14km (9 miles) W of Montepulciano; 24km (15 miles) E of Montalcino; 55km (34 miles) SE of Siena; 125km (78 miles) S of Florence; 177km (110 miles) NW of Rome

A 20-minute drive west of Montepulciano on the SS146, this lovely hilltown sits perched above the Val d’Orcia, with glorious landscapes of vineyards and wheat fields in every direction. Its narrow side streets are lined with shops selling the town’s famous pecorino (sheep’s milk cheeses) and honey. But Pienza has a unique noble heritage, dating to the mid-15th century, when it was rebuilt by humanist Pope Pius II and architect Bernardo Rossellino to be the ideal Renaissance town. Piazzas and palaces, spaces and perspectives, were to be designed to reflect Renaissance ideals of rationality and humanism, and to instill the populace with notions of peace and harmony. Rossellino’s budget was 10,000 florins and he spent 50,000, but Pius was so pleased with the transformation of his birthplace that he scrapped the old name of Corsignano and named the town after himself. Sadly, Pius died soon thereafter, and most of his plans for palaces, churches, piazzas and well-ordered streets were never realized.

The village of Pienza, however, retains its remarkable city-size piazza, one of the grandest achievements of Renaissance architecture and the only intact example of a city-planning scheme from the era. Director Franco Zeffirelli was so taken by the village's look that he dethroned Verona as the city of the Montagues and Capulets and filmed his Romeo and Juliet in Pienza. Pienza was also used in the Oscar-winning epic, The English Patient.

Today, its 2,500 inhabitants put up with the stream of day-trippers with good humor, lots of craft stands, and a surfeit of food stores. The main drag, Corso Rossellino, goes in one end of town and out the other in less than 4 minutes at a stroll. There are a handful of narrow side streets within Pienza's proud little walls, and modest new developments surround the burg on three sides (the fourth, southern side is saved for a memorable Val d'Orcia view). Pienza will take no more than half a day in your schedule, time enough to admire the palaces, Sienese art collection, and Duomo at the town's perfect core; nibble on the famous sheep's milk cheeses and honey; and take a short walk to the odd, isolated medieval churches in the countryside outside the walls. Its environs also make a good base for discovering most of the places in southern Tuscany.

Park outside the town walls and follow the main street, Corso Rossellino, to the center of town: the splendid Piazza Pio II, the focal point of Pius’s town-planning dream and a Renaissance stage set of architectural perfection. Here you’ll find the two main buildings of Pius’s ambitious dream: A church (the Duomo) and the pope’s own residence (Palazzo Piccolomini). Pienza’s tourist office is also here, inside the Palazzo Vescovile on Piazza Pio II, Corso Rossellino 30, 53026 Pienza (www.pienza.info; tel. 0578/749905; open Wed–Mon 10am–1pm and 3–6pm from mid-Mar to Oct, weekends only the rest of the year).