Siena sits in the heart of Tuscany amid rolling hills and grape covered hills. Close to San Gimignano, it’s easy to see both in a summer day with long daylight hours, but to enjoy Siena, I suggest spending a full day there at least.
Flights/Lodging: The Pisa airport is just 1 hour away.
Parking: There are parking lots in several places around the perimiter of the old town, so simply follow the signs to the Piazza del Campo or Duomo at the city center (noted on the signs with a black and white bullseye) and look for the big blue P.
We parked a minivan in the Duomo parking quite easily. This lot is just inside the old city gate where the Strada Massetana meets the Via del Nuovo Asilo. The rates are inexpensive. From the Duomo lot, it’s a 15 minute walk to the Duomo.
Interesting: Siena is divided up in to 17 contrada represented by different animal or symbols. These are simply districts, but used to be formed mainly of workers in a similar field. For example, the Contrada di Chiocciola, the oldest contrada in Siena, was once made up mainly of terracotta workers. As you walk through Siena, you’ll notice animals represented in art and sculpture displayed in interesting ways along the street. It isn’t random art at all – these representations show which contrada that you’re walking though and are symbols of pride. Each summer the contradas have a race in the Piazza del Campo. Our snail friends haven’t won since 1999.
The Duomo sits in a plaza near the Piazza del Campo, impressive with it’s detailed facade and black and white striped exterior. What’s even more impressive is to look to the right of it to the funny wall standing alone at one end of the square and realize that it’s what was supposed to be one end of the nave. Now, it stands awkwardly a thin wall that makes up part of the museum now and provides views of Siena and its surroundings, but if it wasn’t for a plague that halved Siena’s population in 1348, then the church would have been completed as planned making it the largest church in all of Christendom.
The Facade: With a little sun the gold tiles in the three triangular mosaics in the facade sparkle with reflected light and each detail of the saints and lions adorning the doorways stand out. It’s beautiful.
Inside the Church: It may take a moment for your eyes to adjust to the sheer abundance of detail that surrounds you from floor to ceiling. It’s overwhelming. The thick columns are all striped like the outside walls in black and white similar in style to Cordoba’s great mosque. The floor is covered with inlaid marble scenes, and around you are carvings and sculptures by artists like Pisano, Donatello, and even Michaelangelo. Photography without flash is allowed.
The Library: From the inside of the church near the gift shop, there’s a small entrance to the library that is easy to overlook. The oblong room contains old hand painted books at eye level and frescoes from mid wall to ceiling by Pinturicchio. It’s full of light and the colors are bright and uplifting. Don’t miss this.
The Gift Shop and Bathrooms: There are a couple bathrooms near the gift shop. It’s not a pretty area, but I found this little friend there who I found quite irresistable not only because of his sweet face, but because of the three letters on his shield that I’ve seen so much both here and in Rome. Until now, OPA to me either meant “grandfather” or “duck now, a plate is flying your way.” In Italy, it means something quite different. Opera della Metropolitana is a cathedral works committee that has commissioned art and taken care of the building and upkeep of Italian cathedrals as long as the beginning of the 12th century. Each town has their own OPA, but you’ll see these initials carved into stone on facades and inside many of Italies churches.
I could have spent hours walking around the church full of so much art and light. There’s a nice article on wikipedia that tells all about the details. I didn’t have a guide, but seeing it was enough.
The Baptistry: Don’t miss the baptistry. The entrance is on the back side of the church down a long staircase to the left of the ticket office. The room is small, covered almost entirely in highly detailed frescoes in great shape in vibrant colors. You can walk around freely or sit in the few benches and enjoy the details comfortably by using one of the large round mirrors provided. Photography without flash is allowed. There are details within details, so take your time and bring a tripod or your back will be killing you by the end of the day.
The Narthex: Uncovered within the last ten years, the narthex is a group of rooms built underneath the current nave of the church with frescoes on the walls in various degrees of repair. Photography of any kind is NOT allowed here. It’s plain inside, but pretty and doesn’t take a lot of time to see.
The Museum and Gift Shop: Though signs are posted near the entrance of the museum and not all through the facility, photography is forbidden both in the museum AND in the gift shop which also has a beautiful frescoed ceiling. I think it’s strange that I can take photos in the cathedral itself and baptistry, but not the gift shop, but the employees there don’t seem to have much sense of humor nor do they share my logic. If you have time, the museum does hold some really nice pieces of catholic art. It’s also the entrance point to the nave wall where you can climb and get great photos.
Nave Wall: The views from this point are beautiful not only of Siena itself, but of the surrounding countryside. The stairways up and down are narrow, so it can be slow going up and down with lines forming at each level waiting for the stairways to clear. It is worth it though. The top level is NOT recommended if you are afraid of heights. There are stone benches lining it on all sides with only a thin steel railing around that. Children MUST be held by the hand at all times.
Look below and imagine what this would look like if it had been completed. I would have been standing at the top of the wall that would have been part of the nave. The parking lot, part of the building, perhaps also with a marble inlaid floor. It would have been massive.
This is one of those “don’t miss” places in Siena that I missed, but, it’s just down the steps behind the Duomo and to your right just a few blocks away, so there’s really no reason to miss it. For more stunning views, you can go into the Campanile (bell tower). This is a great place to stop for a nice meal as well. If you are planning a summer trip, look up “Palio di Siena.” This is a famous horse race held every year on July 2 and August 16 where the contradas compete against each other.
Bit of Trivia: The University of Siena is one of oldest universities in continuous operation. Beginning in 1240, it’s only closed twice briefly from 1402-04 and 1808–14.
Food souvenirs: At the bottom of the stairs near the Duomo’s baptistry is a tiny little gourmet food shop. that sells dried pastas in all sorts of colors and shapes, wines, vinegars, olive oils, sandwiches made fresh to order, and a variety of this delicious panforte made locally and sold by the gram.