I’ve been wanting to go to Siena for years and years and have just missed it a number of times for various reasons, even when quite close. A lot of people visit it as a day trip from places like Florence. I thought of doing that last year while spending five days in Florence, but then decided against a journey of an hour and a half each way for a quick glimpse of Siena. No, I thought, Siena needed to be seen properly; I needed to stay there for a few days. So, in January this year, I booked my trip!
Why have I been wanting to go? Well, as a self-confessed Italophile, I go to Italy once or twice a year and have seen much of the country, from Genoa, Milan, Turin and Venice in the north, to Rome and Naples further south, Puglia in the deep south, and – many years ago – Sicily. But Siena had escaped me. Siena, famed for its beauty, its incredibly well-preserved historic centre, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Italy, possibly the world. It really is like taking a step back in time and while there, sitting in the Campo one evening, I thought: Where else could I sit and be surrounded by medieval buildings without a modern building in sight? It was truly stunning and every bit as beautiful as I’d heard.
How did in manage to remain unscathed and untouched? Back in the 13th century it was a prosperous town making its money from banking. But it also had a big rival – nearby Florence, who defeated it in battle in 1270. This, combined with the Black Death in 1348, led to the city’s decline. Major building work was stopped (at the cathedral you can climb the Facciatone for a fabulous view, and this structure is the only remaining part of a big planned extension). Basically, Siena became too poor to thrive and build. The irony being that today its wealth comes from that very fact as tourists descend in their thousands to see it.
How to get there?
The nearest airport to Siena is Florence, but it’s a small airport and not many airlines fly there. The next best choice is to fly to Pisa and then there’s a 2-hour journey by train; from Rome, the third closest airport, it’s a 3-hour train journey. I flew to Pisa with British Airways but RyanAir and easyJet also fly there. From Pisa Airport, take a shuttle train – Pisamover – to Pisa Centrale station; a journey time of about 5 minutes. It’s well signed as you come out at Arrivals so easy to find. The fare is €2.70 and there are machines, but you need cash so make sure you have some coins on you – the machines don’t take notes or cards. From Pisa Centrale there is no direct train to Siena so you need to take a Florence train, changing at Empoli, and from there the train to Siena (total travel time is 1hr 42mins). The fare is €21.60 return. You can buy tickets in machines but it’s easier to buy online and have your ticket ready. If you buy a ticket from a machine or ticket office, do be sure to validate it in a special machine on the platform before you board the train; someone told me a friend had been fined €90 for not doing this. If you buy online, have your ticket printed out but you don’t need to validate it.
Where to stay?
I stayed in Antica Residenza Cicogna (click here) in Via delle Terme, a small (7 rooms) B&B in the historic centre. It was ideally located, only a 5-minute walk, if that, from the Piazza del Campo, and a friendly place. I like to be very central when on a short city break so everything is within easy walking distance – main sights, restaurants, etc. The historic centre is quite small so it’s very easy to do everything on foot, and anywhere you stay within its walls will be convenient. It’s also a traffic-free zone – or largely, for taxis can enter and motor scooters – and cars need a special licence to enter. This means if you’re driving, you need to sort out with your hotel – if it’s in the centre – where you can park.
Getting around the city
Well, getting round the historic centre of the city is easy – walk! It’s very small and nowhere is going to be far enough away to warrant taking a taxi. But, having said that, it can be quite hard going at times. Siena is built on hills and many of the roads are very steep; some are cobbled. I’m reasonably fit but sometimes I was out of breath having climbed a very steep street, while going down sometimes felt quite treacherous and I took it very slowly and carefully.
It’s such a beautiful city though, every street with its medieval buildings in earthy shades of ochre, and particularly stunning when sunlight falls on them, makes just simply walking and wandering a delight.
The main sights
It’s worth buying an Acropoli ticket from the ticket office near the Cathedral in Piazza del Duomo, which will take you into the main sights where there’s an entrance fee. There are a few choices but the cost is roughly €20. The one I bought lasted 3 days so you don’t have to rush everything in one go.
