Visit San Gimignano
San Gimignano is a medieval village 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 route (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 of historic monuments to explore and also some very impressive artworks. The centre of the town is now a listed UNESCO historic site.
Exploring San Gimignano - the city of towers
Italy This Way comment: we had anticipated that San Gimignano could not possibly live up to the hype: but it does, and more. It is a remarkable and very authentic medieval town which also has lovely views across Tuscany, and a visit is unmissable for you and for the other millions of people who come here every year as part of a 'tour of Tuscany'.
The best known and most photographed view of San Gimignano is the one that you see even before you reach the town, looking towards the village and with its towers spread along the ridge of the hills. This is also one of the most impressive views in Tuscany, perhaps Italy, so be sure to enjoy the view before rushing in to explore!
Parking can be a challenge here as with other popular Italian villages but there are several large car parks just outside the city walls so this should not be impossible even if it involves driving around a bit first!
Start by approaching the town centre from any direction and you quickly encounter the famous Tower Houses of the ancient medieval town. We suggest you start at the southern entrance at Saint John Gate (Porta San Giovanni) although there are five of these ancient gateways in total and any will quickly lead you to the center of San Gimignano.
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,
Continue along Via San Giovanni and the towers slowly become visible between the tall medieval houses. Soon you enter the Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza del Duomo ,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.
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.
It is also here in Piazza del Duomo that you can find the San Gimignano Tourist Office, which have a useful map giving a great deal of information about many of the buildings and museums, and can also give you a map showing suggested walking trails in the surrounding countryside, including sections of the Via Francigena pilgrim trail.
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. The brightly coloured frescoes cover a large part of the available wall space in the cathedral and are a very impressive sight, especially those in the Chapel of Santa Fina (although an entrance charge is payable, which is quite unusual for Italian churches).
Just west of the Piazza del Duomo there is a 14th century fortress.
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!
In various places in San Gimignano you will come across references to Santa Fina, the patron saint of the town. When alive, Santa Fina was unwell and spent her entire life on a wooden board. At the moment of her death yellow flowers appeared from the board and these same yellow violas can still be seen flowering in the town each spring.
It is interesting to note that the town actually owes its current 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.
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.
Note: although there are 13 medieval towers in San Gimignano the Torre Grossa is the only one that is open to the public.
Access to the Grand Tower is via the Civic Museum. We highly recommend you climb to the top of the tower although several hundred steps are involved because the views across the town, the other towers and the surrounding Tuscany countryside are exceptional from the top of the tower. Your ticket also then gives you access to several other museums: the Civic Museum, the Archaeology Museum, the Gallery of Modern Art and a small Museum of Spices among them.
The Pinacoteca Civica (Civic Art Gallery) exhibits various works of 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!
If you entered the town from the north just follow Via San Matteo to reach the central two piazzas. No less impressive than the Via San Giovanni to the south, this road also has a typical medieval character and is 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.
Art galleries and museums
No visit to San Gimignano will be complete without visiting an art exhibition. The museum in the lower part of the grand tower is very impressive but there are several others in the town of high reputation such as the modern art gallery called Galleria Continua (11 Via del Castello) which features temporary exhibitions by world-renowned contemporary artists.
For a different view of medieval Tuscany, the Museum of Torture is also very popular with visitors and features many items that will make you very glad you live in the 21st century. In fact there are various Museums of Torture in Tuscany but the one here is said to be the best (we didn't visit all of them)!
Throughout the town centre there are many other arts and crafts shops and galleries.
San Gimignano shopping, restaurants and cuisine
Via San Giovanni is also one of the principal shopping streets in San Gimignano. 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.
There are two ice-cream shops almost next to each other in the main square and both claiming to have been voted as 'best in Italy' in recent years. Certainly their prices were the highest and the queues the longest that we came across during our travels, but that's pretty inevitable here and at least it is free just to walk around the town so who cares about the price of an ice-cream?!
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!
You can find more local travel ideas in the Tuscany guide.