The famous silhouette of San Gimignano is an enduring symbol of Tuscany. It’s also one of the most attractive and popular destinations in Italy, and a UNESCO heritage site.
People are drawn here by the beautifully preserved Medieval towers, fairytale squares, unforgettable frescoes, and charming little shops.
San Gimignano Tuscany – One of Italy’s top Medieval towns
Situated half-way between Florence and Siena in Tuscany, San Gimignano is a compact Medieval town, with ancient stone buildings and fourteen tower houses competing for attention. It’s one of the best preserved walled towns in Tuscany, Italy. When you enter the city from the old gate Porta San Giovanni, be ready to step back in time and breath in the Medieval air. The gorgeous Piazza Cisterna has a picturesque stone well at its centre. Meanwhile the adjacent Piazza Duomo is filled with architectural details that can keep you enthralled for hours. It’s a mixture of the romantic and the historic that appeals to every traveller.
What to see and do in San Gimignano, Tuscany
The artistic highlight of a visit to San Gimignano is the cycle of frescoes in the Cathedral Collegiata of Santa Maria Assunta, one of the greatest in Tuscany. For more 14th century frescoes, head to the Museo Civico inside the Palazzo del Popolo situated next to the cathedral.
Climbing the Torre Grossa (great tower) in the Palazzo del Popolo can be a strenuous business with its 214 steep steps, but the view from the top is breathtaking. It’s definitely one of the best things to do in San Gimignano.
For a different kind of thrill, the small but well-curated Museum of Torture gives visitors a fascinating if disturbing view of Medieval torture. Some of the exhibits will make you wince, but it’ll even entertain bored teenagers.
Another interesting Museum is the quirky San Gimignano 300 with a 1:100 scale model of the original town as it was in 1300. At that time San Gimignano had 72 towers which have all been recreated here, along with lots of information about local history. It’s a great way to bring the town’s past to life for both adults and kids.
Back to the present day, and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Raffaele Grada boasts a good collection of 20th century paintings. Meanwhile the peaceful Church of Sant’Agostino, set in a quiet corner of the centre, is another point of interest if you’ve got time to spare and want to escape the crowds.
Eating and shopping in San Gimignano Tuscany
Try the award-winning ice cream at the gelateria in piazza Cisterna, and the lively white wine Vernaccia di San Gimignano with some local cured meat.
Souvenir shops vary from the pretty tacky to the charmingly tasteful. You’ll find everything from prints and watercolours to textiles and artisan pottery, alabaster vases and assorted knick-knacks.
Its fame in Italy has earned it the name “Manhattan of the Middle Ages” and it draws plenty of crowds especially in high season. To enjoy this splendidly preserved Medieval town at its best, visit out of season and if you have time, spend the night. Walking the quiet streets in the evening, the atmosphere is at its most authentic, and the romantic side of San Gimignano is truly revealed.
The Tower Houses of San Gimignano
The tower houses that we see today were built between the 12th and the 13th century by the wealthy families who controlled San Gimignano. The nobility brought the fortified towers of their castles with them when they moved in from the countryside. These towers were symbols of power in Tuscany and answered the Medieval need for defensive structures. In the event of an attack people would flee to the upper floors and were able to barricade themselves inside.
It wasn’t only a shortage of space that caused the towers to be built ever higher, but also a question of prestige: the higher they were, the more wealthy the family. In San Gimignano there would have been around 70 towers in the 14th century, but the majority were later destroyed when they lost their function. These house towers of San Gimignano are the best preserved in Tuscany and the whole of Italy.
If you’d like more picturesque and Medieval wonders to add to your travel itinerary, head over to our article about the best small towns in Tuscany.
For more suggestions for your trip, check out the best driving itineraries in Tuscany, that include San Gimignano, Volterra, and the Chianti area.