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8 Charming Things to Do in Volterra (with Map)

Red tiles roofs in Volterra
Perched on the Val di Cecina’s hills, Volterra is one of the most scenic hill towns in Tuscany. Famous for its alabaster, it is Volterra’s medieval past, reflected in its buildings, many in gray stone with red tile roofs, and protected by the remnants of a fortification wall, that draws people to the town. Let’s explore together my best things to do in Volterra.

At the top of the hill sits Volterra’s medieval village, with narrow streets and few vehicles. Once inside the village, visiting the most beautifully preserved piazzas, historic buildings, churches, and archaeological sites should top your list of things to do in Volterra.

What to Expect When Visiting Volterra

We came to Volterra, from visiting charming San Gimignano.  Once you walk through the Porta all’Arco, you feel like you’re stepping back in time to the Etruscan and Roman eras. Volterra is your post card perfect medieval village in Tuscany, so make sure you take your time to walk the narrow streets and enjoy this medieval village. Here are my favorite things to do in Volterra:

  • Piazza dei Priori is the large square in town flanked by old buildings.
  • Church of Santa Maria is the large church in town together with the Baptistry.
  • The Roman amphitheater with beautiful views from the hilltop.
  • Walk the narrow streets, especially going down to see Porta all’Arco and also walking down to Porta San Francesco and up to Porta Selci.

Map of best things to do in Volterra
Walking Tour Map of Volterra
Red-see, Yellow-park, Blue-walk

With our map in hand we started exploring the best things to do in Volterra. So put on some comfortable walking shoes and come along with us.

1. Porta all’Arco

The old Porta all'Arco in Volterra Tuscany
The old Porta all’Arco in Volterra Tuscany
See my photos from Volterra Tuscany

From the parking area at the Piazza Martiri della Liberta, there is a beautiful panoramic view of Volterra and its medieval village. The wall surrounding the village dates to the 13th century with some portions dating back to the Etruscan period. It is a short but steep walk to the Porta all’Arco, the most prominent entrance gate to the medieval village and the first of many things to do in Volterra.

The Porta all’Arco was built in two phases. The sandstone gate jambs were built in the first century BC, at the same time as the original Etruscan wall. The rock arch was built in the late first or early second century AD. Three stone heads adorn the arch. While the heads’ significance is unknown, some believe they represent the gods protecting Volterra.

During World War II, Nazi occupiers threatened to destroy the Porta all’Acco to keep American troops from entering Volterra. Within 24 hours, Volterra’s residents tore up the road outside the gate and built a wall around it, keeping the Port dell’Acco from getting destroyed.

2. Piazza dei Priori

Piazza de Priori is one of the best things to do in Volterra Tuscany
Piazza de Priori is one of the best things to do in Volterra Tuscany
See my photos from Volterra Tuscany

Visiting the beautiful and historic Piazza dei Priori is one of the top things to do in Volterra. A short walk from the Porta all’Arco and built on a plateau, the Piazza dei Priori is considered the heart of Volterra.

Volterra’s residents erected the grand medieval houses and palaces that line the square. The buildings include the Palazzo Vescoville, a former bishop’s residence and grain storage house; the Palazzo Incontri, now home to a bank; and the Palazzo del Monte Pio, created by combining tower houses and other 13th century buildings.

The Piazza dei Priori’s most significant building is the Palazzo dei Priori on the Piazza’s southwest corner. Built in the 1200’s, the Palazzo dei Priori is both the center of Volterra’s government and Tuscany’s oldest town hall. A handful of restaurants, cafes, and gelato shops surround the Piazza.

3. Palazzo Pretorio

Entrance to Palazzo Pretoria during a medieval festival in Volterra
Entrance to Palazzo Pretoria during a medieval festival in Volterra
See my photos from Volterra Tuscany

While at the Piazza dei Priori, take some time to visit the Palazzo Pretorio, which is among the best things to do in Volterra. Located on the Piazza’s east side, the Palazzo Pretorio comprises several buildings that were combined after a 19th century earthquake hit Volterra.

