Background Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST) are mesenchymal tumors of the gastrointestinal tract, usually kit-positive, that are believed to originate from interstitial cell of Cajal, or their related stem cells. The most common clinical presentation of these tumors is gastrointestinal bleeding, otherwise they may cause intestinal obstruction, abdominal pain, a palpable mass, or can be incidentally detected during surgery or endoscopic/radiological procedures. Prognosis is related to the size of the tumor and to the mitotic rate; other prognostic factors are tumor location, tumor resection margins, tumor rupture, and c-kit mutation that may interfere with molecular target therapy efficacy. Aim Primary aim of this study was to report our experience regarding GIST patients, correlating symptoms at presentation with tumor localization and risk factors. Patients and methods 47 consecutive patients undergone to surgical resection for GISTs were enrolled in a prospective study from December 1999 to March 2009. Patient's clinical and pathological features were collected and analysed. Results The most common symptom was abdominal pain. Bleeding in the digestive tract and abdominal pain were more frequent in gastric GISTs (58% and 61%); acute abdominal symptoms were more frequent in jejunal and ileal GISTs (40% and 60%), p < 0.05. We reported a mild correlation between the mitotic rate index and symptoms at presentation (p 0.074): this correlation was stronger if GISTs causing "acute abdominal symptoms" were compared with GISTs causing "abdominal pain" as main symptom (p 0.039) and with "incidental" GISTs (p 0.022). We observed an higher prevalence of symptomatic patients in the "high risk/malignant group" of both the Fletcher's and Miettines's classification (p < 0.05). Conclusion According with our findings symptoms correlate to tumor location, to class risk criteria as mitotic index and risk classifications, however we cannot conclude that symptoms are per se predictive of survival or patient's outcome.