Looking beyond the towers

The hilltop town of San Gimignano is famous for its towers. But there’s much more to this Tuscan treasure than that.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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The best things to do in San Gimignano

Amongst the towers of this Tuscan hilltop town are the stories of power, wealth, and a community that has thrived for centuries.

When you visit San Gimignano, you'll discover that there's much more here than just a quick tour, so these are my tips for the best things to do in San Gimignano.

You see the town well before arrive there. Regardless of how you visit San Gimignano, the towers will be rising up from the hilltop as you approach, creating its distinctive medieval skyline.

It’s these towers of San Gimignano that make the town so famous, setting it apart from the dozens of other charming hilltop settlements in Tuscany. San Gimignano is worth visiting just for these alone.

Things to do in San Gimignano, Italy

But to focus only on San Gimignano’s towers would be a mistake – and I should know. I visited several years ago and just spent a few hours here, thinking it was all that was needed.

As you can tell from this story that I wrote at the time, I came away with just a relatively superficial view of the town.

So, how much time do you need in San Gimignano? Well, on this visit, I spend more than 24 hours in town and even then I feel like it’s not quite enough. It’s one of those towns where, the more you explore, the more you realise there is to see.

Things to do in San Gimignano, Italy

Aside from the towers that San Gimignano is known for, there are exquisite churches, priceless artworks, and fascinating historical sights.

San Gimignano is also somewhere you don’t want to rush. Part of the charm is exploring, meeting the residents who live within the walls, and eating and drinking the local produce.

Things to do in San Gimignano, Italy

It’s easy to get caught up in the frenetic pace of the tour groups – but relax, wander at your own pace, and you’ll see a different side of the town.

That’s exactly what I do on my visit, because I’m here as part of a project called World Heritage Journeys of Europe, which encourages a deeper look at Europe’s World Heritage Sites.

During my time in the town, I find so many things to do in San Gimignano. Let me share them with you now, to help you plan a trip to San Gimignano for yourself when you’re next in Tuscany.

The best things to do in San Gimignano

Walk the side streets

Before I go into some of the more specific things to do in San Gimignano, I want to suggest something that seems obvious… but that most people don’t seem to do. And that’s to explore the side streets of the town.

You’ll quickly realise that the historic centre of San Gimignano is not that large – less than a kilometre long and half a kilometre wide. And there is effectively one main path that links the stone gates at each end.

Things to do in San Gimignano, Italy

Many tourists just stay on this path because it has most of the obvious main sights along it. But, for that reason, it’s always crowded. So just take a turn and explore the other streets and alleys and you’ll see a more local (but just as authentic) perspective of San Gimignano.

Torre Grossa

The towers of San Gimignano may be the town’s best known attribute, but they were actually pretty impractical.

They were built by wealthy and powerful families to prove that they could (and to compete in a rather phallic competition to see who could build the tallest). But their owners didn’t really use them for anything else.

Torre Grossa, San Gimignano

Still, it’s worth climbing one and the best one to go up is the Torre Grossa, the tallest tower in San Gimignano…

Construction began in 1300 and, as a public tower, nobody was allowed to build a taller private one. (Although, across the square, you’ll see a pair of towers that would be taller if they were on top of each other, a sneaky way one family got around that rule!)

Torre Grossa, San Gimignano

There are 218 steps to the top, with an interesting audiovisual presentation on the way up. From the top, you get spectacular views out across the town and surrounding countryside.

Palazzo Comunale

Access to the Torre Grossa is through the Palazzo Comunale (also known as the Town Hall) and the historical exhibitions here are well worth a look. There are some interesting items, including some with special portrayals of Saint Geminianus (after whom the town was named).

One of the most important rooms to take note of is the Sala Dante, named after the famous poet who visited here as an ambassador in 1300. The walls are covered in artwork but the most impressive is the fresco by Lippo Memmi that shows a seated Mary surrounded by saints and angels.

Palazzo Comunale, San Gimignano

The other most important room is the Camera del Podesta, which has wonderful frescoes by Memmo Di Filipuccio. It tells the story of love (or, what was considered the right kind of love in the 14th century).

