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San Gimignano: City of beautiful towers

By Katherine Dorsett, CNN
  • San Gimignano, Italy, is a walled medieval hill town in Tuscany
  • The town is famous for its medieval architecture, especially its towers
  • The Tuscan town is known for the white wine Vernaccia di San Gimignano
  • Italy
  • Tuscany
  • Travel Destinations

San Gimignano, Italy (CNN) -- At first glance, San Gimignano, Italy, looks much as it must have more than 700 years ago, thanks to amazingly preserved medieval architecture and fortified walls.

This small, romantic town, perched on a hill in Tuscany's Siena province, has 14 surviving medieval towers that create a unique skyline visible from the surrounding countryside. Tourism officials say there were originally 72 towers, probably built by aristocratic families to demonstrate their wealth and power.

The walled city can only be accessed by gates and is tucked above rolling Tuscan hills covered with sunflowers, olive groves and grapevines.

The heart of San Gimignano contains four charming medieval squares or piazzas and the main streets, Via San Matteo and Via San Giovanni, cross the city from north to south.

The official history of San Gimignano dates back to the 10th century, when Saint Gimignano, a bishop from Modena, Italy, defended and saved the town from the barbarian hordes, according to tourism officials. In honor of his heroic acts, the town was named for him.

During the Middle Ages, San Gimignano benefited from its position along the heavily traveled Via Francigena, becoming an important center for trade and for people traveling to or from Rome.

Today, San Gimignano is an easy day trip or overnight stay for travelers spending time in Tuscany's capital, Florence. The walled town is 36 miles southwest of Florence and is most easily accessible by car or bus.

What to see and do

Besides the 14 medieval towers and panoramic views across Tuscany's patchwork of fields, San Gimignano's historic center has several interesting tourist attractions worth exploring:

La Collegiata -- The main church in San Gimignano, located in the Piazza del Duomo, is known for the frescoes that nearly cover all of the interior walls. In the Chapel of Santa Fina a 15th-century fresco illustrates San Gimignano's towers as they were during that time period.

The People's Palace -- Considered one of the most important monuments in San Gimignano, the People's Palace is home to the Civic Museum and paintings by the Florentine and Sienese schools. It also houses the Town Council.

The Archaeological Museum -- This museum showcases a collection of Etruscan, Roman and medieval artifacts. The Etruscans were the first civilization to occupy San Gimignano.

SanGimignano1300 -- Located in the heart of the city, this museum offers a massive reconstruction of the city as it existed hundreds of years ago. The exhibit includes 800 handcrafted structures, 72 towers and street scenes.

Medieval washhouses -- These picturesque ruins of the facilities where medieval townspeople did their laundry and got their water are popular with tourists.

Torture museums -- For visitors interested in medieval torture, there are three small businesses that highlight gruesome acts. Many torture displays are accompanied by descriptions that explain how each item was used. Often, no detail is spared.

Shopping -- The stores along the streets of San Gimignano are most notable for gourmet products such as olive oil, wines and pasta. There are shops that sell hand-woven tablecloths and other fabric goods, as well as household items made from olive wood by local craftsmen. The shops along Via San Matteo and Via San Giovanni are tucked inside the town's medieval structures, mixing the old world with the new. This shopping experience is a far cry from any modern-day mall.

Food and wine

No trip to Tuscany is complete without sampling the wine. San Gimignano is famous for a Tuscan white wine named Vernaccia di San Gimignano, made from the Vernaccia grape. The wine is dry with crisp acidity and a slightly bitter finish. The grapes are grown in sandstone-based soils near town.

The wine pairs well with fish and seafood and white-meat dishes such as chicken or rabbit.

According to historians, the wine's earliest recorded mention was in 1276. Since the Renaissance, it has been considered one of Italy's finest wines and was awarded Denominazione di origine controllata e Garantita status in 1993.

DOCG is an Italian high quality assurance label. Any wine with this label has been made under strict conditions and tasted by a government-licensed professional before it is bottled.

Some of the top wineries in the San Gimignano area include Montenidoli, Teruzzi e Puthod, Il Palagio, Fattoria di Cusona and Panizzi. Be sure to visit at least one of these wineries if you have the time.

If you're hungry, check out the gourmet shops in San Gimignano, known for selling wild boar sausage. Locals will eat it atop bread drizzled with olive oil. It is also served as an appetizer along with cheese and wine.

Tuscan cooking basics include seasonal produce and pasta, fish, pork, beef, beans, olives and olive oil. Rosemary and thyme are some of the popular herbs.

There are many good restaurants to sample during your stay, including the Ristorante Dorando, located in the heart of the city between the Piazza Duomo and Piazza Cisterna, and the Relais Cappuccina, which is located on a hill overlooking San Gimignano.

For dessert, try your favorite flavor of gelato. Italians love it, and so do tourists. Special Sienese treats like panforte (a traditional Italian dessert containing fruits and nuts, resembling fruitcake) or ricciarelli (a biscuit made using an almond base with sugar, honey and egg white) may also satisfy your sweet tooth.

Where to stay

San Gimignano has a wide variety of hotels to accommodate tourists. From medieval rooms to more modern updates, the town's official website offers many selections including:

Luxury hotel - Hotel La Collegiata has 20 rooms and one suite with a view of the surrounding valley and towers of San Gimignano.

Moderately priced hotel - Da Rosetta is located in the historical center of the Saint Gimignano.

San Gimignano is a magnet for day-trippers from Florence or other Tuscan towns. But if you have the time to spend a night or two, enjoy the town and the spectacular sites at a more leisurely pace.

Tourist information

The tourist office is at Piazza del Duomo, 1 - 53037 S. Gimignano (SI). Telephone + 39 0577-940008; email: