San Gimignano: the Manhattan of the Middle Ages

San Gimignano, a village about ninety minutes from Florence, is the perfect Tuscan day-trip, with plenty of things to see and an optimal example of Tuscan cuisine and wine. With its iconic stone towers, the town is often referred to as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages since it once boasted some seventy-five skyscrapers; however, as time passed many were cut down. Only fourteen still stand today, more than in any other Tuscan town.

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

What to Do and See in San Gimignano

Civic Museum and Torre Grossa

The Civic Museum at the palazzo Comunale, located in piazza del Popolo alongside the Collegiata, houses a recollection of Dante’s visit to the city back in 1299. This room, located on the first floor, is known as Dante room and also exhibits a memorable late thirteenth century fresco depicting tournaments of knights and hunting scenes which are attributed to Azzo di Masetto, a Florentine painter.

The Pinacoteca, or picture gallery, located on the second floor of the palace displays an exquisite collection of works by famous Florentine and Sienese painters including Filippino Lippi, Benozzo Gozzoli, Benedetto da Maiano and Pinturicchio. Entrance cost is 6 euro and includes admission to the Civic Museum, Pinacoteca, Torre Grossa and the museums at Santa Chiara.

Beside the palace is the tallest tower in the city, the Torre Grossa, which was completed in 1311. Standing at 54 meters (177 feet) in height, it offers visitors an unforgettable view and it is also the only spire open to the public.

Piaza Duomo

Piaza Duomo


San Gimignano Collegiata

The Collegiata – not quite a Duomo, as this city doesn’t have a bishop – is one of the city’s most important monuments and is characterized by fourteen classical Tuscan stone columns. The walls of the church are entirely decorated with frescoes that depict stories of the New and Old Testament. Of particular note is a late Medieval Last Judgement scene that leaves no sin unpunished. The Museum of Sacred Art next door opened in 1915 and features wooden sculptures from the 14th century. The combined ticket for the cathedral and museum costs 4 euro.

Santa Chiara Museum Center

If you have a bit more time to dedicate to art, head over to the Santa Chiara Museum Center. The Archeology Museum located on the first floor of Santa Chiara features local works from the Etruscan, Roman and Medieval periods. The collection is divided chronologically and includes Etruscan-Roman art and artifacts on one side while the other section is dedicated to artifacts such as glass and ceramics from the Middle Ages.

The Herbarium of Santa Fina is also located on the first floor of Santa Chiara and houses a collection of pharmaceutical memorabilia made between the 9th and 18th century. The layout of the museum resembles an ancient pharmacy, with an area devoted to the selling of medicinal products and a workshop where these products were made.

The Contemporary Art Gallery on the second floor of the building is named after Milanese painter Raffaele De Grada and includes numerous paintings by this artist who chose to make San Gimignano his home. The permanent collection also includes works by twentieth-century painters such as Niccolò Cannicci, Renato Guttuso, Sergio Vacchi, Ugo Nespolo, Marco Gastini and Carmelo Zotti.

The view from a rooftop in San Gimignano

The view from a rooftop in San Gimignano

Smaller Museums and Churches

If you’re really into birds, check out the Ornithological Museum located on Via Quercecchio, which features 371 specimens, mostly from the Monte Estate, collected at the end of the 19th century.

Another treat is the relatively new San Gimignano 1300 Museum which houses a minute replica of the Tuscan town during its glory days, with all of its towers intact.

On the other side of town, the Church of Sant’Agostino founded in the 13th century and decorated in the 15th, is free to enter and has some charming Renaissance frescoes by Bennozzo Gozzoli in the apse.

Finally, if you’re energetic enough to walk uphill, go to the Rocca of Montestaffoli, a 14th-century fortress above the city that was originally the castle of the Lombard ruler Astolfo. Today, the area is shaded with olive trees and is a great place to enjoy a sandwich or picnic lunch while enjoying breathtaking views of the city’s towers and the surrounding countryside.

What to Eat and Drink in San Gimignano

Saffron fields

Saffron fields

If you’re in town for a short visit, you’ll only have time for a gelato but be sure to visit Gelateria Dondoli or Gelateria della Piazza, two award winning gelato shops. If you can stay longer, take the time to have lunch or dinner in one of the restaurants that specialize in Tuscan cuisine, and ask the owners about the house specialty, or what dishes are most typical to San Gimignano.

One way to start off your meal is to order a Tuscan salami, ham and pecorino cheese plate, usually served with some acacia or millefiorehoney produced in the region. For the first course, we recommend risotto allo zafferano or tagliatelle pasta with sausage, basil and chili pepper sauce. For the second course, lamb ribs or veal rolls are great choices. Many dishes here feature saffron because the highly esteemed saffron plant is native to San Gimignano. This plant has a strong role in the city’s historic economy, and in some moments, like when the commune needed to pay its debt after the siege of Castello della Nera in 1228, they did not pay in cash, they paid in saffron! It’s a debt you owe to your taste buds to sample some.

Wash your risotto allo zafferano down with a glass of San Gimignano’s famous white Vernaccia wine, which was first mentioned in 1276 when the city put duty taxes for imports and exports on the product. Its cultivation spread through Tuscany and Liguria, although San Gimignano’s is famous for its high quality. After a long period of decay, San Gimignano Vernaccia has experienced a renewal and today is considered one of the best white wines of Italy. It has a typically yellow straw like color with golden highlights enhanced by aging and tastes fruity and flowery. On the palate it is a dry wine with an almond-like after-taste. It is the perfect complement to fish, white meats, vegetables, Tuscan ham, ribollita soup and many summer dishes.

The town is at its best around sunset, when the sun has begun its descent on the horizon, souvenir stores have closed their doors, and the last tour bus has departed for the nearby busy cities. A silence permeates the streets as you wander down the corridors and alleys, admiring the vestiges of the past, with only the yellow light of street lamps for company. That’s when you can imagine yourself in the past, in a medieval town of towers, with good food washed down by flowery white wine in the heart of Tuscany.

By Valentina Wurth


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