The only luxury five-star in the historical heart of Siena, Italy, Grand Hotel Continental is a Starhotels Collezione. Starhotels is a privately owned Italian company with 30 properties, mostly in prime locations in Italy’s most iconic towns and cities, as well as the Michelangelo in New York, The Franklin, The Gore and The Pelham in London, and Hotel Castille in Paris.
The landmark Renaissance palazzo in Siena—built in 1677 by Pope Alexander VII as a wedding gift for his niece—is right on the main Banchi dei Sopra shopping street, and just around the corner from the fabled Piazza del Campo square which, like the rest of the old town, is a traffic-free zone. Contact Laura Bonello (+39-057-756-011; [email protected]), front desk manager, for access permission, and to use the square across the street to park for the time it takes to unload bags. Vehicles then have to be left in one of the official car parks, but we chose the hotel’s valet parking, which whisked our car away and then had it back waiting for us when it was time to leave.
Entering the lobby through the magnificent old portal once used by horses and carriages, we crossed the original terracotta floor, into what was the courtyard. With soaring frescoed cross-vaulted ceilings it now houses the reception, the modern lift, the Corte Bar and Lounge, where breakfast is served, and the Saporedivino Restaurant.
Our Noble Junior Suite, No. 143, on the first level which Italians call the Noble Floor, had a magnificent frescoed ceiling and views over Siena’s rooftops as far as the cathedral which soars above everything, and is one of the most majestic and beautiful in Italy. Like many of the suites, ours had a draped canopy bed, a huge chandelier, period furnishings, and a bathroom with the standard bathtub and shower head, and eco-compatible house-branded toiletries. Nice Touch: The hotel provides complimentary wooden toothbrush with real bristles.
A good option for families is No. 135, a Heritage Suite which can sleep four, and has a mezzanine floor with a TV, couch and dining table. On the top floor, No. 427 is one of three Family Rooms with king-size and twin beds, also sleeping up to four. At the top of the old Medieval tower, which is incorporated into the Renaissance building, the Panoramic Suite, No. 550, is up 18 private stairs, on two levels and has a living room with couches, a study with a large desk, a bathroom, a powder room, and a master bedroom as well as 360-degree views. It can connect with a Superior Room. Top Spot: No. 138, the Deluxe Vista Room with Terrace, is the only one with a terrace on the rooftops where Bonello told us, it is possible to arrange candlelit dinners, so mark this down as your top choice for honeymooners.
Must Do: Cocktail hour in the Corte Bar and Lounge any day, but especially on Thursdays for the Aperi-Pizza and Bollicine aperitif, with a choice of sparkling wines and gourmet finger foods. It is best to book this in advance for the high season. As well as the breakfast buffet, the Saporidivino Restaurant serves Tuscan favorites like Executive Chef Luca Ciaffarafà’s Spelt Pici pasta with stewed duck sauce and walnuts, and the Organic Tuscan tomato bread soup with basil foam and candied cherry tomatoes.
The wine cellar at the base of the old tower dates back to the year 1200; it can take up to 20 or 12 seated, and houses over 3,000 bottles, and is an ideal spot for intimate get-togethers and wine-tastings. Another exceptional choice for private occasions is the magnificent Salone delle Feste on the Noble Floor which we thought is a stunning venue for civil weddings or for corporate and family celebrations. Good to know: The hotel welcomes small and medium-sized pets for an additional charge.
So, when is Siena’s high season? Being one of Italy’s most spectacular art cities, it attracts visitors all year round, but especially in the warmer months. And when you hear Siena you think Palio, the Medieval bareback horse race around the Piazza del Campo square, which is held every summer on July 2 and August 16.
General Manager Nathalie Beaugonin ([email protected]; +39-057-756-011) told us you should book at least eight months ahead for these weeks. She said the hotel’s front desk staff can arrange tickets, both for the bleachers in Piazza del Campo, and the much more expensive seats in private homes overlooking the square, which is always packed to bursting. The center of the piazza has free standing room, but this fills up hours before the race and, given the crush and the heat, it is inadvisable for children or elderly travelers.
The race itself lasts just over a minute, but it is preceded by weeks of passionate and rowdy preparations with costume parades, drummers and flag-throwers. The climax is the heart-thumping, and often disconcertingly lengthy build up to the starter’s gun as the 10 horses jostle for space at the starting line. Then there are the ecstatic celebrations for the winning horse and city district, which reach fever-pitch, go on for days, and at which visitors are always welcomed.
Exploring Siena’s cobbled streets and monuments warrants a couple of days—we had forgotten how enchanting this little hill town is, and how perfectly conserved thanks to UNESCO’s protection—and it is leisurely as it can be done on foot. It is also a perfect base for setting out to discover much of what Tuscany does best: art cities, hill towns, stunning countryside, and some of the best food and wines in the world. Check with Head Concierge Massimo Corrado ([email protected]) and his team to arrange transport and get tips for hidden gems in the area.
Siena is packed with interesting restaurants. We chose Mugolone (www.ristorantemugulone.it), which is Michelin-listed, and we liked the contemporary décor and the chef’s interesting twist on traditional dishes like Tiramisu of salt cod, and Sirloin of American buffalo. Bonello also suggested the Campo Cedro where the Japanese chef fuses local and oriental flavors, and has a four-course tasting menu. For more traditional cuisine, she recommends the Taverna San Giuseppe (www.tavernasangiuseppe.it)
Shopping is never a problem in Italy, and Siena is no exception, with fashion boutiques and local artisan jewelry, leather, reproduction artwork and handcrafts. Top Choice: Artigiani Toscani in Via di Città 6/8 and 148 for its classy multihued range of contemporary tableware, home accessories and nature-inspired lampshades which will bring a burst of panache to any home.