I recently travelled to Cortona in Italy. You may know the town as the from the book, Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy. Or maybe you know the movie starring Diane Lane. The author, Frances Mayes, still owns Bramasole just outside of Cortona and is regularly seen in the town when she is in Italy. But putting aside Cortona’s fame I cannot recommend a visit here more highly.
Cortona captured my heart. I stayed here with my group for six nights, and we could have stayed longer. There is something about Cortona, which for me, felt like home.
If you cannot stay for six nights as I did, perhaps a day trip would be better suited. You can find a full One Day Itinerary here in One Day in Cortona, the best of what Cortona has to offer.
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The Town of Cortona
1. The Villa Marsili
We stayed here for six nights, and by the end, we felt like old friends. The Villa Marsili far exceeded all my expectations (and that rarely happens).
Where to start? Actually when I asked my group what three things they loved most about Cortona, they answered – the Villa Marsili, the Villa Marsili, the Villa Marsili. And yes it is THAT good.
Not just from one or two staff members but all the staff – from Louana and the other lovely ladies on the front desk to the ladies in Housekeeping to the staff in the breakfast room.
And everyone they recommended we use, like Enzo for our taxi service, delivered impeccable service. Never have I encountered customer service to this level at the consistency that they did.
What a delight they are. Simple yet elegantly decorated. Beautiful bathrooms and scrupulously clean. Comfortable beds. I am a light sleeper, and it’s not very often that I sleep well in a strange place. I did here.
In fact, the cast from Under the Tuscan Sun stayed here while shooting the movie.
Although the Villa may not suit everyone’s budget, if you are looking for somewhere to spoil yourself this would be it.
There are other hotels more centrally located in Cortona, and the Villa is approximately a five-minute walk into Cortona itself. But I am telling you that walk is necessary (I will get to that in a minute).
The walk is not challenging at all. And the location just outside the town itself means it is on the side of Cortona looking down over the valley below and out to Lake Trasimeno. With such beautiful views, a short 5-minute walk can be forgiven.
Oh, my goodness. I have encountered breakfast buffets before in big hotels that cater to a range of international tourists. BUT I have never been in a boutique hotel before that provided such an array and quality of foods for breakfast.
I cannot rave about the breakfast enough. The savoury dishes were divine, every mouthful a burst of flavour, and the variety would accommodate even the fussiest of eaters.
Now the sad part for me, particularly travelling in Italy, is that I am gluten intolerant and one of my travelling companions has coeliac disease. It was no trouble, though, the Villa catered for us as well.
In fact, they provided for us so well we could never have hoped to eat everything they offered. Please look at the photos because I could not begin to describe all the food. And the freshness! They even sourced freshly made gluten-free croissants for us.
I woke every day with such enthusiasm for breakfast it was ridiculous. We would get up early and go for an early morning walk and an espresso in town, and then we would return to the Villa to indulge in our breakfast feast. Lunch was hardly required. What a fabulous way to start the day.
The hotel caters not only gluten-free but also vegetarian and vegan diets as well.
The hotel offers free wifi in the rooms and common areas, very handy if you need to work as I did.
Each evening the hotel has offered aperitivo, or happy hour as they called it. Delicious bit size snacks served when you ordered a drink. Aperol Spritz was a popular choice for our group. An excellent tradition and a particularly lovely way to meet other guests.
Delicious biscotti and liqueur are available at night. A perfect way to end the evening if you have been out to dinner in town.
The Villa Marsili offers cooking classes catering to all requirements and can be either private classes or with a group. Shop for local produce at the markets and come back for a fun and delicious experience.
And if you are a group like we were, finding somewhere to gather and relax, or paint, the outdoor areas are perfect.
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2. The Town
The town of Cortona is a small town and easily manageable to explore on foot. By that, I mean that it is not hard to walk from one side to the other.
Be aware though Cortona is situated on the side of a hill and is quite steep in places.
It has a range of attractions from the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca to the original medieval homes still in use today. There are plenty of walks to do.
Visit the Duomo at the top of the hill or the Fortress of Girifalco a little beyond that. Learn the story of St Margherita before visiting the Duomo where you will be able to see her remains. Yes, she is on full display. Not my cup of tea, but fascinating all the same.
Of course, it is an Italian town, so churches dot the landscape profusely. And when you finish sightseeing there is no shortage of great places to eat.
Beware the restaurants with the best views. They are quite often the worst experiences! We know from our experience, the fake grass on the floor should have been the giveaway. Check out what’s busy and go there, always a good meal and authentic cuisine.
Cortona has a variety of shops, restaurants, cafes, galleries and museums. Like all Italian towns, it has piazzas to relax in and a theatre to enjoy. Beautifully preserved and renovated, many of the buildings we entered were immaculately restored keeping their history in mind. Often they had left the essence of the building intact. In one of the showrooms we went into, an old olive press was still in place as well as water cisterns and a natural spring.
Cortona has a long history dating back to before the 7th century BC when it became an important Etruscan centre. It is an interesting, friendly and beautiful town and an absolute delight to visit.
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3. Tourists (or lack of)
The cobblestone streets and laneways are manageable without being jostled by crowds. You can easily get seats at restaurants and cafes and peruse stores comfortably and stroll through art galleries at your leisure. Store owners are happy to chat and you can take your time to drink in the atmosphere. You feel welcomed and safe.
With the lack of tourists, there are no street hawkers. We took a day trip to Arezzo, 15 minutes away by train, and the moment we got off the train, there were handbags and umbrellas being shoved in our faces. That is certainly an experience I can do without.
But on weekends the tourists arrive. It is still not in your face, can’t move type of groups, but you do notice the difference, particularly when you have felt like you have had the town to yourself through the week.
So if crowds of tourists are not your thing, then my advice is to visit mid-week. You will appreciate it so much more.
I could have been more specific about places to visit and things to do in Cortona.
Everything we experienced from our early morning walks, a trip to the Monastery, Le Celle, wine tour, exploration of museums and churches, and our strolls around art galleries nothing stood out as being a must see. It was all a must see! It was all interesting.
In a town the size of Cortona, you can see it all, or like me, you don’t need to see everything, because I wanted to keep something on my list for when I come back.
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Cortona is conveniently situated to use as a base to explore more of Tuscany or Italy. Perhaps take the train for a day to Orvieto, a delightful hilltop town in Umbria. Or why not Rome or Florence?
The approximate train times from Cortona (Camucia-Cortona) are:
Florence – 1.30 hours
Arezzo – 20 minutes
Rome – 1.45 – 2.15 hours
Orvieto – 55 minutes
Perugia – 50 minutes
But if you never leave that’s ok too. It is a place that I will always have fond memories of and look forward to revisiting.
Arrivederci Cortona, until we meet again.
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