On the trail of the Etruscans, in the beautiful Tuscan village… Follow me to discover what to do in Cortona, in a day or more!
A border area that dialogues in a pleasant way between two great regions, Tuscany and Umbria: Cortona recounts the beauty of the encounter and the stories of the wayfarers who travelled the Via Romea Germanica. On the roads of ancient Etruria, one of the first Italic civilisations laid the foundations for trade and agriculture here. Thanks to the fertility of the Val di Chiana, Cortona is today, as it was in the past, a rich and fruitful land: it is surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and sunflower fields that give it enviable food, wine and landscapes.
Its privileged position between Tuscany and Umbria offers visitors the opportunity to explore multiple itineraries, according to their needs and taste. Arezzo, Lake Trasimeno, Montepulciano, Chianciano Terme, and the enchanting Crete Senesi are just some of the amazing places to include in your trip to central Italy, whether for a short weekend or a longer, more relaxing holiday. Autumn in this beautiful town dresses the hills in warm and enveloping colours, spring embellishes the fields and the windows of the houses with its fragrant flowers, precious for the bees and the fine honey they produce.
Starting by visiting the centre of this noble city, you can explore the places frequented by artists of the past such as the painter Luca Signorelli; among the contemporaries, the singer-songwriter Lorenzo Cherubini, aka Jovanotti, or numerous actors from the small and big screen such as Roberto Benigni, who rode through these streets on his bicycle on the set of “Life Is Beautiful”, a film that won him an Oscar. Writer Frances Mayer, in her famous best seller “Under the Tuscan Sun”, tells how one falls in love with Cortona so much as to change continents, learning here to appreciate the simplicity that revolves around slow rhythms and the table.
Seeing Cortona in a day is possible but would be a bit reductive: you will fall in love with its sights, even if getting around on foot will cost a bit of effort because the town is uphill. Some stops are really not to be missed, so it is up to you to decide what to do in Cortona according to the time you have available.
What to see in Cortona in a day – h2
1. PIAZZA DELLA REPUBBLICA
The very centre of Cortona life, Piazza della Repubblica, is one of the things you must visit. After a stroll along Via Nazionale, past handicraft shops, bars and inns, your gaze will be drawn to the imposing staircase leading up to the Palazzo del Capitano, seat of the municipality. The clock tower marks time, which seems to stand still in Cortona. This is where our tour starts!
2. CHURCH OF SAN FRANCESCO
Just a few steps from Piazza della Repubblica, the grand staircase leading up to the church of Saint Francis prepares the visitor for the importance of what lies within. The friars who live in the Franciscan convent guard these treasures of inestimable value, including some of the Saint’s relics such as the habit and the cushion where he rested his head, a fragment of the Holy Cross brought from Constantinople and many frescoes.
3. SIGNORELLI SQUARE
At the other end of Piazza della Repubblica and almost in continuity with it, Piazza Signorelli is home to one of Cortona’s most important cultural centres, Signorelli Theatre. The Christmas Concert in this theatre is a tradition, in addition to the many cultural events that have taken place on the stage since its construction in 1854. Its neoclassical style and distinctive seven-arched loggia enhance the elegant role this theatre plays for the town.
4. MAEC – MUSEUM OF THE ETRUSCAN ACADEMY AND THE CITY OF CORTONA
Between the Town Hall and Piazza Signorelli, you will find Palazzo Casali or the “palace of wonders”! This is home to the MAEC, a very important aggregate museum centre that brings the features of Etruscan civilisation to life. Inside this former residence of the Florentine commissioners, what was once the prison space is now used as the Museum of the Etruscan and Roman City. The noble floors house the municipal library, the Historical Archive and the Museum of the Etruscan Academy. More than 2000 square metres of exhibition space enriched by bronzes, mosaics and the famous “Tabula Cortonensis” – one of the best-preserved Etruscan writings. Many didactic workshops, playful activities and tactile routes are available for children and young people: different ways to discover the ancient world that supports the history of our days. You can book or buy tickets online, also considering the entrance fees for the Archaeological Park, which includes sites in the historic centre (Porta Bifora and the Walls) and others just outside Cortona, such as the Tanella di Pitagora, the Tanella Angori and the Tumulo del Sodo.
