You could say it is a medieval Manhattan. San Gimignano is famous for its towered skyline, which has characterized it since ancient times. Its unmistakable profile appears in the hills between Certaldo and Volterra in the province of Siena, about 1,083 feet above sea level. Not a very high altitude, but high enough to make this scenario unforgettable. Today there are 13 towers, but in the 14th century—when the city experienced the most expansion and economic prosperity—there were most likely 72. There was roughly one for every well-to-do family. Building a tower confirmed a family’s prestige, as it cost a great deal of time and money in the Middle Ages. So it wasn’t an architectural venture taken on by just anyone.
However, wealth abounded, especially in the first three centuries after 1000 AD when the town found itself located strategically along the Via Francigena, becoming a rest stop for pilgrims who were on their way to Rome from France. In fact, it was a rare traveler who failed to stop here. The most beautiful monuments and views in San Gimignano go back to this era, because a period of decline began in the 15th century—which today we might say was fortunate, since the city was almost entirely spared from later architectural variations.
This is why it is difficult to truly describe the “time warp” experienced when walking through the small streets of the historic center, and seeing the buildings, churches, ancient fountains, the sudden appearance of stairways and, of course, the towers. They include those that have survived intact and those that were “lopped off” in more recent times: due to the quest for better living conditions (the towers were beautiful, but not very convenient), the need for more bricks or because they fell because of maintenance. There are two things that deserve special mention among the many things to see in this town.
The cathedral, also known as the Collegiate Church or Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta. The interior is completely frescoed, mainly with an important medieval cycle of the Stories of the Old and New Testaments.
Just a few feet away, you can visit the Palazzo Comunale, which was erected in the 13th century and then frescoed— in the interior courtyard—with the coat of arms of important figures in the public life of the city. Today, it is home to the Civic Museum, a key stop for anyone interested in 14th- and 15th-century paintings, which alternate the successful works of Sienese and Florentine schools. Even back then, art had its trends!
Once your cultural curiosity is satisfied—and we can also mention the Museo del Vino Vernaccia (where the best visit would naturally include a tasting)—you can enjoy a well-deserved rest.
The Hotel La Cisterna (Piazza della Cisterna 23, tel. +39 0577 940328) is located in the most central point of the town and is the ideal spot to pretend to be visitors from the 12th century. Aside from the building’s gorgeous architecture, the hotel boasts all the amenities of Italian hospitality.
Since the best advice on what to buy in San Gimignano is food and wine (you can decide on oil, wine or saffron, part of the town’s ancient tradition), we suggest La Stella (Via San Matteo 77, tel. +39 0577 940829) to enjoy a delicious local meal in town. You’ll find wild boar cooked cacciatore style, dishes made with truffles and naturally, ribollita, a Tuscan bread soup.