What’s to love about Sienna? Just about everything! We chose this perfectly preserved medieval town as our home base in Tuscany, and it quickly became a favorite. Roughly 60,000 people live in this university town making it a walkable mid-size city, with plenty of history, art, religious relics, shopping, people watching, and gelato eating to go around!
Another Unesco World Heritage Site, Sienna is divided into 17 different neighborhoods each sporting their own mascot. We quickly chose the turtle as our favorite for no other reason than we are particularly fond of turtles. We also liked the goose mascot as well, because we are partially fond of geese. Each district is decorated with different colors and flags corresponding to their mascot.
Flags are hung outside the buildings. The colors and scarves representing each district are proudly worn by the residents, and tourists who want to join in the fun. A couple of times we stumbled upon flag throwers and drummers practicing their skills in the street! Are there rivalries between the neighborhoods? Of course! But all of this is settled each year with a friendly horse race known as the Palio.
What to see?
In Sienna we left no stone unturned because we had motivation to explore . . . as you’ll read later. Survey says, . . . we would return to this Tuscan town in a heartbeat! Below are some of the captivating highlights of what we saw, some of which we visited more than once. There was an undeniable draw that compelled us to make nightly visits to the square, or even multiple visits to El Duomo. We couldn’t get enough of this town, its art, and energy!
Il Campo: Il Campo is the impressive grand square right smack in the middle of the old town. The lively square is completely surrounded on all side by buildings. Picture a heart as the center square in the middle of town with small arteries leading pedestrian only traffic into a series of narrow stone streets. The main attractions on the square are Town Hall, Torre del Mangia (clock tower), and the Fountain of Joy.
A certain level of excitement fills the city, and the square encompasses it all. It’s enough to make you want to buy a bottle of wine and pull up a piece of concrete just to drink in the action. People sit on the sloping concrete in front of Town Hall as if it was just another day at the park. Cafe’s line the buildings surrounding the square where chatter and glass clinking is constant.
Sitting there we can only contemplate the photos we’ve seen around town of the same square converted into a racetrack. Horses from 10 of the neighborhoods compete in races twice a year. The perimeter of the square is covered in dirt. Locals and tourists enthusiastically pack into middle and sides beyond the parameters to cheer on their favorite horse. One lap around the track is approximately 1/3 of a mile.
Torre del Mangia: An iconic addition to the main square is the Town Hall and its large Torre del Mangia or clock tower. Conquer your fear of heights by stepping inside the tower climbing 400 steps to the top. The reward, a commanding 360 degree view of the Tuscan Countryside. As with most towers in Europe the top becomes extremely narrow. Only 25 visitors are allowed in the tower at a given time. So, be prepared to shuffle sideways between those entering and exiting.
Palazzo Pubblico: The Town Hall was created in 1297 to house the local government. At the time Italy was divided into city states. Sienna was a city state, essentially its own country with its own government. In order to avoid corruption in the late 13th century, nine individuals were elected to the city’s governing council serving two month terms. The individuals were permanently confined to the building, and were only allowed to leave on feast days.
Touring the building we visit the Hall of Peace, one of the meeting rooms where the elected nine would meet. The room showcases a series of frescos painted on three of the four walls by Ambrogio Lornenzetti. The images were meant to remind the city officials of their responsibilities and the effects of good or bad governing.
On the back wall is the Allegory of Good Government. Justice is a woman holding two scales that looks up to wisdom. The Commune is another large figure surrounded by smaller figures representing the virtues of peace, fortitude, prudence, magnanimity, temperance, and justice. Above those stand angels of faith and hope, and the image of charity.
On the right wall is the Effects of Good Government, and on the opposite wall the Effects of Bad Government. When “Good Government” is in effect there is peace and justice, commerce is flourishing. But, when “Bad Government” is in effect Tyranny is depicted as a devil personified with fangs and horns, and stands in opposition to Justice on the middle wall. The city is destroyed by war and corruption.
El Duomo: This is one of the major must see attractions for art lovers, if not just to have a glimpse at the gorgeous inlaid-marble floor! For almost two centuries a team of over 40 artists paved the ENTIRE cathedral floor with 56 different panels of scenes from the old testament, historical events, and allegorical figures. The panels are mostly rectangular but a few are hexagonal.
The floor is one of the most innate works of art we had ever seen! Much of the floor is roped off or covered by large carpets to preserve the marble scenes. However the entire floor is uncovered twice a year in September and October. Just thinking about the process used to create a work of art like this is intriguing.
The Piccolomini Library inside the cathedral is another highlight featuring frescos over 500 years old that have NEVER been restored! This is absolutely amazing to consider because frescos can be extremely fussy to deterioration because of exposure to light, candles, and humidity. In addition to the frescos, beautifully designed sheepskin music sheets that were crafted by Benedictine monks are displayed in glass cases.
Don’t forget to check out the statues by Michelangelo and Bernini. Marvel at the talent they possessed as marble sculptors. Donatello also shows off his talents as a sculptor using bronze to create his version of St. John the Baptist.
Unfinished Church: Sienna’s Duomo was in competition with Florence’s Grand Cathedral. Sienna wanted to have the biggest church and started construction on a grand expansion. Outside you can see part of the expansion that was never realized because of the plague. Visit the museum and climb to the top of the expansion wall for more scenic views of the Tuscan countryside.
So much more! – There is so much more to explore in Sienna that is beyond descriptions for this post. Guess you’ll just have to pack up and get on over there to have a look for yourself!
Getting There and Where to Stay?
We arrived by train, and stayed in another airbnb. The view from our unit was amazing, and our host was incredibly friendly stopping by to assist with a few things during our stay, and pointing out all the recommended sites. Unfortunately the worst part was not our unit, but the unit under ours. It was undergoing a complete renovation that started daily at 8 AM and didn’t stop well into the afternoon!
At first it was just three Italian men yelling at each other. Then they took to the walls with sledge hammers. Pause. More yelling. Then came the sand blasters. Pause. More yelling. At one point we thought the entire floor of our unit was going to cave through as they violently bashed the support beam below us! The noise was unbearable and the vibrations were enough to send plaster flying off the walls in our own unit! We alerted the host, but there was really nothing he could do for us. Escaping to the streets of Sienna was all we could do.