San Gimignano Travel GuideIntroduction
San Gimignano is a small walled medieval hill town in the province of Siena that is also known by its other name, “The Town of Fine Towers” thanks to the numerous towers that can be found all over town. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it contains some of the finest examples of medieval and renaissance art and architecture. On top of that, San Gimignano is also known for its white wine, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano, that is produced from the ancient variety of Vernaccia grape grown on its hillsides.
The location that we now know as San Gimignano started out as a small Etruscan village that has been around since 3 BC, and has since survived events such as the Catiline conspiracy against the Roman Republic as well as invasions from Attila the Hun. By the 6th century, a church was built and the village began to grow around it. By the middle ages and during the Renaissance, this flourishing town became a popular stopover for travelers and pilgrims who were making their way to Rome and the Vatican. Its economy also began to grow in earnest due to the local production of wine and saffron which was in high demand.
The towers that the town is most known for didn’t appear until the 1300s, however. At the time, many rival families were vying for prestige within the town walls, and as a way to flaunt their power and wealth, each family would build towers at their homes, and the towers just got taller and taller as they attempted to outdo each other. This practice was only stopped when it was ordained by the local government that no tower should be built higher than the Palazzo Comunale. Later on, as the town submitted to the Florentine rule of the Medicis, many of the towers were reduced in height to match that of the houses and give the area a more uniform look.
Since that time, very little has changed in the development and infrastructure of this town, and many of those that visitors can find there are the original buildings. It has been made even more famous in recent years when the entire town was mapped out and accurately reproduced and rendered in a popular video game. In the game, San Gimignano is one of the main locations that players can visit and explore, and those who have walked down its streets and piazzas within the game, tend to become interested in visiting the real location to see for themselves how closely matched the real town and the digital versions are.
What to See
Piazza della Cisterna
The main piazza of San Gimignano, this public space is triangular in shape and is lined with medieval houses and palazzos, some of which are considered to be some of the finest examples of Romanesque and Gothic design. In the middle of the piazza can be found the town’s well and main water source, which is how the piazza got its name. At this piazza can be found the towers of the Ardinghelli family, the tower of the Benuccis, the Casa Rodolfi, Palazzo Razzi, as well as Palazzo dei Cortesi.
To the north of Piazza della Cisterna is the Piazza Duomo where one can find the Collegiata of Santa Maria Assunta that is reachable via a flight of stairs. Other important buildings that can be found here are the Palazzo Comunale and the Palazzo Podesta which serves as the mayor’s residence. The majority of public and private monuments can also be found here, including Torre della Rognosa and Torre Chigi, Palazzo del Popolo, as well as Torre Grossa which faces the twin towers of the Salvuccis.
The town’s most distinguishing feature, the towers can be found in various locations. Of the original 72 towers, 14 of varying heights remain intact. These are namely:
- Campanile della Collegiata
- Torri degli Ardinghelli
- Torre dei Becci
- Torre Campatelli
- Torre Chigi
- Torre dei Cugnanesi
- Torre del Diavolo
- Torre Ficherelli or Ficarelli
- Torre Grossa
- Torre di Palazzo Pellari
- Casa-torre Pesciolini
- Torre Pettini
- Torre Rognosa
- Torri dei Salvucci
Palazzo Pubblico/Pinacoteca Civica
Once the main administration building of the town, it is now a prominent gallery which contains important works of art including those by masters such as Filippino Lippi, Pinturicchio, Taddeo di Bartolo, Benozzo Gozzoli, Domenico di Michelino, Memmo di Filippuccio, Pier Francesco Fiorentino, and many more. It mainly features both Florentine and Sienese artists.
Ferie delle Messi and the Giostra dei Bastoni
The Ferie delle Messi is an annual medieval fair that is held on the third weekend of June. During this time, the piazzas and streets of San Gimignano take on the air of a medieval castle as people walk around in costumes representing nobles, knights, merchants, artisans, and performers of the time period. The Knights of Santa Fina hold mounted jousts using lances (the event is known as the Giostra dei Bastoni), and there are plus food and drink stands where one can sample local cuisine and specialties such as olive oil, wine, and saffron. There is also a large arts and crafts market that comes up, and the air is livened further by street performers, wandering musicians, and minstrels. On Sunday afternoon during the festival, the costumed horsemen and characters are then paraded in the Historical Pageant, and the event is capped off by tournaments at the Parco della Rocca that representatives of the four quarters of San Gimignano participate in. The winning quarter then parades throughout the city and the merrymaking continue well into the night.
Tips and Advice
- San Gimignano is a popular destination and hence, is normally packed with tourists. When visiting, especially during the summer, brace yourself for a formidable crowd. If you wish to get some breathing space, try visiting either during the low seasons, or if it can’t be helped, during early mornings (best if you’re staying within the town itself), late afternoons when most of the daytrippers have left, or evenings when other tourists have returned to their hotels.
- Make sure to try the local wine, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano. It is a white wine and goes well with seafood, and is also good as an aperitif. Many shops offer free wine tastings, so grab a bottle if it catches your fancy. However, be prepared to pay for good quality wine.
- San Gimignano is a very small town and can be easily explored on foot. If arriving by car or bus, you must leave your vehicle outside the city walls.
- There is a shuttle bus within the town that operates for the entire day, and can take visitors from one of the main gates, Porta San Giovanni, to Piazza della Cisterna, to the other gate on the other side of town, Porta San Matteo. Bus tickets only cost a few euros and can be bought at the Tourist Information office or at any tobacconist’s shop (tabacchi).
- The Collegiata is worth a visit for its frescoes depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Admission fee is EUR €3.50, and combo tickets are also available. Its opening hours are Mondays to Fridays from 9:30 am to 7:30 pm, Saturdays from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm, and Sundays from 12:30pm to 5:30 pm.
- The admission fee for the Pinacoteca Civica in the Palazzo Pubblico is EUR 5. The ticket price includes Torre Grossa. Audio guides are available for EUR 2. From March to October, it is open daily from 9:30 am to 7:00 pm, while from November to February, its hours are from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.
- The Church of Sant’Agostino contains frescoes which depict the life of St. Augustine painted by Benozzo Gozzoli. You can approach the friendly, English-speaking friars at the premises who can provide you with more information about the church. Masses are still held here, and English mass is held on Sundays at 11:00 am. The church is open daily from 7:00 am to 12:00 pm, and again at 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Admission is free, but be sure to keep some change in your pocket as the church makes use of coin-operated lighting boxes. To illuminate a painting for better viewing, you will need to use a EUR 0.50 coin. The light will remain on for a few minutes before you will need to drop another coin in.
- Every Thursday, there markets pop up at the Piazza della Cisterna and at the Piazza del Duomo.
- The Tourist Information center is at the Piazza del Duomo. You can find free maps, room-booking services, bus tickets, as well as a free bag check service here. For a few euros, they also offer audio guides for walking around the town’s streets, and from March to October, an English/Italian guided walking tour also starts here at 3:00 pm daily except on Sundays.