Although it goes against the grain, I am far more in love with Siena than Florence. Even though I have visited Florence on many more occasions than Siena, the feeling in Florence is always the same: am I in a real city or am I just another tourist in a big tourist attraction? Florence is a must and it should be on everyone’s top list of places to visit when in Italy but for me the true Italian charm is in Siena. You could easily spent a few days visiting the Cathedral and the several churches dotted around town, discovering the narrow streets and the alleys. Hours will fly sitting on the main square Piazza al Campo, sipping a Spritz (Italian aperitivo made with Aperol, soda and prosecco – normally served with a small nibble and crisps) and people watch. And you will notice that even though there are many tourists around, Siena is of its inhabitants. It’s deeply Italian land and you will love it.
Siena is a very friendly walking city (large pedestrian areas car free); if you are not staying downtown, leave your car outside the walls (plenty of car parks available and generally free after 8 PM) and take a pleasant stroll to the centre. It’s very difficult to say what to do, where to go and where to stay in Siena so I will just go for the not to miss check list:
- Siena is a pleasure for the eyes and for the camera. Every corner, every old palace lobby, every single street has something new to discover every day. Do not leave Siena without visiting the majestic Cathedral, the Crypt, the Piccolomini Library, the façade of the incomplete Duomo, the Torre del Mangia and Piazza del Campo. You will need a few days to visit all the main sites and the different neighbourhoods; leave a bit of time to enjoy the city itself at the relaxed Italian pace.
- Have an aperitivo in Piazza del Campo; it’s always busy but the best time would be just before dinner (5 PM onwards) there are many options and many of them not overpriced but you have to look for them. Italians are world renowned for being fashionable but as far as food and drinks we like to go simple so choose a bar with no white table cloth and busy with Italians. Climb up the Torre del Mangia to enjoy the breathtaking views of Siena from the very top. I haven’t been able to get my boyfriend up yet (damn vertigo!) but I have been myself a few times and on a clear day it’s absolutely stunning.
- Siena has got plenty of amazing restaurants for all budgets (personally I found that the restaurants in Via Camollia where a good choice, Osteria Titti, for example). We had been recommended Boccon del Prete but we couldn’t find it (not sure whose fault was it); reviews were excellent so I’d definitely try it on my next visit. One evening we were running a bit late and at 10.00 we hadn’t eaten yet; in a bit of a rush, we chose Vivace and were pleasantly surprised: the food was good (nothing mind-blowing though) but the views and the idyllic setting were the true highlight of the meal. If you go, ask for a table at the end of the terrace where you can enjoy a beautiful and romantic view. No matter which restaurant you choose, always remember that you are in Tuscany and as throughout all over Italy we do it in a simple way: basic ingredients, great fresh produce and hand made pasta. Wild boar and hare will always be on (almost) any Tuscan menu but obviously it will be fresh only when hunting season it’s open (Autumn/Winter). The same goes for the white truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico): best to enjoy it fresh when it’s picked up (from September to December). For those that can read a bit of Italian, Tuscany Region issued a very good and exhaustive guide on truffles. For more information on where to buy fresh truffles at a decent price, have a look at my post on San Giovanni d’Asso. If you are staying in a self catering accomodation and are tempted to buy some local products downtown to cook your own food, Consorzio Agrario (Via Pianigiani, 5) is probably the most comprehensive shop in the centre of Siena. It’s a cooperative of local farmers and producers that offer an excellent variety of high quality local delicacies: fresh pasta, freshly baked pizza and bread, panforte, cantucci, local wines and oil etc. Careful: it’s not cheap (not many Italians do their daily shop here!) and I found some of their products in the more affordable supermarkets like PAM and COOP for less money but still it’s a good option if you are a foodie looking for some good Tuscan product.
- After dinner, have a late evening stroll down its streets, get lost (it’s completely safe) and enjoys the amazing views and the evening lights. Best of all: it’s absolutely free! Depending on the areas, some streets/squares might be completely empty and you will be the only one admiring such gorgeous masterpieces.
- Go to Nannini (Via Banchi di Sopra, 24) for the best panforte (traditional Italian dessert with fruits and nuts) and ricciarelli (traditional soft Italian biscuits), two local delicacies. It might be a bit overrated but it’s a tradition and worth the little investment!
- Looking for a nice and unusual present to take home (that it’s not food :-)? Have a look at La Fabbrica delle Candele (Via dei Pellegrini, 11). Gorgeous homemade candles that last for ages with great designs.