5. CATHEDRAL OF SANTA MARIA ASSUNTA
Continuing along Via Casali, you reach Piazza Duomo. Behind the loggia, the Co-cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta presents itself in all its simplicity with a stone façade, perfectly in harmony with the rest of the town’s architecture. It was built over the remains of a pagan temple and was enriched during the Renaissance, whose style still characterises its interior. The barrel vault overlooks the nave and, as you walk towards the altar, you can admire a multitude of frescoes and sculptures. Some of the works of art that once stood inside are now housed in the Diocesan Museum, located on the same square.
6. DIOCESAN MUSEUM
Directly opposite the Cathedral, the Diocesan Museum is another important stop when visiting Cortona. Formerly the seat of the Confraternity of the Good Jesus, this museum is home to important and extremely precious paintings on canvas such as the Deposition by Signorelli, the Maestà by Pietro Lorenzetti or liturgical furnishings such as the Vagnucci Reliquary, but also some frescoes that embellish the walls of the lower oratory, thanks to the hand of Cristoforo Gherardi.
7. BASILICA OF SAINT MARGHERITA
Heading in the opposite direction, in the higher part of Cortona, you can walk along Via Santa Margherita to reach the basilica of the same name (and passing by, it will be impossible not to stop and admire the view from the Belvedere). This church can also be reached by car – there is ample parking nearby – and looks majestic from the outside. But it is only when you enter that you will be able to perceive its true beauty: blue ceilings cover the naves like a starry sky that watches over the relics of Santa Margherita, kept under the high altar. The Saint, venerated on February 22 and celebrated in Cortona in May, was a courageous woman of faith, attentive to the needs of the poor and peacemaker in the wars between Guelphs and Ghibellines. The place is definitely worth a visit!
8. GIRIFALCO FORTRESS
Behind the Church of Santa Margherita, we come upon one of the most beautiful views over Cortona, right next to the Girifalco Fortress. This ancient stronghold was once connected to the walls of the Etruscan city and was never actually used in war. Today, it is possible to visit its keep and pentagonal courtyard, and to attend the “Cortona On The Move” photography exhibitions. A point in its favour is the bistro, which will allow you to have an aperitif in peace, far from the hustle and bustle of the city, while enjoying a beaufitul landscape.
This is a quiet city park where you can relax, perhaps sitting on one of the benches overlooking the valley. Inside you will find the War Memorial and the Dolphin Fountain, in a walk that, from Via del Crocifisso, may go as far as the Basolata del Ghiandea, a Roman road from the imperial age. Extending the walk along the Cortona-Metelliano basolato path will eventually lead you to the renowned “Villa Bramasole“, the famous film location starring Raul Bova and Diane Lane in Frances Mayer’s best seller “Under the Tuscan Sun”.
What to do in Cortona and its surroundings
This delightful stone village offers the traveller the chance to fully experience the bustling city life while keeping an eye on nature and what wonderful things it has to offer. Surely, after visiting the museums and churches, you will want to immerse yourself in the local food and wine culture: pici al fumo or Aglione della Valdichiana, ossobuco alla Cortonese and a dessert with Cantucci and Vinsanto is the menu to try along with local wines such as Cortona DOC or Chianti.
The nooks and crannies of the stone houses carefully decorated with flowers offer the opportunity for enthusiasts to indulge in photography. A tour of the city gates will allow you to get to know all the corners of Cortona, passing through streets that still smell of the Middle Ages, such as Via Jannelli, the oldest street in town. From the village to the countryside, the step is short and, thanks to this proximity, it is possible to reach some areas on foot, such as the famous Villa Bramasole or the reserved and silent Franciscan Hermitage “Le celle“, a delightful monastery complex immersed in nature, which allows public access (unlike Villa Bramasole, which is a private residence).
In the lower part of the town, right next to the cemetery of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio, a majestic church surrounded by green hills will catapult you into a breathtaking Renaissance setting. It is absolutely worth a visit to the Church of Madonna delle Grazie, which together with the Church of Santa Maria Nuova (higher up) are the symbol of a perfect conjunction between the earthly and the divine.
