Less than three hours from Rome, the city boasts some of Italy’s best medieval and early-Renaissance art and architecture, winding stone streets, beautiful views of the Tuscan countryside, and a breathtaking duomo. And no, it’s not Florence. It’s Siena. (Warning: I think Siena’s so darn lovely, there may be photo- and gush-overload ahead).
One of Italy’s strongest city-states by the Middle Ages, Siena today still appears much as it would have at its height in the 13th and 14th centuries. But while merely wandering around could keep you occupied for a full day, the city has a great deal of things to do jam-packed into its medieval walls, particularly for art and architecture lovers. And since the city reached its height so much earlier than Rome, Siena’s style is a nice antidote to Rome’s Baroque glory.
One of Siena’s can’t-miss sights is the Duomo. It took my breath away — and that’s saying something for someone who’s lucky enough to live in Rome and see St. Peter’s Basilica several times a week. Built from the 13th to 14th centuries, the list of those who contributed to the cathedral reads like a who’s-who of Italy’s most influential artists: Michelangelo, Donatello, Bernini, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Baldassare Peruzzi, Pinturicchio and, perhaps, even Raphael. Wow.
Unsurprisingly, the result is a triumph of every kind of art. Take the floor alone: The floor boasts 56 different panels of marble inlay, depicting sibyls, Old Testament scenes, allegories, and virtues. You could easily spend an hour simply admiring and puzzling out the scenes at your feet. And that’s just the floor. (If you want to see this, keep in mind that the cathedral’s floor is uncovered for only part of the year, usually a month or two starting in September, so check in advance.)
You can’t miss the Piccolomini Library, either, almost the Duomo’s version of the Sistine Chapel for its vibrancy and incredible story-telling through beautiful scenes (below).
But once you’ve done that, you’re not even done with the Duomo yet. That’s because there’s still the baptistery (boasting a baptismal font with reliefs by Donatello, Ghiberti, and Jacopo della Quercia, among others), and the Museo del’Opera del Duomo, with such gems as Duccio’s famous Maestà (1308–1311).
Even more incredibly, there’s the narthex underneath the current Duomo. Part of the even older cathedral that had been on this spot first, it was discovered and excavated only ten years ago. The 13th-century frescoes from the then-entrance of the church are still incredibly vibrant.
Seriously: Go to Siena for the Duomo alone.
But the city boasts lots of other gems, too. There’s the Palazzo Pubblico, the late 13th- and early 14th-century palace built as the seat of the city’s republican government, which boasts room after room of medieval and Renaissance frescoes, including the famous frescoes of good and bad government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338-1340 (below, the allegory of good government).
There’s also the Pinacoteca Nazionale, with its collection of beautiful medieval and Renaissance paintings. And there’s the Piazza del Campo, the world-famous scallop-shaped central square where the equally-famous Palio of Siena is held.
All of those gems, though, mean that you won’t be the only traveler in Siena. It’s no Rome or Florence (yet), but still, if you’re heading there from spring to fall, expect massive tour groups. This also means it’s a little tough to find, say, classic, non-touristy Tuscan restaurants (although we managed). But the sheer beauty of the city’s offerings is worth it.
You can get to Siena by car or train. Driving from Rome will take about 2 hours, 45 minutes. There’s no direct train, but even with the change, the train takes only 3 hours; to check the Trenitalia schedule, click here. It’s doable for a day-trip, but to be able to see everything Siena has to offer, plan at least two days there.
*The photograph of the allegory of good government comes via the Web Gallery of Art. All other photos mine.
The view from Sperlonga, a lovely Lazio seaside town
When the weather gets hot, the Romans go beaching. And those Romans with a little bit more time to spare… go to Sperlonga.
Lazio's answer to Santorini, Sperlonga is lovely. It's also a little bit blink- (or walk too fast) and-you'll-miss-it: The town itself, at least the picturesque part that most tourists frequent, is pretty small. What's there, though, is scattered with lovely squares and winding alleyways.
Typical Sperlonga street (and souvenir shops)
Ready to beach it? A 10-minute walk down a long set of stairs takes you to the beach, where, in typical Italian fashion, it's almost impossible to find the sliver that's public. Instead, make like the locals and pay for a cabana. At about €13 for a day's worth of a beach chair, roof to use once your flesh starts sizzling, and ability to have food and drinks brought to you, it's worth it.
Cabanas at the Sperlonga beach
But modern-day Italians haven't been the only ones to frequent Sperlonga. The area's most famous vacationer? Tiberius, the second emperor of Rome. He liked it so much, he built a villa here.
You can still visit the villa's "Grotto," a natural cave where the dining room was, at Sperlonga's archaeological museum (located about 3 miles away from the beach).
Tiberius' grotto, just outside Sperlonga
And in the museum itself, don't miss the stunning, ancient sculptures done by Athanadoros, Hagesandrosand Polydoros of Rhodes—the same guys behind the Vatican's famous Laocoön.
If you're renting a car, Sperlonga is a 2.5-hour ride from Rome. (Traffic, though, can be a real problem, especially on summer weekends). Alternatively, you can take the train to the Fondi-Sperlonga station, where local buses are coordinated with the train arrivals to take you to Sperlonga itself (there's a stop for the archaeological museum, too). The train takes a little over an hour, while the bus is about 15 minutes.
Want more local secrets on what to do in Rome? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, now available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!