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Why go now?
Always beautiful, Siena looks particularly appealing in early spring sunshine; right now it is warm enough to sit outside for coffee or drinks, but still cool enough to deter tourist crowds. The festival of St Joseph takes place next week, an ancient celebration with street stalls selling wooden toys and traditional rice balls.
Lack of an international airport nearby has helped to preserve Siena's glorious medieval centre. The most convenient gateway is Pisa, 89km away. It is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) from Gatwick; and by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Birmingham, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and Stansted. From 29 March, Jet2.com (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) offers a service from Leeds/Bradford (with more Jet2.com services from other parts of the UK starting in May).
Trains (ferroviedellostato.it) from Pisa airport run frequently to Siena, with changes at Pisa Centrale and at the industrial town of Empoli. The trip takes just under two hours and costs €7.10. The railway station – 1.5km north of the city walls – has a small tourist office, open 9.30am-1.30pm daily except Sundays. The station is also the destination of a twice-daily bus service (00 39 0577 204246; trainspa.it) from Pisa airport, taking about two hours and costing €14. Currently, roadworks make it awkward to find the buses to the city centre – head to the shopping arcade opposite the station and follow bus signs to a bus stop in an underground car park. Frequent, centrally bound buses (fare 95 cents) take you to Piazza Gramsci (1).
Get your bearings
Ancient, walled Siena takes only about half an hour to walk across. You'll be dodged by scooters along the way, but few cars are allowed along the narrow streets. The city is set over three hills dramatically topped by towers and churches. At its heart is Il Campo, the strikingly beautiful piazza around which the bareback horserace, the Palio, is held annually on 2 July and on 16 August. Immediately to the west, up a sharp incline, is the cathedral (2), the black-and-white stripes of its façade in marked contrast to the warm-pink brick elsewhere.
North and slightly west again is the big, bold Basilica of San Domenico (3). In a corresponding position over on the eastern edge of Siena is the equally large Basilica of San Francesco (4). Meanwhile, the city's north-west boundary is marked by the Fortezza Santa Barbara (5), a large bastion built in 1561 to enforce Florentine supremacy after Siena's age-old enemy had conquered the city.
The main tourist office (6) is at Il Campo 56 (00 39 0577 280551; terresiena.it), and is open 9am-7pm daily.
The Grand Hotel Continental (7) at Via Banchi di Sopra 85 (00 39 0577 56011; ghc.royaldemeure.com) is the address here. The 17th-century palazzo was restored in 2002, its frescoes painstakingly conserved and its winter-garden courtyard turned into a bar area under a glass dome. There are 51 spacious bedrooms, most furnished with antiques and some with painted ceilings. Doubles from €180, room only.
Nearby, the 30-bedroom Albergo Cannon D'Oro (8), at Via Montanini 28 (00 39 0577 44321; cannondoro. com), offers pleasingly simple decor in an ancient building. Doubles from €100, including breakfast.
For an appealing budget option, make for Albergo Bernini (9) at Via della Sapienza 15 (00 39 0577 289047; albergobernini.com). Its big attraction is a wonderful terrace with views over the city. Note that not all of the nine bedrooms have ensuite bathrooms. Doubles from €65; breakfast (on the terrace) €7.50 per person.
Take a view
To get a stunning perspective on the city, head to Il Campo, dominated by Siena's iconic Palazzo Pubblico (10), a glorious Gothic building that still houses the town hall. Its magnificent Torre del Mangia is open to the public – although you'll need some stamina to climb its 400 or so steps (daily 10am-7pm – but closed during heavy rain; €7).
A wing of Palazzo Pubblico (10) is home to Siena's outstanding Museo Civico (00 39 0577 226230; commune. siena.it). Here you explore state rooms finely decorated by important artists, from Simone Martini in the early 14th century to Pietro Aldi in the 19th century. The highlight is Sala della Pace, featuring Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Allegories of Good and Bad Government, frescoes completed by 1339. It opens 10am-7pm daily, admission €7.50.
To see more Sienese art, make for the regional art gallery, the Pinacoteca Nazionale (11) at Via San Pietro 29 (00 39 0577 281161; spsae-si.beniculturali.it). It opens daily, basically 8.15am-7.15pm, but only 8.30am-1.30pm on Mondays and 8.15am-1.15pm on Sundays; admission €4). The top floor of this slightly dusty museum is a treasure trove of Gothic and Early Renaissance altarpieces.
Lunch on the run
Order a panini and a cappuccino just down the road, at the café called 4 Cantoni (12), on the corner of Via di Citta and Via San Pietro (00 39 0577 280942).
Siena's main shopping streets are Via dei Montanini, Banchi di Sopra and Via di Citta. Nannini (13) at Banchi di Sopra 26 and Sinatti (14), at Via della Sapienza 34, are both renowned for their panforte (Sienese cake of spices, honey and nuts), along with variations on the theme such as panpepato, made with pepper. For more cake, as well as Tuscan olive oil, wine and other gourmet fare, make tracks to Drogheria Manganelli (15) at Via di Citta 71. Founded in 1879, it creaks with atmosphere.
