When we think of a trip to Italy, we immediately envision its coastline of enchanting gold beaches with azure waters, the mouthwatering pastas and pizzas in every corner, the majestic ruins of ancient civilizations and also the grandeur of Renaissance masterpieces.
But what if we told you that you can step into a part of Italy that is unknown to many, that showcases a different side of the country, where time stands still and history whispers its tales from every stone? We are talking about medieval villages, picturesque gems that offer an enchanting escape from the bustling modern world. Embark on this journey and be transported to a different era where stories of knights, artisans and noble families unfold.
San Gimignano, the "Medieval Manhattan"
Our first stop is San Gimignano! Nestled gracefully amidst the rolling hills of Tuscany, this enchanting village will welcome you with its unparalleled beauty. It is known as the "Medieval Manhattan" for its skyline of 14 ancient towers and is a UNESCO World Heritage site as well.
You can go to the top of the Torre Grossa, the highest tower, for jaw-dropping panoramic views that stretch over the Tuscan countryside and truly capture the essence of this region.
If you wish to delve deeper into the town's rich history, you will have at your disposal the Duomo, a stunning Romanesque cathedral decorated with mosaics and frescoes by renowned artists, and the Civic Museum, housed in the grandiose Palazzo del Popolo, that boasts an impressive collection of art and artifacts, including exquisite frescoes and religious icons that offer a glimpse into the lives of the past.
Nonetheless, San Gimignano is more than just a feast for the eyes. It is also a haven for connoisseurs of fine wine. The village is famous for its Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a crisp and flavorful white wine produced from the local vineyards. You can participate in wine tastings that will heighten your senses and take a stroll through the vineyards and olive groves.
Pass through the emblematic Porta all'Arco in Volterra
Another captivating village in Tuscany, Volterra is perched on top of a hill, which makes it even more star and adds to the gorgeous views that are a given in Italy. Porta all'Arco is the main entrance to the village and it has welcomed travelers for centuries, whereas Piazza dei Priori, in the heart of Volterra, is a quaint square dotted with historic palaces and the imposing Palazzo dei Priori, one of the oldest town halls in Tuscany. Take a closer look at the intricate details of the Gothic architecture and just soak in the vibrant atmosphere of the area.
Volterra’s artistic treasures are on display at Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, embellished with ornate sculptures and vibrant frescoes, offering a sanctuary of peace and serenity. While wandering through the sinuous streets you will definitely stumble upon local artisan shops, where skilled craftsmen continue to produce exquisite works of alabaster, a local specialty that has been celebrated for centuries.
One of Volterra's most iconic features is its well-preserved Etruscan origins, dating back thousands of years. It is mandatory to explore the Etruscan Gate and the ruins of the Acropolis, where remnants of this civilization still whisper their tales. Get lost both in town and in the Etruscan Museum as well, where you will see a collection of artifacts that provide a glimpse into the daily life, art and customs of this enigmatic civilization.
A dream come true for art lovers
Perugia, the gem of Umbria, emerges majestically from the hills of central Italy. Inside the village's well-preserved walls, you will encounter the Piazza IV Novembre, which is adorned with architectural wonders. Here, the Fontana Maggiore, a stunning 13th-century fountain, takes the main stage, surrounded by the Palazzo dei Priori and the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, showcasing exquisite examples of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
If you are an art lover, Perugia's artistic legacy will absolutely fascinate you. Head to the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, home to a spectacular collection of Renaissance and medieval art, including works by Perugino, Pinturicchio and Fra Angelico. Right after, go to the Collegio del Cambio and get lost in the frescoes that ornament its walls, a testament to the artistic brilliance of the Umbrian School.
Perugia also delights the palate with its delectable gastronomy and culinary traditions. Indulge in the flavors of Umbrian cuisine, where earthy truffles, rich olive oil and cheeses are the protagonists. Make sure to attend the local markets where farmers proudly display their bountiful and fresh produce.
As you explore Perugia's historic center, make your way up to the viewpoints to take a few memorable snapshots of the gorgeous countryside!
Get in touch with your spirituality
Your next stop will be the picturesque village of Assisi, part of the province of Perugia, and the birthplace of San Francesco.
As you approach Assisi, the silhouette of its walls against the backdrop of the verdant countryside hints at the treasures that lie within. Cross the ancient gates and venture into the heart of the village, where the spirit of the Middle Ages still lingers in the air. Appreciate the beauty of the Rocca Maggiore, a towering fortress that offers unrivalled views of the surrounding valley, and discover the charming Piazza del Comune, decorated with the Roman Temple of Minerva and the grand Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo.
