Could it be seeing the banners of the contrade hanging from buildings in each neighborhood of the city that makes Siena so special? Or maybe it’s how the Sienese treat the slight incline of brick pavers on Il Campo as if they were on a beach. Could it be the sight of an orange-hued sun slowly disappearing in the distant hills visible over rooftops at the end of a secret alley? Or maybe it’s the romance of a nighttime walk through dimly lit, winding, car-free, red-brick streets. Siena is the ultimate side-trip from intense Florence and a must-stop on any Tuscan weekend.
We used Siena as our base for a weekend in the Tuscan countryside. Three days and two nights in Siena allowed us to arrive early in the afternoon by car from Florence and explore with Saturday being reserved for a drive through the heart of Tuscany. Siena’s main tourist sights, discussed below, are the Civic Museum and City Tower and the Duomo, Baptistry, and Santa Maria della Scala and these are all within a 15-minute walk of each other. That said, our favorite parts of Siena were found by taking in the scene at Il Campo at dusk with an aperitivo and then finding special locals-only family-owned restaurants.
This may be one of our favorite churches that we have visited and that’s saying something considering the number of churches we’ve visited on our European adventures. The church has it all going on: a triptych-style façade, a forest of striped columns, Renaissance art, 15th century frescoes, and a massive stained-glass window, just to name a few of its unique features that mix Siena civic pride with religion (the contrade banners fly in the nave and art inlaid into the marble floor mixes scenes from the Old Testament with Sienese civic imagery).
There are three reasons why we think Siena’s Duomo is a “must see.” First is the interior. Its hard to find something to just focus on and take it in. The striped columns are so cool and the marble floor art and the painted illusion of a coffered dome and the Bernini chapel of the Madonna del Voto.
Second is that Siena’s Duomo remains unfinished. As Siena intended to rival Florence, the city wanted to build a massive Duomo. But Siena is a hill town and there was not enough flat land for the size of the cathedral. So the city built the Duomo to hang over the hillside and built the baptistry underneath to support one end of the church. The current nave was supposed to be the transept and the piazza is where the nave was intended to be. There remains an unfinished wall at the far end of the piazza from when the design was abandoned after the Black Death ravaged Siena.
Third is the Piccolomini Library. The library features frescoes from the 1400s, which would be impressive in and of itself, but the fact that the frescoes retained their vibrant jaw-dropping colors without any restoration is amazing. The library is named for Siena’s hometown guy Aeneas Piccolomini who became Pope Pius II. Opposite the Duomo is Santa Maria della Scala, which was used as a hospital and pilgrim lodging. Today it’s a gorgeous museum of artifacts from the period with cellars filled with neat exhibits.
Civic Museum and City Tower.
Siena’s City Hall is located at the base of the half-moon Il Campo. Inside are large rooms adorned with beautiful frescoes that portray Siena as a model city.
One of the more interesting frescoes is Effects of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
On one side is a depiction of the utopian community ruled by the utopian government with very happy people. On the other is a government ruled by an individual with horns on his head surrounded by mayhem and crime. The message is clear. The city hall’s loggia provides a sweeping view of Il Campo, but the 400 steps to the top of the city tower provide the best views of any city, hands-down.
Aperitivo in Siena. Il Campo is one of the finest squares in all of Europe and we deemed it worthy of paying a bit of a premium in the form of a service charge to relax in the twilight with an aperitivo. Osteria Liberamente is a great little bar that appeared very popular among locals. Wine was reasonable and paired with various snacks. Il Bandierino has an angled view of City Hall and fine pizza.
Dining in Siena. Antica Osteria Da Divo was so enjoyable from its ambience (candlelit set in Etruscan tombs) and its menu (featuring fresh truffles) that we decided to dine there twice. Our other dinner was at Bagoga, another family-owned restaurant full of locals on a Friday night.
Staying in Siena. We chose the Pensione Palazzo Ravizza, which is the tippy top of elegance. Situated on top of the city wall, we enjoyed an overlook of the surrounding countryside from both our well-appointed room and the garden. There is nothing like having a glass of Chianti while enjoying that view.