Palazzo Comunale, San Gimignano

On one side you have bad love, with the man spending his time with whores and being robbed. On the other side is good love, with a couple getting married and getting into bed together.

Cathedral of San Gimignano

Next to the Town Hall is the Cathedral of San Gimignano, and visiting it is probably the single most significant thing to do in San Gimignano.

Cathedral of San Gimignano

The walls of the church are lined with stunning frescoes with panels that tell the stories on the Old Testament on one side, and the New Testament on the other.

They were painted in the 14th century and each is a masterpiece on its own, so just imagine what it’s like to stand in the middle of the cathedral and look at them all.

Cathedral of San Gimignano

One of the other highlights of the San Gimignano Cathedral is the small chapel of Santa Fina. It’s a beautiful piece of work created by three famous artists from Florence – an architect, a scupture, and a painter.

The story of Santa Fina is also very interesting. She was a little girl from the 13th century who became very sick and spent her final ten years lying on a wooden board. When she died, yellow viola flowers blossomed on the board, which the locals called a miracle so they made her a saint.

Cathedral of San Gimignano

You can see the original board in the chapel and you’ll find lots of Santa Fina iconography around the town.

San Gimignano 1300

You’ll have noticed that a lot of San Gimignano’s history is based around the Middle Ages. To get a better understanding of what the town was like back then, I would recommend visiting the San Gimignano 1300 exhibition.

The main attraction is the large model of what the town looked like 700 years ago. It is so detailed that it gives you excellent reference points for your visit.

San Gimignano 1300

It’s also a very impressive artwork, made by hand out of fired clay and decorated with historically-accurate pigments. It took more than two years to complete under the oversight of brothers Michelangelo and Raffaello Rubino.

Local crafts

As it turns out, a lot of the San Gimignano locals are very artistic. As you wander through the town, you’ll see a lot of stores that are selling genuine handmade crafts of the region.

Balducci Ceramica, San Gimignano

A great example is Balducci Ceramica, which sells incredible pottery. Franco Balducci makes really interesting pieces and you’ll often find him working at his wheel in the store.

Franco’s wife, Esther Vogeli, also works in the store making adorable clay animals and tiles depicting the Tuscan landscapes.

Balducci Ceramica, San Gimignano

There are quite a few other workshops and stores so, if you’re looking for something in particular, I would suggest asking for recommendations from the tourist office in the main square.

Rocca of Montestaffoli

As if to prove the point, I meet an artist when I wander into the old fortress of the Rocca di Montestaffoli, sitting in the shade of a tree painting small watercolour landscapes.

La Rocca, San Gimignano

We chat for a bit and she tells me she moved to San Gimignano years ago and her favourite thing is the community here, that is still strong and vibrant despite the constant influx of tourists.

The Rocca itself is the town’s old fortress from the 14th century. It’s seen better days and is really just a shell that is used for public events like concerts.

La Rocca, San Gimignano

Still, it’s free to go in and you get a great view from the top of the walls, so I would recommend checking it out.

Church of Sant’Agostino

After the cathedral, the next most important church to see in San Gimignano is the the Church of Sant’Agostino, which was built in the 13th century.

It looks quite simple from the outside but this was the style of the time. All the elegance was saved for the interior, which features some wonderful pieces of art.

Church of Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano

The most famous artwork is the series of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli showing the life of Saint Agostino, that you can see behind the altar.

Another important fresco is the one of Saint Sebastian, also painted by Gozzoli.

Church of Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano

It’s worth also having a look at the attached cloister, which was added slightly later in the late 15th century.

Church of San Lorenzo in Ponte

While we’re talking about churches, there’s one more to mention – the Church of San Lorenzo in Ponte. (The name refers to a drawbridge (ponte) to the bishop’s castle that used to also be here.)

The main attraction of this simple church is the series of frescoes depicting scenes of Saint Benedict, as well as a large fresco with Christ in Glory, with the Virgin and the 12 apostles.

Church of San Lorenzo in Ponte, San Gimignano

There is an entrance fee but it’s included in the all-inclusive San Gimignano Pass that also covers the Torre Grossa, Palazzo Comunale, and a couple of other places I’ll mention now.

Archeological Museum

The San Gimignano Pass also includes three museums that are housed together in the old Santa Chiara complex.

