Best cheap sleeps in Tuscany

Tuscany Month continues with my on-the-ground, personally researched list of the best cheap sleeps in Tuscany. The Sleeping listings were one of the hardest hit sections in the beautifully crafted 2010 edition of Lonely Planet Tuscany & Umbria and with online accommodation booking making this section almost obsolete, it’s easy to understand why.

I realize that Tuscany is not one of the first places in the world that springs to mind when you think of budget travel. And honestly, assuming one doesn’t commit to campsites and bread and jam three meals a day, even utilizing my best Tuscany budget travel tips will still result in a somewhat serious cash outlay over a week or two compared to a similar interval in Bulgaria. Furthermore, one would be tempted, and sometimes correct, in assuming that anyone offering super-budget accommodations in high-priced Tuscany is probably renting out rooms in an abandoned wing of a mental hospital 12 kilometers outside of town.

Well, the good news is that there’s several passably cheap sleeps in Tuscany. Staying at a few of them will require you to have you own car, or heroic public bus patience and fortitude, but many are within easy walking distance from some of Tuscany’s best areas. Two caveats: I have not accounted for Florence and northwest Tuscany in this list, as this is not my research area, and I am not taking into account the sprinkling of semi-decent campsites in the region. I’m only including places with four permanent walls, proper beds and indoor plumbing. Also, prices listed were accurate as of spring/summer 2009.

There are, of course, a few HI hostels in the area. Though, as Italy backpacker veterans will probably agree, Italy’s HI hostels are, for the most part, well below the bar for European standards of cleanliness and location, to say nothing of the tendency for prison-caliber rules and the occasionally questionable mental stability of the proprietors. Unfortunately, unless you consider yourself among the greatest of all hostel warriors, for these reasons I cannot recommend the HI hostels in Livorno, Siena and Cortona.

Having said all that, in no particular order, the best cheap sleeps in Tuscany are:

Pensione Dante (Livorno)
Singles €30, doubles €40, triples €50 (breakfast included)
This is a great, centrally located place. New management brought in new floors, new beds, and vastly improved bathrooms and communal kitchen. Rooms are large and bare, some with a view of the canal, but everything is squeaky clean. The new breakfast room opens up to the canal as well and has a TV and coffee machine. When I last visited, though it’s not yet mentioned on their web site, they were preparing to open a B&B nearby.

Pensione Bartoli (Castiglioncello)
Singles €43-50, doubles €60-72 (closed November-Easter)
Located in the unpretentious (read, somewhat boring and strangely starved of decent eating options) seaside town of Castiglioncello, this villa is rich in character and offers unbeatable value. It’s an old-fashioned ‘let’s stay with grandma’ kind of place with 18 well-dusted, large rooms, lace curtains and venerable family furniture. Rooms 19 (the largest) and 21 have the best sea views.

Albergo Ape Elbana (Portoferraio, Isola d’Elba)
Singles €45-80, doubles €60-110 (including breakfast and parking)
Sitting enviably in the center of Portoferraio’s old town, overlooking Piazza della Repubblica (where guests can park for free). This butter-colored building is Elba’s oldest hotel, where guests of Napoleon are reputed to have stayed while he was briefly exiled on this pretty island. The location is its best feature as rooms, while large, are a little soulless. Ask for one of the larger ones looking onto the piazza.

Hotel La Perla (Siena)
Singles €40-60, doubles €70-85, triples €90-115 (no breakfast)
A very friendly and well-run budget option, considering its dead center location in one of Tuscany’s more pricey cities. Bathrooms are small and a few rooms are musty, but that’s a small price to pay for this otherwise excellent value, seconds from Piazza del Campo. Room 28 has an amazing view of San Domenico church and Room 26 overlooks the Duomo.

Hotel Le Tre Donzelle (Siena)
Singles with shared bathroom €38, doubles with shared bathroom €49, doubles with private bathroom €60
Central and popular, this hotel was originally constructed as a tavern in the 13th century. Rooms are clean and simple and the shared bathrooms are spotless. Ask for a room facing away from the noisy street.

Foresteria Monastero di San Girolamo (San Gimignano)
Per person €27 (Breakfast is €3, parking is available)
Run by friendly Benedictine nuns, this is an excellent quiet, budget choice in otherwise super expensive San Gimignano, with basic but spacious, comfortable rooms with attached bathrooms, sleeping two to five people. It’s a busy place, often hosting groups, so ring as far ahead as possible. If you don’t have a reservation, arrive between 9am and 12.30pm or between 3pm and 5.45pm and ring the monastery bell. You can also use their kitchen (€3 per day).

Il Giardino (Montalcino)
Tel. +39 (0) 577-84-82-57, email albergoilgiardino at virgilio dot it
Singles €40-45, doubles €55-60, triples €73-85 (including breakfast)

An excellent-value, family-run, friendly, two-star hotel overlooking Piazza Cavour. The pensioners running it don’t speak a lick of English, so have your phrasebook at the ready.

