Villas are an increasingly popular way to stay in Tuscany and Umbria, and for good reason. In contrast to hotels, a vacation rental gives you room to spread out, the freedom to do your own thing, and the fun of living temporarily all'italiana. A rental car is essential for all but a handful of villas.

Villas can also save you money. You'll end up spending less on meals out, since you'll have a kitchen and dining area where you can cook feasts with local gourmet goodies. And if you're in a group, you'll save even more as you defray the rental fees over a larger number of people. The majority of villas have swimming pools, washing machines, DVD players, and satellite TV; units with reliable Internet connections are rare. Of course, villas don't come with concierges, continental breakfasts, or daily maid service. But at a minimum, all villas come with emergency contact information and local resources if any issues should arise.

As with any real estate, location is key. Find out the following before booking

  • Is it close to a main road? Country roads are fun but slow -- for relaxed day trips around the region, it pays to have easy access to the thoroughfares that serve greater Tuscany and Umbria. On the flip side, steer clear of anything too close to the autostrada.
  • Are there a food market, pharmacy, coffee bar, and gas station within a 5to 10-minute drive? A bit of seclusion is great; too much is a hassle.
  • What's the topography like? You're more likely to get that gorgeous cliché of sundrenched fields and cypress-lined lanes near Montalcino and Montepulciano, while in Chianti Country and the Lucca area you'll find more mountainous, forested terrain. The Valdichiana, near Cortona, is flatter farmland and is more industrialized in parts.

Keep in mind that the noble-sounding names -- Tenuta this, or Poggio that -- of some listings may suggest something loftier than the reality. Sure, plenty of properties are truly estatelike, but others are blandly modern. When you do arrive at even the most idyllic properties, don't expect fairy-tale surroundings in every direction: There are bound to be modern intrusions, like the monstrous new hospital that blights the view to the south. Anticipate them, and they won't ruin your vacation.

Some agencies we like: U.K.-based Tuscany Now (tel. 020-7684-8884;, which charges from 1,600€ per week for a four-person villa. In Tuscany (tel. 0577-630257; asks from 1,000€ per week for a four-person villa. Your Tuscany (tel. 06-68809301; has high-end villas from 2,600€ per week for a property that sleeps six.