Here’s my guide to the top must visit attractions in the classic Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano. This guide covers all the best things to do and see in San Gimignano. It also gives you useful tips for visiting.
San Gimignano is a romantic glamor girl of Tuscany. It’s one of Italy’s best preserved and most beautiful medieval villages. As you stroll San Gimignano’s cobbled lanes, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Nicknamed the “Medieval Manhattan,” San Gimignano is famous for its “Bella Torres” or “Beautiful Towers.” It’s a walled town with a bristling cityscape of 14 spiky honey-colored towers. Apart from the towers, San Gimignano has a lot to offer art buffs, with fresco cycles by early Renaissance luminaries.
In fact, San Gimignano is so stunning that it looks like a stage set. Because of all its beauty, the town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But, if you have a car, it’s a brilliant drive right through the heart of the Chianti region. Surrounded by cypress and olive groves, you may feel like you’re in a landscape painting.
A Brief History of San Gimignano
San Gimignano dates back to the ancient Etruscans, a civilization that preceded ancient Rome. The town was an important stop on the pilgrimage route between Rome and Canterbury, called the Via Francigena.
The influx of pilgrims helped trade. It allowed San Gimignano’s merchants and patrician families to amass wealth from the saffron and wine trade. To show off their money and power, tower building became fashionable.
San Gimignano’s prosperity was abruptly halted in 1348 with the arrival of the Black Death. The waves of plague and famine decimated San Gimignano. The town faded into obscurity.
Florence captured the weakened town in 1354. San Gimignano was rediscovered as a tourist attraction in the 19th century.
Towers of San Gimignano
San Gimignano best known attractions is its “beautiful Towers.” Given the town’s tiny size, the moniker “Medieval Manhattan” seems a tad exaggerated. And yet, San Gimignano does have a sense of mad verticality.
The 14 towers that still remain standing in San Gimignano include:
- Campanile della Collegiata (bell tower of the Duomo)
- Torri degli Ardinghelli
- Torre dei Becci
- Torre Campatelli
- Torre Chigi
- Torre dei Cugnanesi
- Torre del Diavolo (Devil’s Tower)
- Torre Ficherelli or Torre Ficarelli
- Torre Grossa (Big Tower)
- Torre di Palazzo Pellari (Tower of Pellari Palace)
- Casa-torre Pesciolini
- Torre Pettini
- Torre Rognosa
- Torri dei Salvucci
There’s a long history explaining San Gimignano’s architectural eccentricity. The towers are a vestige of a time when there was no centralized form of government in most of Europe.
Oligarchs were the norm. Towns were organized as urban feudal societies, with wealthy merchants effectively ruling.
These aristocrats wanted to flaunt their power and money. But there was no room for great palaces. The only way to build was vertically. So they built “tower houses.”
At one time, in the 12th and 13th centuries, there were more than 70 towers in San Gimignano.
Wealthy families competed to see who could built the tallest tower. Their motto was the higher the tower, the greater the power.
Yet these vanity towers weren’t exactly fancy. There were wooden stairs (no way to install elevators now). The ground floor held workshops. The second level was the living quarters. Kitchens were located on the top floor.
Sometimes families built their tower houses near each other. The clusters were connected by porches.
Eventually, zoning ordinances were passed, proclaiming that nothing could be taller than Torre Grossa, the tower connected to City Hall.
Some of the towers were cut down. What’s left is a testament to the palpable history of that ancient world.
What To See and Do in San Gimignano
With its history and architecture, there are plenty of wonderful things to do in San Gimignano. Here’s my list of the top attractions in San Gimignano, which you can easily cover in one day on your Tuscany itinerary.
You’ll be delighted by San Gimignano’s famous towers, exceptional works of art, ancient ruins, and exquisite churches. But part of the town’s charm is just poking around the charing historic center and side streets.
And, just so you know, this tongue twister of a town is pronounced San-Jee-Menn-Yay-Noh.
1. Historic Center
In San Gimignano, one main path through town links the gates at both ends. You can walk from one to another in about 10 minutes.
The central square is the Piazza del Duomo.This piazza is where most of San Gimignano’s historic attractions are all jammed together in a compressed urban setting. You’ll be enveloped by seven towers, including the two tallest — Torre Grossa and Torre Rognosa.