Le Case (Castiglione d’Orcia)
Singles €45, doubles €70, triples €85 (including breakfast, free internet access and wi-fi, closed Jan-mid-Mar)
The only agriturismo on the list and, in fact, probably the best value agriturismo in Tuscany. Just 1km south of Castiglione d’Orcia, this 18th-century stone farmhouse is run by a warm Italian couple. All five rooms are tastefully decorated and charming in their simplicity. Two elderly farmers can be regularly spotted around the property, resolutely continuing their daily chores. Somewhat remote (you definitely need your own car to stay here) and fittingly peaceful, nearby diversions include horseback riding, hiking, wine-tasting, and the spas. Discounts available for long stays.

Oliviera Camere (Pienza)
Singles €35, doubles €48 (both include breakfast); apartments (without breakfast) €70
Once an olive oil mill and squeezed into a side street in low-key, pedestrian-friendly Pienza, this place represents excellent value. Its four rooms are simple, but fresh and attractive. There are also three larger studio apartments. It’s great as a base of operations, as several buses a day pass through Pienza heading for both Siena and Montepulciano.

Bellavista (Montepulciano)
Tel. +39 (0) 347 823 23 14; email bellavista at bccmp dot com
Doubles €65-70 (Parking available)

This is an excellent choice if you’re traveling in pairs. Nearly all of its 10 high-ceiling, double rooms have fantastic views – room 6 has a private terrace. Some rooms have refrigerators and all have great beds. No-one lives here so phone ahead in order to be met and given a key (if you’ve omitted this stage, there’s a phone in the entrance lobby from where you can call).

La Cocciara (Cetona)
Per person €20
Horribly located in ho-hum Cetona (you’ll need a car to stay here), but it’s one of the precious few HI-affiliated youth hostels in Tuscany that won’t offend. Large, clean, safe and friendly. Bring earplugs, as noise from the busy road can be formidable.

Seminario di Sant’Andrea (Volterra)
Tel +39 (0) 588 8 60 28; email semvescovile at diocesivolterra dot it
Single with bathroom €14, double with bathroom €28; doubles with shared bathroom €36 (Breakfast is €3, parking available)
Still an active church retreat (but they welcome all comers), this is a peaceful, though slightly dilapidated place with vaulted ceilings and 20 large, clean rooms. A mere 600m or so from Piazza dei Priori.

View from room 6 in Albergo Guastini

Albergo Guastini (Pitigliano)
Singles €35-40, doubles €58-66, triples €84-92 (Breakfast is a steep €8; closed mid-Jan-mid-Feb)
This is Pitigliano’s only hotel, so it’s a good thing they’re friendly and welcoming. The main attraction here is that the hotel is perched on the edge of the cliff face, giving amazing view of the bastion (rooms 6 and 18 in particular). These are among the best hotel-room vistas in Tuscany. Its highly regarded restaurant (meals with a glass of wine, cost about €28) also merits a visit.

Camera Caffe (Arezzo)
Singles without bathroom €35; Singles with bathroom €40, doubles with bathroom €55 (breakfast included)
Across the street from Arezzo’s train station and reasonable walking distance from anything in the historic center, the dorm room decor here is supplemented by cushy beds and fat duvets. The huge, self-serve kitchen has a gorgeous dining terrace with city views. Some rooms have air-con.

Betania (Cortona)
Singles without bathroom €32, doubles without bathroom €42; doubles with bathroom €48
Just outside Cortona’s historic center, at the end of a gated, beautiful, tree-lined entrance, the large garden, great views and onsite church give the property a distinct monastic feel. They offer off-street parking for €25 per day, but the street parking is just fine.

La Casa sul Lago (Torricella, outside Perugia)
Dorm bed €16, private rooms €22-44 per person
I gave these guys the Killing Batteries bump in 2007 for Best Hostel, even though they are located just a few kilometers outside my region, in the tiny village of Torricella, only 50 meters from the shores of Lake Trasimeno in Umbria (where I lived for a few months). It’s a large place, that frequently hosts school groups in the summer (book in advance!), but the people running it are just awesome. The location is slightly inconvenient if you don’t have a car (the village has a train station on the Perugia-Florence line, but trains only stop a few times a day), but the lake-side village is super chill. They have a second location on Polvese Island that’s so beautiful and agriturismo-licious that people have been known to become giddy with pleasure during their stay and (almost) propose marriage to whatever female is in their company.

Ostello San Frediano (Lucca)
Dorm bed €18-20; double with private bathroom €55
OK, this one is outside my research territory too, but I stayed here for a few nights at the end of my trip in 2009 and they are just great. In fact, they’re outstanding by Italian HI Hostel standards. Inside the historic center, free parking, €8 dinners available, and housed in a massive, historic building.