Val d’Elsa, the valley of the Elsa river, is nestled right in the heart of Tuscany, halfway between Florence and Siena. It’s traversed by the ancient pilgrim route Via Francigena that once wound through the hills left of the river. Less popular with tourists than other, more famous parts of Tuscany, Val d’Elsa is dearer to me, with its lovely farmed countryside between Casole and Sovicille and the vine- and olive tree-covered hills around Certaldo.
Colle di Val d’Elsa, my hometown, is an underrated medieval town, still unknown to many tourists and even to many locals. It has a privileged position: one hour from Florence, half an hour from Siena, San Gimignano, and Volterra. I like how Colle di Val d’Elsa feels still authentic—sometimes sleepy, probably unprepared for mass tourism, imperfect and rough at times, but with many gems worth discovering.
If you want to really see Tuscany, spend a week in Colle di Val d’Elsa, either at an agriturismo in beautiful surrounding countryside or an apartment in town. From here, you can easily explore the renowned art of Florence and Siena, get lost in the wilder areas around Radicondoli, Massa Marittima, or Chiusdino, and reach the coast in about an hour. The town itself has much to offer to those who search for valuable, authentic experiences, good restaurants, markets, and artisan products.
Here are my top 5 things to do, see, and eat in Colle di Val d’Elsa:
Where to Eat
Località San Marziale, 16/a/interno 3
The bakery is positioned in a very unassuming location in the industrial area of San Marziale, but I assure you that you will be surprised at the first taste of their products. Begin the day with their sourdough pastries and jam tarts, along with a cappuccino or a fresh-squeezed organic orange juice.
You can buy good, wholesome sourdough bread baked in their wood-fired oven made with flours from local ancient grains, as well as croissants, cakes, and cookies, extra virgin olive oil, jams and marmalades, fresh pasta to cook at home, and pizzas and focaccias as fluffy as clouds to eaten by the slice or to take away.
Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, 56
+39 0577 922837
Fresh, local, seasonal ingredients are the protagonists of the cuisine of chef Gabriele Borgianni in this trattoria that is probably our favorite in Colle di Val d’Elsa. Beef tongue and stuffed chicken neck are my go-to choices when it comes to appetizers, and the cheese selection is outstanding.
Where to Shop
Via Gracco del Secco, 35
This little grocery shop is in the old town of Colle di Val D'Elsa, or Colle Alta, as we call it. Sant'Ulivieri farm is located between Colle di Val D'Elsa and San Gimignano, and you can find their best seasonal produce in this shop. Along with fruit and vegetables, you can also purchase their beans, chickpeas, and lentils, extra virgin olive oil, wine, preserves, local biodynamic cheese, the outstanding bread and focaccia from Forno Pellegrino, and artisanal pasta.
What to Do
Walk along the ancient Via Francigena
The ancient pilgrimage route known as Via Francigena starts in Canterbury, England, passes through France and on to Rome, and then continues eastward to the Holy Land. Today, the Via Francigena is traversed by true pilgrims who walk for days and stop at various resting points with their full backpacks and worn boots. It’s also popular with casual Sunday walkers out to enjoy the beautiful weather and landscapes from this unusual perspective, passing through fields, woods, and medieval villages. You can easily spot the signs for this path in Colle di Val d’Elsa. We often start around Le Caldane and walk toward Abbadia Isola and Monteriggioni, or from Quartaia to Badia a Coneo and back.
When you visit my family house in the countryside, you will roll up your sleeves and wear an apron as you learn traditional recipes passed down from generations. Choosing a class with us means slowing down and living a day as a local. Every meal is an excuse to travel through Tuscany thanks to local recipes, memories, and stories.
We will meet for an Italian breakfast at a local café and get to know each other chatting over a selection of pastries and enjoying a cappuccino, espresso, or macchiato. Then, we will shop together at the local market for fruit and vegetables and visit the local butcher. This will give us the chance to create the menu together, picking just the freshest local ingredients. You will learn how to choose and use the best seasonal products.
After the market, we will drive to our kitchen studio in the countryside, where we will cook a Tuscan seasonal feast together, from appetizers to desserts. The class ends with a relaxed, family-style lunch. Get more info here.
Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan-born and bred home cook. She is a food writer, podcaster, and cooking school instructor who has written five cookbooks in Italian. Her blog, Juls’ Kitchen, was named by Saveur as 2019’s best food culture blog. Giulia lives in Tuscany in her family country house with husband, photographer Tommaso Galli, and daughter, Livia. Their latest cookbook is Cucina Povera, The Italian Way of Transforming Humble Ingredients into Unforgettable Meals, published for Artisan Books. Find her on Instagram at @julskitchen and via her newsletter at www.lettersfromtuscany.com.