Piazza del Campo
Probably what most people have in mind when they want to see Siena is to see the famous Campo. This is the hub of the city, where all roads stem from and everyone comes back to; the beating heart of the city that’s full of life.
Beautiful by day and beautiful by night, it’s where you want to hang out. It seems to draw you to it. I surprised myself by how often I wanted to sit there, walk round it, stand and watch. Inevitably it’s full of people – all those day trippers (the city is quieter at night and early morning), tourists staying in the city like myself – but still it was where I felt happiest. Well, I was just awestruck – its beauty almost defying belief.
Don’t miss seeing the fountain, the work of the greatest Sienese sculptor of all time, Jacopo della Quercia, who completed it in 1419.
The Campo is also where the famous Il Palio horserace happens each year (see below).
Siena’s Cathedral – Duomo – is said to be one of Italy’s greatest Gothic churches. Building began in 1215 but wasn’t completed until the following century. Henry James wrote of it in Italian Hours in 1909: ‘Here I have sat a while every morning for a week, like a philosophic convalescent, watching the florid facade of the cathedral glitter against the deep blue sky … it is on the whole very lovely.’ It certainly is very lovely indeed, particularly the outside, as Charles Dickens observed: ‘wonderfully picturesque inside and out, especially the latter.’ Don’t miss the inside though with its dramatic black and white striped walls and beautiful floor panels.
And buy a ticket that includes the Porta del Cielo tour where you climb up onto the roof and dome and are rewarded with fantastic views across the city – even on a stormy day!
A ticket usually includes the Panaroma dal Facciatone, part of the unfinished extension, where you can also enjoy more incredible views – after a steep climb up spiral staircases!
The Palazzo Pubblico, in which you’ll find the civic museum, dominates the Campo and inside it contains some wonderful medieval frescoes that make it worth a visit. You can’t take photos inside, but do go out onto the balcony terrace at the back for a fabulous view down onto Piazza del Mercato.
You can also of course climb the tower – Torre del Mangia – for a fantastic view across the city, though having already done a lot of climbing for views, I decided against it.
The Palio horserace in Siena is one of its most famed attractions. It dates from the Middle Ages and 10 of Siena’s 17 contrade – districts of the town – compete for the coveted Palio – silk banner. It’s held in the Piazza del Campo on 2 July and 16 August each year. It’s a very big thing and reflects the longstanding rivalry often found in Italian cities between the various districts (I’ve come across the same in Venice). Preparations had begun for the 2 July race during my visit. The outside ‘road’ of the Campo was being covered in sand, ready for the race; cafes, shops and restaurants were being boarded up and stands set up for the spectators; and each evening one contrade would march with banners and drums around the Campo and down streets.
It was fun to see the preparations but I think another time I’d either make sure I was there to actually see the race or avoid it altogether as it did mean I didn’t see the Campo in its full glory.
Food & Drink
Breakfast and morning coffee
Breakfast was included in my B&B price (click here) but I don’t like to eat a lot early and prefer to have a coffee and pastry a little later in a cafe. This is largely because I love cafes and (sad to say, perhaps) a good morning coffee and pastry are important parts of my day. Remember you pay a high premium to sit down and be served in an Italian cafe so generally I’m happy to stand at the bar – like the locals! The difference in price can be €1 for an espresso at the bar but €3 to be served at a table.
I found two cafes I liked a lot: Caffe Nannini on Bianchi di Sopra (above) and Caffe Fiorella on Via di Citta, backing onto the Campo. This last one is a ‘hole in the wall’ place with no seating, but full of locals early in the day and serving fantastic coffee and pastries.
You can get a freshly squeezed orange juice – made in front of you – with a cappuccino and delicious croissant for just €5. They also had some nice rolls and panini sandwiches and I bought a snack lunch to take away on the last morning for my train journey.
