Spanning across seven hills and split into 17 contrada (or districts), Siena should be top of your list when in Tuscany. Narrow alleyways, red-brick towers and artisan shops weave through this UNESCO-protected metropolis, packed with palaces and hidden Etruscan tombs. Known as Italy’s loveliest city, Siena is large enough to explore, yet small enough not to be run off your feet – just the right size for a day trip.
To best avoid the summer crowds, begin your day at the Duomo, Siena’s iconic cathedral. One of Italy’s gothic marvels, the cathedral is decorated with white and green marble (the city colours) and filled with treasured statues by artists like Michelangelo and Donatello. And as you wander through, make sure to look down at the ornate marble flooring, which features 56 squares depicting biblical scenes.
Delve deeper into the Duomo to admire the colourful frescoes in the Piccolomini library, built in the early 1500s and adorned with rich works by master Renaissance artist, Pinturicchio. And don’t leave without taking a look around the Museu dell’Opera – one of the oldest private museums in Italy. Spanning three floors are breathtaking stained glass windows and a tapestry room bursting with vibrant hangings and fabrics.
Directly in front of the cathedral you’ll find the Santa Maria della Scala – if you haven’t heard of it before, it’s definitely worth a visit. The building formerly housed one of the oldest hospitals in Europe, which welcomed poor and abandoned children, as well as pilgrims on their way to Rome. Nowadays, it’s home to a variety of temporary art exhibitions and the original marble statues – sculpted by Jacopa della Quercia from the city’s Fonte Gaia fountain.
Rumbling stomachs call for some traditional Tuscan cuisine. For homemade pici (a thick, hand-rolled pasta), grab a table in the down-to-earth La Taverna di San Giuseppe, just a 6-minute walk from the Duomo. If you’re more into food on the go, don’t miss out on a slice of pizza (when in Rome, eh?) from Pizzeria Poppi – their focaccia with cheese and ham is a must-have.
Got a sweet tooth? Head over to Pasticceria Buti for some typical Sienese sweets like panforte and caramellato – a shell of puff pastry glazed in caramel and filled with Chantilly cream.
By this point, you’ll probably be all mural-ed out, so spend some time outdoors in Siena’s city square, the Piazza del Campo. This huge shell-shaped Roman forum is the true core of the city and holds a variety of its landmarks and events. One of the most famous is the Palio horse race, which takes place every year on the 2nd July and the 16th August. Watched by locals and visitors from around the world, 10 representatives from the city’s contrade ride for three laps around the square, with the winner awarded with a silk banner hand-painted by a local artist.
With the sun high in the sky, ascend the 400+ steps of the Torre del Mangia, the Palazzo Pubblico’s bell tower to enjoy 360-degree views over a bustling Siena. At 87 metres tall, it was the tallest structure in Italy at the time it was built, between 1325 and 1344.
Piazza del Campo
After you’ve snapped a few photos, spend some time enjoying the uniquely medieval atmosphere – settle down at one of the open-air tables for a drink and admire the gothic red-stone architecture. To the northwest edge of the piazza you’ll also get to see the Fonte Gaia, the largest fountain in the city.
Had enough of people watching? Take a stroll through Siena’s old town, woven together by steep alleyways and unexpected squares. Every twist and turn reveals a glimpse into each of the city’s contrada and their local lifestyles. These medieval districts still have very strong community spirits – they’re known to celebrate events like baptisms, marriages and festivals together – and each one even has its own museum, fountains, plaques and flags signified by its own distinct symbol. Look out for the eagle, to the south-west of the Piazza del Campo – their flags are decorated with a double-headed black eagle holding an orb, a sword and a sceptre. Or if you’re wandering around the northern streets of the city, you’ll be in Bruco – this contrada is represented by a crowned caterpillar crawling on a rose.
After a busy day of sightseeing, round off your time in Siena with a hearty slap-up meal at Antica Osteria da Divo. Tucked away down one of the city’s narrow side streets, this unassuming restaurant is known for its unique setting, in an ancient Etruscan tomb. Their high-quality dishes are the talk of the town too, with unusual options like truffle risotto, pumpkin ravioli with lemon and almonds, and octopus and pecorino soufflé.
Before you head home, don’t miss out on a traditional passeggiata – a post-dinner stroll through the dimly lit streets.
Spend a day in the historic city of Siena, or visit the cradle of the renaissance, Florence, on a Lakes & Mountains holiday to Tuscany.
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Author: Mia Jones
Published: June 21, 2019
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