The medieval hill town of San Gimignano, Italy is famous for saffron, Vernaccia wine and sweeping skyline views. Explore the city of towers in our guide to San Gimignano.
Approaching San Gimignano, medieval towers rise above green fields and pointy cypresses. Set on a hill, encircled by walls and surrounded by beautiful Tuscan countryside, this is the Manhattan of the Middle Ages.
At one time in its long history, there were over 70 towers in San Gimignano. Today only 14 remain; medieval reminders of the wealth that once prospered in Tuscany’s finest hill town. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the historic centre of San Gimignano is an enthralling place in the heart of Italy.
The Duomo is ornately decorated with renowned frescoes; the Pinacoteca is a small but rich collection of art from the Middle Ages, and a unique contemporary gallery blends the old with the new.
It may be small, but there are plenty of great things to do in San Gimignano. Climb to tower-top vistas overlooking sweeping Tuscan scenery, discover tiny churches hidden in stealthy back streets, and enjoy food and wines only produced in this tiny corner of Italy.
In our opinion, this is the best hill town in Italy. It’s easily accessible from the Renaissance charmer of Florence and the remarkable Gothic city of Siena.
Here’s how to spend a day in San Gimignano.
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1 – DUOMO OF SAN GIMIGNANO
For a little Italian hill town, San Gimignano has a very impressive church. The Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta may look humble from the outside, but inside, it’s wall-to-wall frescoes. Painted in the 14th century, they remain very well preserved to this day.
The north wall tells the stories of Genesis including a drunk Noah looking slightly too excited, while the south wall has scenes of the New Testament. At the rear of the church, the stirring image of the Last Judgment was painted by renowned Sienese painter Taddeo di Bartolo. Underneath, a fresco of St Sebastian being martyred was commissioned by the town after they believed the saint saved them from the plague in 1464.
The first church was established here in the 10th century and although it was enriched in the subsequent 500 years, it still retains the dark and moody feel that is common throughout this medieval town.
2 – STROLL THE MEDIEVAL STREETS
One of the joys of San Gimignano is to simply stroll the streets, keeping an eye out for towers punctuating the skyline. At one time there were 72 in the compact old town. Each tower was built by a noble family to project their wealth and power. Immense competition to be the best saw them rise higher and higher. Planning restrictions were eventually introduced to curb the tower building frenzy.
After an earthquake caused many families to move to Florence, jealous rivals tore down most of the towers and today only 14 remain.
It only takes about an hour or two to wander almost every street in the old town. Highlights include Rocca, (the castle) where the remaining tower provides great views; the two churches of Chiesa San Lorenzo and Chiesa Sant’Agostino; and Museo San Gimignano 1300 – containing a mini-recreation of how San Gimignano looked in the 14th century.
If you are tempted to walk down to the Fonti Medievali (a fountain below the town), we would suggest giving it a miss and saving your legs for the rest of the day.
3 – LUNCH ON THE BACK STREETS
With an emphasis of traditional Italian cooking, most restaurants in San Gimignano have similar menus with good quality food. Your best bet is to keep your eyes peeled as you wander around town for somewhere that lures you in. Some rustic charm; a good corner spot or an appealing view.
There are three restaurants in San Gimignano that stood out for us. La Botega and La Vecchia Nicchia sit side by side near the northern gate of Porta San Matteo. Little tables buzzing with hubbub spill out onto the street, chalkboard menus give them a fresh-today feel and the accompanying wine lists are extensive.
For our money, Peruca has the best food. The location off the tourist streets and in a dark space under medieval stone arches, means this is more about the cooking than the setting. But the traditional Tuscan flavours with a modern twist were magnificent. The faggotini with pears, pine nuts and saffron (for which San Gimignano is famous) was one of the best meals we had in Italy.
4 – GALLERIA CONTINUA
Tucked into the streets of San Gimignano is one of the finest contemporary art galleries in the world. Galleria Continua began life in 1990 in these unassuming cobbled streets and now has 7 galleries spread across the globe from Paris to Beijing; Rome to Sao Paulo.
It focuses on contemporary exhibitions by living artists across installations, sculptures, and paintings. They have two galleries in San Gimignano, right next to each other, but their works can also be seen dotted around town.
With a regular rotation of exhibitions, check what’s on during your visit to San Gimignano. On our trip, Han Op de Beeck’s The Boatman and Other Stories – an impressive collection of sculptures – leapt out of the whitewashed rooms. Carlos Garaicoa’s Unfaithful Images used iPads on music stands to recreate a concert in the old art deco cinema building. It’s a magnificent slice of modernity in a medieval town.
We had no problem walking in, but they do recommend you ring to book ahead.
5 – GELATO IN PIAZZA DELLA CISTERNA
San Gimignano seems to have an unusual talent for ice cream production with several stores declaring themselves the best in the world. Not ones to trust advertising, we tried several to make sure. We can confirm that many were in fact the best ice cream in the world.
