Visiting Italy’s Hilltop Towns: Siena + Orvieto

Siena, Italy


This is the hardest post to write in my Italy series because we spent so little time in Siena and Orvieto, but they both deserve attention – and a much longer visit. (I don’t want to give the impression that these two hilltop towns are close together, they’re about 75 miles apart. Siena is in Tuscany and Orvieto in Umbria. We visited them on two different days.)

We stopped in Siena for lunch on our way to Florence from Montepulciano. I’ve heard people speak fondly of the medieval city of Siena and it’s lovely sprawling buildings. I understood as soon as I set foot into the main square in Siena. You can feel the sense of community. It’s one of those places where you can easily imagine living.

Siena is 35 minutes south of Florence. The town spans over three hills, making it the biggest of the hill towns which are scattered throughout central Italy. We parked the car at the Stadio, the large soccer stadium, and made our way to Il Campo, the main square in Siena. From there we wandered the streets to get acquainted with the city.

Basilica of San Domenico – This church and nearby sanctuary celebrates St. Catherine. Catherine was born in Siena in 1347. At age 16 she became a Dominican nun. She led a short, but fascinating life, and is known for convincing the pope to return the papacy to Rome, after having relocated to Avignon, France. Catherine died at the age of 33. A few of her relics are at the church and sanctuary – her thumb, a page from her devotional book, and her head (actually a clay mask with her teeth).
City Tower at City Hall. The tower was built around 1340. You can climb the 400 steps to the top of the tower and see, what I imagine, is a pretty amazing view.
The Duomo – built in 1215, with the majority of décor added between 1250-1350.
Here’s a closer look at the mostly Gothic style church.
Siena is known for the Palio di Siena, a horse race that occurs twice each summer in Il Campo, the town’s main square. Above is a plaque identifying a neighborhood, or contrade. There are 17 neighborhoods in Siena, 10 of the neighborhoods compete in the Palio (they rotate through all 17), hiring jockeys from out of town to ride the horses. It is quite the rivalry, and is most likely the reason this town has that community feel.
Piazza Salimeni
Siena – Each of the 17 neighborhoods are identified by an animal or symbol along with a set of colors. The neighborhood depicted in the tile two images above is Bruco, located north of the Piazza del Campo. The residents of this neighborhood traditionally worked in the silk trade. They have a caterpillar as their symbol along with the colors of green and yellow trimmed with blue. When the neighborhoods are participating in the Palio, they wear their colors proudly and parade through the streets!


We stopped in Orvieto on our way to Rome from Florence, as our trip was coming to an end. With so many beautiful hilltop towns to choose from for our stop, we chose Orvieto simply because of the timing and convenience from the highway.

Orvieto began as an Etruscan village under a different name from 900 B.C. to 264 B.C. The Romans came and destroyed the town and people fled. After the fall of Rome and the chaos that ensued in 476, the people who lived in the valleys sought safety in the hills. Orvieto sits high on top of volcanic tuff (or hardened volcanic ash), the same substance that makes up many of the other hills in Italy.

The Duomo – Mosaics! Stained glass! Sculpture! The façade of this church has a lot going on – it’s gorgeous though, isn’t it? The four marble pillars tell the history of the world in biblical scenes.
The Duomo – What’s not pictured here is the rest of the church. The façade is beautiful, the rest of the exterior is really quite boring.
The Duomo
Piazza della Repubblica
Church of Sant’ Andrea
Interior of the Church of Sant’ Andrea
Church of Sant’ Andrea

In Orvieto, we wandered the streets, admiring the architecture, the views, and the various plant collections. I would love to come back for a few quiet nights and wander the streets of this town at sunset and into the evening.

It’s hard to tell from this view, but Orvieto sits about a thousand feet from the valley floor.
Here’s another look at the fortified city walls made from tuff.

We lingered over pizza before driving an hour to Rome where we spent our last evening in Italy.


Did you miss the previous posts in this Italy series? Check them out here: Rome, Sorrento, Montepulciano, and Florence.

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