At the risk of sounding like a well-worn cliché, Siena is a must-see.
It is busy, vibrant, historic, and heaving with tourists.
So, pick your time to visit…
Siena is a true jewel of Tuscany. Yes, it could be described as yet another rustic Italian city, but one you should definitely include on any visit to this remarkable region. Again I booked a room in a small apartment complex right in the heart of the city and again, it was ideal for exploring on foot.
Siena was established in approximately 1st century BC and has grown to around 54 000 people. The city is divided into 17 districts and each has its very own flag and identity. District residents are fiercely parochial and loyal. This identity is celebrated regularly throughout the year with various festivals and much flag waving. One afternoon when I was strolling the streets I heard loud drum beats and much excitement and around the corner came a parade of locals proudly wearing and waving their colours. The young boys leading the group tossed their flags and enthusiastically brandished their red, green and white banners. I suspect they were just learning how to perform this ritual as there was much double-checking with each other and hearty congratulations from their parents when they finally reached the piazza. Good on them for having the interest and passion to keep their traditions alive.
Despite having already walked 760km to reach Siena, I figured the best way to learn about the city was on a walking tour. Guided tours are provided by the Tourist Office (€20pp) and Julia, our guide, was a passionate advocate for Siena.
Our tour set off from the Tourist Office, conveniently located in front of the massive Siena Cathedral. It was a good spot to orient yourself and tick off one of the main sites of the city.
By this stage of my journey I had had my fill of churches, cathedrals and every other type of religious edifice, but this church changed my mind. If you only look at one church in Italy, make it this one.
Julia led us into the Duomo (€6 entry fee included in the tour price) and we were dazzled by the décor. Every surface seemed to be delicately designed and every surface had a story to tell, from the intricately tessellated tile floors to the sculpture, ancient library and mesmerising black and white columns. Despite my church-related antipathy, I could have spent much longer in this place, but we had to move on. (Guided tours of the Church itself are available or you can hire an audioguide/headset. I would recommend paying for either of these as the building is just so rich and interesting).
Back out on the streets Julia explained the folklore behind the districts and how this demarcation or delineation is still as strong today as when it was established 1500 years ago. Julia was from the ‘giraffe’ district and proudly explained her colours, symbols and why her district is the best of all.
The highlight of each year in Siena are the horse races, called palio, held in Piazza del Campo every July and August. Each of the districts takes a turn to enter a horse and the competition is FIERCE.
The Piazza is turned into a race track with tonnes and tonnes of dirt and sand trucked in to form a race track around the edge. The centre of the Piazza is dedicated to spectators, and as it is a free to attend, 12 000 people queue up from very early in the morning and cram in there to view the spectacular.
What an atmosphere that would be? And how fabulous would it be to visit Siena for the palio? Yes, the crowds would be manic, but it would be a memorable slice of Italian culture.
As we stood in the Piazza and Julia shared the mechanics of how the palio is conducted, we were surrounded by tourists ambling the cobblestones and eating gelato. I tried to picture the scene, feel the energy and hear the roar of the crowd. Hard to do when the piazza is peaceful and almost empty. As an aside, I would love to find out how much gelato is consumed in Italy every day. By the look of all the gelato stores in Siena and ice cream cones and little tubs clutched by every second person, it would have to be thousands of tonnes.
Don’t be in a rush in Siena. I was used to stepping out across the countryside and walking at my own pace, but even I had to consciously kick back, relax and click into tourist mode. What better way to do that than to pull up a wicker chair at one of the many cafes lining the Piazza del Campo and watch the world go by?
So much energy and beauty in one city is hard to believe.
Yes, Siena is a must-see.
Have you been to Siena?
What: I stayed at Attilio Camere, Via Diacceto 22, Siena. $AUD93.50per night, including good WIFI. It is right in the heart of everything and a short walk to both the Duomo and the Piazza del Campo.
Where: Siena is located in the Tuscany region of Italy.
When: 7 September. Still hot and dry, even in Autumn.
Why: A rest day was scheduled and I didn’t want to miss out on this beautiful city.
How: I walked into Siena, but it is well-connected to all modes of public transport including an excellent train system.
Who: Every nationality known to man, plus thousands of parochial locals.
Related Posts: for another Italian gem, have a look at my post about Lucca, another Tuscan gem.
Related Blogs: To continue your love affair with Tuscany, check out this blog complete with stunning photos.
Read About it: Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché, but to get into the Tuscan groove, grab a copy of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun from Book Depository
#tuscany, #siena, #palio
4 thoughts on “Unmissable Siena.”
Yes, I spent a day there. It was a day trip from Florence. Loved walking around the narrow cobbled streets and exploring. We had the most amazing lunch in a beautiful restaurant just off the piazza. I hope to go back one day, but if it’s for the Palio, I think I’d rather view it from a window in one of the buildings surrounding the piazza! 🙂
I’m with you and viewing the palio! I think the crowds would do my head in, but the party atmosphere would be unreal! Have a good day, Mel
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You recommended Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun but a more interesting read about Siena is Dario Castagno’s Too Much Tuscan Sun. Very amusing anecdotes about the post-Mayes book and its effects on the hordes of tourists flocking to the region for a similar lifestyle change.
I bought his book in Siena in 2009 and read it in between meandering the medieval alleyways of this gorgeous walled city and feasting in their small trattoria’s.
I returned in 2014 (after my Camino Frances walk). This time the whole family came and fell in love with Siena as well. We even did a tour of Siena (the day before the July Palio) with Dario. He took us into the headquarters of his much beloved Caterpillar Contrada. My adult kids braved the crowds the next day to watch the Palio and believe it to rank as one of their life highlights being swept into the Palio mania.
Well worth a read 😁
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Thanks for your reading recommendation. I am sure there are a whole suite of Tuscan-themed books and probably a whole lot more weighty than Mayes’ effort. I have a book in my TBR pile that covers walking AND eating in Tuscany! That sounds like a marriage made in heaven! Have a good day, Mel