Bar Il Palio (16) is right on Il Campo. You'll pay over the odds for the setting, but what a setting it is. Sit at an outside table, order a prosecco and enjoy the outlook on to Palazzo Pubblico (10).
Dining with the locals
In a pretty courtyard, Osteria Il Campaccio (17), at Vicolo del Campaccio 2 (00 39 0577 40212; osteriailcampaccio.it; closed Mondays) celebrates local produce and cuisine. Its menu includes the likes of wild boar with polenta at €10.
Sunday morning: go to church
Head to the Santuario della Casa di Santa Caterina (18), off Via Santa Caterina (daily 8am-12.30pm and 2.30-6.30pm; free). The house where Siena's St Catherine was born in 1347 is now a wonderfully peaceful complex of chapels, the most visually striking being an oratory built on the site of the old family kitchen and containing paintings by Sienese artists Rutilio Manetti and Francesco Vanni. Sunday Mass is celebrated in the chapel opposite at 11am.
Take a hike
Siena is divided into 17 neighbourhoods – territories of the contrade, the intriguing, time-honoured guilds of the city that are still very much part of the fabric of Sienese life. Their existence is most flamboyantly evident during the Palio, when each horse and jockey represents a different contrada, distinguished by their emblems (owl, giraffe, goose, snail and more). You'll see these on flags and small plaques on buildings, marking out the separate neighbourhoods. Each contrada also has its own chapel, museum and fountain.
For a Sunday morning treasure hunt, start at Il Campo and follow a route between Siena's most imposing sights, while taking in details of different contrada neighbourhoods. Walk west down Via Rinaldini and take a left-right jink up Via San Vigilio (19). You'll see a small plaque of an owl on the left-hand corner building. Pass the gracious university chapel, and at the end of this street, turn left up Via Sallustio Bandini. Turn right at Via Lucherini (20), noticing a small giraffe emblem on the wall. Ahead is the domed baroque church of Santa Maria in Provenzano (21) (7.30-noon and 3.30-6.30pm, free); take the steps down to the right to reach Piazzetta della Giraffa, with a modern bronze fountain featuring the contrada's emblem.
Turn left up Via delle Vergini, past the headquarters of the Societa della Giraffa (22). At the end, turn right and then left, following the road round to the forecourt of the imposing brick Basilica di San Francesco (4) (7.30-noon and 3.30-6pm; free). Retrace your steps to Via dei Rossi, noting a street gateway that one side has the caterpillar contrada's emblem, the other that of the giraffe.
At the end of Via dei Rossi, turn right into Banchi di Sopra. A few strides up this aristocratic street you'll reach elegant Palazzo Salimbeni (23) – complete with caterpillar plaque. The square is home to the world's oldest surviving bank – Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded in 1472.
Turn left down Via Costa dell'Incrociata and continue as it turns into Via della Sapienza, at the end of which you'll reach the Basilica di San Domenico (3) (7.30-noon and 3-6pm; free).
Now make your way along Via Camporegio and turn right along narrow Vicolo Campaccio, which leads down to Via San Antonio. Turn right into this street, following it down and up to Via Diacetto. Turn right here and continue on to Siena's cathedral (2).
Out to brunch
Enjoy a brunch of pasta at Trattoria da Dino (24), at Via Casato di Sopra 71 (00 39 0577 289036). Good-value dishes such as tagliatelle al ragu at €5.50, are offered in a simple setting.
A walk in the park
Medieval cities weren't built to offer green space, but the grounds of Fortezza Santa Barbara (5) have latterly become something of a public park. Join locals here, ambling along the old fortress walls and taking in the views.
The icing on the cake
The cathedral (2) and its environs offer a wealth to see, not least works by Pisanello, Donatello and Michelangelo. It opens 1.30-5.30pm on Sundays, 10.30am-7.30pm on other days. The €3 admission includes entrance to the ornate Piccolomini Library. In addition, visit the Baptistry (daily 9.30am-7pm; €3); the crypt with a remarkable medieval fresco cycle (daily 9.30am-7pm; €6); the Oratory of San Bernardino exhibiting sacred art (daily 10.30am-1.30pm and 3.30-5.30pm; €3); and the Museo dell'Opera, showing masterpieces commissioned for the cathedral (daily 9.30am-7pm; €6). A cumulative ticket for all these sites is valid over three days and costs €10.
Opposite the cathedral, the great hospital of Santa Maria della Scala (25) was founded in the 9th century and much embellished since. It is gradually being turned into one of Italy's biggest museums. Along with chapels and fresco cycles, it now houses the archaeological museum and changing exhibitions (daily 10.30am-6.30pm; adults €6).