Volterra: My Top Italian Hill Town

05/22/2015 12:55 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

I often say the Volterra is my favorite Italian hill town. Returning this year for my research chores, I was wondering if that was overstating things. But as soon as I settled into the town, my opinion was affirmed. It's got everything just right: beautifully preserved; far enough away to not have the crippling crowds; just enough tourism to be entertaining and welcoming; enough local economy so that tourists don't feel like they have a price on their scalp; big enough to have plenty of good restaurants, cafés, and bars; small enough to be mostly traffic-free.

Volterra.jpgVolterra is beautiful. The strange thing: it's hard to photograph the town in a wide shot. I climbed the tower, and this was the best I could do.

Volterra guides.jpgI love to connect my readers with great local guides in wonderful historic cities. And lately, my personal challenge has been to help organize things through my guidebooks. With these listings, a tour that otherwise wouldn't be viable becomes viable; guides can make enough money for their service, and my travelers can split the cost. A few years ago, I arranged with Annie Adair to promote a €10 walking tour of Volterra that runs every night in the high season at 6 -- rain or shine, with three people or 10. Annie splits the work with her wonderful partner, Claudia, and each night they show up at the meeting point with their cute little tour sign, wondering if anyone will show up.

Volterra walk tour.jpgHanging out with Annie and Claudia, it looked like no one would come this evening. Then, just as the bells were ringing six times, two couples appeared. They got what I call "the best hour in Volterra" (for €10 each), Claudia made about $50, and everyone went home happy.

Noble woman Sra Viti.jpgWhen we travel in Europe, we marvel at the palaces and mansions of venerable noble families from a bygone age when class distinctions were quite explicit and pronounced. It was a time when a few people owned nearly all the land--the other 99 percent were happy for the privilege of working it in hope of having enough food. Today, of course, kings and nobles no longer enjoy such a lofty position. In fact, lots of noble families still have their palaces but need to open them to the public simply to pay their taxes and keep them maintained. In Volterra, one of the best sights is the Palazzo Viti. And to get in you'll actually give charming Senora Viti herself the €5 admission. The palace gives an intimate look at aristocratic lifestyles and is particularly enjoyable to tour, knowing you're helping keep a noble family in leotards.

tobac.jpgA key to sightseeing is finding glimpses of simple, everyday life among all the stained glass, crenellations, and gargoyles. For instance, cut into an old stone wall in Volterra is a 24-hour cigarette vending machine that says "Vietato ai Minori" (not for minors) and requires anyone buying anything to insert their national health card to prove that they're over 18.