Via Nazionale, known as the Rugapiana ("flat street," since it's the only one in town that even comes close to fitting that description), runs east-west through the medieval town to Piazza della Repubblica, presided over by a stern city hall loaded with towers, a stone staircase, and wooden balconies. On the northern corner the square opens into Piazza Signorelli, a lovely expanse named for the town’s famous Renaissance artist, Luca Signorelli (1445–1523). This piazza was once the headquarters of Cortona’s Florentine governors, whose coats of arms adorn the Casali Palace (now home to the excellent Etruscan museum. From here, streets lead down to the Piazza del Duomo and a treasure trove of art in the Museo Diosceano. Other streets climb steeply uphill from Piazza Signorelli to the Basilica di Santa Margherita and, even higher, to the hilltop Fortezza di Girifalco. You can, however, stay on level ground and walk east along Via Nazionale to airy Piazza Garibaldi, which opens into public gardens with views south to Lago Trasimeno in Umbria and west across the Valdichiana to Montepulciano.
Tomb Hunting: The Parco Archeologico di Cortona
The countryside around Cortona is dotted with so-called "Meloni," Etruscan burial-mounds. Most are looked after by the Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca under the collective heading Parco Archeologico di Cortona; three of the most intriguing tombs are located on the slopes just below the Cortona walls. You could walk down, but it's a lot easier going back up by car.
Heading down the hill on the main road to Camucia, you'll come upon a turnoff to the right for the Tanella di Pitagora, a charming 2nd-century-B.C. Etruscan tomb. It's on a circular plan with a vaulted roof that a 19th-century "restoration" left bare of its probable earth covering (but surrounded with solemn cypresses). The tomb is normally open all day (no admission).
Farther down follow the signs to the hamlet known as Il Sodo (just off the SS71 to Arezzo), and park at the Tumulo I del Sodo, open April to October Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday 9:30am to 12:30pm (admission 2€). The passage and chambers inside this 6th-century-B.C. Etruscan tomb are in excellent condition, due in no small part to the fact that the bits that were missing were replaced by brick guesswork after it was discovered in 1909. The walls are made of tufa from Orvieto (how the rock got all the way here is anybody's guess), and there's an Etruscan inscription (read right to left) above a small passage between two of the burial chambers. The inscription explains this side door: The chambers were the final resting places of a husband and wife; the passage was there in case they felt like visiting each other during eternity.
From tomb 1 a signposted footpath leads to the Tumulo II del Sodo, open Tuesday to Sunday from 8:30am to 1:30pm (free admission), dating back at least to the late 7th century B.C. The tomb catapulted to the fore of Etruscan archaeological interest after the chance discovery in the early 1990s of a 6th-century-B.C. altar sticking out of one side of the circular tumulus. Subsequent excavations have unearthed more bits from the altar, which is reached by a monumental stairway flanked by two sphinxes biting the heads off warriors who are simultaneously stabbing the animals in the side, thought to represent the battle between life and death. The digs have also revealed at least 17 more tombs in the ground around the tumulus. Some of these predate the altar, but most are from the Hellenistic and Roman eras, all the way to the 1st century A.D. For more information, call tel. 0575-630-415 or 0575-637-235, or ask at the Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.