This past summer I spent five weeks in Italy and discovered that some of the most interesting things to do were located in the beautiful city of Siena. It’s certainly a city of ‘Must Sees’. Located approximately 75 kilometres from Florence, in the region of Tuscany, Siena is definitely the place to visit on your next trip to Italy. The city is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many tourists tend to stay only one or two days since it is a quick bus ride from Florence so it’s an easy side trip for tourists. But I felt that the longer I stayed in the city, the more I fell in love with it. And here are 5 of the reasons why:
Duomo of Siena
This cathedral was my absolute favourite place in the city, with a lot to see here. The cathedral itself was built during the Middle Ages and is considered one of the best ‘marriages’ of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Made of white, black, and red marble from the areas around Siena, it is absolutely stunning to see in person. The inside is striped in black and white marble, and the dome makes it seem like you are looking into the starry sky. The Baptistery is located behind the cathedral and hosts bronze work by Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti. There is also a museum that has many medieval paintings and sculptures from the cathedral. Through the museum, guests can venture outside for a panoramic view of the city. It’s almost as if you’re standing above the city and looking down on it, with views of the Tuscan hillsides in the background. It’s absolutely beautiful.
Piazza del Campo:
Not far from the Duomo is the main piazza in Siena, the Piazza del Campo. Originally a field, the Italian word of Campo is literally translated to ‘field’. This was the common meeting place of the Sienese people. Now it’s home to restaurants and souvenir shops. A favourite thing to do in the piazza is to buy either a panini or a slice of pizza from one of the shops nearby and sit in the piazza to eat. It is a prime location to people watch. If you plan to visit Siena in the summer, there are two dates that need to be marked – July 2nd and August 16th as these are the days of the Palio. The Piazza del Campo is transformed into a racetrack, and ten of the seventeen districts of Siena compete in a horse race for the Palio. The Palio is usually a silk banner, and the Sienese live for the Palio. This is something you need to experience in order to get a small taste of the culture present in Siena.
Located in the Piazza del Campo is the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena. Attached to the Palace is the main tower of Siena. This tower is called the Mangia Tower. Tourists are able to climb the tower and see the bells that are still functional today. Admittedly, the climb is a little bit more intense than the Panorama of the Duomo; however, it is well worth it. At the top, guests are treated to a gorgeous view of the Piazza del Campo, as well as the amazing Medieval buildings still standing in Siena.
Basilica of San Domenico:
A little further from the main city centre is the Basilica of San Domenico. This is a must-see place for anyone visiting Siena. The church itself is Gothic style and it holds something very important to the Sienese people seeing as the Relics of Saint Catherine of Siena’s head and thumb are housed in the basilica. The Basilica itself is also beautiful, and it is interesting to note that the flags of the seventeen districts are hung. As mentioned before, the Sienese live for the Palio and each district, called “Contrada,” of Siena has their own flag. In fact, if you head to any of the churches in Siena (of which there are many) you will see the flags hung.
Just down the street from the Basilica of San Domenico is the Fortezza Medicea. I was originally drawn to this site after seeing a large fountain in front of the fortress, which was built in the 1500s by the orders of Duke Cosimo. He was a Duke of Florence, and this fortress was built after Siena fell to Florence. The fortress is adorned with a huge Medici crest and is extremely well preserved. From the top, tourists can see all of Siena, and certainly, it is an amazing view. It’s a much different perspective than from the top of the Mangia Tower or from the Duomo’s panorama. For entertainment, the city of Siena plays films in the fortress during the summer months, for locals and tourists to enjoy.
- Bring walking shoes: Like Florence, Siena is an extremely pedestrian friendly city, but unlike Florence, Siena is built on three hills. A considerable amount of time will be spent walking uphill so comfortable shoes help!
- Try restaurants outside of the Piazza del Campo: There are many great restaurants inside the Piazza, but you will get a more authentic take on Sienese food if you venture a little way outside of the area.
- Try to see the Palio, but get there EARLY: The Piazza del Campo fills up very fast during the day of the Palio. I arrived at 1 p.m. and the Piazza was closed off at around 4 p.m. The Palio doesn’t start until around 7 p.m., but you will definitely want to see the Medieval parade that happens just before.
- To stay safe, walk along the sides of buildings: Most drivers in Siena don’t bother to slow down despite that people are walking so close to the roadways. Luckily, taxis even have a special ring they play behind tourists, but regular drivers do not. Walking close to the buildings allows for an extra bit of safety, but try to refrain from walking under overhangs, directly against the building edge – there are a lot of pigeons in Siena and I don’t think I need to spell out what could happen.
And finally, LOOK UP: Try to spend some time away from your phone. There is so much to see in Siena, and even just walking along the streets can yield a lot of beautiful sights. You’ll miss them if you have your eyes on your phone.
Article and Photos by Stefania Lenti