The first is the Archaeological Museum, which has a collection of artefacts from different periods in the history of San Gimignano – although most are Roman.

Archeological Museum, San Gimignano

It’s a fairly simple display that doesn’t have a huge amount of explanatory notes. There’s a plan to refurbish it in the near future.

Herbarium of Santa Fina

The second museum is the Herbarium of Santa Fina, which is actually quite interesting. It is a partially-reconstructed pharmacy that shows what the store would have once looked like.

Herbarium of Santa Fina

There are ceramic jars, potion bottles, and all sort of other things that I’m not convinced would actually help with your ailments.

It does offer a good insight into the way of life from the 15th to the 18th centuries.

Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery

And the third museum in the complex is the Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery. It has quite an extensive collection of local artworks in different styles.

Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery, San Gimignano

There is also space for a temporary exhibition and famous international artists are often exhibited here. It’s certainly worth finding out if there’s something special happening during your visit.

Medieval Fountain

From the Santa Chiara museum complex, there’s an easy downhill walk to the Medieval Fountain (of course, that means there’s going to be an uphill climb to come back).

These water fountains actually look more like a series of small reservoirs within arched rock-cut chambers. They were built in the 14th century and used by the townsfolk to draw water and clean their clothes.

Medieval Fountain, San Gimignano

It’s an interesting bit of history but I’m not sure it’s worth the downhill (and uphill) detour if there are other things you would prefer to be doing.

Torre e Casa Campatelli

The Torre e Casa Campatelli (Tower and House of Campatelli) is an interesting historical site that’s well worth a visit. It’s a bit different to many of the others sites, in that it’s from the 18th century, rather than the Medieval period.

Well, the tower is from the 12th century, originally 11m high and now 28m – and it was actually used as a house, as opposed to most of the others that were just for show, as I mentioned earlier.

Torre e Casa Campatelli

The building that surrounds it (from the 18th century) was converted into a family house in the 19th century and the interior designs you see today are from that period. As you can tell, they were wealthy business owners – but were probably still only upper-middle class.

A highlight of the visit is the audiovisual show in the attic that takes you through the history of San Gimignano. It’s really well-presented and, for me who saw it towards the end of my time, brought together a lot of the different things I had seen into a clear narrative.

Gelateria Dondoli

Like any good meal, you need to wait until the end for your dessert, which is why I’ve been saving one of the best things to do in San Gimignano until now. Of course, I’m talking about the famous Gelateria Dondoli.

Gelateria Dondoli, San Gimignano

The gelato at this store is known across the world – and for good reason. Sergio Dondoli has won a ton of awards and accolades for his gelato, which is made from the milk of special cows from nearby farmlands.

Along with the expected, there is a range of interesting flavours – raspberry with rosemary, ricotta with bilberries, saffron with orange and nuts, even pink grapefruit and sparkling wine – and it’s hard to pick just one… or two (…or three).

Gelateria Dondoli, San Gimignano

Sergio also now offers an exclusive gelato-making class which is a real treat! Normally you need to book private classes (minimum €400 for two people, with €50 for each extra person), but every Tuesday morning he runs a public class that’s just €50 per person. More info here.

Also, if you’re interested in food, you might like to go truffle hunting (with wine and lunch).

Or you can also do a great pizza masterclass and wine tasting.

Explore in evening

As you can see, there’s lots to see in San Gimignano and it would be hard to do it all in a way… at least in a pleasurable relaxed way. It’s a good reason to spend the night here.

But the other advantage of not leaving with the day-trippers is that you can explore the town in the evenings, which is one of the best times to be in San Gimignano.

San Gimignano in the evening

The streets are relatively empty, and the lights give the cobbled streets and stoned buildings a delightful hue.

But it’s also a great time to sit outside at the restaurants and cafes without the crowds bustling past. Eat the local food, and have some of the amazing local wine!

Taste San Gimignano wine

I can’t stress this strongly enough – don’t come to San Gimignano without trying the wine! It’s one of the main products of the region and has its own distinct taste.

