Swiss expat Katja Meier arrived in Siena in 1999, fell in love with an olive grove, and never left. She lives with her Tuscan native husband and their two kids in Southern Tuscany, working as a health and life coach and organizing retreats for people from all over the world who are battling cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. She started a travel blog — MapItOut — because she says she owes her best travel adventures to kind locals who have taken her by the hand, and wanted to repay the favor. Here are a few of Katja’s favorite things about Siena (follow her on Twitter @anythingtuscan).
The first place I take a visitor from out of town is Piazza dei Salimbeni. Not just a beautiful square but also HQ of the world’s oldest bank: Monte dei Paschi di Siena has been rocking it big time (at least so far) since 1472. You thought the world used to be a better place? Forget it. Renaissance art and banking have always been intrinsically linked.
When I crave healthy ice-cream I always go to Grom’s. No way around the calories, but at least no nasty additives thanks to carefully selected ingredients. There’s a small children’s play area at the back and the thoughtful recycling of spoons, cups, and napkins makes my Swiss heart beat faster.
To escape the crowds I head down Siena’s backstreets. There are no tour groups around (I guess they don’t fit through the medieval alleyways).
If I want to have a good time with my friends I go to Piazza del Campo and let the kids loose. No need for slides and swings if you can play hide-and-seek on one of the world’s most celebrated squares.
For complete quiet, I can hide away in front of Duccio di Buoninsegna’s masterpiece of a painting, the “Maestà.” It has a room dedicated to it on the second floor of the OPA museum. During high season, tour groups flock in and out, but nobody stays on to actually LOOK at the painting. Take half an hour, sit down, and understand why they didn’t invent TVs in the 14th century.
If you come to my city, get your picture taken with your mate on Piazza del Campo. Italy has beautiful squares all over the place, but don’t make up your top ten before you’ve had your Campari on Siena’s Piazza del Campo.
Libreria Senese (via di Città 64) is my one-stop shop for great books. There is a small children’s book section in English. If your kids are tired of playing around with your smart phone, you can always try reading to them. Mine still enjoy it.
Locals know to skip Piazza del Campo’s over-prized eateries and check out the restaurants on the backstreets instead. Stick to coffee and Campari during your breaks on the square.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped I go to Il Grattacielo (via Pontani, 8), a little osteria (restaurant) the size of your average cupboard. Which explains its name (grattacielo = skyscraper) and makes for a good introduction to the Tuscan sense of humour.
For a splurge I go to Le Logge for plenty of ambiance and Tuscan cuisine at its best.
Photo ops in my city are literally everywhere. If you don’t have an issue with heights and claustrophobia, climb the stairs of the OPA museum to get a bird’s view of Siena’s impressive cathedral, then repeat the climb at the Mangia tower on Piazza del Campo.
If my city were a celebrity it’d be Katharine Hepburn. Rather reserved, of a certain age, but still incredibly elegant and beautiful.
The most random thing about my city is the relentless influx of badly dressed tourists. Do what you want, but no socks and sandals. Never!
My city has the most reserved and slightly arrogant men and women. Did I mention Siena’s banking history?
My city has the most mouth-watering choice of local food delicacies. Skip the touristy shops and go straight to the Consorzio Agrario’s main store (via Pianigiani, 9). Fill up your basket with the famous Cinta Senese Prosciutto or taste your way through the superb Pecorino cheeses. Throw in a bottle of Tuscan red and your picnic is ready to go.
In my city, an active day outdoors involves walking up and down our hills (leave your new Italian high-heels behind — we’re talking cobble stones only).
My city’s best museum is the magnificent OPA; with a grand entrance hall on the ground floor, a meditative room on the first floor dedicated to Duccio’s above mentioned “Maestà,” and a breath-taking view over the whole city from what was supposed to become the new facade of the never finished cathedral.
My favorite jogging/walking route is… jogging? You must be kidding. After a day spent walking up and down those hills? If you still feel like jogging in the evening it’s because you’ve spent the day drinking too many cappuccinos.
