Siena is one of Italy’s most enchanting Tuscan cities, with a medieval centre that's filled with majestic buildings and a grand piazza – the setting for the biannual world-famous Palio
Siena is a medieval masterpiece with arguably the finest square in Italy – the Piazza del Campo. The city, built over three hills, resides above the rolling Tuscan landscape. Enter the defensive walls to find a warren of steep cobbled streets, Renaissance churches, soaring towers and palaces. Siena’s insular history and fierce pride means it has preserved a unique culture and ancient traditions such as the Palio, a fiercely fought bareback horse race.
What to do
Start your explorations from the magnificent Piazza del Campo, the huge seashell-shaped square. Savour the open space of the piazza with a cappuccino at Bar Manganelli or bask in the sun on the salmon-pink flagstones. Marvel at the architectural feat of the Palazzo Pubblico and its Torre del Mangia – at 102 metres high, it was once Italy’s tallest tower and completed in the early 1300s (admission is €8). Climb up over 500 steps for the reward of a bird’s-eye view of Siena’s tangled streets and beyond.
Strike out from the Campo, along Via Di Città, stopping to peek at the Palazzo Chigi Saracini’s shady courtyard, which is now a classical music academy. The dazzling Duomo – a candy-striped Gothic cathedral with a striking black-and-white bell tower – is your next stop. The intricate facade was built by Giovanni Pisano although most of the original statues are now housed in the adjacent museum. Inside, the star attractions are the exquisite marble inlay depictions of Biblical scenes on the floor.
Siena’s main thoroughfares are free from cars but teem with crowds. Expect a stampede around the two Palios in July and August and general fervour as the city’s 17 contrade (city districts that date back to the 12th century) prepare for the race. Only ten of the contrade participate but the whole city grinds to a halt for the wild dash around the Campo, which takes less than two minutes. Roam the backstreets to find the different districts, each with its own animal symbol that you’ll see depicted on flags and wall plaques.
Where to stay
Grand Hotel Continental is the city’s only five-star hotel and a perfect place to retreat from the crowds. Situated on a main artery, the Banchi di Sopra, many of the rooms have spectacular views across the terracotta rooftops to the Duomo. Even if you can’t get a room here this former papal palace needs to be seen for its 15th-century frescoes and medieval wine cellar. Try Hotel Duomo Siena on Via Stalloreggi for decent, central digs. This former nobleman’s house has a roof terrace for al fresco breakfasts. Siena Soggiorno has self-catering accommodation in great locations, including rooms in a 14th-century palazzo on the Campo.
Where to eat and drink
Duck into the medieval vaults underneath the Duomo and into Antica Osteria da Divo (00 39 0577 286054; www.osteriadadivo.it). It is great for Sienese specialities with wild boar, fresh pecorino cheese from nearby Pienza and pici (hand-rolled spaghetti-like pasta unique to Siena) on the menu. For something special, book a table at Sapordivino, the Grand Hotel Continental’s restaurant (see Where to stay). Feast on fine dining renderings of Tuscan cuisine surrounded by frescoes and antiques.
At Enoteca Italiana (00 39 0577 228811; www.enoteca-italiana.it) the vaults of a former Medici fortress are filled with over 1,500 labels; sample them by the glass or bottle in the bar. For the best wild boar salami in town, visit the tiny but brilliant Antica Pizzicheria at 93-95 Via Di Città (00 39 0577 289164). The friendly moustached owner will insist you taste your way through the meats hanging from the rafters. Buy your pici here too. To try paneforte (chewy slabs of candied fruit, nuts and honey) and ricciarelli (melt-in-the-mouth almond biscuits), opt for Pasticceria Nannini (00 39 0577 236009; Banchi di Sopra 22-24).
Time running out?
Head for the hills and the ancient village of Fonterutoli (00 39 0577 741385; www.fonterutoli.it) in the Chianti region. The Mazzei family has been producing wine here since 1435. Tour the romantic old wine cellars and eat on the terrace of the osteria for a panoramic view of the vineyards and the towers of Siena.
Take a tour of the city’s fascinating underground network of medieval aqueducts, the bottini, which transport water from the Chianti hills to Siena. Book well in advance through the Associazione La Diana (00 39 0577 41110; www.ladianasiena.it).
Currency is the euro. Siena is one hour ahead of GMT and a two-hour flight from London to Pisa, followed by a one-hour 45-minute train journey to Siena.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) and EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) fly from Gatwick to Pisa.
Trenitalia (00 39 0668 475475; www.trenitalia.com). Buy tickets online, with up-to-date timetable information for the whole country.
Comune di Siena: 00 39 0577 280551; www.comune.siena.it.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.