Discover San Gimignano
San Gimignano holiday guide
Nearby Volterra was a large and powerful Etruscan city—far bigger than the small town it is today. Memories of the Etruscans remain in an excellent archaeological collection and alabaster craftsmanship, which is still practised in small workshops around the town. Life moves even more slowly in Colle di Val d'Elsa. Old Colle Alta stretches along a crest of volcanic rock on the fringe of some of Tuscany's prettiest scenery.
Written by Donald Strachan, Italy specialist and Travel Writer for The Guardian.
Art & architecture
Encircled in an intact ring of walls, San Gimignano is a tiny Tuscan town where time seems to have stood still. At least, that is how it looks—its Medieval street-plan is almost entirely unaltered, and Gothic palaces that once housed squabbling noble families are still standing.
The town's most famous feature—which earned it the nickname San Gimignano delle belle torri—is its towers. Only thirteen remain, from a total of over seventy at the peak of its wealth and influence in the 1300s.
But this is no Tuscan backwater. The town's twin central squares—Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza del Duomo—are busier than ever.
The interior walls of the town's Collegiata (a 'collegiate church', essentially a cathedral without a bishop's seat) are smothered in frescoes. The earliest date to the Medieval period, and are in the Sienese-Gothic style, recounting easily recognizable narratives from the Old and New Testaments. Above the main door, look for a lurid Last Judgement by Sienese painter Taddeo di Bartolo.
At the far end of the nave, the Cappella di Santa Fina is a harmonious Renaissance collaboration between sculptor Benedetto di Maiano, architect Giuliano da Maiano, and painter Domenico Ghirlandaio.
The latter's pair of frescoes include fascinating detail relating to the town and the legend of its saint, Fina. As she is dying, flowers spontaneously bloom on the plank where she lies. On the left-hand wall, angels hover around the city's towers ringing bells in her memory. A few of the town's sights still close, to remember their little 13th-century saint, each March 12.
Moving way, way along the historical timeline, San Gimignano has a growing reputation for contemporary art. The Galleria Continua is a disorientating, warren-like space that often showcases the work of major names such as Antony Gormley. It is free to enter.
Florentine International Gothic painter Benozzo Gozzoli worked on several projects in San Gimignano. He was commissioned in 1464 to paint an allegorical fresco on the walls of Sant'Agostino, celebrating St. Sebastian (the traditional protector against plague, which was a regular and devastating visitor to the town during the Middle Ages).
The Augustinian monks liked his work so much that Gozzoli returned to the church to paint the apse chapel with narrative Scenes from the Life of St. Augustine.
Volterra's centre is another relic of the Medieval building boom, and has Tuscany's oldest town hall. The Gothic Palazzo dei Priori was completed in 1257, and became the model for Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, built half a century later. It still hosts meetings of Volterra's town council.
Eating and drinking
Eating well in the centre of San Gimignano is tricky—the place is overrun with visitors for much of the year, so prices are higher (and quality lower) than is the norm in the Tuscan hills.
Thankfully, Chiribiri bucks the San Gim trend. This basement restaurant specializes in Tuscan and Italian classics such as pappardelle (widen flat pasta strands) with Tuscan meat sauces like boar or hare, and ossobucco (veal shin stew). Prices are keen—pasta around €8 and meat mains averaging €12—and the restaurant is open non-stop from 11am to 11pm, so is ideal for feeding young children.
It is a bit of a squeeze, but lots of fun and the best value in central San Gimignano.
The hills and villages around San Gimignano, on the other hand, have some of Tuscany's best informal trattorias. Which means, in short, that you should prepare to eat some of the best food you will taste in your life.
In summer, it is always worth booking ahead, especially if you want to grab a terrace table and eat to a chorus of Tuscan crickets. When dining outside after dark, you should dowse exposed areas with mosquito repellent.
Under the terrace pergola at La Sosta di Pio VII you will find a short menu built exclusively around flavours local to the Val d'Elsa and neighbouring Chianti. A typical route through the courses might start with a budino al pomodoro con salsa al basilico (a tomato 'blancmange' with basil sauce), then pasta with a rabbit ragù followed by tagliata (sliced grilled beef) topped with radicchio and lardo (refined, thinly sliced pork fat infused with herbs), Flavours are intense, and the value is spectacular: around €7 for pasta dishes, and €12 or so for mains.
The wine list is exclusively Tuscan, and includes a few bottles from Pasolini dall'Onda estate, which owns the trattoria. The trattoria's name comes from a stop Pope Pius VII made at this former farmstead in 1815.
They do a mean line in home-made pasta at L'Antica Quercia. Tortelli di patate (potato-filled pasta parcels), tagliatelle, and pappardelle are prepped fresh every morning; pair any of them with a choice of sauces, usually including Tuscan favourites like duck, rabbit, and wild boar.
