a town with a thousand things to see
What you need to know about Cortona
Even without the notoriety received in the film "Under the Tuscan Sun", the town of Cortona has quite the reputation to uphold. Between fact and legend, ancient populations and battles, religion and art, olive oil and wine, this hilltop town makes a fantastic stop on any itinerary.
Below you will find a brief introduction to its varied and fascinating history, a list of places to visit within and outside of the city walls, and even a few places nearby we feel compelled to point out if you are traveling in the area. Take note about the many options you have on how to arrive and especially about the parking in the city so you don’t have any unwelcome surprises once you get home - and if you have the time be sure to check out the calendar of events in Cortona to see if one is happening while you are in town!
The Origins of Cortona
Noah and the Great Flood
Some would only go as far back as the Etruscan culture which flourished in this area. But alas, there is more to the story, or the legend, about the origins of Cortona. Though seemingly farfetched, the story is backed up by many “antiquitous writers”:
108 years after the Great Flood, Noah, navigating from the mouth of the Tiber River … entered the Chiana Valley and liking this place ... because it was very fertile land, stayed to live here for 30 years. His descendents, among which a son named Crano ... founded the city of Cortona in the 273rd year after the Great Flood.
And there you have it. But not only the history behind Cortona - but also the birthplace of the founder of Troy (Dardano) - and if you want to follow the story to its end, the descendants of Dardano left Troy and founded Rome! Make note, because you will see this name used frequently in the area, even on wine labels.
It is hard to imagine that the history of Cortona could get any more interesting, but actually, the powerful Etruscans left many reminders before being conquered by the Romans. The people of Cortona chose to become a Ghibelline city-state in the 13th century. It then passed over to the ruling family of Naples who then sold it to Florence, ruled by the Medici. With the end of the Medici family, it then came under the authority of the House of Lorraine before joining the Kingdom of Italy. And now it is a town and comune in the province of Arezzo who gave us several special artists like that of Luca Signorelli, Pietro da Cortona, and even the Italian pop singer Jovanotti.
How to Arrive
Cortona is not found on the main highways, however, it is only a short drive into the countryside from several larger points of interest (like Arezzo & Montepulciano). For those who are traveling Tuscany without a car, it is possible to add an organized tour to your itinerary which will include a guided visit to Cortona, often mixed with other towns like that of Arezzo, Assisi or Montepulciano.
There are direct regional trains which run fairly regularly between Florence and Rome that include a stop at the Camucia Stazione where you can either walk to the hilltop town or take the local bus. There are also frequent trains that depart from Arezzo, which has convenient paid parking next to the train station.
The regular shuttle buses from Camucia station will take you up to Piazza Garibaldi which offers you direct access to the city center (and some spectacular vistas over the valley). The bus runs regularly 7 days a week in July and August. Take note that from September to June it does not run on Sundays and holidays.
Heading south from Florence, you can opt for a scenic ride, by exiting at Arezzo and following the SR71 to Cortona. This option will take you past little towns like that of Castiglion Fiorentino. The other option is to stay on the toll road (E35 or Autostrada del Sole) and exit at Bettolle-Perugia where you will pass the Valdichiana Outlet Shopping and the picturesque town of Foiana della Chiana before finding the exit for Cortona.
Heading north from Rome or Montepulciano, stay on the toll road (E35 or Autostrada del Sole) and exit at Bettolle-Perugia where you will be in Cortona in less than 30 minutes.
The parking within the city walls is limited - but not the ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato). Therefore if you don’t want to risk a letter from your car rental agency about 4 months later advising you of a ticket for driving in an off-limits area, it is best that you take note of the areas where it is safe to park.
Santo Spirito, free parking just below Piazza Garibaldi. There are places for campers.
Piazza Mercato, free parking just outside the door called: Porta Bifora
Parking at La Moreta and Santa Maria Nuova are on the north side of the city - extra plus: they are fairly close to public restrooms, just inside the gate of the city called Porta Colonia
Free Parking up by the Fortezza, which is also very close to a public restroom.
You can make reference to the map on this link for more detailed parking information.
Highlights in Town
Both inside and outside the walls of Cortona you will find some rare treasures, with typical Tuscan architecture rich in history and beauty. Between the many churches, “palazzo” and "bottega", you can spend hours walking the city, its walls and religious monuments and never really see it all. Below are just a few pointers of what to look for as you tour the city and its surroundings.
Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio
This sanctuary is practically impossible to miss, with its cupola on the side of the hill like a beacon as you head towards the city center. History tells that on Good Friday of 1484, an image of the Madonna and Child painted on the wall of a tank used for the tanning process of leather (called liming or “calcinaio”), began to work miracles and to heal. After this event, in response to the devotee's pilgrimages to the site, a church was built. The architecture of the church features a space that is empty yet at the same time communicates the “Presence” of a healing power.
Franciscan Hermitage Le Celle
A small hermitage was erected here in the early 1200's, and St Francis of Assisi actually slept here for a short period of time. Later in 1537, it was occupied by the Capuchin monks, who were dedicated to a more eremitic lifestyle. During the Napoleonic government in the early 1800's, the monks were expelled and they didn't return till later in the 19th-century. The main monastery is accessed through a stone pedestrian bridge spanning a small spring stream.
Piazza della Repubblica
The main square in Cortona, flanked by an impressive stone building with a wide staircase called the Palazzo Comunale. The north-south and east-west axes during the Roman era (the cardo and the decumano), crossed in the Forum, which is now the main square. Facing the government building, where you will often find people settled on the steps watching the world pass by, you will see a stone building with a balcony and an attached loggia. The Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo from the 1300’s, was once a prestigious residence, and it certainly adds its presence to the square today. Today it is a lovely restaurant (with a view.)
The Duomo of Cortona
Heading down via Casali, named after one of the famous noblemen of Cortona, you will come to the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta, also known as the Duomo. The present structure was built over the remains of an ancient Roman temple in the XV century and compared to the rest of the city, it is rather modern. As you enter you will note the 18th-century barrel-vaulted ceiling and how the two aisles are divided by columns with Brunelleschi-inspired capitals.
This museum holds a collection of treasures from Tuscan churches in the area that range from the XIII to the XIX century. Among the more noteworthy pieces are the “l'Annunciazione” by Beato Angelico and the “Deposizione” by Luca Signorelli.
Click here for information regarding tickets and hours
MAEC - Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca
Cortona and its rich history, have left a wealth of goodies to fill this museum about the Etruscans who ruled in the area centuries (and centuries) ago. The origins of the museum and its collection stretch back to 1727 when the Accademia Etrusca (Etruscan Academy) was founded. However, the constant renovations keep the information and displays alive and current resulting in an adventure for all ages.
Fortress of Girifalco
Most won’t even get this far! But if you are here to see all of Cortona then you will want to hike up the path that leads to this impressive trapezoidal shaped structure. The importance of Cortona and its position between antique cities like that of Arezzo, Florence, and Chiusi, suggest that there has been some type of defensive structure up here since the 5th or 6th century BC.
Historical records describing a ‘strong and beautiful fortress’ date back to 1258 AD and in 1556, on the order of Cosimo De Medici the 1st, construction work began on the four bastions.
The views alone will make the trek up here (though you can find parking right next door) and you will even see some of the original walls, which are believed to trace the path of the Etruscan construction.
Click here for information regarding tickets and hours
Basilica di Santa Margherita
Santa Margherita or Margherita di Cortona is not just the patron saint of Cortona - she actually lived here and is credited with the efforts that built this church. She dedicated her life to the church and died within the walls of the church when it was dedicated to Saints Basil, Egidius, and Catherine of Alexandria, and in 1728 she was canonized (became a saint). Upon her passing, the city decided to build a church dedicated to her and her remains.
The church has undergone and only the choir and two vaults, the second and third of the central nave, remain from the original church.
Touring Cortona, its busy streets, numerous shops and many delicious restaurants may take all day but if you find yourself with time on your hands, or if you are based in this area, here are a few suggestions of places to add to your itinerary to get the most out of this valley.
About 45 minutes to the north of Cortona is the fabulous city of Arezzo. Often called an open-air museum due to its long list of museums, historic buildings ranging from the Etruscan walls to Roman Amphitheaters from the Medieval towers, to the Medici Fortress to neo-gothic architecture. This is definitely an excellent day trip if you are based in Cortona, giving you a glimpse of a city that is busy with activities, shops, pubs and a long list of cultural events.
Just south of Cortona, and highly visible on a clear day is the Lake of Trasimeno, in Umbria, you will find the 4th largest lake in all of Italy. There are three islands in the lake and a ferry boat will take you out to visit them. The area is a fun stop for water sports, and close to Castiglione del Lago, you will find a sandy beach. This is a nice place to relax, catch some sun and explore the small towns which still retain much of their original charm.
