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Tuscany at its best

Hidden Italy: Magical Tuscany town offers fairy-tale setting and world's best ice cream

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Walking up the Via San Gimignano with tower in view. Photo by Bill Van Rysdam
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Gelato from Gelatria Dondoli. Photo by Bill Van Rysdam
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View of Tuscany from San Gimignano. Photo by Bill Van Rysdam
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A residental street in San Gimignano. Photo by Bill Van Rysdam
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One of the remaining towers found at San Gimignano. Photo by Bill Van Rysdam
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Via San Giovanni. Photo by Bill Van Rysdam
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View of the Tuscany countryside. Photo by Bill Van Rysdam
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Exploring Tuscany is like searching for that perfect plate of pasta. You can become overwhelmed by so many places that you worry you missed something along the way. From Florence to Sienna to Pisa, the Old World charm and rustic countryside provides ample locations to eat; drink and soak up some incredible history. But, if you are interested in a one special place off the beaten path, go visit San Gimignano.

San Gimignano is a historic town that dates back to 63 B.C. Known as “The Manhattan of Italy,” it boasted 72 towers in the 14th century when families displayed their power and wealth. When a family lost its influence, their towers would be removed by rivals. Today, only 13 towers remain, but that does not lessen the charm.

 One can’t help but feel the aura of a fairy-tale town that has been witness to much over its history. 

The town became important for its location for pilgrims who traveled to Rome, mainly from France. The detour to the port of Pisa made San Gimignano one of the most important transit and stopping sites for all travelers.

Today San Gimignano is not an easy place to get to. Located in the province of Siena in  north-central Italy, there is no train station or major highway nearby. One must depend on the local bus service, or participate in an excursion. While I normally prefer to travel outside of groups, my excursion allowed for us to wander freely around the town with no guide or group to follow.

Entering the enormous Porta San Giovanni instantly takes one back in time. Streets made of brick house little shops that sell everything from a wide assortment of Tuscany food, including wild boar, fine works of art and the ever prevalent tacky magnets. One can’t help but feel the aura of a fairy-tale town that has been witness to much over its history.

Every step you take in San Gimignano affords a brilliant photo opportunity. Whether it’s looking up at one its majestic towers, admiring a tiny church or gazing across the Tuscany landscape, one is grateful for the world of digital cameras and very large memory discs.

Thankfully, there is also plenty to eat and drink, including a special local wine called Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

Thankfully, there is also plenty to eat and drink, including a special local wine called Vernaccia di San Gimignano. The wine was first cited back in 1276, when the Commune of San Gimignano instilled a duty tax for imports and exports. Vernaccia has been enjoyed by many over the years including Pope Martin IV, Dante Alighieri as well as powerful governors like Ludovico il Moro and Lorenzo il Magnifico.

If your feet get tired, try resting in the Piazza della Cisterna and indulge in some Italian ice cream from Gelateria Dondoli (which boasts winning the Ice Cream World Championships in 2006-07 and 2008-09). You can enjoy your gelato while sitting on the cistern admiring the Torre del Diavolo, (the Devil's Tower) whose story is that its owner, returning from a long journey, found it unexplainably higher which he ascribed as the work to the Devil.

Tuscany seems to be one of those places where one can never get enough, but if you are up for a little adventure, San Gimignano is the place. You may just find it has the right ingredients to make your visit to Tuscany picture perfect.