San Gimignano is situated on one of the most fertile hills of the Val d'Elsa in Tuscany, where it developed between the ancient Roman roads of Via Romea and the famous Via Francigena’ (so called because it led to France).
It is interesting to realise that the very attractive town of San Gimignano actually owes its appeal to the period of decline that persisted for several hundred years until the 19th century. This helped ensure the preservation of the existing building heritage and allowed the Old Town to remain intact to be enjoyed today by those who visit this ancient Tuscan city.
The historic centre of the town is now a listed UNESCO historic monument and has also been awarded the Italian Orange Flag award for sustainable tourism.
Approaching the town centre from Saint John Gate we quickly encounter the famous Tower Houses of the ancient medieval town. The most important buildings here include the baroque style Church of Santa Maria dei Lumi and the Romanesque style church of Saint Francis.
Next your gaze is drawn to Pratellesi Palace (now the seat to the Public Library) and to the Cagnanesi Towers, after which you enter the Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza del Duomo, the two central squares in San Gimignano.
In the Piazza della Cisterna there are a whole series of medieval towers: the Tower of Pellari Palace, Ardighelli Tower, the so-called Devil Tower (Wolf Tower), Tortoli Palace and the Torre Mozza (Truncated Tower'), which together create a very well preserved square.
We find the same scenario in nearby Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), which includes the Collegiate Church - a beautiful church from the 12th century,with three naves, and holding some works by eminent artists, with frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) and the stories of the New and Old Testament by Barna da Siena (14th century) and Bartolo di Fredi (1330-1410).
Continuing onwards throught San Gimignano, you pass the Town Hall and the nearby Torre Grossa (Big Tower), the Lodge (with three naves), the Chigi Tower and the Podesta Palace to find the Palazzo del Popolo (People's Palace), now home to the Pinacoteca Civica (Civic Gallery), which exhibits works of great artistic and historical importance, including paintings by Benozzo Gozzoli (1421-1497), Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), Pinturicchio (1454-1510) and Coppo di Marcovaldo (1225 ca.-1276 ca.) and many others.
No less impressive with its typical medieval character is the Via San Matteo, with its many towers (e.g. Pettini and Salvucci Towers) and churches, including San Bartolo (Romanesque style); and the 13th century church of St. Augustine with three chapels, one of which - that of San Bartolo - hosts works by Piero del Pollaiuolo (The Coronation of Mary) and Benozzo Gozzoli (Life of St. Augustine and San Sebastian).
The churches of San Pietro (of Romanesque style), of San Lorenzo in Ponte and the Convent of St. Clare and St. Jerome are also noteworthy medieval buildings, while many medieval artefacts are also found outside the walls and in the surrounding countryside.
After exploring the medieval streets, there are some restaurants with excellent cuisine to discover, including some dishes linked to saffron, the source of wealth in San Gimignano in the Middle Ages. You may like to first try the saffron risotto, and then perhaps the wild boar stew, with the famous 'Pappardelle' with wild boar, or roasted pigeon.
Don't forget to also sample a few glasses of the typical Vernaccia, a very good local wine which goes especially well with fish dishes (the name Vernaccia comes from the Latin word 'vernaculum', indicating a "wine of the place", a "local wine"). In addition to the Vernaccia, San Gimignano is famous for other wines of great renown such as the San Gimignano Rosso, Novello, Rosato, Vin Santo and the Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice.
See also the history of San Gimignano.