8 Top Tourist Attractions in San Gimignano & Easy Day Trips
San Gimignano, about 50 kilometers southwest of Florence, owes its almost pristine medieval appearance to a combination of location and neglect. At the height of the Middle Ages, the Via Francigena, which passes through San Gimignano, was the main route of pilgrims traveling to Rome. It was also the main trade route, useful for transporting the local saffron to profitable markets. When faster routes developed, San Gimignano declined, new building ceased, and it was all the inhabitants could do to prevent the collapse of old ones. So structures remained almost unaltered until recent restorations promoted by UNESCO set about preserving them. But despite its declining fortunes, San Gimignano still attracted important later Renaissance artists such as Domenico Ghirlandaio, Benozzo Gozzoli, and Benedetto da Maiano, whose works you'll see in its churches. The town's major attractions for tourists are the 13 towers that remain from the original 70, which give San Gimignano its distinctive skyline.
1 Centro Storico and Towers
There is no doubt that the main appeal of San Gimignano is its medieval center, the Centro Storico, bristling with square towers that were both fortified homes and status symbols for the rival families that built them. At the heart of this old center is little Piazza della Cisterna, the town's triangular main square, where you'll find a cluster of these: the stump of a tower on Casa Razzi, the remains of another on Palazzo Tortoli, the tall Torre del Diávolo (Devil's tower) on the Palazzo dei Cortesi, and the two Torri Ardinghelli on the west side. The piazza's patterned brick pavement leads to Via del Castello, where you'll find more noble homes and towers. Overlooking Piazza del Duomo are the two Torri Salvucci, said to have been built for the purpose of bypassing the Communal Statutes of 1255 that limited towers to the height of the Podestà Tower. To show their superiority (and to annoy their rivals, the equally powerful Ardinghelli family) the Salvuccis supposedly built two whose combined height was taller than the Podestà.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Gimignano
2 Santa Maria Assunta
The Romanesque church of Santa Maria Assunta was built originally in the 12th century, but in 1457, it was enlarged by Giuliano da Maiano, who added a transept and side chapels. The starkly plain facade faces the misleadingly named Piazza del Duomo; this is not a cathedral and there has never been one in San Gimignano. Inside the church are several outstanding fresco cycles. On the entrance wall is a 15th-century fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli and two wooden statues of the Annunciation from the same period, by Iácopo della Quercia. In the right-hand aisle is a monumental 14th-century cycle by Barna da Siena, with three bands of New Testament scenes. Its counterpart in the left-hand aisle is a series of highly restored Old Testament scenes by Bártolo di Fredi. The Renaissance Cappella di Santa Fina, by Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano (1468) honors San Gimignano's patron saint, much revered for miracles. The altar, also by Benedetto da Maiano, holds a tabernacle with relief decoration and the remains of St. Fina. In the arcades on either side of the altar are frescoes by Doménico Ghirlandaio (1475) depicting the life and death of St. Fina.
Address: Piazza del Duomo, San Gimignano
At the northern tip of the old town near Porta San Matteo stands the church of Sant'Agostino, an aisleless brick church built between 1280 and 1298 in plain Gothic style. The interior, however, is far from plain. Immediately on the right of the entrance is the Cappella di San Bártolo, with an elaborate marble altar made by Benedetto da Maiano in 1494 and containing the remains of San Bártolo. But the main reason to go to this church is the splendid cycle of 15th-century frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli in the choir. Beautifully painted in a lively narrative style, they depict in 19 scenes the life of St. Augustine, from his boyhood in North Africa to his vision of St. Jerome and his death. More frescoes are in the nave by Benozzo Gozzoli, Lippo Memmi, and others. Through the sacristy are the 15th-century cloister and the chapter-house. Piazza Sant'Agostino is one of San Gimignano's most interesting squares, with a hexagonal stone well and the little Church of San Pietro, one of the city's oldest.
