SAN GIMIGNANO: a MEDIEVAL MANHATTAN
(photo by Miheal Grmek)
Located in the Tuscan region of Italy, San Gimignano is a small, medieval (largely built in the 14th and 15th centuries), walled town. It is perched timelessly on a perfect little Tuscan hill and features a perfect little skyline of medieval stone towers, built due to a perfect little pissing contest between the local merchant families. In an attempt to outdo each other, the towers rose higher and higher, up to a height of nearly 70 meters (200 feet). At its peak, 72 towers graced the skyline. Today, fourteen remain. Tuscany was the world’s Manhattan 700 years ago and San Gimignano is the best place to experience its past heights.
I’d seen a picture of San Gimignano is one of my urban planning textbooks when I was a freshman in college. It was the “Skylines” chapter of The City Shaped by Spiro Kostov. It struck me as a kind of childlike fantasy of an ancient fairytale city. I knew I’d have to visit if I was ever in Italy. I was able to make a little road trip there after a summer of work in Greece.
San Gimignano is located in Tuscany; 56 km southwest of Florence and 12 km northwest of Siena. It makes for a good day trip from either of those two cities, but it’s worth spending one night here, as the place really changes character after the day trippers go home after sundown.
Myself, my sister and pal Dave and I rented a car in Florence for a surprisingly high price of about 80€. I believe rentals from the Florence airport begin at 35€. We parked our car outside the city walls and walked into the walled city by foot. Do not attempt to drive into the village.
There is no train station.
To get to San Gimignano by bus, you can first travel to Poggibonsi by bus or train from either Siena (5€) or Florence (6€). From Poggibonsi station, it is a 20-minute ride (3€) to San Gimigano.
The towers, duh.
Piazza del Duomo
Start here, at the center of the village. This is the place to get a good vantage point of the town both horizontally and vertically.
San Gimignao 1300
Via Berignano, 17, San Gimignano
A cool museum that has as its showcase a model of the village as it looked in 1300. If you don’t have a time machine, it’s well worth a look. Open every day for free.
Piazza della Cisterna
Smallish plaza with a Thursday market.
Finished in 1311 and on the Palazzo Communale, this is the tallest climbable tower in San Gimignano. There is no elevator, so you have to walk up. Thankfully, stairs are provided for this.
Via San Giovanni, 30/32
I’m a bit of a cheap bastard and most of the restaurants in towns were expensive. We did have a nice meal and drink at a cool little place called Baboli. I had a good panini and all three of us enjoyed what we had with a local beer.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano
This is Tuscany, so it’s all about wine. San Gimignano’s Vernaccia-based local whites were considered the best in Italy throughout the Renaissance. The wines are reasonably-priced and can be purchased throughout town and its vicinity. Don’t leave without a bottle.
Hotel rooms in San Gimignano are unique and filled with medieval character. However, they are not cheap- starting around €70 and going up from there. Though it’s costly on a budget, spending the night in this town is highly recommended, as the tourists generally head out by sundown and you can experience the town in a quieter, more local manner.
Fratello Sole, Sorella Luna (1972)
The Meadow (Il Prato) (1979)
Tea with Mussolini (1999)
Where Angels Fear to Tread (1992)