Last but definitely not least, the Basilica di San Francesco, a UNESCO World Heritage site, reigns in Assisi, drawing pilgrims and art enthusiasts from around the world. As soon as you enter this spiritual sanctuary, ornamented with detailed frescoes by artists like Giotto, you will feel the reverence that permeates the air. The Upper Basilica captivates with its ethereal beauty, while the Lower Basilica, where the tomb of San Francesco rests, inspires reflection and contemplation.
Assisi is a village of remarkable spiritual significance but also of undeniable artistic importance. While you wander through the historic center pay attention to the Middle Age frescoes that adorn countless chapels and churches, each telling stories of devotion and faith.
Discover an architectural gem at every corner
Gubbio can be found in the province of Perugia, perched on the slopes of Mount Ingino. The Via dei Consoli is the main street and the best place for a walk, as old buildings with stone façades and elegant arches emanate a palpable sense of history.
The main square Piazza Grande awaits you, an architectural masterpiece that serves as the beating heart of the village. Once you are there, take your time to be fascinated by the splendid Palazzo dei Consoli, an imposing structure that dominates the area with its Dark Age allure. Climb the stairs to the top for a ravishing view that stretches as far as the eye can see, revealing the undulating hills and valleys that surround you.
But Gubbio still has a lot more to offer! The Roman Theatre from the 1st century BC, that stands as a reminder of the village's historic origins, is a must, and the Basilica di Sant'Ubaldo, dedicated to the patron saint of Gubbio, and a few artistic treasures that are absolutely incredible!
You can visit the Church of San Francesco, that showcases stunning frescoes by the renowned artist Ottaviano Nelli, depicting scenes from the life of San Francesco, and the art collection at the Palazzo Ducale, home to masterpieces by artists such as Gentile da Fabriano and Benedetto Nucci, offering a glimpse into the artistic brilliance of the Middle Ages.
A village of timeless charm and illustrious art collections, how could one resist it?
Montepulciano, a paradise for wine enthusiasts
On top a picturesque hill in the center of Tuscany lays the village of Montepulciano, recognized for its exquisite wines and breathtaking views.
The centerpiece of Montepulciano is the Piazza Grande, that showcases its architectural prowess. Marvel at the renaissance Palazzo Comunale and climb the Torre del Palazzo, a medieval tower that offers panoramic views of the landscape, revealing vineyards, rolling hills and the beauty of the Val d'Orcia.
Wine enthusiasts will find themselves in a paradise of vineyards and cellars as Montepulciano is renowned for its Vino Nobile. Feel free to explore the wine cellars carved deep into the hillside, where the art of winemaking has been perfected over centuries. Sample the rich, full-bodied red wines that have earned Montepulciano a well-deserved place among Italy's finest wine regions.
And what would go perfectly with a glass of Vino Nobile? The locals say their culinary delights are the best complement! Treat yourself to some Pecorino cheese, cured meats and handmade pasta dishes and let the flavors transport you to the heart of Tuscan gastronomy.
Explore Sovana’s natural wonders
Right in the core of the Tuscan Maremma, the village of Sovana is steeped in history and shrouded by a bucolic scenery, where Etruscan origins and medieval grandeur intertwine. Start your stroll along Via di Mezzo, the main street, and allow yourself to travel to the long-gone centuries that surround you.
The Duomo di Sovana, a magnificent Romanesque cathedral, is a focal point of the village. Inside you can admire its elegant simplicity, full of sculptures and frescoes that depict belief and devotion. Nearby, the imposing Fortezza Orsini bears witness to Sovana's strategic importance in the Middle Ages and provides sweeping views.
Discover the Etruscan necropolis, an eerie complex of tombs carved into the tuff rock, showcasing intricate details and remarkable craftsmanship. The Tomba Ildebranda, an extraordinary example of Etruscan funerary architecture, will leave you in absolute awe with its greatness!
If you enjoy nature, you will find solace in Sovana's idyllic setting. Embark on a scenic walk along the Fiora River, where the lush vegetation provides a serene atmosphere. Explore the nearby Vie Cave as well, Etruscan roads that are engraved into rock, revealing a landscape that seems untouched by time.
Sovana's allure extends beyond its historical and natural wonders. Here you will also be able to indulge in delicacies such as Bistecca Fiorentina steak, wild boar stew and, of course, homemade pasta, accompanied by the finest wines produced in the nearby vineyards.