For a night of dancing, go somewhere else. A fervent night life is not one of Siena’s strong points. The Sienese will hate me for it, but Florence and Rome are much better options for a few funky moves. I wonder whether it has anything to do with the Palio horse race. All that frenzy from June to August – there’s probably just no energy left for the rest of the year. If you don’t believe me, watch this.
For live music, come in the summer when Siena is hosting the Estate Musicale Chigiana, a famous classical music festival. To mix up things, they usually throw in a couple of pop or rock concerts, too.
Naples is the spot for late-night eats. See “For a night of dancing…”
You can tell a lot about my city from what happens to its population during the months before and after Palio. Definitely not your average horse race!
You can tell if someone is from my city if they start gesticulating wildly whenever somebody pronounces the word Palio.
In the spring you should make time to venture into the surrounding countryside to see the explosion of colours. Head towards Asciano, move on to the stunning Monte Oliveto Maggiore abbey and then get a sugar and culture fix in off-the-beaten-path Buonconvento.
In the summer you should visit Siena in the early morning or late afternoon. Between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., tour buses unload hoards of tourists into Siena’s main streets, but most don’t stay overnight. Once you’ve had your share of heat, crowds, and medieval art, head down to Southern Tuscany’s coast, build your own beach hut, and enjoy the pristine natural surroundings.
In the fall you should soak up the warm autumn sun on Piazza del Campo. The light is fantastic for all the photographers out there. And remember to leave the city alone for an afternoon to pop into a winery in the Chianti region or in Montalcino. You’re in the Sangiovese grape’s home territory, so you’d best bring a glass.
In the winter you should keep coming back. Fell in love with Siena and want it all to yourself? This is the time of the year when it’s just you and the locals. Bring warm clothes — temperatures aren’t too bad outside, but those medieval stone buildings tend to be a little heating-challenged.
For a great breakfast joint try one of the several Nannini bars in town. Do it the Italian way: no sitting down, just lean on the counter for a quick espresso or cappuccino to get your day started. The Nannini bars are also great places to stock up on some of Siena’s famous sweets (Panforte, Ricciarelli, etc.) to take back home.
Just outside my city, you can get your lifetime fix of undulating Tuscan hills and cypress trees.
The best way to see my city is on foot. In the 1960s Siena was one of the first cities in Europe to close off its expansive historic centre to traffic.
If my city were a pet it would be a horse. Obviously!
If I didn’t live in my city, I’d live exactly where I live: in the marvelous Tuscan countryside. I love you dearly, Siena, but your housing prices are way over the moon.
The best book about my city is Explore and Discover Siena by Bartoli and Latini, which can be bought in most book shops and museums in Siena. It’s a children’s guide to the city and that’s exactly why adults will love it, too. It can turn football-crazy teenage sons and husbands into ardent art lovers. I’ve seen it happen!
When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is “Meravigliosa Creatura” (Marvelous Creature) by Gianna Nannini. The Siena-born rock star is one of a kind. An outspoken lesbian, she is a far cry from ex-president Berlusconi’s female ideal. We can only thank Siena for providing Italy with such a different female role model! To be honest I can’t quite get the hang of her music, but my Tuscan native adores her, as does the rest of Italy.
If you have kids, you won’t want to miss Siena. Full stop. Why go to Disneyland if you can visit the real thing? We’re talking scary door knobs and fairy tale creatures hanging off marble window sills. And if that’s not enough try the Santa Maria della Scala Museum’s interactive children section.
The Palio could only happen in my city. The Palio, again?! Sorry guys, but do you know of any other festival out there that has been going strong for 500 years and is still as fascinating as it was on the first day?
My city should be featured on your cover or website because you’ll never ever forget that cappuccino on Piazza del Campo. A square is a square is a square definitely doesn’t apply to Siena.
Related [National Geographic's Guide to Italy]