All the sites below we did in a very relaxed 2 days in Siena. We stayed 4 nights and in between we did a drive on the S222 between Siena and Florence, exploring the Chianti wine towns. Also it was very hot so we needed some swimming and down time each afternoon. Outside of crazy peak season and when it wasn’t so hot, the main attractions of Siena could be visited in one busy day.
The Magic of Siena
It is hard to describe how truly beautiful Siena is. To put into words what makes this place so special. By now we’ve been to towns and villages across France, Portugal, Spain and Italy, and we’ve loved many of them. Saint Emilion in France was an absolute favourite early in the trip. But walking into the Piazza del Campo still took my breath away.
Piazza del Campo
In 2004 Paul and I visited Italy and Siena was our first stop. I had seen a picture just like this in the guidebook. We were walking the winding streets, not too sure where we were, when we found one of the stairways that lead to the Piazza and came across this view. You know that feeling when you see in real life what you had only seen in books or movies before? Perhaps the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House? Arriving at the Piazza del Campo is like that.
We’ve travelled to countless places, some multiple times, but every time I see this image it takes me back to that moment. I can tell you what we ate – wild boar ragu – and what we talked about – getting married, having a daughter and naming her after this place. And so we did, and here we are 14 years later bringing our daughter to the place she is named after. She took the picture above!
This moment was probably more significant for us than it was for her. She has been hearing this story since she was born and we have a painting of this scene at home. The moment was a bit lost on the kids but for us it was very special.
So what did we do this time with our 2 days in Siena?
Torre del Mangia
For amazing views of Siena you cannot miss the climb up the bell tower. 102 Metres high, the bell tower dates from 1325 and is one of Italy’s highest Medieval towers. At busy times you’ll need to buy a ticket for a timed slot.
Access on the stairways is very narrow, single file with limited places to pass each other. This is definitely not recommended for anyone claustrophobic. Some people turned back part way as they found it too uncomfortable. At one point this meant we all had to climb down a section of stairs and huddle on a landing while they passed. It is also not advised to wear a short dress like I did. I had to get the kids to follow me up the steep stairs to prevent flashing my knickers to everyone on the climb! But when you get to the top…
A short walk from the Piazza is Siena Cathedral, Duomo di Siena . Particularly striking is the unique black and white alternating marble stripes. Black and white are the symbolic colours of Siena. The cathedral was designed and completed between 1215 and 1263.
You may not be a ‘cathedral person’ preferring not to visit every cathedral you come across in Europe or around the world, but Siena’s should not be missed.
Siena has 17 official contrades or neighbourhoods. It is hard to explain the depth of significance of the contrade for the people of Siena. People are born into a contrade and rivalry is huge. Historically the neighourhoods or districts were set up in the Middle Ages to supply troops to military companies that were hired to defend Siena. Siena was fighting to preserve its independence from Florence. Over time, the contrade have lost their administrative and military functions. But the communities bond over shared history, rivalry, and tradition. All important life events, such as birth, death and marriage are celebrated within the contrade.
Twice a year in the summer, a representative from each neighbourhood rides in the Palio. A famous horse race held right in the Piazza del Campo. Each contrade has an animal or symbol and as you walk through Siena you can have fun spotting the different flags and symbols and figuring out which neighbourhood you are in.
You can turn this into a fun treasure hunt with children.
Gardens in Siena Orto de’ Pecci
Looking for somewhere child friendly in Siena I came across a few references to the medieval gardens. We went in search of this lesser known attraction in Siena. This isn’t a fancy park and there is no playground. But there is lots of open space to run around, shady spots under trees and some animals to visit. We saw goats and donkeys. Walk past the restaurant, right at the opposite end of the park is the medieval garden. Here you can see various herbs that have been used for centuries for everything from cooking and medicine to dying clothes.
Getting to Orto de’ Pecci
Behind the Piazza del Campo is the Piazza del Mercarto. There are stairs down to the green spaces below. From here there is a small street to the right of Via Del Sole. A short walk down this road brings you to a gate and into a piece of Tuscan countryside just 5 minutes from the Piazza. It is also worth coming down here for the views of Siena from a different perspective.
Camping in Siena
In Siena we camped at Camping Colleverde Siena. We were lucky to get a huge site with lots of shade. A highlight of this site – other than the much needed pool – was the wine supply in the camp shop. A large vat contained wine from a local farm. Priced at just 3 Euros per litre we could take along a bottle to be filled. Make no mistake this wasn’t cheap rubbish, just easy to drink, tasty, local, red wine. This seemed crazy cheap, until we found a shop near our camp site in Venice selling wine at less than 2 Euro per litre! Why don’t we have this system of filling our own bottles at wineries and shops in New Zealand?
Eating in Siena
In Italy it was easy to cook for ourselves, summer being the perfect season for lots of delicious fresh produce, a risotto or pasta dish was easy to cook on our camp stove.
It was also easy to eat out in Italy! Both expensively and inexpensively. Being on a budget that we weren’t very good at sticking to, and with Venice coming up we did try to eat out less. But we also made sure to try some local specialities along the way. In Tuscany this means Wild Boar Ragu. A rich meaty sauce of wild boar in red wine and tomatoes. Often served with pappardelle or tagliatelle pasta.
Osteria Il Carroccio
For a taste of local Tuscan food during our 2 days in Siena we went to the highly recommended Osteria Il Carroccio. Loved by locals as well as visitors to the city, this restaurant on Casato di Sotto is a gem. Friendly service, delicious house wine, charming atmosphere and great value for money. I had the wild boar pappardelle here and it was delicious. Many first time visitors to Italy find they have to get used to the traditional Italian style where the pasta is not drowning in sauce in the way it is often served outside Italy. When the pasta is this good you don’t need to smother it in sauce.
We found it hard to get really good gelato in Siena, everywhere we tried was so touristy with ridiculous prices and poor quality. Using google for reviews, as we often do, it was hard to find anywhere with more than 2 and a half stars!
We did go to Bar Gelateria La Costarella. Overlooking the Piazza del Campo with a tiny balcony, the views are the only real reason to come here, but if you need a sit down and you’ll be paying tourist prices for a gelato or espresso anyway, then the views are worth it. From here we got some great pictures of the Piazza and generally soaked in the atmosphere.
A birthday in Siena
We had another big occasion in Siena. L celebrated his birthday, and not just any birthday but turning 10. We’d learned some lessons from the previous month and I had managed to buy some wrapping paper in advance. Unlike his sister, L’s presents weren’t wrapped in Mum’s scarves. We’d been picking up some presents along the way as well as carrying some from England. Candles were recycled from sister’s birthday and stuck in a lemon gelato in lieu of birthday cake. Now we have even more happy memories of Siena.