Already when you gaze the first fleeting glimpses of San Gimignano, as your car curves its way around the Tuscan hills, you realise that this city is different from the other picturesque villages of the region.
Over a dozen tall towers stand sentinel in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just imagine what it would have looked like in the Middle Ages, when there were 72 of them. It was truly the Manhattan of the Middle Ages.
The fact, that the city rises on a hilltop 332 metres above sea level, adds to its dominant impression and makes it a powerful sight whether you arrive by car or hike around the rolling Tuscan hillside. The pencil-shaped towers grasp for the sky in a fashion only church towers dare to do. But these were not built with an ecclesiastic purpose but rather to act as symbols of the wealthy citizens’ domination, power and political authority.
One might interpret the towers as symbols of the ancient struggle between the Papal loyalists – the Guelphs – and the supporters of the emperor – the Ghibellines. The wars of the Guelphs and Ghibellines dominated the political scene in Italy in the 12th and 13th century and I can’t help but wonder if the local Ghibellines built their secular towers as statements against the religious ones. If they were, they were certainly flipping some big fingers.
The city reached its peak period in the 1300s and you can actually see a model of the city at its prime in the free museum San Gimignano 1300. The model is based on more than a year’s research and is a stunning piece of craftsmanship. You can also visit a couple of the towers. Climb the Torre Grossa to enjoy spectacular views of the city or visit Torre e Casa Campatelli to discover how a wealthy Tuscan family lived like in the past centuries.
The city lost one third of its inhabitants to the plague in 1348 and shortly after submitted rule to Florence. In the centuries to come, the town with its medieval flair was overlooked, forgotten. Thank God for that, because this abandoned state kept San Gimignano unspoiled, authentic and absolutely beautiful.
The real star
No less than 9 churches are crammed into this walled village and most of them can be visited. But neither churches nor towers are the real stars of San Gimignano. That is the city itself. We recommend strolling around the terracotta-paved pedestrian streets and slowly taking in the ambiance. Hike along the city walls to enjoy the magnificent views of the countryside. Have a cappuccino and look at other people.
San Gimignano has retained its medieval atmosphere and its historical centre was acknowledged as a UNESCO World heritage Site already back in 1990. The relatively small village has worked hard to accommodate the tourist masses of present time. About 4 car parks around the city accommodate a max of 750 cars – and that’s not nearly enough in the summertime when everyone swings by to check their Tuscan To-Do list.
If you have the choice, visit it off-season. San Gimignano doesn’t loose its charm together with declining temperatures. On the contrary. If you’re going to be here with the rest of the tourists in summertime, we recommend booking a hotel for a day, arrive in the afternoon and stay overnight, as to avoid the hordes arriving in busses on their daytrip from Florence. Or even better: Rent an apartment for a couple of days and fall in love with the Tuscan countryside.
If you’re looking for something else to do in San Gimignano besides taking pictures, drinking fabulous wine and eating hearty food, how about making some of it yourself. The food I mean!
Meet Mauro, the most good-humoured chef you’ll ever have the chance to cook with and learn to Cook like an Italian.
- San Gimignano Tourist Office
- Visit Tuscany website
- San Gimignano on Wikipedia
- San Gimignano 1300 museum
- Torre Grossa on San Gimignano museum website
- Torre e Casa Campatelli (link in Italian)