Perched on a hill about 500 metres above sea level, dominating the Val di Chiana, Cortona is a medieval jewel of Tuscany worth visiting. It is located in the province of Arezzo, very close to the border with Umbria, a proximity that has even influenced the speech of the locals.
Cortona has appeared many times in Italian films since the 1950s, but has only recently received international fame, as it was the location for some scenes in Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film La vita è bella and Audrey Wells’ 2003 film Under the Tuscan Sun. Cortona is also a town rich in events, attracting visitors from all parts of Tuscany; the most important one takes place from July to September every year, it is the Cortona on the Move, an international festival of visual narratives.
From a tourist point of view, Cortona is a really important destination for the entire province of Arezzo and the entire region, thanks to the abundance of things to see in the centre and the beauty of its surroundings.
There are many things to see in Cortona. Fortunately, they are almost all located within the historic centre, which can be easily walked around as it is very compact, even if the streets are almost all up and down. Here are what they are, to visit them all and return home more than satisfied.
Obviously, start your visit to Cortona from its splendid, well-preserved medieval centre. Its beating heart is the very central Piazza della Repubblica, overlooked by very elegant historical palazzos, first and foremost the town hall building, dating back to the 12th century, with its beautiful bell tower, and the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, or Palazzo Passerini, named after the family that lived there for a long time.
Once the crossroads of the two main streets of the Roman town, the cardo and decumanus, today Piazza della Repubblica is definitely the first thing to see in Cortona; some of the most important streets in the centre, such as Via Guelfa, Via Ghibellina and Via Nazionale, also start from here.
In Piazza Signorelli, adjacent to Piazza della Repubblica, is the interesting MAEC museum, dedicated to Etruscan art. The peculiarity of the exhibition is that it is located in the basement of a 13th-century palace. The collections are of high historical and artistic value, and in addition to a large section devoted to the Etruscans, who lived here for almost 1,000 years, there are also exhibits from the Roman period, as well as a section devoted to the ancient Egyptians where two mummies can be found.
The highlight of the MAEC is undoubtedly the Tabula Cortonensis, a bronze tablet dating back to the 2nd century B.C. showing the deed of sale of agricultural land. Also very interesting are the artefacts taken from the ancient Etruscan tombs of Cortona, including statues and grave goods, with bronze objects, vases and chandeliers.
You can enter the MAEC by paying a full, reduced or cumulative admission ticket that also includes entrance to the archaeological area. The museum is open every day of the week from 10am to 7pm.
Take Via Santucci and Via Berrettini from Piazza della Repubblica to reach this quiet corner of tranquillity that is the Convent of San Francesco, another must-see in Cortona; especially enjoy the interior, as you can admire splendid paintings and ancient frescoes.
The church, built in Italian Gothic style with a single-nave interior, is rich in works of art and relics, including the remains of Friar Elias, exhumed for study in 1966. Also very beautiful is the painting of the Annunciation, by Pietro da Cortona, painted in the mid 17th century for the local nobleman Antonio Alfieri.
The custodians of the church are the Conventual Franciscan friars; a number of relics of St Francis of Assisi are kept inside the convent, including a habit, a cushion and a gospel book.
The cathedral of Cortona, officially the Co-cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, is the city’s most important church. Built in Romanesque style starting in the 11th century, it was finished about 400 years later, when it was declared a Cathedral by Pope Julius II.
On the outside, the sober but intriguing façade in medieval Romanesque style is striking, while on the right is an extension from the 16th century, a loggia completed by a portal in pietra serena. The bell tower , on the other hand, was built later, designed by Francesco Laparelli.
Once inside, the cathedral of Cortona looks like a Renaissance church, with a beautiful barrel vault covering the nave; the division between naves is made by splendid columns with capitals, inspired by Brunelleschi. Among the works worth visiting are the funeral statue of Giovanni Battista Tommasi, the last Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a native of Cortona, Raphael Vanni’s Transfiguration, and a Madonna and Child dating back to the 16th century, but which has remained anonymous.
Among the many churches in Cortona, apart from the cathedral, we would like to mention the basilica of Santa Margherita, dedicated to the town’s patron saint. It is a very evocative church, with a façade with three portals and a large rose window in the centre; the whole creates a very harmonious ensemble, making it undoubtedly one of the city’s most beautiful monuments.
The interior of the basilica is also interesting and certainly worth a visit, if only because it is possible to visit the marble tomb of Saint Margaret, who rests in the centre of the basilica, above the high altar. The ceilings, coloured a bright blue, are also very beautiful, while the plaster statues of St Francis, St Ludwig, St Elizabeth and St Clare, arranged on as many pillars, give the church an important appearance.
The church of San Benedetto is one of the places not to be missed during a visit to Cortona, due to its unique elliptical shape. Set in a very scenic context, it has a round façade with no plaster, exposed brickwork, with three large frameless windows and a fourth above the entrance door.
Inside, the wealth of decoration is astounding: stucco and marble make the interior of the Church of St Benedict very evocative. Also of interest is the statue of the flagellated Christ, placed at the central altar, dating back to the 17th century.
Downstream from the town of Cortona is the archaeological area of Sodo, located within the archaeological park of Cortona. Inside you can see three Etruscan tumuli, informally known as ‘melons’ because of their shape; they are called Tumulus I, Tumulus II and Tumulus of Camucia.
Of these, Tumulus II is the largest and most interesting: state-owned, it has a diameter of no less than 64 metres and a series of smaller tombs and burials. Tumulus I is in concession to the park managers, and is the oldest, dating from around the 7th century BC; the Camucia tumulus , on the other hand, is located a few kilometres further south, is the smallest and can only be visited by appointment.
It is possible to go inside the tombs, but the original finds have been moved to the MAEC museum in the centre of Cortona.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
The historic centre of Cortona is full of B&Bs, hotels and flats where you can sleep. Choosing an accommodation in the centre is the right choice to be close to the city’s main points of interest, and to have a wide choice of restaurants for dinner, as well as bars for aperitifs and shops for shopping. On the other hand, the centre of Cortona is completely pedestrianised, with steep up and down streets, so it is not the most comfortable if you arrive with a lot of luggage in tow.
In cases such as these, it is perhaps better to choose accommodation outside the centre, in order to also have maximum convenience in parking your car, and arrive in the town either by public transport or by car, parking it in the equipped car parks just outside the town gates. Outside the centre of Cortona there are in fact many beautiful facilities, including farmhouses and resorts with swimming pools, overlooking the beautiful Tuscan countryside.
Cortona is fairly easy to reach by car, as it is conveniently served by the A1 Milan-Naples motorway. The exit of interest is Valdichiana, from which the centre of Cortona is about 20 minutes away, taking first the Bettolle-Perugia speedway, and then the provincial road SP32.
The distance from Florence is about 120 kilometres, which can be covered in an hour and a half, while from Pisa it takes just over 2 hours and 20 minutes. Given its location, Cortona is also easy to reach from the south: from Rome, for example, it takes only 2 hours and 15 minutes, including time to get out of the capital’s traffic.
Getting to Cortona by public transport is very easy, as it is located close to the Florence-Rome railway line. To be precise, the town is served by two stations: Terontola-Cortona, the larger of the two, where intercity trains also stop, and Camucia-Cortona, where only regional trains stop. Once you get off the train, whichever station you are at, you can reach the centre of the town without any difficulty by using the buses run by the Etruria Mobilità bus company.
What's the weather at Cortona? Below are the temperatures and the weather forecast at Cortona for the next few days.