Tuscany has seven major islands and plenty more minor ones. Unlike some of Italy’s better know islands, these hidden treasures are mostly off the tourist map and continue to preserve their idyllic island life with its cultures, customs and breathtaking beaches.
Easily the most famous of the Tuscan archipelago islands, Elba is best known as the destination where Napoleon Bonaparte served out his exile in 1814. Napoleon actually declared sovereignty of the island during his stay, which lasted a little less than a year. During this time, he built a pastel pink palazzo that has become a mini Napoleonic museum. Of course, there is plenty to do and see on the island if you’re not a Francophile. Like all of the islands on the Tuscan archipelago, Elba is part of the Arcipelago Toscano National Park and its Mount Capanne is extremely popular with hikers. As for its beaches, the Beach of Samson and Capo Bianco are the two most beautiful and therefore popular. Ferries leave regularly for Elba Island from the ports of Piombino and Portoferraio.
Giglio Island was thrust into the limelight in 2012 with the Costa Concordia crash. The cruise ship collided with rocks just off its coastline and the wreck lay on its side in plain view of the island until 2014. Giglio is my top pick if you want to immerse yourself in Tuscan island life. The island has a healthy population and is divided into the small port town with its shops and restaurants, the elevated Old Town with its castle and striking medieval homes all clustered one on top of each other within the castle walls, and its beach district, where the seafood is fresh and the views breathtaking. The best way to explore the island is on scooter, which are plentiful and cheap to rent on the island. Ferries for Giglio depart from Porto Santo Stefano.
Giglio’s smaller shadow, Giannutri is an uninhabited island and nature reserve. It’s only open to a small number of tourists each season and booking is essential. The last human hands to build anything on Giannutri were Roman and many of the Empire’s relics have been beautifully preserved, including a Roman villa and the columns of what must have once been a very majestic port. Giannutri is breathtaking both above sea and below it, so scuba diving is essential. Private day tours for the island can be booked online and depart from Porto Santo Stefano during the summer season.
The northwesternmost of the seven islands, Capraia has an ancient history that dates all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, who once called it Aegyllon or Goat Place. Little has changed as very few people remain on the island today. This may have something to do with its less than savory modern history, in which it was used as a penal colony from 1873 to 1986. It was only in 1986 that the government decided to open the island up to visitors. Capraia is best known for its Fortress of Saint George, a towering, albeit crumbling fort that dates back to the 16th century. Today the island is popular with hikers and nature walkers with a high population of flora and fauna, including aquatic flora, which you can only find on these islands. Ferries for the island depart from Livorno.
As you might have guessed, Montecristo’s primary claim to fame is as the setting for part of the famous Alexandre Dumas novel, The Count of Montecristo. Nowadays the island only has two permanent human inhabitants, both nature reserve keepers. To visit the island you must apply for access in Follonica and only 1,000 visitors are allowed per year. This is done primarily to preserve the flora and fauna on the island, which includes several thousand-year-old oaks, the Montecristo viper, endemic subspecies of lizards and the only Italian population of wild goats. In other words, it is a nature lover’s paradise.
Pianosa Island has a coastal perimeter of just 26 kilometres, which makes it a very small island indeed. It was mentioned in the novel Catch-22 and was, in a keeping with the history of the archipelago, a penal colony until 1998. During this time, it was a maximum-security prison, where a number of big name mafia bosses served their sentences, along with terrorists of the Red Brigade, a left-wing paramilitary brigade responsible for numerous assassinations, robberies and kidnapping. Today the island is better known for its hiking and trekking trails and its strikingly white Palazzo dello Specola, although the former prison is not open to visitors. Ferries depart from Elba Island, Piombino and San Vincenzo.
The last of Tuscany’s major islands and the last to be opened to visitors with regular ferries from Livorno. Gorgona is a quiet and unassuming island that only very recently stopped being, yes, you guessed it, a penal colony, although in this case it was an agrarian community for Italy’s least violent criminals.