After Florence, Siena is Tuscany’s most famous city. Indeed, Siena and Florence were once rival cities, and thus built the most beautiful cathedrals, churches and squares to show off their power and status (read the fantastic ‘The Pursuit of Italy’ by David Gilmour for more on this). For us tourists this is a true blessing. In my mind there are few places as aesthetically pleasing as Siena. I love the small details even the most simple of churches have. There is a richness of culture here such that you can spend hours reading your guide book, trying to take in as much as possible of what you are seeing. Photos are perhaps the best way to show this beauty, and so this post will be photo-heavy, with a few useful tips.
The best way to see Siena is by walking through the relatively small old town centre. I would recommend you park just outside the city walls and walk up (or escalator up as we did at the gate of San Francesco) – this is not a place for cars and this makes walking around all the more pleasurable.
Piazza del Campo (the main square)
Known to be the most beautiful square in Italy (and that’s a big statement), I would have to agree. In the shape of a shell, this vast space is surrounded by countless terracotta coloured Tuscan mansions, some crumbling, others recently renovated, all with brown shutters to keep out the hot sun. The eye catcher is of course the medieval Palazzo Pubblico (the town hall) with the very tall bell tower, which dominates the square. The bell tower of the Palazzo Pubblico was built later than the rest of the Palazzo, in the early 14th century, and it was designed to be taller than Florence’s bell tower (more evidence of the rivalry between the two cities). It is at this square that the twice yearly horse race Il Palio takes place (5 July and 16 August) where 10 of Siena’s city wardens race each other around the square, looked on by thousands of locals and tourists. It is incredibly exciting to watch (best watched from above) also because it can be very dangerous for horse and rider.
I still remember this cathedral from when I came here when I was little, a feat since all I usually tend to remember are the ice creams used to bribe us to come sightseeing. But it is hard to forget the striking black and white stripes of this famous 13th century Duomo, both on the outside (especially on the bell tower) and on the inside. I had forgotten quite how incredible the front of the cathedral is too though, I love the light pink and dark green colours and the incredibly intricate design, with all the animals jumping out of the facade.
Expect queues, but nothing like the Duomo in Florence. Be aware that tickets (6 euros) need to be bought at a stall round the side of the Duomo, not when you enter. Well worth going inside, you’ll even find a Bernini sculpture (of St Jerome) hiding in the side chapel.
We were in Siena for lunch and were recommended Da Renzo as the perfect place for a simple Italian lunch. Located on a small quiet square, this indeed turned out to be an ideal place for lunch and accommodated all 13 of us very well. We ordered a number of Antipasti to share and a few pasta dishes. The house white was good, though avoid any sparkling wine as that was a no-go. We were a big fan of their battered courgette flowers, though they are pretty heavy, so one each is plenty. Portions are of a good size, so don’t over order.
We didn’t stay for a cocktail, but we certainly had a coffee or two. Surprisingly, the best coffee in our opinion was found on the main square at Bar Il Palio. Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but you get the finest views of the square and the cappuccinos were the best we had here. For a very reasonable 3.50 euros.
We stayed in a stunning Tuscan villa a 30 minute drive from Siena called San Giuseppe, on the Calcione estate. With an ideal location (you’re in Arezzo in half an hour, Florence in one hour and surrounded by charming Tuscan) and stunning views of the Tuscan countryside (and friendly grazing horses), this is the perfect place to come for a holiday with family or friends. The villa had 9 ensuite bedrooms, a huge private pool and a wonderful round dining table under the shade of an old oak tree. Yes, a few modern touches wouldn’t go a miss, but this is a very pleasant house and we all really enjoyed our time here. The Calcione estate has a number of smaller villas for rent too, while the owners still live in the (impressive) Castello. The website does not do this place justice.