Piaza della Cisterna is San Gimignano’s other main square. It’s one of Italy’s most beautiful squares. It’s named for the well in its center, an ancient device that collected rain water for the citizens. Nowadays, it serves as a wishing well.
Rustic-yet-proud facades rise in a tight huddle around the well. During high tourist season, the square is dotted with chairs and tiny tables and shops display their wares.
There are plenty of shops to purchase saffron, olive oil, gelato, or Vernazza and Chianti wines. Gelateria Dondoli is a well known and very popular shop, ranked one of the best gelatarias in Italy. If it’s mobbed, don’t worry, there’s another good gelateria right there.
This piazza is also where San Gimignano’s Thursday and Saturday markets are held. Piazza della Cisterna has been used as a filming location for a few movies, including Zefferelli’s Tea With Mussolini.
Just round the corner from Piazza del Duomo is Piazza delle Erbe. There, you’ll find a small marketplace and two more tall towers – the Torri dei Salvucci. The Salvucci family built these towers to show dominance over the town’s mayor, who owned Torre Rognosa.
Instead of one tower, the Salvucci built two. And both towers were taller than Torre Rognosa. Outraged, the mayor ordered that the Torri dei Salvucci be trimmed down so that it was shorter than Torre Rognosa.
2. San Gimignano Cathedral | Collegiate Church of Santa Mary of the Assumption
In the Piazza del Duomo, you’ll find the 11th century Duomo of San Gimignano. It’s called the Collegiate Church of Santa Mary of the Assumption and nicknamed the Duomo or the Colegiata. It’s the best thing to do in San Gimignano.
Completed in 1163, the Duomo is a beautiful (mostly) Romanesque church. It’s austere on the outside with a feast of frescos on the inside. The interior has a richly painted nave with striped arches and rather abstract Romanesque capitals.
Most people don’t venture inside. But you definitely should. The frescos are as much of a draw in San Gimignano as the towers.
The Duomo boasts some of the most important paintings of the Middle Ages. The frescos were painted by Early Renaissance luminaries such as Ghirlandaio, Benozzo Gozzolli, and Taddeo di Bartolo. The cathedral is rather dark. But the frescos are lit by artificial light.
As is typical of the 14th century, New Testament subject matter is on one side of the cathedral and Old Testament subject matter is on the other. The comic book type frescos are sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s bible.” They helped the citizens relate to Jesus.
In the Chapel of Saint Fina, there are some excellent paintings by early Renaissance master Ghirlandaio, who was Michelangelo’s teacher. The chapel was one Ghirlandaio’s first known commission, painted in 1477-78.
The frescos depict airy scenes of the life and death of the pious Saint Fina. Fina is the patron saint of San Gimignano, with a tragic made for TV life story.
The girl was sick for 10 years, passing time on a board in mystic devotion and without complaint. Legend holds that when she died, yellow viola flowers blossomed from the board and other miracles occurred.
Barna da Siena Frescos
There’s also a violent and rather sinister fresco cycle in the Duomo, typical of the school of painting after the Black Death. As I mentioned above, because San Gimignano was located on the pilgrim route, it was decimated by plague time and time again.
The three bands of post-Black Death frescos were reputedly painted by the mysterious Sienese painter Barna da Siena. Siena allegedly fell to his death from scaffolding while painting the frescos. As a result, the frescos are sometimes considered cursed.
You read the frescos from right to left (which is unusual). In their emotive characters, the frescos were clearly influenced by Giotto, the greatest painter of the 14th century.
The better executed frescos are the ones with a darker subject matter. Just look at the malignant and shifty expressions on the face of Judas in the Pact of Judas and The Kiss of Judas. The most graphic image is the apocalyptic Crucifixion.
Di Fredi Frescos
The Old Testament scenes on the other side of the nave were painted by Bartolo di Fredi. These paintings are signed and dates, so there’s no mystery of who painted them.
At the entrance wall of the cathedral, there are more creepy-dark frescos by Bartolo’s son, Taddeo, dated 1394. It’s a terrifying Last Judgment scene.
The hell imagery is scorching. All the sinner are punished in horrible ways.
Finally, there’s a beautiful painting of the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Benozzo Gozzolli.
