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San Gimignano

Medieval towers nearly 700 years old pierce the sky of the Tuscan village of San Gimignano. From the moment you walk inside through the Porta San Giovanni gateway in the old wall you feel magically transported into another time and place.

Sometimes called a medieval Manhattan because of its ancient skyscrapers. The highest tower reaches 170 feet, and you can climb to the top of several of these towers. From there of course you get a splendid view of the old town and the beautiful countryside around it.

We'll take you on a walk through the main lanes and little side alleys. It doesn't take very long – the village is so small it's just 700 meters from north to south, and about 350 meters from east to west, so you could walk it from top to bottom in 20 minutes, and yet there are many wonderful things to see. Start your walk along the main pedestrian street, via San Giovanni.

The tall gateway is the Arch of Becci that was formerly an entrance to the old medieval town, but then the town grew little bigger, they expanded the walls, and this arch became a passageway from the main lane into the central square of the Piazza della Cisterna. The name comes from the cistern, or well that's in the middle of the piazza.

For a thousand years and still today the piazza has been the main gathering place of town and all around it are small lanes and alleys, there are some shops and restaurants so it's very convenient. Like most visitors you're probably not going to spend the night here, although if you did it would be quite peaceful. There is a small three-star Hotel Leon Bianco right on the piazza and highly rated, 4 1/2 stars out of five on Trip Advisor. That would be a very central place to stay.

The two main squares are right in the center of town, Cisterna and Duomo, with little pedestrian lanes all around them. Piazza Duomo is connected to Cisterna by a little passage adjacent to an open loggia. The vast round archway of the Palazzo Del Podesta on the east side of the piazza is a major landmark that still serves as a gathering place for locals.

A beautiful wide flight of 25 stone steps flows up to the graceful façade of the Duomo, which looks peacefully down on a square that has seen thousand years of incredible history. Next to the Duomo you can enter the Palazzo Communale and climb the steps of the great tower, the Torre Grosso, which is 54 meters high. Built in the 14th century, it's the tallest tower in town. Midway up the steps you can look through the window for a preview of the big view you're about to get.

The tower climb is a long and really challenging one up this series of stairs suspended within the lofty shell by beams running from wall-to-wall, but at the top the view is superb. There are still 13 towers preserved in San Gimignano, which is really its main claim to fame. Originally there were as as many as 70 towers back in the Middle Ages. Below lies the little town, shrunk within its medieval walls to the single main street running north and south, and a couple of lanes branching off from it to the east and west, and at this height you look down on some of the flat tops of other towers.

You can see that agriculture is another very important activity here with the vineyards all around for many miles specializing in the production of excellent wines especially the Vernaccia. Up top there is a massive bell which is wrung on festive occasions. At least the climb down is much easier than the climb up, and you can stop again along the way and peer out the window.

These towers were originally constructed for defensive purposes back in the Middle Ages, but then after a while they became status symbols, each family trying to build higher than the next. Later on in the middle of the 14th century the city was conquered by Florence and they required most of the towers be pulled down, in a way to control the local population.

The Town Hall Picture Gallery has some important paintings including an immense fresco by Lipo Memmi who painted a similar more famous fresco in Siena in the Palazzo Publico there The Madonna in Glory painted by Pinturicchio in 1512 is one of the great treasures of the city, and an Annunciation by Filippino Lippi.

The other important art treasure is a series of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli in the church of San Agostino. The museum and tower are all part of the Palazzo Publico, which was the old City Hall of San Gimignano built at the end of the 13th century.  

The courtyard takes the form of a small loggia with some original frescoes still in place on the walls. Your admission ticket includes climbing the tower and the museum, so be sure to catch both. Entrance to the museum and tower is right on Piazza Duomo so it's very easy to find it, and the Tourist Information Office is right in front. It is a most interesting piazza modest in size and yet second-largest in town, showing more than a dozen books or 100 photographs could tell of the extraordinary life of this medieval Italian city.

Behind Palazzo Publico a path leads up to the Rocca di Montestaffoli which is the remains of a fortress the Florentines built after 1353 to maintain their hold upon the town. It was dismantled 200 years later by Cosimo de Medici.  The main street, via San Giovanni, is a fairly wide pedestrian thoroughfare, well-paved with large blocks of pietra serana that are left over from the days when San Gimignano was a town of 30,000 people instead of the couple thousand who live within the ancient walls today. Total population of the village area now is about 7000 people. The main lane extends on the north side of town as well where it's called via San Matteo, lined with more of those essential items for the tourist – souvenir shops, cafés and restaurants.

This picturesque double arch is the Arco Della Cancellaria. It's in the middle of town today but in earlier times the town was much smaller, and this was actually a gate in the wall that went around the outside of the town

Of course, we always like to get into the little side alleys; that's where you get some more characteristic local life, and you can see some residents, and maybe restaurants that are a little bit less expensive and more delicious. Situated at this remote height, out of the way of modern industry and life, it has never lost its medieval buildings, so that it is famous today for its accurate appearance of the late Middle Ages, especially characteristic of the conditions of life in the 14th and 15th centuries.

There are few refuges in all Tuscany more secure from the rampant modernization of our time then San Gimignano, this strangely towered city. Within the walls the well-preserved buildings include examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture with outstanding examples of secular buildings as well as churches. No other town or castle in Tuscany retains more of the Middle Ages and was less changed by the centuries that followed.

If you want to know what a Tuscan hill town was like in the 14th century you must go, but you will probably find you have plenty of company. It can get crowded. November is a great time to go – not many people around and they are mostly local. San Gimignano did not know mass tourism until the end of the 1970s. Then in 1990, because of its high state of preservation, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which brought many more visitors.

Nowadays it's estimated that more than 2 1/2 million people visit San Gimignano per year which ranks it the fourth most-visited place in Tuscany behind number one Florence, then Siena and Pisa. As always it's better to come in the off-season from late October through early May so that you can enjoy it without the mass of modern crowds.

If you're coming here on a day-trip by public transit, which is a typical way tourists arrive, it's a little complicated. By now you've seen how attractive this city is and so it will be well worth your time to come and visit. There is no train station here so you have to arrive by public bus, and if you're coming from Florence there is no direct bus, and if you're coming from Siena, there is no direct bus. So you take the bus or train from Florence to Poggibonsi, a nearby city, and there you change to another bus, the local bus that'll bring you into San Gimignano.

If you're staying in Florence you could actually visit both San Gimignano and Siena in one day. It would be a long day, but it's possible by taking the bus, transferring at Poggibonsi, visit San Gimignano for a couple of hours, then get on the bus, back to Poggibonsi, down to Siena, stay there for the afternoon. You would find that Siena is one of the great cities of the world to explore. You've just seen how interesting San Gimignano is, definitely worthwhile, but Siena is even more interesting -- it's bigger, and an important place to visit. Maybe have dinner outdoors on the Campo at twilight, and then you can take a bus from Siena directly back to Florence, as we describe in the Siena page.

An easier alternative is buying a day-trip in Florence from a tour company and they'll bring you to both places, show you around, and take you back. However, you would not have as much time in Siena for dinner in the evening as if you went on your own by public bus -- you can do it!