The historic centre of Pienza in south-east Tuscany is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and situated in the Val d'Orcia which is also listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Landscape.
More importantly for visitors, Pienza is a very scenic medieval village which also has lovely views across the countryside!
Because there is a reasonable amount of more recent development around the edges of Pienza it feels more like a town than a hill village when you first arrive, but the historic centre is actually quite small. It is also very straightforward to explore, being little more than one long straight street lined with fascinating monuments.
A great deal of the building work in the town centre is attributable to Pope Pius II in the 15th century (see also history of Pienza.)
Italy This Way comment: although we talk about the individual monuments below, it is the overall sense that you are walking through an unchanged medieval centre that is a large part of the appeal of Pienza.
Your visit to Pienza can start by entering through the gateway called the Porta al Prato. Next to here is the gothic style Church of Saint Francis - this church was not affected by the extensive 15th century changes to the town and therefore it has kept its original 14th century character.
The interior of the Church of Saint Francis contains some important works of art, such as a wooden crucifix by the school of Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255 ca.-1318) and a table by Luca Signorelli (1445-1523).
Continuing along the route you come next to the great mansions of Cardinal Giacomo Ammannati Piccolomini (1422-1479), friend of Pope Pius II, and of Solomon Piccolomini. These two palaces both present a fusion of styles, combining the medieval and the 15th century.
The most impressive palace in Pienza, and the most costly to construct, is the Palazzo Piccolomini designed by Leon Battista Alberti. This palace has a great amount of external detail both in the decorative motifs and in the mullioned windows. No less impressive is the palace interior where the large courtyard stands surrounded by a loggia, through which you can enter the magnificent roof garden, adorned by a series of three overlapping loggias.
Although you can enter to see the courtyard without a ticket, if you want to also enjoy the hanging garden, the attractively decorated rooms and the view from the portico you will need to pay a few euros for the guided tour.
Next to Palazzo Piccolomini in Piazza Maggiore stands Pienza Cathedral, designed by Pius II who wished his Cathedral to be inspired by the so-called Hallenkirchen* model of German churches.
* Although divided into three naves, the cathedral gives the impression of an unique hall, as is usual with the Hallenkirchen style.
The cathedral façade is very elegant and clad in travertine, typical of the school of Leon Battista Alberti, with three Roman arches surmounted by a rose window which is framed in the clearly defined upper triangle. Note that the same marble facing was used for the adjacent tower.
To the side of the cathedral there is an alley that leads to a very nice viewpoint across the Tuscany countryside, while inside there is an impressive crucifix above the altar and a decoratively painted ceiling.
Also in Piazza Maggiore and near the Cathedral you can see the Rectory. This is made more interesting by the presence on its upper floors of the Cathedral Museum, which houses exceptional works by the Sienese school of art such as the paintings by Lorenzo di Pietro (called the “Vecchietta”, 1412-1480) and Bartolo di Fredi (1330 ca.-1409 ca.).
Pienza town hall
Just opposite the Cathedral stands Pienza Town Hall, a building of extraordinary artistic value which was designed by Bernardo Rossellino and then realized by Pietro Paolo Purrina and Paolo Puccio. The town hall has a portico with a decorative façade to the side of which stands the tower.
After admiring Pienza Town Hall follow Via Rossellino to reach the Gonzaga and Jouffroy Palaces, in a pure 15th century style, and also some houses that were built for the poor at the express wish of Pope Pius II.
Finally, continuing along Castle Street, you reach the town walls. These were built and consolidated in the 15th century. Enjoy the scenery from the top of the walls before visiting the ancient romanesque style Corsignano church (7th century, reworked in the 12th century).
Pienza cuisine and restaurants
There are several restaurants in the town centre as well as shops selling local products: in particular Montalcino wine and Pecorino cheese.
We strongly recommend you go into one or two of these shops even if you don't plan to buy anything - the products are beautifully displayed and the smell of the cheeses is magnificent, I can still remember it now if I close my eyes and breathe deeply!
Traditional restaurant dishes here are based around cheese and truffles. We recommend, among the hors d’oeuvres, the famous bruschetta; among the first courses, the Panzanella (soup in chicken broth, eggs and cheese); and among the main courses the Pappardelle with hare.
Outside the Pienza city walls, the Val d'Orcia offer visitors delightful countryside to explore, which has the added advantage that it is also dotted with typical places where you can enjoy the local wines, often considered among the best in the world.
Pienza is a few kilometres west of Montepulciano and east of Montalcino in southern Tuscany within the rolling landscapes of the Crete Senesi area, one of the most attractive regions in this part of Italy.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Tuscany guide.