Visit San Gimignano
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).
Although it is a small town, because of its remarkable medieval centre and towers San Gimignano is one of the most visited destinations in Italy - and also among the most beautiful, with a great deal to explore and some very impressive artworks. The centre of the town is now a listed UNESCO historic site.
A brief history of San Gimignano
The site of the village has been occupied since pre-Roman times, and was an Etruscan settlement some 2500 years ago, although no visible evidence of the village now remains.
The historic centre you see today was built by wealthy local lords in the 12th and 13th centuries - we can only assume they were aiming for a medieval version of Manhattan, each trying to out do the next in height. This continued until the Lord of the town announced that no one was allowed to build a tower higher than the one he had built!
The prosperity of San Gimignano was brought to an abrubt end in 1348 with the arrival of the Black Death which rather deterred pilgrims from visiting and weakened the town enough to let Florence take control.
Think the skyline is impressive now? Apparently there were originally 72 towers here which must have made an impressive sight!
It is interesting to note that the town actually owes its appeal to this long 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.
Exploring San Gimignano - the city of towers
The best known and most photographed view of San Gimignano is of course the view as you approach, looking towards the village and its towers spread along the ridge of the hills.
This is also one of the most impressive views in Italy and the best way to appreciate the overall 'layout' of San Gimignano - so be sure to enjoy the view before rushing in to explore!
Start exploring the town centre by approaching the town centre from the southern entrance at Saint John Gate (Porta San Giovanni) and you 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. These are the two central squares in San Gimignano and where most of the medieval buildings are found.
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 most original and beautifully preserved medieval square. The name 'Cisterna' comes from the ancient well that you can still see in the square.
Note: although there are 13 medieval towers in San Gimignano the Torre Grossa is the only one that is open to the public. Access is via the Civic Museum.
You find a similar layout in nearby Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), which includes the Collegiate Church, one of the highlights of your visit because of its artistic traeasures.
The Collegiate Church is a beautiful 12th century church with three naves and numerous artworks by eminent artists such as Domenico Ghirlandaio as well as frescoes relating stories from the New and Old Testaments by Barna da Siena (14th century) and Bartolo di Fredi (1330-1410) and several others.
In a courtyard next to the Collegiate Church there is another great fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), called the Annunciation and dating from 1482.
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 town art gallery.
This Pinacoteca Civica (Civic Art Gallery) 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. A visit is recommended even if you are not usually one for visiting museums of renaissance art!
No less impressive with its typical medieval character is the Via San Matteo reached from the north-west corner of Piazza del Duomo. Along this street there are several towers such as the Pettini and Salvucci Towers as well as churches including the Church of San Bartolo (Romanesque style) and the church of St. Augustine.
The 13th century Church of St. Augustine has three chapels, one of which - that of San Bartolo - holds works by Piero del Pollaiuolo (The Coronation of Mary) and Benozzo Gozzoli (Life of St. Augustine and San Sebastian), making this one of the artistic highlights of your visit to San Gimignano..
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.
San Gimignano shopping, restaurants and cuisine
One of the principal shopping streets in San Gimignano is the Via San Giovanni, reached via the arch on the southern side of Piazza della Cisterna.
After exploring the medieval streets there are also restaurants offering excellent cuisine to discover, including some dishes linked to saffron, part of 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.
There are numerous exceptional historic towns and villages in this part of Tuscany - one that we suggest you visit is the tiny fortified village of Monteriggioni. Of course the exceptional location here means that you are also in easy reach of both Florence to the north and Siena to the south as well as the Chianti region just east of here. Get ready for a busy trip, there's a lot to see!
Photos taken in and near San Gimignano, Tuscany
Map of San Gimignano sightseeing & popular sights
Selected places to visit near San Gimignano, Italy
See the Tuscany guide for more travel ideas...