When it comes to hilltop towns in Tuscany, the question often is: should I see San Gimignano or Volterra? Which one is more beautiful, which is more authentic, where are the most interesting attractions? These two towns are both big hitters, but which one should you put on your itinerary?
Volterra and San Gimignano are not very far from each other (30 kms.- 50 minute drive). But we wouldn’t recommend seeing both in the same day. These evocative hilltop towns really need to be taken slowly so you have time to appreciate their unique atmospheres.
So what’s the difference between them in a nutshell? San Gimignano is probably more visually impressive and compact, while in Volterra there’s more to see, from Etruscan finds to Roman ruins. Volterra is the bigger of the two and feels more’ authentic’, lived in by locals, while San Gimignano feels like it caters more for tourists.
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Volterra and San Gimignano. How to choose where to go.
Why you should choose San Gimignano
To see the house towers. The famous silhouette of San Gimignano, and the reason it has been nicknamed “the Manhattan of the Middle Ages”is down to its 14 towers. It’s the only town in Tuscany that has as many surviving house towers. And one of them, the so-called Torre Grossa, can be climbed. So if authentic Medieval towers is your thing, your choice is easy.
As a town, San Gimignano is smaller in size, and you can walk around the historic centre in an hour. Everything feels perfectly ‘Medieval’, well maintained, picture-perfect. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, nevertheless.
See the amazing frescoes inside the Duomo. One impressive feature of this church, that looks pretty plain from the outside, is that its interior walls are completely covered in frescoes. Art lover will discover some fascinating surprises, from the Medieval fresco cycles to a lovely chapel by Renaissance master Ghirlandaio.
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Shopping options? There are plenty of little shops, selling ceramics mainly, and a variety of souvenir shops.
TIP: If you spend the night here you’ll be able to enjoy the town in the evening, when the crowds have left. If you visit in peak season during the day you can generally expect crowds, as it’s amongst the most popular of all Tuscany’s destinations.
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Why you should choose Volterra
For any history buff, Volterra is a destination not be missed. Why? The Etruscans. The Museum Guarnacci in Volterra is one of Italy’s top museums for Etruscan finds. There’s the Etruscan gate that still forms part of the fortification of the town. But it wasn’t just the Etruscans who made their mark on Volterra. The city also boasts the ruins of a Roman theatre visibile on the side of a hill.
Fast forward to Medieval times, and the beautiful Piazza dei Priori is the epitome of a Medieval square, with its forbidding palaces and stone coats of arms. The Romanesque Duomo and Baptistery also deserve a visit, and you’ll find interesting works of art inside the Duomo. (Though at the time of writing it’s closed for renovation until mid 2019). For more art, the Pinacoteca has a fascinating collection of paintings from 13th to 15th century.
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You can see alabaster artisans at work here, working the local stone into all sorts of objects, from lamps to vases. This white translucent stone is one of Volterra’s treasures. Alabaster objects are sold in many of the shops And there’s also a museum dedicated to it.
TIPS: the views are breathtaking. If you catch the sunset in Volterra, while admiring the countryside that surround it, you’l probably never want to leave.