The ‘thing’ to eat for a snack lunch is ciaccia – the Sienese version of focaccia. It’s very thin and I had a delicious one filled with Tuscan salami one day in Osteria Pretto in via Dei Termini. You can also buy to eat in or takeaway at Caffe Fiorella or Caffe Nannini (both mentioned above). Sometimes I’d been walking so much, I wanted to sit down. But if you don’t want to eat a lot (I prefer a main meal in the evening), just order an antipasti or a pasta dish – pasta dishes are Primi (starters), which come before the Secondi (the main course), so are usually quite small and ideal for a light lunch. I had a great Tortelli & Baccala pasta dish in Osteria da Trombicche in Via delle Terme one day. You’ll see lots of small osterias and bakeries and cafes and the quality is generally high, so just go with what you like the look of. But be careful of actually eating on the Campo itself as you’ll likely pay a lot more.
Aperitivo is a wonderful Italian institution. Go for a drink early evening and a little snack will come with it. Sometimes this is quite big and you’ll be charged a bit extra for it, but sometimes it just comes without you asking (as I found in Caffe Nannini’s Campo branch, La Speranza).
This became my regular 6pm haunt. Yes it was touristy but how could I resist the view across the Campo. It was a friendly place and the little snack not too big to risk ruining my dinner to come. I paid €5 for my glass of prosecco, which always came with a delicious little snack.
When in Italy eat gelato every day! Well, that’s my rule. Actually, surprisingly (for me) I didn’t, but I did a couple of days. I had one from Nannini‘s ‘hole in the wall’ gelateria by their cafe on the Campo. I paid €5 for a medium cup (it was less in the other branch), which was obviously a Campo price, but it was good, especially the Fruits of the Forest flavour. My favourite ice cream was at Grom (also on Banchi di Sopra) – €3.50 for a medium cup with 2 flavours and absolutely wonderful.
I ate some great food while I was in Siena, and drank some terrific Chianti wine. I like to find osterias or trattorias serving traditional local food, which have a nice relaxed atmosphere, and my favourites were La Taverna di San Giuseppe (click here), Grotta Santa Caterina da Bagoga (click here), and Trattoria La Tellina (click here). But see ‘Lunch’ above for more ideas.
Siena’s weekly market is held on a Wednesday off La Lizza, along Viale Maccari Cesare. This is slightly out of the historic centre but only took me about 10 minutes to walk to from the B&B. It’s one of Tuscany’s largest outdoor markets and has a wide range of clothing and household items as well as food (click here).
For the foodie there are a wealth of temptations in Siena. Not only do you find wonderful food everywhere, you constantly pass shops displaying fabulous foodstuffs. Of course when you’re staying in a hotel or B&B, you probably don’t want to make use of them. But they are a source of great things to take back home. As I was flying with just hand luggage I didn’t want to buy local Tuscan olive oil (despite its wonder) but bought some pici pasta from a delicatessen, which is a Sienese pasta and virtually the only one on offer on menus. I also brought home as gifts those wonderful Sienese sweet treats in the form of panforte, cantuccini, and ricciarelli. You’ll see them in so many shops and bakeries but I bought mine in Nannini’s.
Of course you’ll find other kinds of shops selling clothes, jewellery and many selling traditional Sienese pottery.
Away from the crowds
However much you love cities, sometimes you just feel in need of a little peace and quiet. You don’t have to walk far in Siena to find just that. I took a walk towards the Botanical Gardens one day and by chance came across a lovely little public park while walking along Via S. Pietro on the corner with Via Sant’Agata, from which there was a wonderful view. I went back a couple of time just to sit quietly.
I then moved on to the Botanical Gardens, just a few metres away. There’s a small entrance fee but it’s worth a couple of euros to go in. The gardens are part of the university. I had a lovely visit. They’re quite small, so it doesn’t take long to walk round, but it was still a nice peaceful haven for a short time (click here for more).
On the last day, and very close to the B&B, I found the church of Santa Caterina da Siena. It was turned into a Sanctuary in 1464. It was another peaceful place to get away from the crowds for a while.
What a glorious city Siena is. Everything about it lived up to my years of expectations and I’m very glad I visited it properly. It’s worth more than a day trip – there’s so much to do, so much to enjoy and see but also, if you do have more time than I did, it’s a fantastic base to explore Tuscany and maybe visit a Chianti vineyard or two.