Two Weeks in Siena
We traveled to Italy and Provence in the fall of 2022 and it was great to get back to more normal traveling – no pandemic restrictions, no masks required – but the crowds were definitely back. We spent the entire month of October on the road – leaving October 1 and flying back on October 31.
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We spent our first two weeks in Siena, in the same apartment we’ve rented twice before. By now, Siena really feels like a second home. We know the neighborhoods, we have our favorite haunts and our favorite gelato spot, and we have some friends we’ve made over the years.
We had been really pushing the video production before we left and the first several days we really just decompressed. We bought groceries at the Conad Supermercato and cooked a lot in the apartment, fresh pasta, pancetta and wine, and of course sat on the balcony and contemplated the city.
The second week we got out more, doing a wine tour with Franco Fadda to Montalcino, spending the day with our friend Fede and her husband and daughter in the ancient Etruscan city of Murlo, and taking a side trip to Castiglione Della Pescaia for our anniversary.
After two weeks of relaxing, we moved on to the exploration part of our trip, visiting Bologna and Alba, before heading to France for a week in Provence.
As usual, we traveled almost entirely by train and bus in Italy, with the exception of one night’s car rental to get to the sea, but we rented a car for our week in Provence. We didn’t miss the car in Siena or Bologna, but we probably could have used it in the Piedmont area.
Since we’ve written about Siena before, we’ll share just the highlights of this year’s trip, but we’ll cover more details on Bologna, Alba and Provence.
This year was our fourth visit to Siena, and our third staying at the same apartment just off the Piazza del Campo.
Mark originally found this apartment when he lived in Siena for two months in 2014, and we love to come back here. It’s a nice size, three bedrooms, with a small kitchen and an enormous patio. And it is pretty much exactly the same as that first visit, so we know how to use all the appliances and where to shop for groceries.
Arriving in Siena via Florence
To get to Siena from the states, we fly to Florence then take the bus to Siena, which takes about an hour or so. This year, there were some changes on our regular route since the last time we were here in 2018.
Florence has a new tram – well new to us, it opened in 2019 – that connects the airport to the city center. This made it even more convenient for us to hop on the tram, right outside the baggage claim, and get to the bus terminal in about 20 minutes. Once we got to our stop, it was a quick walk around the corner to catch the bus.
From the bus terminal, there are buses to Siena that leave frequently, roughly every hour on Autolinee Toscane. The bus company changed but the bus was still the same – there is a regular bus that takes about an hour and 45 minutes and a rapido bus that saves about half an hour. If you do this yourself, make sure you double check where the bus leaves – our bus actually left from outside the building instead of in the numbered parking spots.
We happened to arrive in time for the slower bus and it dropped us off at the Piazza Gramsci. We could have walked up to the apartment from there but lucky for us our friends picked us up and dropped us off, saving us the steep hill with our luggage.
If you’re planning a trip to Siena we highly recommend the bus. It’s reasonably priced and very reliable. Siena’s train station is off the main line so while it’s fine, the trains don’t run as often and you will often have to change lines, which is a real pain with luggage. On the bus, the driver puts your bags underneath and you don’t have to worry about them until you get to your stop.
The Autolinee Toscane is fine and relatively easy to navigate, there is also FlixBus that leaves from a different spot in Florence and drops at the Siena train station.
Hiring a car to take you, while more expensive of course, is also a great solution, but if you are staying in central Siena not all cars can come into the city so you may wind up getting dropped off somewhere else anyway.
Visiting our favorite places
It didn’t take long for us to walk down the street and find our favorite gelato shop, La Vecchia Latteria. For us, this is some of the best gelato we’ve had anywhere, and we were happy to see Fabio and his staff and have them recognize us from our last visit.
Unfortunately for us, one of our favorite restaurants in town, Nonna Gina’s, has been discovered by the tourist crowd so it was pretty hard for us to get in for dinner. With some planning, we were able to get in there once for lunch and for dinner on our last night in town. In 2014 we could wander in whenever we liked but now you definitely need a reservation. We were happy to see that they still had the old handwritten menu, and the same delicious gnocchi. They used to offer unlimited homemade grappa and amaretto after dinner, but that tradition seems to have gone away. Lucky for us they recognized Mark from his many visits and brought us a couple shots of amaretto to finish our meal.
On our first full day we walked from our apartment to the Fortezza Medicea, one of our favorite sites to explore. The site dates back to 1548, but the current fortress was completed in 1563 and was used for military purposes until the end of the 18th century. It was restored and turned into a public park in 1937.
The Fortezza now is a walled park with lots of trees, benches and expansive views of Siena and the surrounding hills. It often hosts outdoor festivals and on the day we visited, it was still set up from a recent event. But we often find it quiet with just a few people wandering around, and never too many tourists. We love to walk around the top of the wall and enjoy the views.
Finding some new favorites
We’ve spent a lot of time in Siena over the years but we have generally avoided some of the more touristy attractions. We visited the Duomo di Siena the first time we came in 2006 and evidently we also went into the town hall or the Palazzo Pubblico, which I remember only because I still have pictures of us there overlooking the city. Usually we wander through the town, eat pizza and gelato, or soak up the view from the amazing balcony in the apartment.
This time I was inspired, partially from reading Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena, to get to see some more of the famous art from the Sienese painters and to get to know some of the famous sites a little better and better understand the history of this amazing city.
We bought the full ticket (Opa Si Pass) to see all of the sites of the Duomo, which is a great deal since it is valid for three days, so we didn’t have to power through the whole place at one time. All the COVID restrictions had been lifted but you do have to pre-book to see the Porta del Cielo, or the Gates of Heaven, the rooftop tour that gives you the full view inside and outside the building.
