Siena and Florence are crowded with tourists, but this lesser traveled corner of Tuscany is a mountainous wonderland for adventurous gourmands
Millions of international tourists overrun Tuscany each year, picking over the vineyards in Chianti Classico, packing the region’s medieval hamlets, and mobbing the Renaissance masterpieces in Siena and Florence. The summer crowds can seem unrelenting — until you drive about two hours northwest to the high green mountains and river-crossed valleys of the Garfagnana. This pocket of Tuscany breaks away from the region’s manicured urban centers, rewarding visitors with adventure sports, a romantic bucolic lifestyle impervious to mass tourism, and rustic mountain fare.
Exceptional river rafting and hikes make Garfagnana a must-do for wilderness seekers, but the microregion is a little-known wonderland for adventurous gourmands too, who traipse between the hilltop towns, refueling at each stop. Food purveyors forage in the countryside for farro and chestnuts, sheep chomp away on wild herbs, and independent wine producers buck rules-bound consortiums to explore uncharted territory. But Garfagnana isn’t entirely cut off from civilization; while it offers the untouched wilderness of neighboring central Italian regions like Umbria or Le Marche, it receives a steady feed of culture from nearby cities, particularly Lucca, home of Puccini, postcard-worthy squares, and low-key festivals.
Garfagnana strikes the ideal balance between remote escape and accessible hotspot, perfect for travelers wanting to go beyond the picture-perfect Tuscany everyone else sees.
What is Garfagnanan cuisine?
Foraged ingredients, wild boar, slow-cooked stews, ancient grain farro, intensely flavored cheeses from mountain goats and sheep, and heritage varieties of formenton otto file (orange-red corn) and legumes are the protagonists of meals in Garfagnana. Some of the best food can be found at agriturismi (farm stays), where guests return from long hikes to feast on chestnut honey (produced by bees who feed on chestnut blossoms) drizzled on local cheeses, salumi such as biroldo (spiced head cheese) arranged on antipasti boards alongside farro-based breads, and pasta made on-site.
The culinary seat of the microregion, Lucca is home to a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants, notable cheese producers, and some of the area’s more refined meals, along with preserved city walls, Puccini museums, architecturally significant churches, and festivals dedicated to everything from comics to paper sculptures. Beginning in the 12th century, the city’s tight hold on the silk trade made it relatively wealthy, and that prosperity paved the way for a rich cuisine that pulls from Garfagnana’s peasant mountain fare, creating dishes like tordelli Lucchesi: ravioli filled with meat, accented with wild thyme and sage, and slow-cooked in ragu.
There’s plenty to drink as well. Without the marketing power of consortiums in Chianti Classico, Montalcino, and Montepulciano, Garfagnana was once resigned to churning out cheap wine in bulk. But beginning in the ’90s, a new generation of vintners — like Gabriele Da Prato at Podere Còncori — took over established family estates, shifting the trajectory from producing utilitarian wines to focusing on the region’s unique terroir. Situated between the Apuan Alps and the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, the high elevation, cool and foggy microclimate, and mineral-rich soils create optimal conditions for syrah and pinot noir to rival those of the Rhone Valley or Burgundy. Several wineries have also embraced native grape varietals to produce fruity, bubbly, high-acid bottlings.
What to know before you go
Lima, Higher Garfagnana, and Serchio: These three valleys define Garfagnana’s unique historic geographic zone within the Lucca province. The Lima Valley is exceptional for river rafting and hiking through medieval towns. Ancient varieties of sheep dine on wild flora in Higher Garfagnana, where local artisans transform their milk into deeply flavorful cheeses. The Serchio is home to the walled, stone-paved village of Barga, which hosts an annual opera festival, and the area is well-known for the Ponte del Diavolo, a bridge with a roller coaster-like arch that legend contends was made possible by a deal with the devil.
Agriturismi: Many visitors spend their evenings on farms known as agriturismi, usually strategically located close to hiking trails where guests can work up an appetite. After a day of wine tastings and hot springs, there are few things better than returning to rustic delicacies at an agriturismo. (Note: You’ll need to drive to reach the various farmstays in the region. If that’s not an option, stay in Lucca and work with your hotel concierge to organize excursions.)
