Siena: what to do and where to visit

Famous for its cuisine, medieval cityscape and its horse race held twice every year, known as the Palio, Siena is a must-see for anyone willing to explore what Tuscany has to offer in its different cities and towns.

Local legend has it that this medieval hilltop town was founded by Senius and Aschius – which happen to be the two sons of Remus (and so, the nephews of Romulus, i.e. the one after whom Rome was named). It’s said that following their father’s murder, they fled Rome taking with them the famous Capitoline Wolf statue – which is now the symbol for the town – whose name is said to thus originate from the name Senius. This is just one of the many theories behind the etymology of the word Siena – other theories being it originated from Saina – the Etruscan tribe that is said to have inhabited it first; or from the Roman family name Saenii, amongst others.

Fast-forward through years of battles, victories and losses – Siena is nowadays rich in history, art and culture – home to many landmarks and masterpieces worth visiting.

Firstly, head towards the town’s cathedral – an example of an Italian Romanesque-Gothic architectural masterpiece. The original plan for this cathedral also included a huge basilica, however due to lack of funds, this over-ambitious plan was abandoned. However works had already began, and you can still see the east wall of what had to be an east-west nave still standing today, close-by to where the cathedral is.

After that, you can head towards Piazza del Campo – one of the largest medieval squares in the world, which distinguishes itself from others through its shell-shape form. This square also hosts the famous Palio – a historical horse race that dates back to the 12th century, held twice a year during summer – once in July, and once in August. Ten horses and riders, dressed in the respective colours of their contrade (different city districts whose emblems can be seen throughout the whole town) compete to win this prestigious race. There are seventeen contrade, however not all of them take part in the Palio, which goes further than being a simple horse race. Through the years, intense ongoing rivalry and competition have characterised this race – where the trophy is that of the drappellone or palio (banner), which is delivered to the contrada that wins the race.

You can also spot the palace where all of Siena’s political history is encased – the Palazzo Pubblico (city hall), which nowadays houses the Civic Museum of Siena, where you can see the Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s famous The Allegory of Good and Bad Government – a series of three fresco panels depicting everyday life in Siena during the Middle Ages.

It’s impossible to visit Piazza del Campo and not see the Torre del Mangia. Overlooking the piazza is a tower 88 metres in height. You can also choose to climb the 400 steps that lead you to a breathtaking view of the town. The tower got its name after its first guardian, Giovanni di Duccio – or better his nickname of “mangiaguadagni” which can be roughly translated to “the one who spent all his earnings on food”.

Speaking of which, no trip to anywhere in Italy would be complete without sampling some of the traditional cuisine. Our Best of Tuscany tour not only includes a visit to Siena, but also gives you the opportunity to sample some of the exquisite Tuscan food and wine in a traditional  Tuscan estate – all whilst enjoying the beautiful panoramas only the Tuscan countryside can offer.

Artviva Tours: in FlorenceRomeVeniceMilanCinque Terre, Umbria, Naples, Pompeii and more.

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