing you should think about when it comes to go on a photographic trip. Always, no exceptions. In this particular case though, you can scroll up a little bit and read again my words about the weather in the “3.2.1. Cameras” section.
Since we don’t have awful weather conditions in Tuscany, you don’t need a huge and heavy tripod, so if you want to chop some weight off your back, you can take a lighter tripod. Anyway, lighter doesn’t mean shaky or unstable; remember that you’re going to use it a lot in low light situations, from twilight in the morning to the blue hour in the evening, and maybe at night to shot some stars or cityscapes. So, keep in mind that it still needs to be sturdy!
I get a lot of questions about whether or not it is worth to take a full ND/GND set of filters when traveling to Tuscany: my answer always is… That depends on your shooting style. Filters are not fundamental in Tuscany, meaning that you will be able to take every possible photo without the use of any kind of filter. This doesn’t mean that they can’t come in handy sometimes: let’s say that you want to capture car trails going up/down on a twisty road? You need an ND filter for that, probably. Let’s say that you have some beautiful moving clouds in the sky and you want to give more dynamicity to your photo? You’ll need an ND filter (and maybe a GND one) to capture the movement of the clouds.
My point is: if you like to use filters to create particular effects and to play with long exposures sometimes, take all of your filters. If you never use any kind of filter, don’t bother to take them!
3.2.5 Other Accessories
If all of the items above (camera, lenses, tripod and filters) are in your backpack, you are almost ready to leave for Tuscany! You just need a couple of things more: a remote control to avoid shaking your camera while pressing the shutter button, specially if you are making long exposures on the tripod, and a couple of spare batteries, so that you are sure you never run out of power while you are in the middle of an amazing sunset.
Oh, one last thing: a small cloth to clean the dust from your lenses! In Tuscany, specially when it hasn’t rained for a few days and the land is dry, a passing car can move clouds of dust that stay in the air for a lot of time, and your lens, even if you don’t notice at first, is going to slowly be covered with it. Be sure to clean it every once in a while!
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4. Other Useful Tips
Main language is italian of course; since it’s a tourist area though, you will find store and restaurant owners speaking at least basic english; hotel staff will generally speak english too. Anyway, don’t expect to be understood everywhere, since english language is not widely spoken.
At the moment, the currency in Italy is the Euro (€). Big stores, restaurants and hotels will accept credit and debit cards, but don’t expect to pay everything with cards. Small expenses like coffee, water or even if you go to the local groceries shop, those are generally paid in cash, so be sure to have always some euros with you.
While 4G coverage is good pretty much everywhere in the area, if you your internet provider doesn’t allow you to roam with acceptable costs and you want to use the wi-fi networks of restaurants and hotels, you’ll probably remain disappointed; wi-fi connection here most of the times is really slow (if it’s working), barely acceptable to download emails and stuff like that, specially in hotels or restaurants. Remember to be really patient when trying to connect to some wi-fi!
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