The hill town of Cortona has very ancient origins, dating from Etruscan times, and is now one of the most attractive medieval hill towns in Tuscany. It also has lovely views across the surrounding olive groves and two interesting museums adding further to the interest of the town, and a visit is highly recommended.
One of the first things you will notice after arriving in Cortona is the lack of flat streets - prepare yourself for walking up and down hills quite a lot!
Your visit to Cortona can start at the Porta San Domenico from where you can follow the Ruga Piana to reach the Piazza della Repubblica. Alternatively if you arrive at Piazzale Garibaldi, you can take in the extensive views and then follow Via Nazionale to Piazza della Repubblica.
Parking was tight the day we arrived and so we ended up driving to the top of Cortona and parking at the Monastery that is there. From here you can either follow a steep paved path, following the stations of the cross, down in to town. Or you can wander down through a shady park. Both are pleasant but remember you have to walk back up again!
The Piazza della Repubblica is a very lovely ensemble of medieval buildings. It is also here on this square that the Palazzo Comunale (1241) and the 12th century Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo are found. The Palazzo Communale, with its central clocktower and staircase to the front is one of the loveliest medieval buildings in Cortona.
The Town Hall is in the neighbouring square of Piazza Signorelli, which also includes the famous 13th century Praetorian Palace, the façade of which was renovated in 1608 by Filippo Berrettini. Note in particular the typical medieval characters that are visible along the Via Casali on either side of the building, which now houses the Etruscan Museum.
These two squares are at the heart of Cortona and radiating out from there are a maize of pretty narrow streets full of cafes, restaurants, boutiques and gift shops. You will find Cortona to be a busy town. It has always been popular but since Frances Mayes wrote her books based on the area became popular Cortona has become much busier. One of these, "Under the Tuscan Sun" is also a film. The Villa Bramasole was the main location of the film.
Spending time ambling through the streets is the main pleasure of a visit to Cortona and there are many historic buildings to admire as you wander by. Some worth closer inspection include:
Cortona was one of the twelve cities of Etruria and the area is rich in Etruscan history. To find out more visit the Etruscan museum.
Among the most important works in the Etruscan museum in Cortona are a gold fibula (in the form of a panther crouching and decorated with the 'Tree of Life'); a Snout ('Grifo') of bronze, with a hooked beak from which a sharp tongue emerges, and an Etruscan bronze chandelier dating from the second half of the 4th century BC, with a gorgon's head in the middle and decorated with other animals.
Also in the museum you can see the Polyhymnia Muse (an encaustic painting in the Roman Pompeian style) and the 'Tabula Cortonensis', which contains an inscription written in Etruscan and which according to some scholars is probably a legal document.
Among the paintings in the museum note in particular the altarpiece by Pietro Berrettini da Cortona [1596-1669] called 'Madonna enthroned with four Saints'.
Continuing along Via Casali you reach the Piazza del Duomo.
Cortona cathedral (duomo) is in the Florentine Renaissance style and attributed to Giuliano da Sangallo (1445-1516). It was built on the ruins of the ancient parish Church of Santa Maria.
To the right of the cathedral is a portal by Giovanni Battista di Cristofano Infregliati (aka 'Cristofanello') built in the 16th century (remodelled in the 19th century).
Passing along from Piazza della Repubblica to Porta Colonia there are a whole series of medieval buildings dating from 14th century Cortona.
Opposite the cathedral stands the Church of Jesus which is home to the Diocesan Museum. This museum contains various important art works from the 13th - 15th centuries such as works by Pietro Lorenzetti ('Madonna and some Angels'); Luca Signorelli ('The Communion of the Apostles'); and Bartolomeo della Gatta ('The Assumption').
Its two main treasures are by Giovanni da Fiesole, known as “Beato Angelico” or "Fra Angelico and are 'The Madonna and Child with Angels' and also the famous 'Annunciation'.
Next to the the Porta Colonia note the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Nuova, a work mostly by Giorgio Vasari who continued the work initiated by a local architect Battista Cristofanello. The construction was then continued by Giovanni Tristano and Mariotto di Bino in the 16th century.
Another church worthy of mention is the Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Gazie in Calcinaio, by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, who began the work in 1485 and completed it in 1513.
In Renaissance-style, the church follows a central plan, with a single nave, two side chapels and a large dome. Martini was able to apply the principles of Renaissance architecture (the proportion and perspective) perfectly, reflecting lessons from Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472).
One of our favourite churches was the Church of San Francesco. Inside the church is a magnificent reliquary containing wood of the true cross and also a robe worn by Saint Francesco and cushions belonging to San Francesco.
Continue up the hill to the Church of Santa Margherita (the Monastery where you can park). Enter the church to see the 14th century tomb of the Saint. Outside the church are lovely views over the surrounding Tuscan countryside.
Continue uphill to get to the fortress from where the highlight is undoubtedly the lovely far-reaching views that extend as far as distant Lake Trasimeno.
As you leave Cortona notice the lovely domed church nestled amongs the olive trees at the bottom of the hill.
Cortona cuisine and traditions
Every year in August Cortona celebrates the 'Tuscan Sun Festival' with a range of classical music concerts and art exhibitions.
In late May - early June there is a medieval week which involves traditional medieval dress and activities, the enactment of a medieval wedding and a crossbow tournament.
Outside the town walls you can still see the old houses and furnishings typical of the rural area. While exploring find the time to stop in a tavern to taste some traditional Tuscan cuisine and recipes of Cortona. This local Tuscan cuisine includes the typical popular dishes of 'bean soup' and 'bread soup', while among the main courses the local boar is popular.
Wine production here also dates back to Etruscan times - they planted the vineyards using the technique of the 'live support', which involved the union of the vines with other plants. Pliny the Younger (61 ca.-112 AD) in particular praised a wine typical of the area of Cortona, called Estesiaca. See also history of Cortona.
Places to Visit Nearby
The Tuscan towns and villages are quite a distance from the coast but if you are feeling the need for a rest and some 'downtime' head for Castiglione-del-Lago. This pretty town sits on the edge of a large lake with beaches and beach activities.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Tuscany guide.