Things to do in San Gimignano, Italy

The most famous local varietal is the Vernaccia of San Gimignano, which was the first Italian wine to get a DOCG certification (in 1966). Its production area falls entirely within the San Gimignano municipality and the wine has to contain at least 85 per cent Vernaccia.

In town, the best place to try it is the Vernaccia di San Gimignano Wine Experience at the Rocca (remember that old fortress?) where there are lots of different tasting options, depending on what you’re looking for.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano Wine Experience

You can also try some of the other varietals that are produced in the region. In total, Gimignano has about 60 wineries and they also make some excellent Chianti, for example.

If you’ve got time, you should also head out into the countryside and visit some of the local wineries to do some tastings at the cellar door and see the rows of vines on the beautiful Tuscan landscape.

In fact, there are quite a few good options for wine tastings that will be organised for you. To get a good quick overview of many of the wines, there’s this tasting you can do.

If you don’t have a car or don’t want to drive, a tour is a great option and there are some good ones here:

 

Walk in the countryside

Speaking of the countryside, I don’t think you can really appreciate San Gimignano until you see it from the outside. The skyline is one of the most important characteristics, and you can’t get a sense of that from inside the town.

Even if you don’t have a lot of time, there’s an easy walk you can do along the Via Vecchia per Poggibonsi (the Old Road to Poggibonsi).

Things to do in San Gimignano, Italy

Within about ten minutes, you’ll have a great view of the old town with vines in the foreground. If you keep walking along, you’ll get different angles and different foregrounds.

If you stay overnight, I would highly recommend you get up early and go for a walk around sunrise. The colours are amazing and it’s such a refreshing way to start the day.

Ride around the countryside

And, if you’ve got a car or a bike, even better – you can explore a bit further afield. There are some wonderful little communities in the San Gimignano area that will show you the best of the Tuscan hospitality.

Speak to someone at the tourism office first and get some tips about the best producers to visit, to try the wine, olive oil, cheese, meats, and other products.

Things to do in San Gimignano, Italy

There are small sights along the way, such as the Monastery of Bose, which is on the Francigena, and is a peaceful spot with a charming church.

Monastery of Bose, near San Gimignano

And, of course, you’ll find plenty of different viewpoints of San Gimignano itself, so you can see it in all its glory from various perspectives.

As well as everything I’ve suggested, there are some guided tours and other special experiences that will help you explore San Gimignano. If you’re in a group, this is a good option.

The ones that give you a connection with the local community are my person favourites. Here are a few that I would recommend:

 

How do you get to San Gimignano?

It’s relatively easy to get to to San Gimignano, but it’s not quite as simple as other parts of Tuscany, so it’s worth planning for a visit to the town.

If you’re coming by car, there are quite a few parking areas just outside the city centre that you can use.

Coming from the south, P1 Giubileo is the best option and costs just €1.50 an hour with a maximum of €6 a day. A bit closer is P2 Montemaggio, but it costs €2.50 for the first hour, €2 an hour after that, with a maximum of €15.

Coming from the north, P3 Bagnaia Superiore and P4 Bagnaia Inferiore are your best options and are close to each other. They both cost €2.50 for the first hour, €2 an hour after that, with a maximum of €15 a day.

If you’re coming by public transport, then the easiest way from every direction is to come through the town of Poggibonsi (which is quite interesting in its own right).

You can get the train there from across Tuscany. Then catch the bus number 130 from outside the train station, which takes about 20 minutes to San Gimignano.

If you’re wondering how to get from Florence to san Gimignano, then you might be better off getting the bus the whole way, rather than using the train. You can catch the bus from the Busitalia station next to the main Florence train station and change at Poggibonsi. It’ll take about 75 minutes.

And, if you only have time to do a day trip, you could go with a tour company that will take all the hassle out of the travel – plus give you an insight into the local area.

Here are a few options I would recommend:

 

Where to stay in San Gimignano?

When you’re looking for the best place to stay in San Gimignano, you need to first decide between staying in the historic centre or in the countryside. There are some great countryside B&Bs and you can see everything that’s available here.

But I would recommend finding somewhere within the walls of the town, because I think that’s the easiest way to explore the streets in the evening and early morning when there are few people around.

Time Travel Turtle was supported by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage Journeys of Europe but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

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