I’m convinced that we (us guys anyway) are genetically programmed to be thrilled by castles. Even Walt Disney and A Crown of Swords knew that. Tuscany is certainly castle country. But unlike the sprawling towered ones in Bavaria or the giant massive fortresses of Spain, Tuscan castles, are charming—even friendly. They’re family-sized. They might look foreboding from the outside, with their soaring walls and imposing watchtowers; inside, though, their courtyards and detached housing are genuinely fun to explore. Whereas many of Europe’s large castles stand empty today, most of those in Tuscany are still occupied, either by owners or by visitors who take advantage of their conversions into bed and breakfasts, apartments, or luxury hotels.
I tried to spread my list of favorite castles across Tuscany, so that no matter which part of the region you visit, you’ll be able to nip into one nearby—and for a while, feel like a kid again.
Poggio alle Mura, Montalcino
Set among hundreds of acres of vineyards, olive groves, and lakes, this ninth-century castle has been sensitively restored. It’s modest in size, perfect in proportion with a double courtyard and elegant tower. Today it houses luxurious hotel suites, a trattoria, a wine shop, and a fascinating glass museum with pieces dating back to the Phoenicians.
This imposing tenth-century castle looms over the medieval town of Poppi. It has perfectly preserved dungeons, and a unique library housing 25,000 antique volumes and medieval manuscripts. A visit here is best combined with a trip to the Hermitage of Camaldoli, with its fifteenth-century pharmacy and the vertiginous Sanctuary of St. Francis on Monte Verna.
Ripa D'Orcia, San Quirico D'Orcia
Set at the foot of Monte Amiata (in the middle of a gorgeous nowhere) this tiny hamlet within beautifully fortified walls is as romantic as a medieval castle can get. It’s now a boutique hotel, with well-priced rooms and eagle-eye views. The restaurant (reservations are necessary) serves good local food and organic wine from the castle’s own vineyards.
Garfagnana Fortezza delle Verrucole
Really a fortress, this sprawling 11th-century ridge-top ruin, set among dark hills, will ignite the imagination. It will have to, for there is not much left of it but its impenetrable outer walls. It does, however, offer a great view of the Apuan Alps; and nearby, in the middle of a lake, is a minute village.
This vast fortressed village sits among the rolling hills of Siena. Its massive walls, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, are dotted with fourteen towers. It is unique because once inside, the only thing you see of the outside world is the sky. This charming, closed world will give you a glimpse inside the medieval mind.