Perhaps the most famous of the medieval Tuscan hilltop towns, a visit to this region of Italy would not be complete without at least a few hours spent in the rustically beautiful San Gimignano.
Though small, this town houses many a delight for visitors: from churches to galleries, to classic Tuscan panoramic views, here is the low-down on exactly how to spend your day in this remarkable medieval time capsule!
Start your day off by paying a visit to the Campatelli tower and house. This old house will take you back in time; every room provides a fascinating insight into how a wealthy Tuscan family lived back in the 1800’s and the place as a whole offers a different experience from that of the classic museum or gallery.
The highlight of the tour is definitely the excellent film shown in the attic: it provides an extremely informative introduction to the history of the house and the medieval town, and will help to put much of what you see later during your day into context. The film is complemented by a detailed commentary on the property which is offered in multiple languages through an audio device. The inside of the bell tower is also amazing to see, as are the views from the balcony of one of the bedrooms. This place is an absolutely essential stop on your one-day tour!
Following your visit to the Campanelli house and tower, pop by the San Gimignano 1300 museum and marvel at the expertly-crafted model reconstruction of what the town was like around the beginning of the 14th century. The exhibit is based on some of the city’s oldest records and is clearly the product of passion and expertise.
Identify the piazzas, towers and churches you’ll visit throughout the day and simply enjoy seeing the town from a unique perspective. Entry to this brilliant little attraction is free but donations are welcome.
Have a short break and take some time to relax in the iconic triangle-shaped Piazza della Cisterna. Built in the 13th century, it served as a market square and venue for public festivals and tournaments, and it owes its name to a cistern built in 1287 for public use.
Perhaps enjoy an award-winning ice cream while you look around and appreciate the gorgeous, delightfully wonky buildings which wall the square.
Head next to San Gimignano’s Palazzo Comunale, the historic seat of the town’s local government. Built between 1289 and 1298, the Palazzo is a treasure trove, full of magnificent artworks spread between several different rooms. The Sala di Dante houses Lippo Memmi’s fresco "Maestà" (Majesty), and is where the legendary poet addressed the town’s council in 1299.
There are more frescoes to be admired upstairs in the Camera del Podestà (Mayor’s bedroom), while the pinacoteca (picture gallery) holds outstanding works by Siennese and Florentine painters including Filippino Lippi and Pinturicchio. Attached to the Palazzo Comunale is the Torre Grossa, the tallest of San Gimignano’s medieval towers. The town nowadays has only fourteen of its original seventy-five towers, which were built in the 13th and 14th centuries as displays of wealth amongst rival aristocratic families. The Torre Grossa stands at a height of fifty-four metres, and at the top offers panoramic views over the tiled roofs of San Gimignano and the gorgeous Tuscan countryside all around. Take a walk up the 218 steps and you won’t be disappointed!
With the Torre Grossa conquered, stop for a well-earned lunch break in one of San Gimignano’s many restaurants. Sample Italian classics or Tuscan specialities and don’t miss the chance to have a glass of Vernaccia, the typical wine of San Gimignano.
After lunch, walk a short distance (around eight minutes) to the Church of Saint Augustine (Chiesa di Sant’Agostino), the most important church in San Gimignano after the Duomo. The church, built in the 13th century, is large with Romanesque and Gothic characteristics, and has a very simple outer appearance. Once through the door you’ll find the inside bursting with priceless masterpieces, including frescoes and sculptures by Medieval and Renaissance artists such as Piero del Pollaiolo, Bartolo di Fredi and Benozzo Gozzoli. The church features three chapels, the largest of which houses the remains of Saint Bartolo, while altars and frescoes alternate along the length of the wide nave. Even the floor deserves admiration: it was made centuries ago by Andrea della Robbia in beautiful majolica tile.
Head back to the centre of the town to the Piazza del Duomo, where you’ll find San Gimignano’s Cathedral, known as the Collegiata owing to the original college of priests who managed it. Don’t be put off by the underwhelming exterior of this church – the inside is as stunning as the outside is plain. The interior walls are lined with frescoes which date from the 14th century and depict scenes and events from the Old and New Testaments.
In the right aisle of the church you can find the Capella di Santa Fina. An Early Renaissance chapel decorated with frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio, it was designed by Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano in 1468 to enshrine the relics of its namesake saint. Gaze around at the church’s Romanesque arches and black-and-white-striped marble, and stare up at the gold stars dotting the blue lapis lazuli vaulted ceilings. After enjoying the church, take some time to absorb the atmosphere in the square; sit on the steps of the Duomo and take in the rustic beauty of the surrounding buildings, or sit down at one of the cafés for a quick coffee or something sweet.
Step out of the past and into the modern day with a visit to this fabulous contemporary art gallery. Housed in an old cinema, the Galleria Continua is the custodian of some stunning pieces from artists from all around the world. A drastic contrast to their location in the medieval San Gimignano, the works held in the gallery deliver a special impact which is sure to take your experience in the town to the next level. The ethos behind the project is ambitious and engaging, and there are incredible exhibitions on show all the time. Don’t overlook this gem!
A five-minute walk will take you to Rocca di Montestaffoli, the site of the remains of a medieval fortress and the perfect place to end your day in San Gimignano. Just past the Duomo, a path starts which clearly shows the way up to the ruined fortress. It’s worth stopping halfway up at the large viewing point on the left to take photos, but do carry on to the top as the views are truly extraordinary. In addition, Rocca di Montestaffoli is home to the Vernaccia di San Gimignano Wine Experience, a municipal Centre for the documentation and tasting of Vernaccia di San Gimignano wine and local products.
Stay later to watch the sunset if you have time, or take a walk through the peaceful gardens and breathe in the sublime Tuscan ambience.