Seeing the intricate designs on the cathedral floor as well as from above is unforgettable and definitely worth it. We also loved walking on the unfinished facade of the New Cathedral to see yet another panorama of Siena.
It’s a living reminder of what happened to Siena after the Black Death ravaged the town in 1348, killing almost half of its population. The extension of the original cathedral started in 1339 but was abandoned officially in 1357. The remaining population didn’t have the resources or the labor to finish it.
Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall)
The Palazzo Pubblico rises above the Piazza del Campo, the living room of Siena. The city spreads up and out from the Campo and we’ve spent plenty of time there, watching people, lounging over an aperitivo, and once even seeing the Palio. But I didn’t remember ever going inside and visiting the museum, so this time we did.
The Palazzo Pubblico dates to 1297 and was the seat of the Republic’s government. The inside walls are covered with colorful and detailed murals, which are unusual for Italy because they were commissioned by the government, not by the church. We got to see most of them, but the two most famous, Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, were being restored so they were off limits during our visit. I guess we will have to go back to see them on our next visit.
Santa Maria Della Scala
Across from the Duomo in Siena is one of Europe’s first hospitals, now a large museum complex. For years we walked by this place in Siena and I always assumed it was part of the cathedral museum. During this visit, we finally went in.
Siena lies on the Via Francigena, the historic pilgrim’s route to Rome, and the hospital was likely created to help care for those pilgrims as they passed through town. Its first written record is a “deed of gift” dated in 1090 and it still served as the city hospital 50 years ago before it was opened as a museum in 1995.
While not formally a part of the church, it houses dozens of holy relics as well as elaborate altarpieces, and there are some fascinating chapels in the lower levels. The painted frescoes inside, dating back to the 1300s, are beautiful and extremely well-preserved.
One of the highlights for us was the Fonte Gaia exhibit, detailing the history of the original fountain in the Campo that was built in 1419 then reconstructed years later into the one we see there today. While we had walked past it so many times in our previous visits, we never really stopped to look at it until our friends suggested we meet there during this trip.
The museum was fascinating and I’m so glad we stopped in for a visit. It was definitely a lot quieter than the Duomo across the way and as a bonus, had a sweet little cafe inside with perfect tables for people watching outside.
Some new favorite spots to eat
While not a Tuscan delicacy, who can turn away a freshly made Cannoli? We stumbled upon the wonderful Cannoleria Ke Cassata on one of our walks and we were so glad we did. It was so fun to choose your size and your filling and walk away with a sweet delicious treat. The place was packed with lots of locals coming to also get their freshly made arancini.
We have always been fans of the Consorzio Agrario Siena, a large specialty market near the center of Siena, but during this trip, we also discovered they have amazing fresh pizza. Whenever we wanted a quick lunch, we picked up a personal slice or two and took it over to enjoy at the nearby Piazza Salimbeni, a quiet little square in front of a bank office. We often shared this space with other tourists and locals of all ages.
Day Trips from Siena
We always enjoy spending a day in Montalcino drinking Brunello with Franco Fadda Tours, and this year was no exception. Franco is a fun guy and this year he created a tour just for us. But we also visited a couple of new places a short drive away from Siena.
Murlo, an ancient medieval village, lies just about half an hour out of central Siena. It’s a charming small town that dates back to the 12th century and is well-preserved, with a wall surrounding the core of the tiny village. But people have been in this area far longer, as we learned from our visit to the archaeological museum, housed in the former Bishop’s palace.
Well before the Roman empire, the Etruscans ruled this part of Italy and the artifacts date back to the 6th and 7th centuries BC. Archaeologists started to excavate the nearby Poggio Civitate in the 1960s and they’ve reconstructed a portion of the ancient Etruscan palace inside the museum.
What was most fascinating to us was the terracotta cowboy statue – known in Italian as the Cappellone (He of the Large Hat). The figure has a triangle shaped beard and large hat and historians assume it must have been some kind of authority figure important in the area.
Castiglione della Pescaia
When we think of Tuscany, we don’t really think of beaches, but the nearby province of Grosseto has plenty of coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea. We spent one night in the charming town of Castiglione della Pescaia, less than two hours from Siena by car.
We picked up a one-day rental at the Hertz office near Siena’s train station, something we’ve done a couple of times before. We were happy to get a little blue Fiat 500 (cinque cento) that was easy to drive, once we got used to the stick shift again.
Castiglione is a popular tourist resort with dozens of small hotels and vacation homes along its small beachfront. October was late in the season and we practically had the little town to ourselves for our getaway, but you can imagine that it gets really packed in the summer. The beach was crowded with bars, restaurants and lots of lounge chairs, almost all closed and covered up for the season.
We stayed at Hotel Miramare, a small modern place right on the water, with a small balcony and a nice view of the sea. While it wasn’t warm enough to swim, it was plenty warm enough for walking on the beach path and exploring the little town.
The city gets its name from the medieval fortress at the top of the hill on the opposite side of town from the water. We climbed a bit up but decided to skip going all the way to the top, in favor of having a drink and gelato in town instead.
We enjoyed our quick visit to Tuscany’s seaside and look forward to coming back and exploring more of the Maremma area during a future trip.
For us, Siena is no longer a tourist town but almost a second home. We know where to buy groceries, our favorite restaurants and cafes, and we love getting together with friends every time we visit. We’re sure we will be back there again on a future trip.
You can find links to all our favorites from Siena over the years on Trip Advisor.
Next, we venture on to a new town for us – Bologna.