Discover the top things to do in San Gimignano, the ultimate hilltop town in Tuscany, Italy. Medieval to its core, this UNESCO world heritage site allows you to play the part of an ancient lord by climbing one of its house-towers. There are also amazing frescoes, lovely shops and enoteche to enjoy, and an award-winning gelateria. What’s not to like?
Top things to do in San Gimignano – Go climb a tower
The Torre Grossa, ‘big tower,’ like all other towers, was built with defence in mind. People would run up the narrow flight of stairs right to the top when an attack was imminent, and from up there they could check the surrounding territory. Today there are no dangers in sight, just a wonderful view that gets plenty of “wows”. Make sure you charge your camera, there are some great shot to be taken here. Once you’re back safe on the ground again, have a look at the Town Hall rooms and the delightful courtyard.
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Get lost in a sea of frescoes
When you enter San Gimignano’s Cathedral, you’ll be inundated by colour. Every single centimetre of the Duomo’s walls is covered in frescoes. Artists from the renowned Sienese school of painting worked at these frescoes during the 14th century. Medieval worshippers attending mass were expected to learn moral lessons. And since the majority couldn’t read or write, the frescoes functioned as a way of helping them understand the scriptures.
Scenes from the Old Testament are on the walls to the left, showing stories from Genesis, Noah’s ark. The depiction of the crossing of the Red Sea is one of the most impressive. On the right-hand side there are scenes from the life of Jesus, while the interior side of the facade shows off the famous Taddeo di Bartolo’s depiction of Hell. Following Dante’s vision of hell, Satan holds Judas between his teeth, and the sinners are being punished according to their sins. In the Saint Fina Chapel you find the loveliest fresco of them all, by Renaissance master Ghirlandaio.
Are you an art passionate? You might want to check out the best frescoes in Florence.
Romancing the stones in Piazza della Cisterna
I’m biased. This is one of my favourite squares in the whole of Tuscany. Piazza della Cisterna is a small triangular square with a travertine marble pedestal at its centre that caps the underground cistern from which the square takes its name. It’s surrounded by tower-houses, beautifully preserved, with lovely details. The layout dates back to the 14th century, where pilgrims and merchants would arrive in San Gimignano travelling along the Via Francigena.
The place is timeless. When the crowd thins out in the evening, and the moon is shining on the towers, it has a captivating, dreamlike atmosphere. Especially when you’re lucky enough to hear a musician playing in the square.
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Have an award-winning ice cream – Vote for your favourite flavour
And while you’re daydreaming in Piazza della Cisterna, you should complete your heavenly experience by trying the gelato from Gelateria Dondoli. Acclaimed, award-winning, this is ice cream at its most deliciously indulgent. Go for an unusual flavour like raspberry and rosemary, Vernaccia wine, cinnamon or zabaione. A real artisan gelato is one of the best experiences you can have in Italy. I’m sure we all agree!
San Gimignano 1300 – Having fun with history
Fun and instructive. Here you can see what San Gimignano would have looked like in the 1330’s, when it was at the height of its wealth and power. A clever reconstruction of the most famous hilltop town in Tuscany shows the 72 original towers, the walls and the ancient buildings. In the San Gimignano 1300 Museum you’ll learn about the history and daily life in the 14th century. If you’re travelling with kids this is definitely one of the top things to do in San Gimignano.
The dark side of history – Torture museum
Of all the things to do in San Gimignano, this is the most interesting or the most stomach-churning, depending on how you look at it. As a history lesson, it’s good not to forget what we humans are capable of. With exhibits of some originals and some replicas of the horrific instruments of torture, in the Torture Museum you’ll be shown the darker side of history. “The horror aroused in our visitors viewing the instruments allows us to make them our allies against torture”, states the official site. Not for the faint hearted.
Shopping for pottery or alabaster
On a lighter note, in San Gimignano you’ll find some lovely pottery shops. Some organise shipping for you in case you fall in love with a massive ceramic pot or vase. From traditional designs to Tuscany inspired decorations, there’s something for every taste. Alabaster is the local stone, white and translucent, and often used for small objects and lamps. The many eggs made of different stones are supposed to bring luck.
An hour drive away is the delightful hilltop town of Volterra. Will you fall in love with San Gimignano or Volterra?