Discover the top things to do in San Gimignano, the most famous hilltop town in Tuscany, Italy. Experience the Middle Ages first hand, climb an ancient tower, see gruesome Medieval frescoes, and a fascinating reconstruction of the city that shows what it was like to live here in the 13th century.
San Gimignano is famous for its skyline that’s barely changed since the Middle Ages. Its 14 Medieval towers have gained it the nickname “Manhattan of the Middle Ages”. And it’s true that seeing the silhouette with those stone towers reaching up to the sky is one of the most spectacular views in the whole of Tuscany. When you step inside the city walls you forget the 21st century altogether.
Best things to do in San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy
1. WALK THROUGH THE HISTORIC CITY CENTRE
A walk around the atmospheric squares and cobbled streets of San Gimignano is a must-do in Tuscany. The expression ‘step back in time’ takes on a whole new meaning here. Something you’ll appreciate when you see the main squares and the charming Piazza della Cisterna, with its ancient cistern, and Piazza del Duomo. On the other side of town you find the quieter Sant’Agostino square and church.
2. CLIMBING THE TORRE GROSSA
Climb inside history in the Torre Grossa or Great Tower. These tower houses were once a defence measure and a way powerful families had to show off their power and privilege. San Gimignano’s highest tower, the Torre Grossa in Piazza del Duomo, is open to visitors. It’s 54 meters high, and there are 218 steps to the top, though wide metal stairs make it quite easy to climb even with young children.
Bear in mind that the last bit of the climb takes you up a steep ladder and directly onto the solid viewing level. And when you get to the top, the view is breathtaking. (A ticket is 9 euros and includes a visit to the Pinacoteca with its collection of religious paintings).
3. VISIT THE DUOMO FOR THE FRESCOES
You wouldn’t say it from the bare facade, but the 12th century Romanesque Duomo contains a feast of frescoes that are well worth a visit. An informative audio-guide, included in the entrance fee, leads you through the Biblical worlds painted on the Cathedral‘s walls. Scenes from the Old and New Testaments were painted in the 14th century by various artists as an admonition and a learning tool for the public. If you look at the menacing devils and gruesome details you’ll see how they impress the public and followed the style of the Sienese school.
In the Chapel of Saint Fina, there’s a change of style. Renaissance master Domenico Ghirlandaio frescoed the chapel with scenes from the life of the patron saint of San Gimignano Santa Fina. Her remains are kept here in a glass coffin.
4. SAN GIMIGNANO 1300 MUSEUM
This quirky small museum shows you what the town would have looked like in the 13th and 14th century when it was an important centre on the pilgrim route Via Francigena. San Gimignano was at the height of its power, and the most powerful families were in open competition to build the highest tower-houses. The reconstruction of the town has been made entirely by hand and includes the 72 original tower houses.
5. TRY AN AWARD-WINNING GELATO AT DONDOLI
Gelato doesn’t get much better than at Gelateria Dondoli. If you only have one while you’re in Tuscany, this is the place to do it. You’ll find the gelateria in the town’s main square.
6. VISIT SANT’AGOSTINO CHURCH
The 13th century Church of Sant’Agostino was decorated in Renaissance style. Highlights include the Chapel of the Blessed Bartolo, who’s buried here. His monumental tomb is the work of Benedetto da Maiano (end of 15th century). Beautiful 16th century frescoes decorate the chapel’s walls. You can admire other frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli and Bartolo di Fredi.
7. BUY SOME CLASSIC SOUVENIRS IN SAN GIMIGNANO
Souvenir shopping is taken pretty seriously in San Gimignano. Quaint little shops dot the streets of the town. Some are very touristy and pretty tacky, but some have a real charm. You’ll find nice local pottery, textiles, a lovely watercolour shop and objects made from the local stone, alabaster.
A few tips for visiting San Gimignano
If you are flexible, try to avoid visiting in high season (June to September). It’s one of the most popular destinations in Tuscany, so the crowds can be overwhelming. This said, if you are coming at this time of the year, plan to stay the night and visit in late afternoon when the tour buses are leaving. Autumn, and even Winter, are good and atmospheric times to visit as crowds thin out and you’ll have the place all to yourself.
If you’re driving there, pay for parking outside the centre. You’ll need to walk a bit so keep as close to the walls as you can – bear in mind that one of the last parking lots is down a steep walk. If you’re travelling by public transport from Florence, you need to get to Poggibonsi and here change bus to San Gimignano (BusItalia Nord is the name of the bus company, formerly SITA – the bus station in Florence is just outside Santa Maria Novella train station).