After we said our bittersweet goodbye to the Etruscan Coast of Tuscany, where its lesser known hamlets enthralled us, we headed into the Central Tuscany to revisit towns that captivated us on previous visit more than a decade ago. These towns are more touristed, but absolutely for good reasons. They are both UNESCO World Heritage sites and the jewels of Tuscany after all. They are very atmospheric, historic, fascinating, and definitely worth returning to.
Situated in the heart of Tuscany, Siena is considered one of the loveliest towns in the region. It has been known from the medieval time up to this day as the rival city of Florence.Although Siena is only a little more than an hour drive south from its rival city, we find them a world apart. While Florence has become cosmopolitan, Siena has remained provincial. It has remarkably preserved its medieval character with distinctive Gothic flair; thus, boasts of possessing a more genuine Tuscan charm.
Do you know that the business of banking as we know today started in Italy during the medieval time? And Siena holds the honor of being the headquarter of the oldest bank in existence in the world, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena. The bank has been operating continuously in this impressive gothic building since 1472.
One of the treasures of Siena is its Duomo, an impressive gothic cathedral built in the 1200’s and is filled with works by Italian masters such as Michaelangelo, Pisano and Donatello.Worth seeing in the Siena Duomo is its magnificent library built by Pope Pius III in honor of his uncle Pope Pius II (nepotism in the Vatican?!) and to preserve the manuscript that he collected. The manuscripts are no longer here but you can admire the majestic frescoes of great Pinturicchio and his students that included Rafaello.
Another Siena’s religious treasure is the 13th century gothic Basilica of San Domenico where the relics of the town’s beloved saint, St. Catherine of Siena, are stored. The saint’s family house from the 14th century still stands today and is located near the basilica.
Il Campo is dominated by Palazz0 Publico and its tower, Torre del Mangia. This civic palace was built in the early 1300’s and still houses the government offices. It also contains a museum and, if you have the energy, you can climb the 500 steps to the top of the tower and be rewarded with spectacular vista of Siena and its surroundings
The massive Il Campo is the venue of the most important event in Siena- the Palio. It is a horse race that takes place twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th and where each of the town’s 17 “contrades” (district) is represented. It is an event that Sienese are profoundly passionate about. It is Siena’s equivalent to the SuperBowl or the World Cup.
Sienna is proud of its typical cuisine and its piazza is surrounded by many cafes and trattorias offering dishes unique to Siena. We suggest that you try “pici,” a thick spaghetti typical of Siena, as well as “ribollita,” a hearty vegetable and bread soup.
Located halfway between Florence and Siena, San Gimignano – the “Town of Fine Towers” – is a small, walled hilltown that captivates any visitor with its medieval architectures and imposing towers.
The patrician families who controlled the town during the middle ages built around 72 tower-houses as symbols of their wealth and power. Only 14 of these towers have survived today; however, the town’s feudal atmosphere still remains.
Walking on the streets of San Gimignano feels like stepping back in the middle ages.
The presence of ancient wells and fountains added to the charm of the town. They can be found in the middle of a square and obscure courtyards. They were the main source of water for the medieval townspeople.
- To thoroughly enjoy your visit in Siena and San Gimignano, avoid visiting in peak summertime when hordes of daytrippers from Florence overtake the towns. September until late fall is a better time to visit.
- On how to get to Sienna by train, bus or car, click here and to San Gimignano, click here.
- Cars are not allowed inside both towns and you have to park the cars outside the towns. For parking information for Siena click here and for San Gimignano click here.