Meander through Pitigliano’s ancient streets
Another mandatory destination in Tuscany is Pitigliano, a distinctive spot with its structure carved into the tufa cliffs, where a world of timeless beauty is unveiled.
The most striking feature of Pitigliano is its unique vertical structure. The village seems to descend from the tufa cliffs, with buildings stacked one on top of the other, creating a mesmerizing display of medieval architecture. The imposing Palazzo Orsini dominates the skyline and gives wondrous views.
In the meanders of slender streets, historic stone houses and churches, you will stumble upon the Duomo of San Pietro, with an elegant façade decorated with delicate sculptures. Another fascinating attraction is the Jewish quarter, a testament to Pitigliano's rich Jewish heritage, where you can visit the Synagogue to learn about the past of this Jewish community.
Pitigliano's tufa cliffs have also given rise to an underground network of cellars, tunnels and caves. Browse the fascinating Etruscan Caves, carved into the soft tufa rock centuries ago.
These underground passages served various purposes throughout history, from storing wine to providing shelter during times of conflict. Nowadays, they allow you to travel back to the village's past, with their mysterious and eerie atmosphere.
The university city of Urbino
The village of Urbino stands out as a hub of intellectual and cultural brilliance during the Renaissance era.
You will be welcomed by its commanding fortress, the Palazzo Ducale, an architectural masterpiece that is the symbol of the village's rich heritage. The historic center of Urbino is, unsurprisingly, a maze of narrow streets, steep alleys and quaint squares, each corner imbued with history and artistic splendor. The Piazza della Repubblica houses the magnificent Palazzo del Popolo, a symbol of civic power and communal pride.
The pinnacle of Urbino's artistic legacy is the birthplace of one of Italy's most celebrated artists, Raffaello. Visit the Casa Natale di Raffaello, the house where the Renaissance master was born, and delve into his life and artistic journey. The Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, inside the Palazzo Ducale, boasts an exceptional collection of Renaissance art, including works by Raphael, Piero della Francesca and Titian.
But there is more to Urbino than what meets the eye. Its university, founded in 1506, played a pivotal role in shaping the intellectual landscape of the Renaissance. Stroll through the Università degli Studi di Urbino and you will hear the echoes of scholarly pursuits that once filled its halls. The university's botanical garden, the Orto Botanico, offers a peaceful sanctuary where nature and knowledge merge.
Wander around the mysterious depths of Orvieto
Orvieto is a town also rising from the Umbrian hills, which has a privileged position on top of a volcanic plateau. It is mostly famous for its remarkable underground network of tunnels and caves. Descend into the mysterious depths of Orvieto's underground city, where Etruscan passageways and medieval wells reveal its past. Discover the hidden treasures that lie beneath the surface, from tunnels to fascinating archaeological sites.
Its main architectural attraction is the Duomo di Orvieto, a Gothic cathedral that features a rose window, golden mosaics and ornate sculptures that reflect the artistic genius of the craftsmen of the time.
Orvieto is also a paradise of creativity and craftsmanship, where an impressive collection of medieval and Renaissance art awaits you in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, with masterpieces by renowned artists such as Signorelli and Fra Angelico, where you will better understand their skill and how the details bring the works to life.
The City of Popes
To end your journey through time, welcome to Viterbo, known as the City of Popes.
One of the highlights of Viterbo is the Papal Palace, a sublime structure that reflects the village's role as a papal residence during the 13th century. Explore its grand halls and envision the influence and power that once emanated from this seat of religious authority.
In Viterbo's thermal baths, known as the Terme dei Papi, you will be able to feel the healing waters and experience the same relaxation enjoyed by popes and nobles throughout history, surrounded by lush greenery and a tranquil atmosphere.
Exploring the picturesque countryside of Viterbo is another delightful experience. Discover the nearby Cimini Mountains, where forests and picturesque lakes provide a scenic backdrop for hiking and outdoor activities. Do not miss the picturesque village of Bagnaia, renowned for its spectacular Italian Renaissance gardens at the Villa Lante, a true horticultural masterpiece.
And you cannot leave Viterbo before trying its gastronomic delights! The traditional dishes, such as the mouthwatering Purgatory Soup (Acquacotta), meat stews and locally produced cheeses and wines, are exactly what you have been longing to taste!
Memories that will endure
Visiting Italy's medieval villages is a journey that transcends time and an opportunity to step into a world where craftsmanship flourished and the genius of artists and architects took shape. Let their beauty awaken your senses and create memories that will last as long as the enduring spirit of the Middle Ages!