San Gimignano in southern Tuscany is a charming walled hilltop town. It is about halfway between Florence and Siena and is famous for its fascinating medieval architecture and towers that rise above all the other buildings. These towers offer an impressive view of the city and the surrounding valley. As the town was about a day’s trek to Siena or Florence in the Middle Ages, it was a good stopover for pilgrims en route from those cities to Rome.
We spent a day in San Gimignano during our 9-day Liguria and Tuscany summer holiday, climbing the tower, visiting local shops selling all kinds of local products, tasting the Italian food, and of course the Italian ice cream.
The highlights and some interesting facts of San Gimignano in Southern Tuscany are as follow:
- Movie sets in San Gimignano
- Triangular Piazza Della Cisterna and Piazza Duomo
- Fourteen Towers (the highest tower, Torre Grossa)
- Local products (truffle, ice cream, Burrata cheese, etc.)
Movie sets in San Gimignano
Florence is not the most seen city in the movies, since some small places in Tuscany also appear as the scenery of many films. San Gimignano in southern Tuscany is among them.
For example, one of the earlier movies, Prince of Foxes, was partially shot in San Gimignano. Another movie, Tea with Mussolini was about a group of aristocratic cultured English ladies who tried to heroically defend the ancient towers from the German army attack. The Piazza Cisterna is where many of the movie’s scenes were shot.
Triangular Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza Duomo
As I walked through the centre, I felt encircled by the tall buildings and towers. Tourist’s crows covered nearly every inch of the narrow streets. But at two squares, I felt less congested.
The triangular Piazza Della Cisterna
The triangular Piazza Della Cisterna is a beautiful triangular piazza ornamented with a lovely old stone well (no longer used) in the middle. Rustic-yet-proud facades crowd in a tight huddle around the well. This is also where a Thursday market gathers. If you have seen the movie “Tea with Mussolini” maybe you can recognize it.
It has a skyline of medieval towers, including the stone Torre Grossa. The Duomo di San Gimignano is a 12th-century church with frescoes cycles which include works from Domenico Ghirlandaio, Benozzo Gozzoli, Taddeo di Bartolo, Lippo Memmi and Bartolo di Fredi. UNESCO describes these frescoes as “works of outstanding beauty”.
Fourteen Towers (the highest tower, Torre Grossa)
By the end of the Medieval Era, a dispute started between two economically powerful families living in San Gimignano. As a result of this rivalry, each family built better and higher towers to show its economic stability and power. The trend resulted in a total of 72 towers in all. In 1255 a law was passed that no tower could be built higher than the Torre Rognosa. The passing of the law led to an end to the long rivalry.
Located at Piazza del Duomo, next to the Palazzo del Podestà, the 54 meters high Torre Grossa is the tallest tower in the town. After a steep climbing, we had a magnificent view of the surrounding Tuscany countryside. The entrance ticket to the tower is also valid for other attractions.
Local products (truffle, ice cream, Burrata chesse etc.)
San Gimignano is also a food and wine town. Vernaccia, one of Italy’s finest white wines produced exclusively in and around the hill town of San Gimignano. Another product for which San Gimignano is known as saffron. Besides, many shops offered typical local food, from cheese, hams, desert, spices to kitchen tools made from olive trees or clay pots.
These shops are not big so one can easily shop around and find some delicatessen. In the summertime, two local ice cream shops tend to have the most business. The Gelato Dondoli has won many prizes, and therefore there is always a long queue in front of it. But another one next to it offers equally good quality and tasty ice cream.
We had a quick snack in a small eatery, which only offers some small dishes for wine tasting purposes. I tried Burrata, which is a fresh Italian buffalo milk cheese made from mozzarella and cream. The outer shell is solid mozzarella, while the inside contains stracciatella and cream. The combination gives it an unusual and soft texture. Together with Italian cured ham and truffle, it tasted super! I could not get enough of it.
A funny drawing found in one restaurant described what an Italian and a Belgian would choose in the same restaurant:
Museum worth a visit
If you have time, there are several museums worth to visit:
- The Museum of Sacred Art
- The Museo della Tortura di San Gimignano, a torture museum displaying grim medieval instruments of torture
- Museo del Vino Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a museum with exhibits on the town’s signature white wine
To experience the Tuscany culture and lifestyle, you should also join some of the best selling tours. Some tours combine with other popular destinations which offer great value at reasonable prices.
- San Gimignano, Siena, Chianti Guided Tour from Florence
- Pisa, Siena, San Gimignano with Lunch and Wine in Chianti
Where to stay
Two hotels in the centre have top rates:
How to get there
The cheapest best way is by bus. But you should always check the buses schedule ahead. The easiest way to go there is joining a tour of bigger cities such as Florence and Rome. It is also reachable by car.
- Buses leave from Florence’s bus station (next to the train station) hourly. The journey takes 1.25 to 2 hours, including a change in Poggibonsi.
- From Siena, the bus ride takes 75-minute and again with a change in Poggibonsi.
- The bus ride from Volterra takes 2 hours and change in Colle di Val d’Elsa. Sunday buses are fewer and more crowded.
- If you drive your car there, then you have to park outside of the walls.
However, the historic town has no train station. But you can take a train to Poggibonsi (labeled “Poggibonsi-S.G.”) and then a bus from the Poggibonsi train station to San Gimignano.