You know you’re in Tuscany when your basic beach day doesn’t just mean sunblock, volleyballs and boogie boards, but a deep dive into past civilizations. Comprising the entirety of the mainland Livorno province, the Costa degli Etruschi, or Etruscan Coast is a colorful region where both culture and leisure merit some sampling.
For the bulk of a six-day or weeklong stay in the area, Piombino makes a prime home base. A busy port town, second in Tuscany only to Livorno in terms of activity, the city has an impressive history as the former capital of the Principality of Piombino, an independent state of the 15th and 16th centuries. But its glory goes back even to Etruscan times, evident at nearly every turn, although today it’s better known for being a titanous center of the Italian iron and steel industry.
Get your bearings by beginning at the Castello di Piombino at the southeast end of the city. Formerly a defensive structure, it delineated the southeastern city limits, but very little was known about it until the turn of the 21st century. Between 1999 and 2001, on-site excavations and research projects were carried out, and now the castle houses a civic museum that paints a vivid portrait of Piombino through the years, in addition to housing numerous 13th century items uncovered in the area archaeological digs.
If you’re in the mood for something more au courant than antique, head downtown for a wander through the temporary exhibitions at the Galleria Agorà, which regularly hosts work by international artists.
Take day two to really plunge into Etruscan civilization in Populonia, a fraction of Piombino and home to only a smattering of contemporary residents. It is a twenty minute drive and sloping toward the striking Bay of Baratti. During Etruscan times, this important hub was known as “Fufluna” (taken from Fufluns, the Etruscan god of wine) and, alternatively, Pupluna.
The remains and necropoli of this once-glorious civilization can be made even more memorable in the company of an experienced guide; for a fuller picture of what coastal Etruscan life was like, plan to explore the protected Archaeological Park of Baratti and Populonia.
On your own, a distillation of what you’d learn on-site can be found in the Etruscan Museum of Populonia, home to a fascinating collection of funerary accessories, tomb decorations and relics recovered from the sea.
Fast forward a few centuries to the comparatively “new” 13th century tower of Populonia: this strategic post was once where city defenders kept watch. Today, it offers sweeping views of Elba Island, the various islands of the Tuscan Archipelago, the Bay of Baratti and the Val di Cornia as a whole.
A hop, skip and a jump from Piombino is the 450 hectare Archaeological Mining Park of San Silvestro, just about 30 minutes by car and located within the town limits of Campiglia Marittima. Visiting is a must for a full understanding of the area’s mining industry. But it’s not just industrial buffs who will enjoy themselves: kids and hands-on travelers will delight in experiences like the Lanzi-Temperino Tunnel. Underground and aboard a train (this is not for the claustrophobic!), visitors get to flesh out their understandings of the mineral extraction process, as well as miners’ experiences past and present.
Within the rest of the park are myriad museums (such as the Museum of Archaeology and Minerals in the same building as the ticket office), mining tunnels and even a medieval miners’ village (Rocca San Silvestro).
Toward the latter end of your trip it’ll be past time for some well-deserved leisure. An 11-minute drive from the Archaeological Park is San Vicenzo, a popular vacation town perfect for R&R.
Bursting for a beach day? The town council’s website helpfully divides the area beaches into four separate areas. The only free-access beach is in the Nature Park of Rimigliano and the waters here are considerably deeper than those in the more urban areas, making them well-fit for fishing, underwater adventure and boating.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, you could stay in the area and sample one of the local specialties - we vote for the distinctly yellow-green Val di Cornia melon, produced between June and September and an ultra-sugary, tastes-like-summer flavor. Otherwise, venture to Castagneto Carducci to delight your Dionysian sensibilities.
Castagneto Carducci and surrounding areas are home to textbook Tuscan sights like the Viale di Cipressi or “Cypress Boulevard,” made famous in the poetry of Giosuè Carducci. The verdant road extends from the Oratorio di San Guido to the historic center of Bolgheri and if it wasn’t clear already, now it should be: this is prime wine territory! Indulge in top-shelf Super Tuscans or take part in a tasting at any of the town’s small, family-run wineries producing DOC Bolgheri. The historic distillery Borsi Liquori is also worth a visit, if you and your fellow travelers are a “spirited”.
If you land in town in early June, Castagneto Carducci will be even livelier than usual: “Castagneto a Tavola” is an early-summer food and sport festival celebrating the area’s top-tier production of wines and olive oils.
Get back on a more urban track as your journey starts to wind down, and discover the port city of Livorno. It astonishingly remains off the typical tourist’s radar while offering an incredible range of art and culture, culinary delights and sights to see.
First on the itinerary is a stop at the Terrazza Mascagni, icon of the city and home to one of Tuscany’s trademark waterfront views. Little ones (and the young at heart) will no doubt get a kick out of the checkered ground, which lends itself well to hopscotch (and, of course, Instagramming).
Cacciucco is a must come lunchtime: this traditional fish and shellfish stew native to the area, and though its preparation can vary from chef to chef, it consistently delivers pure Mediterranean goodness (local lore says that there, ideally, should be five types of fish in a balanced bowl of the stuff—one for every “c” in its name!). For a quicker option, taste the chickpea flatbread or Torta di ceci, a type of pancake (about 0.5 cm wide) made by mixing chickpea flour with water, salt and olive oil. In Livorno you can find it as part of a local sandwich, which is popularly called "Cinque e cinque" (five and five).
Come nighttime, consider a concert at the always-bustling Cage Theatre, a historic venue that regularly hosts artists of Italian and international import.
Spend another day getting acquainted with Livorno’s long history and lively present. Pop down to the port to get a sense of the city’s importance as a trade center, next taking a detour toward the New Fortress (known as the “Fortezza” locally). It was used for military purposes up until the end of World War II, and in 1972 underwent a city-sponsored restoration. The top level now houses a public park.
Not far off is the dynamic “New Venice” neighborhood, designed by Sienese architect Giovanni Battista Santi during the 18th century. It appears just as its name suggests, with romantic bridges and canals just as moody as those in its more famous counterpart. Particularly impactful is the Canale dei Navicelli.
Round out your day with a trip to the Mediterranean Natural History Museum to “deepen” your knowledge of the sea and its creatures. If you’re really feeling gung-ho, double up and make a detour back to the Terrazza Mascagni, where the Livorno Aquarium is housed in the same square.