Gelateria Dondoli has several official-looking award certificates on their door attesting to their ice cream making prowess. They may be from 2006, but this only attests to the staying power of Gelateria Dondoli in the competitive ice cream making world of San Gimignano.
And indeed it was pretty good ice cream. But, sitting on the steps of Piazza della Cisterna, surrounded by brick houses and medieval towers, taking a break from sightseeing with an ice cream in hand is a great thing to do in San Gimignano. Whether it’s the best in the world, or only the second best.
6 – PALAZZO DEL PÓPOLO
The Palazzo del Pópolo (sometimes called Palazzo Communale) was the seat of government for San Gimignano but today it houses the civic museum. The highlight is the Madonna in Maestà, a beautiful fresco by famous Sienese artist Lippo Memmi. He painted the work in 1317 and today it’s still the showpiece in the main hall.
The Civic Museum of San Gimignano occupies the upper floors of the Palazzo Comunale and it’s well worth having a look around.
There’s a small chapel packed with interesting paintings, and the next floor up contains a tiny gallery full of works by notable artists. You can find art by Filippo Lippi, Il Sodoma, Pinturicchio, plus many more.
7 – TORRE GROSSA
From the top floor of the Palazzo Communale, narrow steps spiral up to the Torre Grossa. At 54 metres it’s the tallest tower remaining in San Gimignano and the views from the top are some of the best we found in Tuscany.
The other 13 towers rise from the old town with the tiled roofs of the surrounding houses disappearing off towards beautiful Tuscan countryside. Arrive at the top of the tower as close to sunset as possible to see the view illuminated in a soft orange light.
There are 200 steps to negotiate and a ladder to climb up at the end. You need to keep your head low as it’s a confined space. But once at the top, it’s one of the best things to do in San Gimignano.
Even if you’re just in San Gimignano on a day trip from Florence, Torre Grossa is something you should definitely make time for.
8 – WINE TASTING
The area around San Gimignano produces one of Italy’s finest white wines, Vernaccia.
It was the first Italian wine to be awarded the DOC status in 1966, and it was upgraded to DOCG in 1993. Since, Renaissance times, this crisp white wine has been produced from the sandstone vineyards surrounding San Gimignano, so while in the area it would be madness not to give it a try.
Our favourite spot to sample Vernaccia was Gustavo Mescit Vini. This friendly enoteca has a couple of tables on the street and knowledgeable staff who will help you pick the right wine to go with the selection of tasty morsels they have available to eat.
Just a few doors down at 11 San Matteo is All’11 Salsamenteri, a lovely deli offering an excellent selection of traditional Tuscan bites. The Golden Ham – unique to San Gimignano – is aged for no less than 14 months and flavoured with locally produced saffron.
TIPS FOR VISITING SAN GIMIGNANO
1 – The centre of San Gimignano is small and easily explored on foot. However, it’s on top of a hill so there’s a bit of up and down. Wear comfortable shoes.
2 – If you plan on seeing all the main sights listed in our guide, it’s worth getting the €13 City Pass. Its valid for two days and covers the Duomo, Torre Grossa, Palazzo del Popolo (Communale) and Pinacoteca as well as some other sites we haven’t included (Museo Archaeologio, Speziera di Santa Fina, Galleria, and the Church of San Lorenzo in Ponte).
3 – The Duomo is closed on Saturday and Sunday mornings so best to come on a weekday.
HOW TO GET TO SAN GIMIGNANO
SAN GIMIGNANO PARKING
The easiest way to get to San Gimignano is to drive. It’s 45 minutes from Siena; 1 hour from Florence and 1 hour 15 minutes from Pisa.
Take care not to accidentally drive into the old walled town as the roads are narrow and bumpy. Several car parks are located just outside the city walls. Car parks 2 and 3 are right next to the walls; parks 1 and 4 are a 10-minute walk away. There is plenty of parking, but they can get full quickly in peak season so try to start your day early.
BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT
The nearest train station is at Poggibonsi, 12 kilometres from San Gimignano. The 130 bus from Poggibonsi to San Gimignano takes around 30 to 40 minutes.
From Florence, the 131 bus to Poggibonsi departs from the bus station (right next to the train station) every hour. Change at Poggibonsi to catch the 130 bus to San Gimignano.
Buses from Siena are direct and leave from Via Tozzi every hour taking 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Rather than navigating the bus routes it can often be easier and more fun to join a tour. It also enables you to visit 2 or 3 sights in the area in one day. Combining it with a half-day in Siena or a tour of Volterra can be an excellent option.
SAN GIMIGNANO ITALY MAP
We have included our list of the best things to do in San Gimignano on the below map so you can plot your course while visiting Tuscany.
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