When most people think of Tuscany, Florence is the first city that comes to mind. But there are several beautiful villages and historic towns that are absolutely worth visiting all throughout the region.
Siena is one of these towns. Perfect for day trips, or stay a few nights to really appreciate the atmosphere and culture, this medieval town feels like it has been frozen in time.
Found in the heart of Tuscany, Siena can be easily reached car, train or bus. The centre of the city is closed to cars, so if you are driving you will need to park outside the centre and walk in. The train station is also located outside the city, but there are plenty of buses that will take you up to edge of the the centre as well. The historic centre is very compact and very walkable, just make sure sure you are wearing comfortable shoes!
A Brief History of Siena, Italy
Siena, like other Tuscan hill towns, was first settled by the Etruscans during the period of 900-400BC. Siena later became a military outpost under Roman rule during the period of Emperor Augustus, but due to its location with no major roads it struggled to prosper.
It was not until the Lombards first invaded Siena that the town began to prosper. This was due to the Lombards re-routing trade routes inland to Rome to avoid raids by Byzantines. After several power changes in the region, the Republic of Siena was established and lasted over 400 hundred years (12th Century to 1555) and this period became known as the golden age of Siena.
During this time the world’s oldest operating bank – Monte dei Paschi di Siena – was founded in 1472, and the construction of the historic city centre was completed. Of course, all this put Siena in direct competition with Florence, and in 1555, during the Italian War, Siena was conquered by Florence following a vicious siege.
Florence halted all construction works in the city (including the expansion of the Duomo), which is why the centre of Siena looks like it is frozen in time.
Now, Siena has re-invented itself as an agricultural centre with wine-making one of its primary products (the Brunello di Montalcino is a must-try).
When is the best time to visit Siena?
Spring and Autumn are the best months to visit Siena if you are looking to avoid the summer crowds. During the peak holiday period (July and August), Siena is extremely popular and crowded.
If you are hoping to see the Palio during July or August, then I strongly suggest booking accommodation well in advance!
If you love trying local dishes (and truffles), then late autumn is the best time to visit. If you love the wine trail, then of course local wines such as Montepulciano and Montalcino are available all year, though the wineries will be at their best in Spring.
What to see in Siena
Walking through Siena is like walking through an open-air museum, it is remarkably preserved and the locals are truly passionate about their home.
Starting from the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, here are some of the best things to do while visiting this gorgeous medieval town:
The Siena Museum Pass
If you are planning on visiting several museums and sites, then the Fondazione Musei Senesi (Seina Museum Pass) is a great way to save some money.
The FMS Card is valid for 365 days from date of purchase, and will give you either free or discounted entry to over 30 museums throughout Siena.
The card is €10.00 per person and can be picked up at any of the participating sites and the tourism office in Siena. Check out their website to find out more.
1. Explore the Piazza del Campo
Address: Il Campo, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
The 12th Century, shell-shaped Piazza Del Campo is the perfect starting point for exploring Siena. It’s unusual shape, with its curves and sloping floor covered with red brick streets somehow makes the area feel inviting. Pick a café and enjoy some people watching from one of the many little shops that line the Piazza.
The focal point of the square is the Fonte Gaia. Originally carved between 1409-1419 by Jacopo della Quercia, it was removed in the 19th Century to protect it from the weather, and replaced with an identical copy. The fountain has beautiful reliefs carved into of Adam and Eve, The Madonna and Child, and the Virtues.
What is incredible about this fountain is that it is filled with fresh water that is pumped into the fountain from a 25-kilometer aqueduct, which has been in use since the 14th century.
Hint – Head to San Paolo pub directly opposite the Torre del Mangia. It has a small balcony with the best views of the Piazza.
If you only have a few hours to explore, then consider a small group walking tour to make the most of the time. This Siena City Walking Tour with optional Siena Cathedral tour is a great choice, and will still leave you with time to explore on your own after.
2. Palazzo Pubblico
Address: Piazza del Campo, 1, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Entrance Fee for Museo Civico: € 10.00
Open Hours for Museo Civico: Monday to Sunday 10am – 7pm
Facing the Piazza is the imposing Palazzo Pubblico. Inside are the town hall, state rooms, council chamber and Museo Civico.
A must see is inside the main council chamber, which is covered in an incredible series of frescoes, called the Sala del Mappamondo, due to the map of the world inside painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the early 1300s. Other frescoes include the Maestà (Virgin in Majesty) painted in 1315 by Simone Martini and the mercenary Guidoriccio da Fogliano (1330).
If you visit the adjacent chapel there are more frescoes by Taddeo di Bartolo, and the choir stalls are decorated with wooden panels inlaid with biblical scenes (1428).
The Sala della Pace contains the famous series of frescoes Allegory of Good and Bad Government, painted in 1338 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Meanwhile the Sala del Risorgimento is covered with late 19th century frescoes showcasing events leading up to the unification of Italy.
3. Climb the Torre del Mangia
Address: Piazza del Campo, 1, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Entrance Fee: € 10.00
Hours: Monday to Sunday 10am-1.45pm / 2.30pm-7pm
For the best views of Siena and the surrounding area, the Torre del Mangia cannot be beaten. Standing tall as the second highest tower in Italy at 102 meters, the Torre is impossible to miss.
Built by the brothers Muccio and Francesco de Rinaldo between 1338 and 1348, it was named after the first bell-ringer whose nickname was Mangiaguadagni because of his laziness. The bell was used to mark time, at important events and to warn people of impending danger.
The view is definitely worth the climb, but be prepared – there are 500 steps to reach the top and it is narrow!