As ever in this part of Tuscany, the best mains come straight from the grill, including a lombatina di vitella (large veal chop); there is also a real wood pizza oven. And everything tastes so much better with a cooling evening breeze, and a front-row seat as the sun sets over the hills of the Val d'Elsa.
Enoteca del Duca has been the top of the fine-dining tree in central Volterra for over a decade. Its longevity is in part thanks to a rep founded on local ingredients, be that fish landed daily at Cecina, on the Tuscan coast or mushrooms foraged in nearby woods.
It is a proper ristorante, in an elegant old palazzo with an atmosphere that is friendly rather than stuffy. The wine list includes Giusto alle Balze, award-winning wines made on the family's agriturismo just outside town.
There is almost nothing in the tiny village of Mazzolla except a stone church and the small dining room with a covered veranda at Albana. The short, simple menu is heavy on local, historical specialities, such as ravioli stuffed with guinea fowl, leeks, and almonds.
San Gimignano is the centre of the growing zone for Italy's only dry DOCG white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano. This straw-coloured, light white wine has a provenance that dates at least to the 1200s. In the town itself, diVinorum has a handful of panoramic outdoor tables with a perfect angle to catch the late afternoon sun. There is a long bruschettone (large bruschetta) list to accompany the wines.
DiVineria is another San Gimignano wine bar with a good choice of Vernaccia labels.
Volterra's best wine bar feels like a little cave dedicated to passion for the grape. The list at La Vena di Vino is especially strong on Tuscan reds, and there is a menu of meat and cheese platters to go alongside.
The longest queues in San Gimignano aren't for a church or museum; not for any artist at all, but for the artisans at the famous Gelateria Dondoli, more often known as Gelateria 'di Piazza' after its location on San Gim's prettiest square. Flavours range from the traditional to weird and wonderful combos that work, like 'Rosemary's Baby' (raspberry and rosemary), crema di Santa Fina (made with saffron), blackberries and lavender, or zabaione con vin santo (custard with Tuscan sweet wine).
Chic & Shock is a reliable choice for artisan gelato in Volterra.
Volterra, 28km south-west of San Gimignano, is another Medieval town whose glory days are a distant memory. In Volterra's case, very distant: the 'city' reached its peak when the (pre-Roman) Etruscans were calling the shots in Tuscany. Volterra's walls enclosed an area almost twice as large as today's atmospheric little town.
Most of Volterra's architecture dates to the Medieval period, especially around Piazza dei Priori and the warren of narrow streets that surround it. For the best view over the rooftops and the Valdicecina countryside beyond, climb the tower of the 13th-century Palazzo dei Priori.
At the edge of town, it is easy to spot Le Balze, a clay area that once stood inside the city walls but that has collapsed over centuries of erosion. The precipices that remain are frightening—and slowly advancing towards the town walls.
In Piazza San Giovanni, a Pisan-style cathedral faces Volterra's octagonal Baptistery. Its Renaissance baptismal font is by Sansovino, a Tuscan native from Monte San Savino.
Downhill from the main square, close to the Medieval Porta San Francesco, the church of San Francesco has a chapel frescoed (like Piero della Francesca's in Arezzo ) with panels that narrate the Legend of the True Cross, painted in 1410.
Volterra gained a dose of international fame as the fictional home of the 'Volturi', from Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series of books and films—although the 'Volterra' scenes in the Twilight: New Moon movie were actually shot in Montepulciano . Nevertheless, guided 'Volterra in New Moon' walks around real places referenced in the novel run weekly (after dark, of course), between spring and autumn.
Back in the real world, Volterra has a particularly eerie Good Friday procession.
Colle di Val d'Elsa, 14km south-east of San Gimignano, was the birthplace around 1245 of architect Arnolfo di Cambio, builder of Florence's Palazzo Vecchio among several other Tuscan Gothic buildings.
Arnolfo's birthplace is traditionally said to be the Torre di Arnolfo, in Colle Alta—the Medieval town that sits high above newer Colle Bassa ('Low Colle'). His tower-home still stands on Via del Castello.
Colle Alta was a refuge for locals during the Battle of Colle Val d'Elsa: in 1269, a small local Guelph army holed up in Colle Alta defeated Siena's massed Ghibelline forces
Nearby Santa Maria in Canonica is an intimate, single-nave church that dates at least back to 1184. A Gothic panel, complete with intact predella, by Pier Francesco Fiorentino stands on a simple altar.
Colle's Duomo is a complete contrast: light and airy, with tall interior arcades, and a high altar Crucifix by Mannerist sculptor Giambologna and his assistant, Pietro Tacca
Certaldo, 13km north of San Gimignano, is best known as the home (for some of his life) of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75). The 'Tuscan Chaucer' was author of the Decameron, a collection of stories still read today as an example of Medieval humour, allegorical storytelling, and a plain good yarn. Alongside Dante and Petrarch, Boccaccio completes the trio of great Tuscan writers.
