Volterra, a walled hill town in Tuscany, has remains of its Etruscan, Roman, and medieval roots. As you walk through the medieval town, it’s easy to get a feel for its past. A visit to Volterra makes a good addition to, or alternative to, the more popular and crowded hill town of San Gimignano.
Plan Your Visit to Volterra
Volterra is about 20 miles southwest of San Gimignano, 35 miles northwest of Siena and 50 miles southwest of Florence. To get there by public transportation, take a train to Poggibonsi and then take a bus from the station into town. If you’re driving, park in one of the lots outside the center as traffic is restricted in the center.
Things to See and Do in Volterra
- Volterra’s historic center, enclosed by its 13th century walls, is entered through one of 6 gates, built in the 13th to 16th centuries. Porta San Francesco still has traces of its original frescoes. There are also two medieval fonts: Fonte di Docciola was used to provide water for mills and the wool industry and San Felice font dates from 1319. Near it are remains of the ancient Etruscan wall.
- A good place to start your visit is Piazza dei Priori, the impressive main square and home to the oldest town hall in Tuscany, the 13th century Palazzo dei Priori. The square’s other historic buildings include the 14th-century Palazzo Vescovile and the back of the cathedral. Stop in at the tourist office for a map of the sights or locations of places from the book and movie, Twilight Saga New Moon, set in Volterra.
- Volterra’s cathedral, or duomo, was built in 1120 on the site of an older church and has a Romanesque facade. In the 13th century, the entrance was remodeled while the interior was modified in the late 16th century in Renaissance style. See the chapels with frescoes or wood panels, a 12th century marble pulpit, and the beautiful ceiling.
- Next to the cathedral, visit the interesting museum at the Church of the Misericordia for a look at the charitable organization founded in the 13th century.
- The 13th century, green and white marble striped Baptistery is octagonal in shape. Its dome dates from the 15th century but some parts of the Baptistery may date from before the 13th century.
- Roman sites include a theater, the forum, and baths. The Roman Theater dates from the 1st century BC. Behind it are remains of the the Roman forum and 4th century AD Roman baths. This area was used as a trash dump in the middle ages and were covered until 1951, when excavations started.
- Going back even further in history, the Etruscan acropolis, at the highest point of town, has great views. In the archeological park are foundations of two Etruscan temples, Hellenistic period houses, a system of cisterns, and medieval tower ruins. Etruscan tombs, carved into sandstone below the ground, can also be seen in several places. Parts of Porta all’Arco, the Arch gate, are believed to be from the 5th century BC while the arch and god heads are from the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC.
- The Guarnacci Etruscan Museum was one of Europe’s first public museums when it opened in 1761. The museum, in Palazzo dei Priori on the main square, has a good collection of Etruscan artifacts. Also on the square is the Museum of Sacred Art in the Bishop’s Palace, Palazzo Vescovile. The Civic Museum and Art Gallery, with paintings and art from the middle ages to modern, are in the 15th century Palazzo Minucci-Solaini.
- Take some time to wander along Volterra’s medieval streets, stop in a few of the shops, and eat typical Tuscan dishes in one of the historic center’s restaurants. Alabaster is a traditional craft and you’ll find it in artisan shops around town and in the Alabaster Ecomusuem in the Minucci Towers.
- Next to a park on the hill is the Medicea Fortress. It’s currently used as a prison and not open to the public so you’ll have to view it from afar.
Image credits: James Martin, Wandering Italy