Seasons: Garfagnana often serves as a cool escape from summer crowds in Tuscany’s popular cities, but it’s best in the spring and fall, when temperatures are sublime for hiking. The spring brings fresh pecorino cheeses, river trout, and dishes heightened by wild herbs, while the fall is best for foraging geeks, who are rewarded with earthy porcinis and buttery chestnuts. The autumn is also decidedly decadent with wine harvest celebrations, wild honey, necci (chestnut-flour crepes) filled with mountain ricotta, polenta layered with melted local cheeses, ancient grain soups, and pasta dressed with wild game sughi (sauces).
Where to eat in the countryside
Al Teatro (Castelnuovo di Garfagnana)
Run by two young chefs, Alessandro Pineschi and Luca Triti, Al Teatro uses locally sourced ingredients for traditional a la carte dishes and tasting menus with contemporary twists. You might see wild garlic, straw syrup, elderberry capers, and mountain ricotta among its dishes.
Osteria Vecchio Mulino (Castelnuovo di Garfagnana)
This simple osteria focuses on savory pies, tagliere boards with specialty cured meats, and artisanal cheeses. There are also specialty farro- and potato-based breads and a well-thought-out wine list.
Ristorante Eliseo (Gallicano)
This small bed-and-breakfast includes a century-old restaurant outfitted with wood paneling and luxury cabin decor. The kitchen prepares fresh pasta with local porcini, truffles, wild boar, various grilled mains with aromatics like juniper, and old-school classics like fried veal cutlets.
Mulin del Rancone (Camporgiano)
Refined Garfagnanian cuisine is the order of the day at this farmstay in Camporgiano. Look for river trout crepes, pestos made from local wild herbs, chestnut pastas, grilled porcini, and polenta flan.
Il Grillo (Giuncugnano)
This organic farm operates an attached restaurant utilizing seasonal vegetables from its fields in dishes like farro soups with winter chicories, chestnut flour-stuffed piadine (flatbread), and tortino (root vegetable pie), paired with local wines and craft beers.
Where to eat in Lucca
Awarded a Michelin star in 2019, Il Giglio crafts tasting menus combining traditional peasant staples such as snails, offal, or pigeon with luxury comforts like sea urchin spaghetti.
Da Giulio in Pelleria
The Italian version of a greasy spoon, this historic eatery specializes in Luccan cuisine and Tuscan staples, including stuffed pastas with ragu, zuppa contadina (grain and vegetable soups), chestnut cakes baked with pine nuts and rosemary, and panzanella.
La Griglia di Varrone
A steakhouse and cocktail bar with vintage appeal, La Griglia di Varrone is excellent for anyone with a meaty appetite. The menu is organized by cut, with breeds sourced from all over the globe like Angus and pata negra.
Set in the hills above Lucca a few miles from the city center, this biodynamic winery and agriturismo is also home to one of Lucca’s more compelling restaurants. Chef Damiano Donati elevates comfort foods like braised beef with the winery’s own bottles and roasts organic potatoes grown on-site.
Where to drink
Podere Còncori looks more like a national park reserve than a biodynamic winery. Gabriele Da Prato took over this humble corner of land in the late ’90s, converting production from budget bulk wine. He started crafting quality bottles of syrah, before the operation grew to encompass chenin blanc and pinot noir. Today Gabriele’s daughter Susanna works alongside him, aging wines with minimal intervention and earning accolades from various gastronomic wine guides such as Italy’s Gambero Rosso.
Azienda Agricola Macea
Located in Borgo a Mozzano in the Serchio Valley, this farmhouse is tiny but mighty. For the last 20 years, winemaker Cipriano Barsanti has garnered a quiet following in the natural wine world, but refuses to scale up the Macea vineyard to meet demand. The rugged plot on a slight elevation sees big temperature fluctuations, which guarantee wines with crisp, fresh acidity similar to bottles from Burgundy. The calling cards here are pinot nero, sauvignon blanc, and pinot grigio. Don’t sleep on any of the releases; they sell out quickly.