The archeological park for the Etruscan tombs is a fascinating stop, where you can see examples of these ancient peoples that once populated the valleys and hills and left many stone signs of their passing. If you choose to explore the countryside, then pack a picnic, take a copy of the map at the link below and explore the tombs of Melone I & II of Sodo and Tanella of Pitagora.
Read here for information on where to find the tombs
Montepulciano and Valley
Less than 40 km to the south of Cortona, you will enter into an area that has long been known for its spectacular scenery, delicious wines, and curious history. You can drive, taking the picturesque road that flanks Lago Trasimeno, or you could take the option of a train down to Chiusi and busing into the small nearby towns. This is an excellent area to work an itinerary around: Montepulciano. Just think of the fun wine tastings, and visiting the unique wine cellars buried in the stone which keep temps stable for the aging process.
The Valdichiana Outlet shopping is a great place to stop while touring the southeastern corner of Tuscany, between the provinces of Arezzo and Siena. The shopping center is characterized by a suggestive architecture design, mimicking the typical Tuscan styles. The stores featured include Italian and international brands such as Conte of Florence, Replay, Enrico Coveri, Fornarina, Benetton, Puma, Sisley, Bassetti, Bata, and many others. In the over 140 charming shops you can take advantage of great discounts all year long.
Vineyards, Syrah & Cortona DOC
The Cortona DOC recognizes 11 different types of wines including 3 whites (a Chardonnay, Sauvignon, and Grechetto) as well as 3 sweet (or dessert) wines. Among the 5 red wines, the Cortona Syrah and Riserva are said to rival its forefathers from France.
Save the date
Besides being a great place to just stroll around, Cortona has a very active social calendar which gives you an extra incentive to include it in your itinerary.
It may seem like every town has its own “palio” or “giostra” (antique race or jousting match) but not many can trace their origins back to the Middle Ages. The Joust dell'Archidado, held at the beginning of June, recalls the festivities that were held for the wedding between Francesco Casali and Antonia Salimbeni which united a leader in Cortona with noblewoman from Siena.
Cortonantiquaria - Antique exhibition market
This event boasts 15 days of showcasing some of the most interesting, valuable and impressive antiques including a wide array of fine furniture, paintings, antique carpets, sculptures and objects from the collection. If you are in the area towards the end of August and the beginning of September, and you love mixing pleasure with….pleasure, then include a stop at this exhibition.
More information on the Antique Fair
Calici Sotto le Stelle
Literally translated, “wine glasses under the stars”, this event takes place all over Tuscany on (and around) the 10th of August for the night of the “falling stars” and the legend of the tears of San Lorenzo. Cortona has ample reason to highlight their wines - and you won’t want to miss the opportunity to taste and compare, meet the owners and buy a few bottles to take home.
Sacred Music Festival
Within the city walls of Cortona, there are seventeen churches! Combined with the “Laudario Cortonese”, a handwritten collection of laude and religious poems from the 13th century, it is easy to understand how a celebration of sacred music found its way into being here within the city walls encompassing the last week of June and the first week of July.
Official Website for the Festival
Sagra della Bistecca & Sagra del Fungo Porcino
The public gardens of Cortona become one big food festival on 14th and 15th of August and the following weekend. Everyone (and their friends) seem to turn out for either a juicy T-bone steak cooked over an open flame or the savory goodness of the famed Porcini mushrooms. Can’t decide which you prefer….go to them both!
Cortona Mix Festival
Among the summer events in Cortona, you cannot miss the Cortona Mix Festival, a big cultural event of music, cinema, theater, arts, and literature. This event ranks on a national and international scale where contemporary culture, technology, and entertainment “mix” together with the ancient origins and traditions of the territory to produce an incredible selection of genres and shows.
A Quick List of Markets & Fairs
There is the weekly market every Saturday morning in Piazza Signorelli, where you will find a wide array of goodies: food, produce, clothing, knick-knacks and even a bit of vintage.
Reoccurring annual fairs & markets include the following:
Fiera of Santa Margherita on the 22nd of February. This is the patron saint of the city and it is possible that some things will be closed.
Fiera di Marzo 2° Tuesday in the month of March
Fiera di Santa Margherita (I know….two times! She must have been a pretty good patron saint.) The Sunday BEFORE the Ascension - around Easter time
Fiera di Luglio 2° Tuesday in the month of July
Fiera di Ottobre the Tuesday after the 2° Sunday in the month of October
Fiera di Settembre 1° Monday after the 8th of September