History, facts and travel tips about Siena

Siena is a city where the medieval rubs shoulders with the Renaissance and glorious buildings soar into the sky.

The fan-shaped Piazza del Campo is at the heart of the city, and the place where visitors will find many of Siena's historic attractions. From this piazza, the 17 'contrades' or districts that make up old Siena stretch outwards.

The contrades are home to steep, cobblestoned streets lined with high-end boutiques and quirky gift shops along with traditional 'trattorias' and 'pasticcerias'. These are perfect for sampling the flavors of Italy.

Tradition has it that Siena, located in Tuscany, just 43 miles (70 km) south of Florence, was founded by Senius and Aschius, the sons of Remus.

When Romulus killed their father, Senius and Aschius fled Rome taking a statue of the She-Wolf with them. This statue is now the symbol of Siena, and sculptures or images of it can be found throughout the city.

Lying at the heart of a proud and wealthy state, Siena reached the height of its power in the late medieval and early Renaissance period.

Today, apart from its world-class architecture and art, Siena's main claim to fame is Il Palio. This exciting and colorful horse race that sees the contrades competing against each other is run twice every summer. With its roots in the medieval period and a long, unbroken history, Il Palio is taken very seriously by the locals and is a vibrant celebration that combines pageantry, religion, and sheer showing off.

Siena's architecture celebrates the Gothic while inside its churches and palaces is gathered some of Italy's best Renaissance artwork including many pieces of unique importance. Great names like Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti, and Ambrogio Lorenzetti lived and worked in Siena while Michelangelo, Pisano, and Donatelli contributed paintings and sculptures to the art collections of the church and aristocracy. Many of these historic buildings can be found clustered around the Piazza del Campo, a good starting point for any visit.

Many visitors feel that Siena's cathedral or Duomo is the most beautiful in Italy while the Basilica of San Francesco is striking in its austerity, and so characteristic of the Franciscan Order. Other visitor highlights include the Home-Sanctuary of Catherine of Siena, Italy's patron saint; Santa Maria della Scala, Europe's first purpose-built hospital; and the Baptistry of St John with its wonderful frescoes.

When its time for a breather from sight-seeing, the honey-stone buildings of the narrow, surrounding streets provide welcome shade from the sun, and an opportunity to relax over a cup of coffee and some spiced panforte, a delicious local fruitcake.

At the end of the day, visitors can join the locals in their 'passeggio'. This nightly stroll through the town takes advantage of the cooler temperatures and usually involves some locally-made gelato followed by a pre-dinner aperitif. It's the perfect end to a day in Siena.

Although not aimed specifically for tourists, il Palio held on the 2nd July and 16th August every year does provide a colorful and popular spectacle. Visitors wishing to visit Siena at this time would be advised to make their travel arrangements and book accommodation well in advance.

Serious foodies will want to visit Siena in the autumn. Many restaurants make a feature of using local seasonal food. Porcini or cep mushrooms along with plump eating grapes are at their best in autumn followed shortly by delicious winter truffles. The region's best wines like Montalcino and Montepulciano are, of course, available all year round.

The school holiday months of July and August are not only the hottest months of the year but the busiest season for Siena.

In contrast, the autumn months of September and October provide pleasant, balmy weather and fewer visitors while April and May also deliver comfortable temperatures along with beautiful wildflowers in the surrounding countryside.

Although good deals can be found in the cooler season of November to March, this is a period when local businesses often give staff their annual holiday so visitors might find some restaurants and bars are closed.