At this stage, I haven’t mentioned anything about accomodation in Siena and the simple reason is that every time I visited I stayed out of town. I know that there are plenty of options for all budgets downtown Siena but I prefer to wake up in the morning and have a view of Tuscan countryside rather than a city view (even though Siena is a stunning city!). The options listed below were all around Euro 50/60 per night and they are all outside Siena. On 2 separate occasions we stayed at La Loggia Villa Gloria, located in Quercegrossa, a tiny hamlet less than 15 minutes drive from Siena downtown. They do offer both rooms and self catered studio/apartments. We chose the studio option since we wanted to keep an eye on the budget by cooking our meals and we were absolutely happy with it; it was quite old fashion with a relatively small kitchenette area and in need of an overall refresh but it served the purpose for a very good price. Their location just a few Km from Siena is perfect, the reception staff is very nice and helpful (book directly with them for a better rate) and they have a gorgeous swimming pool overlooking the olive trees that couldn’t be a more Tuscan picture. Having said this, they could do a lot more with the structure, improving some of the studios and prettying up the pool area but I suppose they would then charge a lot more money! If you are thinking about booking, ask for a studio in the 2 story stone building near the pool with outdoor space since some of their studios in the red building next to the main one are pretty horrible (I’ve tried them as well!).
An excellent option is Agriturismo Olivera, a self catered accomodation in Vagliagli. It’s a bit further out than La Loggia Villa Gloria and it will take you around 25 minutes to Siena but it was really good value: perfectly stocked kitchen, big bathroom, good size bedroom, outdoor seating area, lovely setting and the morning drive to Siena overlooking the hills was truly stunning. On top of that, Sandro the owner is a friendly young guy that works hard (he produces and sells his own wine) always up for a chat. If you don’t mind a bit of drive (no white road), it’s an excellent option. We chose to cook our own food during the evenings except one night that we tried the nearby restaurant Casa Lucia (a few minutes from the Agriturismo towards Siena) and it was delicious so if you don’t fancy cooking that’s dinner sorted!
Our last accomodation during our tour in Tuscany was at the Agriturismo Tenuta di Monaciano. It’s a massive estate made up of a main villa and different buildings (some quite apart from each others) that have being very nicely restored to accomodate several apartments on the hills near Siena (7 km). The views are absolutely superb and animals are abundant (driving back at night we saw plenty of roes, wild boards, hares etc) but be prepared for quite a long drive on a steep unpaved road (strada bianca, literally “white road”) not all in good condition (not ideal for very low setting cars). I suppose that’s the (small) price to pay if you want to stay in such an idyllic setting surrounded by colourful vineyards and olive trees.
On the positive side, the apartments here were probably the best that we found out of all the previous accomodations. Leaving the Tenuta and turning right at the end of the white road just before crossing the road that goes to Siena, there are a couple of restaurants; we tried La Piccarda: good size portion of yummy and reasonably priced food, excellent pizza and good house wine. We ate there on 3 occasions and it was always busy; it’s a good option if you don’t want to drive back downtown Siena for a bite to eat.
Where to stay? Not an easy choice with such a vast offer. If you are thinking about staying in a self catered accomodation out of town, take into account the following:
- Strada bianca (unpaved road): agriturismo or self catered units are generally located in the countryside so don’t expect a perfectly flat paved road up to the door of your room. Unless you plan to hire a 4×4, always ask how long the unpaved road is and its condition. Take into account that if you plan to come and go several times a day it can be a nuisance if it’s particularly long and bumpy.
- Heating: usually in self catered accomodation heating is not included. If you are visiting in cold months and looking to keep the apartment warm throughout the day, it can have a significant impact on your final bill (we always had it included but we had been told to calculate roughly Euro 1,50/2,00 per hour but it can be more). This is due to the fact that in general agriturismo are not connected to the mains therefore they rely exclusively on (expensive) liquid gas provision and sometimes in order to not lose money they have no other choice other than charge it back to the customer.
- Apartment: if you are planning to stay a few days and do most of the cooking, before doing the food shopping check if the kitchen is already stocked since some basics might be provided (oil, vinegar, coffee, sugar etc). Giving the fact that Tuscany is generally blessed with nice weather in the warm season, I would always try to look for an apartment with an outdoor seating/eating area. You will spend a lot of time just eating and enjoying the wonderful views!
- Restaurant: most agriturismo have a restaurant and do offer home made meals (in most cases prepared using their own produce) upon reservation. If your agriturismo has a restaurant and it’s open when you are visiting, it is an excellent option to try some local food in an informal atmosphere just outside your door.