Halfway between Florence and Siena, you’ll find the quaint village of San Gimignano. With its cobblestone streets and well-preserved towers, this medieval town feels like a place lost in time. Maybe that’s why it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.
Given its location, San Gimignano is an amazing spot for a day trip from Florence. Unlike most Italian cities, you can’t reach it by train. Instead you’ll have to rent a car. But trust me. You will enjoy the drive from Florence. Tuscany has the most beautiful countryside full of rolling hills, olive groves, and vineyards.
A Brief History of San Gimignano
San Gimignano began as an Estrucan village in the 3rd century BC. But it grew in size and popularity during the medieval and Renaissance era as a waypoint for Catholic pilgrims en route to Rome. As the town prospered, wealthy families competed by building tower houses of increasingly greater heights. By the end of the medieval period, 72 tower houses were built. Now only 14 remain.
In the 1300s, San Gimignano’s development was cut short by the Black Death. About half of the population was killed by the plague. This left the town in a weakened state, allowing Florence to take control. Due to a lack of development, the village has preserved its medieval architecture. Over time, this unique, architectural charm started to draw tourists. Hopefully, you’ll join them and visit San Gimignano soon!
What to Do in San Gimignano
Given its small size, you’ll only need a day to explore San Gimignano. So you can take a day trip from Florence or stop by while on your way to Siena.
Whatever your plans, there are a handful of great sights to see and activities to take part in. While you might enjoy simply strolling down the cobbled streets, here’s a list to help you fill your itinerary.
The Historical Center
One path leads from gate to gate and through the historical center of San Gimignano. So getting lost is not a problem. The path will lead you to the town’s two main squares: Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Cisterna. Piazza del Duomo features most of the historical attractions. It is also surrounded by 7 of the remaining tower houses, including the 2 tallest: Torre Grossa and Torre Rognosa.
Piazza della Cisterna is home to a cistern, which used to provide the whole village with water. Nowadays, it serves as a wishing well. Here you can also find a lot of shops selling the best culinary products the area has to offer. In addition, Piazza della Cisterna holds Thursday and Saturday markets. So stop by to see what goodies San Gigmignano has to offer.
Palazzo Comunale, also called Palazzo del Popolo, is a beautiful town hall made of stone and brick. There’s a public loggia next door, so you can relax there and admire the palazzo’s arched windows and balconies.
Palazzo Comunale also has a Civic Museum in the upper floors. The most notable room here is named Sala di Dante after the famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri. Inside the room you can see a variety of beautiful frescoes and paintings from the 13th to 17th century.
Here it is also possible to climb to the top of Torre Grossa, one of the tallest towers in San Gimignano. Once at the top, you’ll get to see the whole town and the countryside too.
The Duomo of San Gimignano
Also called the Collegiate Church of Santa Mary of the Assumption, the Duomo of San Gimignano is a stunning Romanesque church from the 12th century. The outside may look a bit dull, but the inside is full of gorgeous frescos that stretch all the way up to the vaulted ceiling.
Few people actually go inside the Duomo, but you should find time to do so. Art lovers will especially enjoy the masterpieces hidden inside. Some of the works were even painted by Renaissance master Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s teacher.
You can enter the Duomo for 16 Euros. Entry comes with a 20 minute audio guide to help you appreciate the art and history.
The Rocca Fortress
Not far from Piazza del Duomo is the Fortress of Rocca of Montestaffoli. The fortress once guarded the town, but the Medici family ordered that it be demolished in 1555. Now only a tower and parts of the wall remain.
Understandably, the Rocca Fortress is mostly an empty ruin now. Sometimes it’s used for concerts and other events. But you can come here to get a breathtaking view of San Gimignano.
What to Eat
Like any Italian city, San Gimignano is full of delicious food. There are several local specialties that you absolutely must try when you visit:
- Wild boar – the boars mostly eat berries, so their meat is tender and flavorful
- Vernaccia – a dry, white wine with pleasant citrus notes
The other specialty you must try is gelato. You can find gelato everywhere in Italy, but only here will you find Gelateria Dondoli, home to the best gelato in the world. You can try flavors such as Champelmo (pink grapefruit and Vernaccia sparkling wine) and Sangue di Bue (dark chocolate with cherry jam and chili pepper).
If you want restaurant recommendations, check out Le Vecchie Mura for wonderful food and even more amazing views. If you want the very best of fine dining, head to LINFA, a Michelin-starred restaurant with refined takes on Tuscany’s classics.
Where to Stay
In all likelihood, you will visit San Gimignano on a day trip from Florence. But maybe some of you can’t get enough of this charming, medieval town. Well, if you want to stay the night, consider staying at La Collegiata. The 4-star hotel offers a luxurious experience with traditional Tuscan rooms in an old monastery.
If you want something closer to the historical center, take a look at Hotel La Cisterna. The hotel was a place to rest for pilgrims. Now it can be a place of rest for you too. You’ll be right in the middle of the action, and get stunning views of the city streets.
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