Address: Piazza Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano
4 Palazzo del Pópolo and Museo Civico
To the left of Santa Maria Assunta is the Palazzo del Pópolo, begun in 1288 and enlarged in 1323. It has been the seat of municipal government since its construction. Its tower, known as the Torre Grossa (Fat Tower), is the tallest in town at 54 meters; an early ordinance ruled that no other tower could be higher. From the top are views of the town and surrounding countryside as far as the Apuan mountains.
Inside is the Museo Civico (Municipal Art Gallery), reached through a picturesque courtyard with a well dating to 1361. The most famous room is the Sala di Dante, named for a visit to the town by the poet in 1300 and decorated by a collection of medieval court frescos. Highlights of the collection of art works from the 13th to 17th centuries are a 13th-century painted crucifix by Coppo di Marcovaldo, Lippo Memmi's Madonna Enthroned, two round paintings of the Annunciation by Filippino Lippi, and an altar-piece painted by Pinturicchio in 1511. These three were among the artists who contributed to the renewal of San Gimignano during the Renaissance.
Address: Piazza del Duomo, San Gimignano
5 City Walls and Gates
You can walk along the 13th-century walls surrounding San Gimignano's centro storico - historic center. The views are splendid and there are interesting gates, some original and others built by the Medici, who controlled the town in the 15th and 16th centuries. The earlier Porta San Giovanni, built in the 13th century, has an unusual segmented arch supporting a guardroom; Porta San Matteo dates from the 12th century; and Porta delle Fonti at the east end leads to an atmospheric public fountain whose arches hide an earlier Lombard stone fountain from the ninth century.
6 Santa Chiara Museum (Archeological Museum and Herbarium)
The former Conservatorio di Santa Chiara is home to the Archeological Museum and the Herbarium of Santa Fina. The latter is one of the most unusual museums you'll find in Tuscany, displaying more than 100 ceramic and glass pieces from the 14th-century Herb Pharmacy and Herbarium of the Spedale di Santa Fina. These are shown in the setting of a reproduced pharmacy, where herbal remedies were prepared, and the shop where they were sold. Along with the containers are examples of the herbs used.
The adjoining Archaeological Museum shows Etruscan, Roman, and Medieval finds from the area, with descriptions of the techniques used in making glass and pottery over different periods. The Etruscan collection comes from local necropolises and settlements dating from the seventh to first centuries BC. Upstairs is the Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery, which hosts temporary art exhibitions.
Address: Via Folgore, San Gimignano
Built against the town walls on the highest point of the hill is the rocca (castle), erected by the Florentines in 1353 but demolished in 1555 on the orders of Cosimo I. Only a tower and fragments of the walls survive, and from the top are magnificent views of the town and surrounding countryside. Each year on the third weekend in June, a tournament, La Giostra dei Bastoni, is held here as part of the Ferie delle Messi, a medieval festival.
8 San Iácopo
Near the northern town gate of Porta San Iácopo and surrounded by olive trees, the little Romanesque Church of San Iácopo is believed to have been built by the Knights Templar in the 13th century on their return from the First Crusade. The façade, part brick and part travertine marble, has a beautiful rose-window and a Pisan-style doorway on whose arched lintel is a coat of arms of the Templars. The interior is aisleless, with groined vaulting, and contains a fine fresco of the Crucifixion by Memmo di Filippuccio, from the early 14th century. Like several other San Gimignano churches, San Iácopo had a hospice for the poor and for pilgrims traveling to and from Rome on the Via Francigena. The unusual enclosed space above the town gate was a passageway for nuns to reach the church in private.
Address: Via Folgore, San Gimignano
Day Trips from San Gimignano
Pieve di Cèllole
Standing on a hill and surrounded by cypresses, the Pieve - Parish Church - of the village of Cèllole was probably built at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries. The facade is plain, but the outside of the apse has rich figural carving. Inside is a beautiful baptismal font in travertine and 14th-century frescoes.