Cantina Bravi Alessandro
The main business here is an agriturismo; the small, independent winery is a pure passion project. Located near the Serchio river, the winery grows grapes in soil with significant levels of schist (which affects the wine’s pH and lends fresh acidity). While some of the varietals are international, such as pinot noir and merlot, over the last six years the winery has gained respect in the wine world for reviving ancient native grape varieties (temporarily nicknamed Garfagnine until more research is completed to properly classify them). The unnamed grapes are very fruity, with high acid, little structure, and high alcohol potential, making for great food-friendly sparkling wines.
Maestà Della Formica
Spearheaded by a pair of young enologists, this vineyard sits 3,000 feet above sea level, where it produces some unusual high-acid wines with stunning terroir. The riesling is especially great, similar to the elegant versions produced in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of the Italian Dolomites. Like Cantina Bravi Alessandro, the vineyard is lauded for using native Garfagnine grapes for chilled red pet-nat sparklers.
Where to stock up
Pizzicheria La Grotta
This unassuming deli in Lucca, open since 1865, is outstanding for the sheer selection of cured meats and cheeses from the region. It also has seating inside and behind the shop in a small square, should you want to crush a meat and cheese board with a bottle of wine from its tightly curated selection. It probably hasn’t changed much since it opened, so it may appear like a kitschy Tuscan tourist trap at first glance, but the appearance belies the quality of the goods. It also sells dried pastas, olive oils, dried local grains, honey, and other souvenirs.
Also located in Lucca, this pastry shop is considered the custodian of a prized local sweet delicacy, buccellato (“sweet bread”), a ring-shaped cake filled with raisins. The treat dates back to medieval times, first documented in the 1400s (before things like cream custard and butter changed up Tuscany’s pastry game). Regardless of how you feel about raisins, it’s a must if you visit the Lucca area of Tuscany.
In a country that has at least 450 different registered types of traditional cheeses, some truly special cheese comes out of the Garfagnana mountains from free-roaming goats and sheep. Compared to notable counterparts in Siena and Sardinia, sheep of Massesi and Garfagnini breeds common in these mountains produce less milk, but what they do produce is more highly concentrated in flavor and bacterial funk, with a significant tart tang from their diet of wild grasses. Caseificio Bertagni makes various sheep and goat cheese blends, mostly goat ricottas and aged pecorinos with strong nutty umami notes. It also makes chestnut honey and fruit compotes, ethereal pairings for its cheesy creations.
When the destruction of WWII left swaths of Italy in desperation, this family turned to cheesemaking for its livelihood. Three generations of cheese artisans later, Marovelli makes various sheep milk cheeses from fresh to aged in conciato styles stemming from ancient Roman techniques, wrapping cheese molds in chestnut leaves and grape must to age in oak barrels. It also incorporate spices, local herbs, and cow and goat milks into its creations.
Bellandi Antica Norcineria
Since 1945, this salumi purveyor has been making local cured and pressed meat specialties traditional to the Lucca province. Hyperregional biroldo (head cheese), mondiola (a local type of mortadella salami with sage leaves), and bazzone (high altitude-cured prosciutto hams) are worth the trek to this meat market.
Where to sleep
Grand Universe Lucca
Born during the pandemic, this hotel is a top choice for adventurers staying in Lucca, since its robust concierge services help organize trips into the countryside. After you’re done exploring, relax on the bar’s terrace overlooking the city, sipping on bubbles sourced from nearby producers (and from zones like Champagne). A double room starts at $350 per night in high season, $235 in low season.
Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa
This five-star hotel in the middle of the mountains makes an ideal remote base for visiting wine producers, cheesemakers, and small towns nearby such as Barga. The on-site restaurant offers local cuisine, in-house baked breads, and a local wine list — plus the views and concierge service are unbeatable. A double room starts at $300 per night in high season, $145 in low season.
Agriturismo Pian di Fiume
A small slice of paradise on Earth, this farmstay treats guests to delicacies produced on-site, such as cured meats, chestnut honey, farro-flour flatcakes and pastas, wild herb liqueurs, and jams. It runs a family-style trattoria where pastas are crafted with unbelievable passion — cacio e pepe sauced ravioli stuffed with roasted meats, tordelli Lucchesi, stranded pastas with ragu — plus fava bean soups with pancetta. That should be enough to fuel the river rafting, hiking, and farm excursions the hotel offers as well. A double room starts at $100 per night in high season, $80 in low season.