One building making up the Palazzo Pretorio was the mayor’s residence. Another building housed the captain of the Praetorian Guard and serves as the origin for the building’s name. The Palazzo Pretorio’s tower, the Torre del Porcellino, is one of the oldest towers in Volterra, Tuscany. At the top of the tower, next to a window, a carved pig statue sits on a shelf, while a pig carving appears at the tower’s base.

The Palazzo Pretorio is currently closed to the public.

4. Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

Young people getting ready for the Volterra medieval festival in front of Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
Young people getting ready for the Volterra medieval festival in front of Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
See my photos from Volterra Tuscany

Piazza San Giovanni is Volterra’s religious center and is home to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. The Cathedral, amongst the top things to do in Volterra, sits on the Piazza’s southeastern corner. The ninth century Cathedral, with a honey-colored Romanesque facade and a geometric design marble portal, was rebuilt after an 1117 earthquake struck Volterra.

Contrasting with the exterior, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta’s interior is adorned with statues, frescos, and paintings. The carved and embossed ceiling depicts Volterra’s patron saints. Each chapel has artworks and significant relics, like a 1479 Benozzo Gozzoli fresco located behind a painted terracotta Nativity and Adoration. Other notable works include Pieter de Witte’s Presentation of Volterra to the Virgin, Francesco Curradi’s Crucifixion, and Fra’ Bartolomeo’s Annunciation.

Volterra’s bell tower, adjacent to the Cathedral, was built in 1493. The tower shares its design with a tower at Bolsena’s Sanctuary of Saints George and Christina, which was attributed to Andrea Sansovino. Sansovino designed the nearby Battistero di San Giovanni Battista’s baptismal font, creating speculation that Sansovino designed the bell tower as well.

5. Battistero di San Giovanni Battista

Baptismal font by Giovanni Vacca inside the St John Baptistry
Baptismal font by Giovanni Vacca inside the St John Baptistry
photo by Sailko / CC

The Battistero di San Giovanni Battista is located on an ancient Roman temple site in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. One side of the octagon-shaped Battista has a Romanesque-Gothic white and dark green marble facade. The portal, constructed in 1283, features design elements reminiscent of Nicola Pisano’s work.

The simple Volterra stone interior has six niches set into the walls. A niche to the right of the Battistero di San Giovanni Battista’s high altar has the original ancient marble baptismal font, sculpted in 1502 by Andrea Sansovino. The current baptismal font, by Giovanni Vacca, was commissioned in 1757.

Those who appreciate fine sculptures and paintings will place a visit to the Battistero di San Giovani Battista among the best things to do in Volterra. A statue of St. John the Baptist by Giovanni Antonio Cybei was erected on top of the font. A panel painting of the Ascension of Jesus by Niccolo Cercignani sits above the marble altar.

6. Roman Theater

The ruins of the Roman Theatre at Volterra.
The ruins of the Roman Theatre at Volterra.
See my photos from Volterra Tuscany

Visiting the Roman Theatre is one of the favorite things to do in Volterra, especially for history and archaeology lovers. Located just west of the Porta Fiorentina and commissioned by the Caecina family in the first century BC, the Roman Theatre is among the most beautiful and best preserved theaters in Italy.

The Roman Theatre’s audience seating area uses the natural slope of the hill, like Greek theaters of the time. The Theatre’s seats were made of limestone. The tall background wall, with Corinthian towers on either side, was restored. An ancient arcade sits on the left hand side behind the Theatre. In the third century, a thermal bath complex was built behind the stage.

In the 1950’s, the Roman Theatre’s ruins were discovered just beyond the Porta Fiorentina. A team led by Enrico Fiumi excavated the ruins.

7. Old Churches of Volterra

As we walk on Via Lino towards the old gate Porta San Francesco we come across a few more old churches. If you have the time and like art, visiting these small churches will be some of the charming things to do in Volterra.