This is the same artist who painted a private chapel for the Medici family in Florence’s Medici-Ricardi Palace.
Carrying through the dark theme, St. Sebastian has a huge number of arrows sticking out of his body. But he does, at least, smile.
The entrance fee for the Duomo includes a 20+ minute audio guide, which help you appreciate the church.
3. Palazzo Comunale | Palazzo del Popolo
This late 13th century palazzo is the seat of the City Hall. This must visit attraction is also known as the Palazzo del Popolo. There’s also an adjacent public loggia that’s comparable to the Loggia dei Lanza in Florence.
The palazzo is Romanesque in style, belfried and balconied. The facade has arched windows. The bottom half is stone and the top half is brick.
The palace houses the town’s Civic Museum. If you’re short on time or not a fan of Early Renaissance art, these museums are skippable. The Duomo eclipses them in terms of the quality of art.
The Civic Museum’s painting collection includes minor works by Pinturricchio, Filippino Lippi, and other 13th to 15th century painters from the Florentine and Sienese schools.
The museum’s highlight are two important rooms: the Camera del Podesta (Room of the Mayor) and the Sala Dante.
The Camera has allegorical frescos from 1306 painted by Memmo de Filippuccio. They depict Scenes of Married Life.
The tales of love are didactic, showing realistic scenes of both sacred (marital) and profane (illicit) love. You’ll see racy scenes of couple bathing together and hopping into bed naked.
The Sala Dante is named after the famous poet who stayed there. The walls are covered in frescos by Lippo Memmi, who was the son of Memmo. There’s an especially majestic Virgin and Child.
4. Climb Torre Grossa
If you like to climb things, you can climb the Torre Grossa adjacent to the City Hall for spectacular views. It’s one of the best things to do in San Gimignano.
At 200 feet, this is San Gimignano’s tallest tower, dating from 1311. Legend holds that Dante lived in this tower while in San Gimignano.
Climbing the tower is not for the faint of heart though. The 218 cantilevered steps zig and zag as you head to the roof. But the views are worth the hike.
5. Climb Torre Salvucci
The twin Salvucci towers are now available for rent as an Air Bnb. When they’re not rented, you can climb the 143 steps for more views.
6. Fortress of Rocca of Montestaffoli
If you need a break from the crowds head up to the 14th century ruins of the Rocca Fortress. It’s a 5 minute climb from the Piazza del Duomo. And a much easier climb than Torre Grossa.
La Rocca is the ruins of a fort that once guarded the town. As befitting a medieval fortress, it looks architecturally ferocious.
The Florentines erected the fortress when they took over in 1353. In 1555, it was demolished on the orders of Cosimo I de Medici. Only a tower and fragments of the walls survive.
READ: History of the Medici
La Rocca is mostly just a shell, used as a venue for concerts and the like. Inside there’s a thick tower in the far corner that you can climb for panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
7. Church of Sant’Agostino
The 13th century Sant’Agostino is directly uphill from the cathedral. It’s the second largest church in San Gimignano. Like the Duomo, it has a simple exterior and an elegantly decorated interior.
The main reason to visit the church is the Benozzo Gozzoli frescos in the choir behind the high altar. The frescos depict the life of Saint Augustine.
There’s also a Gozzolli fresco of Saint Sebastian, a saint who (like the town itself) was plagued with bad fortune.
The cycle of St Augustine is a favorite theme of Tuscan narrative art from the mid 14th century. This cycle pairs with the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca in Arezzo and the Passion Pulpit and Resurrection Pulpit by Donatello in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence.
8. Church of San Lorenzo in Ponte
If you want to complete the fresco trail in San Gimignano, you should pop into this small church. It has a large fresco cycle depicting an enthroned Christ with Mary and the apostles.
9. Other Museums in San Gimignano
If you’re in San Gimignano for more than one day, there are some other museums you can put on your itinerary.
The Archaeological Museum is located in the Santa Chiara Complex. It has a collection of artifacts from San Gimignano, including some Etruscan and Roman pieces. There are mostly everyday items on display, like funerary urns, necklaces, ceramics, and metal mirrors.
The Herbarium of Santa Fina is also part of the Archaeological Museum. It’s a partial reconstruction of a medieval pharmacy. It gives you a sense of the potions that were popular in the Middle Ages.
Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery
This small museum showcases avant garde art, mostly by local artists. It also has a temporary exhibition space, where you will find works by more famous artists.
The Museo della Tortura is inside the Torre della Diavola. If you like a grisly museum, this is your place. Medieval torture was used both to extract confessions and to punish the convicted prior to execution.
The Torture Museum displays a nasty toolkit of medieval artifacts — iron maidens, racks, spiked inquisition chairs, and guillotines. The accompanying scientific descriptions are written in a matter of fact detached manner, which adds to the creepy atmosphere.
They explain precisely how these instruments were used on people. Wax figures also demonstrate the effectiveness of the torture devices in graphic detail.
If you don’t have a high tolerance for disgusting things, you may want to cut short your visit. Even if you do have a strong stomach, the museum may seem shocking.
Museum of Sacred Art
The Museum of Sacred Art adjoins the Duomo. It’s a small museum that houses a collection of religious art.
There’s beautiful courtyard and stairway. The museum is included in a combination ticket with the Duomo.
There are frescoes by Bartolo di Fredi, Benozzo Gozzoli, Taddeo di Bartolo, and Barna da Siena, and Ghirlandaio. The highlight of the museum is the fresco of the Madonna and Child by Bartolo di Fredi.
10. Torre e Casa Campatelli
The Casa Campatelli is an 18th century palazzo. It was rebuilt around a 12th century medieval tower house complex by a prosperous Florentine family, the Cammpatellis.
The family purchased the structure and converted it into an upper middle class home. The palazzo is now a museum, with its the original furnishings and art collections intact. There are some Montelupo ceramics and paintings by Guido Peyron.
A video projection gives you an overview of the palace, a nice snapshot of daily life in the 18th century, and a history of the town.
The palazzo still incorporates the medieval tower. The tower is completely hollow inside, except for the balconies at each landing.
How To Get To San Gimignano
You can get to San Gimignano by car, bus, or tour.
To get to San Gimignano by bus, leave from either from Siena or Florence and go to Poggibonsi. From Poggibonsi, it’s a 25 minute bus ride to San Gimignano. The bus drops you in Piazzale del Martiri near Porta San Giovanni.
Be sure to purchase round trip tickets for your bus ride. If not, you can purchase a return ticket in a tobacco shop.
It’s really easiest to have a car to visit San Gimignano. There’s no train station in San Gimignano. And there are no direct bus connections.
If you are driving, take the Poggibonsi Nord exit off the Florence-Siena highway. It’s then 12 kilometers to San Gimignano. The drive is breathtaking — full of rolling landscapes, olive groves, and grapevines.
Park your car at the bottom of the hill. The town is largely pedestrianized and off limits to vehicles. The most convenient garage is Parcheggio Montemaggio near the Porta San Giovani.
After parking, you have to hike up the hill. There’s also a shuttle bus that drops you in the Piazza Cisterna for a small fee.
You enter via the Porta San Giovani, a medieval doorway dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The city is built around a pilgrimage route that cuts through the heart of San Gimignano.
Tips for Visiting San Gimignano
San Gimignano is not a hidden gem in Italy. It’s a popular town, with the main drag often clogged with tourists ogling the top attractions. In high season, San Gimignano has a tourist trap feel. Especially at mid day.
This is partly because San Gimignano is a day trip destination. There are tours galore that will hit San Gimignano and Siena in one day.
Most tourists visit in the afternoon, after they’ve toured Siena. So, if you dislike crowds, go in the morning. Or, alternatively, arrive in the evening and stay overnight. Then, the crowds dissipate and the streets are yours to savor.
If you plan to see all the top attractions, you should buy the all inclusive San Gimignano Pass that’s valid for 2 days. There is also a combination pass which gives you access to the Duomo, the Chapel of St. Fina, and the Museum of Sacred Art. You can find information about tickets, hours, and admission fees for all of San Gimignano’s attractions here.
San Gimignano is home to a local wine known as Vernaccia. Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a crisp dry white wine with citrus fruit flavors, which has been refined in the last decade. Every storefront and cafe in the city will have this wine.
Another local specialty is wild boar sausage. Boars eat mostly berries. The resulting meet is tender and earthy.
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