Around Cortona, many finds from the ancient Etruscan civilisation are preserved in the Suba Archaeological Park. Even more evocative are the tombs scattered throughout the area, such as the Tanella di Pitagora or the Tanella Angori, which appear as small stone agglomerates giving access to the gates of the afterlife.
Across the border, in Umbria, Lake Trasimeno is the perfect destination for a Sunday excursion outside the city, with water sports, boat rides and typical fish dishes from the lake such as Tegamaccio.
The proximity to Arezzo, Castiglion Fiorentino, Siena and the Val d’Orcia territories opens up a range of excursions and activities you can do outdoors, such as truffle hunting or wine tours among the vineyards of Sangiovese. If you have enough time, you can opt for a relaxing stop in Chianciano Terme after a visit (and food and wine tasting) in Montepulciano. In this area there is also the Indiana Park, where fun for the little ones is guaranteed. The local farms often organise exclusive aperitifs, horseback rides, or excursions by bicycle or Vespa. You are spoilt for choice, when deciding what to do in and around Cortona.
Below is a list of unmissable things to see in Cortona, so you don’t forget anything!
The 10 Best Things to do in Cortona:
- Historic Centre of Cortona
- MAEC – Museum of Etruscan Civilisation
- Signorelli Theatre
- Diocesan Museum
- Belvedere from Piazza Garibaldi
- Basilica of Santa Margherita and Girifalco Fortress
- Churches of Santa Maria Nuova and Church of Madonna delle Grazie
- Sodo Archaeological Park
- “Le celle” Franciscan Hermitage
- Villa Bramasole
Events not to be missed in Cortona:
- Celebrations of Santa Margherita: the first week of May is full of events in Cortona, which honours Santa Margherita with the Casting of the Candles followed by the Offering of the Candles. Thus, the ancient rite is revived, according to which all the city’s districts brought the wax to Saints Margaret and Mark to make the devotional candle. And Cortona comes alive with flag-wavers and tinkers, in a truly evocative spectacle.
- Medieval Week: Between the first and second Sundays of June, Cortona is tinged with medieval colours for the annual re-enactment of the wedding celebrations between Francesco Casali and Antonia Salimbeni. The medieval atmosphere welcomes the challengers of the Quintieri in the Giostra dell’Archidado, a crossbow competition to win the coveted “Veretta d’Oro” (Golden Arrow). The perfect opportunity to visit Cortona!
- Sagra della Bistecca (Steak Festival): Chianina meat lovers, flock to Cortona! Steaks of the finest Chianina beef, cooked “alla fiorentina“, are cooked on a 14-metre long grill. There will also be stands with local specialities such as olive oil, wines, cheeses and bread galore.
- Cortona On The Move: a festival that attracts figurative art lovers, specifically photography. A series of exhibitions, workshops and events run from July to September. The Fortezza del Girifalco is involved in this cycle of events that is so important for the city.
- Markets: Every year, at the end of the summer season, there is the National Antiques Market Exhibition that enriches the customary Back to the Past events (every fourth Sunday of the month, in Piazza Signorelli, Piazza Repubblica and Piazza Franciolini). And, during the Christmas season, Cortona is perfect for shopping at the Christmas Markets and keeping the little ones happy.
How to get to Cortona
It is possible to reach Cortona from distant destinations by plane, at the nearest airports of Pisa and Perugia. The railway line connects the town to its surroundings well, thanks to the two stations on the Florence-Rome route (Terontola, 15 minutes away, and Camuccia, 3 kilometres from the centre). Arriving by train, it will not be difficult to reach the town by bus or taxi. If you arrive in Cortona by car, you can comfortably park in one of the pay car parks that give access to the main points of the town, avoiding accidentally entering the Limited Traffic Zone.
These include the parking area in Piazzale del Mercato and the Santo Spirito Car Park (also suitable for camper vans), from where you can access the centre via the escalators, enjoying a spectacular view from the Belvedere in Piazza Garibaldi. From Via Mura Etrusche, the most convenient car parks are the one in Piazza Mazzini and the one in Piazzale Mura Etrusche, just a stone’s throw from the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.
My suggestions on the best things to do in Cortona end here, but it is up to you to discover what more beautiful things this land has to offer. I wish you a pleasant journey through Umbria and Tuscany!