Church of San Lino

The Interior of San Lino Church
The Interior of San Lino Church
Photo by Raimond Spekking / CC

The first is the small Church of San Lino. Completed in 1513 and named for Saint Linus, the Renaissance-style church has a simple façade and stone door. Inside the church, there are statues of the Archangel Raphael and Beato Gerardo and a bust of theologian Raffaelo Maffei. The ceiling’s frescoed lunettes include Stories of the Life of Christ while a Virgin and San Lino, a Birth of Mary, and a Visitation adorn the main altarpiece. You’ll find comparing the Church of San Lino’s simplicity to the larger, well adorn Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta among the more interesting things to do in Volterra, Tuscany.

Capella della Crocce di Giorno

The Interior of the small chapel
The Interior of the small chapel

Continuing down the street we come up the small stairs to Capella della Crocce di Giorno and the larger San Francesco Church. The small, simple 14th century chapel is located next door to Volterra’s main Franciscan church. Art lovers will want to include the chapel on their list of things to do in Volterra, Tuscany, as the walls and ceiling are vividly decorated with brightly colored frescoes. The wall frescoes tell the stories of the Legend of the Holy Cross, Christ’s early life, and the Madonna. The ceiling frescoes feature Evangelists and individual paintings of Saints Francis, Bonaventure, and Anthony of Padua. The pillars dividing the chapel’s two quadrangular bays feature Saint Francis and Saint John the Baptist while the arch has busts depicting saints and prophets.

Church of Santi Giusto e Clemente

Santi Giusti e Clemente
Santi Giusti e Clemente
photo by Raimond Spekking / CC

The Church of Santi Giusto e Clemente’s location, architecture, and artwork put it amongst the great things to do in Volterra. Located at the top of a small hill outside Volterra’s medieval village, past Porta San Francesco, the stone church, designed by Giovanni Coccapani, was built beginning in 1628 and consecrated in 1775, replacing two sixth century chapels.

The church’s rectangular column facade is topped by Borromini-style stone pillars. The gable is grafted onto the main rectangular columns. Terracotta statues top the 10th century stone columns on both sides of the staircase leading into the church. Inside the church, the altar has an urn with old relics and 17th century statues by Francesco Franchi along with artworks like Baldassare Franceschini’s Elijah Asleep and Cosmio Daddi’s Visitation.

8. Medici Fortress

The Medici Fortress in Volterra
The Medici Fortress in Volterra
photo by LigaDue / CC

Perched on Volterra’s highest hill, the Fortezza Medicea ranks among Italy’s most impressive Renaissance fortresses. The Fortezza Medicea was built in 1474 to protect Volterra and to prevent rebellions against the Florentines, who conquered the city two years earlier. The fortress consists of two structures, combined by a double curtain wall. The older Rocca Antica is a castle with a connected tower. The newer Rocca Nuova has rectangular walls with corner towers and a separate circular tower called the Maschio. The Maschio is open to visitors June-October. The remainder of the Fortezza Medicea is now a prison. If you’re interested in unusual things to do in Volterra, Tuscany, you can dine at the Fortezza Medicea’s restaurant, where meals are prepared and served by the fortress’s inmates.

The best way to see Fortezza Medicea is to enter Volterra from the South through Porta a Selci and then walk along the wall on Via di Castello all the way to Piazza Martiri della Liberta. There’s a nicely shaded little park that provides a great view of the fortress and surrounding area.

Is it Worth Visiting Volterra?

If you’re planning to visit Tuscany in Italy, you should consider adding Volterra on your list of places to see. Along with San Gimignano, Volterra will give you great insight into medieval Italy and the rise of the city of Florence and Siena along with the Medici banking family. From Roman and Etruscan ruins to the imposing fortress along with beautiful piazzaz and old churches, Volterra has it all. So, yes, it’s worth visiting Volterra!

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