His former home (probably), the Casa del Boccaccio, is preserved as a museum and study centre dedicated to Boccaccio's life and writings.
Visible up on its hill from the main SS2, tiny Monteriggioni, 25km south-east of San Gimignano, is known for its perfect, intact ring of 13th-century defensive walls. Visitors can still clamber on the walls, which were included by Dante in Inferno.
There are several fine rural walks around San Gimignano, through the vines and olive groves that approach the town on all sides, or among the wildflowers in spring and early summer. Take a good trail map, or contact the San Gimignano tourist office to book a guided half-day walk.
San Gimignano's two principal streets, Via San Matteo and Via San Giovanni, are lined with shops selling everything from souvenirs and wine to ceramics and leather.
For top-quality, hand-thrown and -painted Tuscan ceramics, take the short journey to Manufactum in Colle di Val d'Elsa. Everything on the shelves—crockery, tiles, condiment pots, jugs, and more—is crafted on the premises.
Volterra has been a centre for alabaster workmanship for centuries. A few open workshops remain in the backstreets, including alab'Arte, where you can admire pieces in various states of completion, all shrouded in a film of white alabaster dust.
Gloria Giannelli is another local artisan who works with the delicate, ghostly-white calcium carbonate; her creations have a contemporary edge.
The craft co-operative, the Società Cooperativa Artiero Alabastro, sells hand-made alabaster items made by local artisans, from a shop in Volterra's main square.
The panting collection at San Gimignano's Museo Civico is fairly small, but its quality testifies to the artists that passed through San Gimignano during its heyday. Its centrepiece is a Maestà (Virgin Mary surrounded by saints) painted in 1317 by Lippo Memmi, and finished fifty years later by Bartolo di Fredi.
Upstairs are works by Coppo di Marcovaldo, Benozzo Gozzoli, Filippo Lippi, and Pinturicchio. After you have seen the art, you can climb the 54m Torre Grossa for views for miles around.
Volterra is another small Tuscan town with an outstanding art museum. The Pinacoteca Civica's collection is arranged along a timeline, and includes panels by Taddeo di Bartolo, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Luca Signorelli (a decorative Annunciation), among several others.
The standout is Rosso Fiorentino's giant Deposition, painted in 1521. It is a classic of the Mannerist genre, full of contorted bodies and raw emotion.
Volterra also has one of Tuscany's most impressive Etruscan museums—the town was an important member of the Etruscan Dodecapoli (twelve-member alliance). The Museo Etrusco Guarnacci has exhibits over a couple of floors, including racks of cinerary urns; the Etruscans practised cremation and kept ashes in ornate alabaster or terracotta vases. Prize exhibit here is the Ombra della sera, a mysterious, elongated bronze figurine of a boy that was probably used in worship.
The archaeological collection at Colle's Museo Archeologico Bandinelli is slightly lower-key, but has a fine Etruscan collection from the Colle area, including some of the most important tomb finds in Tuscany.
San Gimignano's tourist office is at Piazza del Duomo 1, tel. 0577/940008, www.sangimignano.com, e. firstname.lastname@example.org. There is also a helpful information office in Volterra, at Piazza dei Priori 20, tel. 0588/87257, www.volterratur.it, e. email@example.com.
Pisa (PSA - Galileo Galilei) is Tuscany´s international airport, located about 40 minutes´drive west of Florence. Florence (FRL - Peretola), north-west of the city, is a smaller airport receiving domestic and European flights.
If your villa is in southern or eastern Tuscany, one of Rome´s two airports may be a more practical option: Fiumicino (FCO) is the larger, for international flights; Ciampino (CIA) has a fewer facilities and caters to the discounters and smaller European airlines. Both are just off Rome´s ring road, the GRA, and convenient to all the motorways.
The little airport at Perugia (PEG - Sant´Egidio), in Umbria, is convenient fr eastern Tuscany and receives domestic italian flights and discout airlines from UK.
Insider tipIf you can fit it into your itinerary, try to visit San Gimigano early in the morning and at dusk. Without the day-trippers, the place takes on an entirely different atmosphere: secretive, silent, even a little spooky. Standing alone, in Piazza della Cisterna, the square suddenly feels every one of its eight hundred or so years of age.
Best & Finds
- For the palate. Tenuta di Ghizzano, Peccioli 'Very nice place with friendly staff and lovely gardens and excellent wines and olive oils. Children are welcome.' 2008
- More for the palate. Castello di Monsanto, Barberino Val dElsa
- For the appetite. La Mangiatoia, San Gimignano 'One of the best we've eaten at in all of Italy.' 2010
- For the occasion. La Sagra del Tartufo Bianco (white truffle fair) in November, San Miniato
- For kids. Parco Preistorico (Dinosaur park), Peccioli