4. Visit the Palazzo Piccolomini
Address: Piazza Pio II, 2, 53026 Pienza SI, Italy
Entrance Fee: €7.00
Open Hours: Monday to Sunday 10am-4.30pm. Closed on Tuesdays
Website: Palazzo Piccolomini
The Palazzo Piccolomini is an incredible renaissance style palace built in the 1460s for the wealthy Piccolomini family by Rosellino. In 1884 the Bank of Italy purchased the Palazzo and refurbished it. It now houses the houses the State archives, including the Tavolette di Biccherna – a set of 13th century municipal ledgers, with intricately detailed covers by Sano di Pietro, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Domenico Beccafumi and others.
Want to explore the region and wineries but don’t have a car? Then a day trip is a great option (bonus you can sample the wines without worrying about driving!) Have a look at this highly rated day trip from Siena to San Gimignano and Mantalcino with wine tasting included.
5. Stand in awe of the Duomo di Siena
Address: Piazza del Duomo, 8, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Entrance Fee: The Porta Del Cielo all-inclusive ticket gives access to the entire complex €20.00
Open Hours: Monday to Saturday 10.30am-5pm; Sunday 1.30pm-5pm
Website: Sienna Duomo
Siena’s Duomo is an awe-inspiring mix of Gothic and Romanesque design, and one of the few to be built in Italy in full Gothic style. Construction began in 1136 and was completed by 1382, though there is a section that was planned for a second nave that was never completed due to the plague which killed a large portion of the population at the time.
Filled with Gothic sculptures, Baroque design and early Renaissance paintings, the craftsmanship and intricate detail found throughout is breath-taking.
There are paintings, frescoes, and sculpture by some of the biggest Renaissance artists of the time, including Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Donatello, Michelangelo, Pinturicchio, Bernini and Duccio di Buoninsegna (to name just a few).
Sites to see inside the Duomo include:
- the Cathedral itself, the incredible mosaic floor throughout
- the stunning pulpit designed by Nicola Pisano
- the Piccolomini Library which showcases a series of frescoes by Pinturicchio
- the Gate of Heaven inside the roof of the of the cathedral
- the Museum of the Opera which is thought to be one of the oldest private museums in Italy
- the Crypt beneath the cathedral, the Baptistery filled with early renaissance art; and
- The Oratory of San Bernardino and the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art.
6. Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena
Address: Via S. Pietro, 29, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Entrance Fee: €8.00
Open Hours: Tuesday to Thursday 2pm-7pm; Friday to Monday 8.30am-1.30pm
The National Picture Gallery of Siena is housed in the 14th century Palazzo Buonsignori and contains works from the Sienese school. The museum is best known for its collection of works from the 14th and 15th centuries.
Some of the highlights include the early example of landscape painting Two Views by Lorenzetti, Adoration of the Shepherds (1510) by Pietro da Domenico, Deposition (1502) by Sodoma, Madonna and Child by Simone Martini and The Annunciation by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
7. Admire the Fontebranda Medieval Fountain
Address: Via Fontebranda, 95, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
The Fontebranda is the oldest and most famous fountain in Siena. As there is no natural water source near Siena, the fountains found throughout the city are essential to the survival of the people. The fountain is covered by what appears to be a mini fortress, with arches built over each fountain inside. In the 1300s the fountain was so famous that even Dante wrote about it in his novel the Inferno.
Historically each basin in the fountain served a purpose. The first was for drinking water, the second for animals to drink from, and the third was used as a public toilet.
8. Enjoy a performance at Accademia Musicale Chigiana
Address: Via di Città, 89, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Website: Accademia Musicale
Located near the Duomo, the Accademia Musicale Chigiana was founded by Count Guido Chigi Saracini in 1932. The Accademia holds courses, seminars and masterclasses for classical instruments by internationally recognised instructors. There are concerts and performances held year-round, though the majority are in the summer period. Inside this beautiful building is a fine art collection, museum of musical instruments and a manuscript library.
9. Visit the Santa Maria della Scala
Address: Complesso Museale di Santa Maria della Scala, Piazza del Duomo, 1, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Entrance Fee: €9.00
Open Hours: Monday to Sunday 10am-7pm (March to October) and 10am-5pm (October to March)
Website: Santa Maria della Scala
The Santa Maria della Scala is thought to have once been one of the oldest hospitals in Europe, supporting pilgrims, orphans and the poor. In its current life, it is now a museum holding an impressive collection of sculpture and paintings ranging from the Etruscan and Roman era to the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
While on the outside it seems rather plain, once you venture indoors there are vaulted ceilings, frescoes, a crypt and even a functioning hostel on-site for pilgrims.
Highlights inside include the Fonte Gaia by Jacopo della Quercia, and the hospital scene frescoes from the 1400s by Domenico di Bartolo.
10. Santurio Casa di Santa Caterina
Address: Costa Sant’Antonio, 4, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Open Hours: Monday to Sunday 9am-6pm
Website: Santa Caterina
The home and sanctuary of Siena’s patron saint, Catherine Benincasa (1347-1380), is now a famous pilgrimage site run by Benedictine nuns. The original humble house is now surrounded by chapels and cloisters which are decorated with paintings of her life.
Catherine was the daughter of a tradesman who took the veil as a teenager and became known for her letters and activism on behalf of the Roman Church. Her eloquence persuaded Gregory XI to return the seat of the papacy to Rome in 1376, after 67 years of exile in Avignon, France. During her life she experienced many visions and received her stigmata in the Capella delle Volte in the Basilica San Domenico. Catherine died in Rome and was canonized in 1461.
11. Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico
Address: Piazza S. Domenico, 1, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Open Hours: Monday to Sunday 7.30am-6.30pm
Website: Basilica Cateriniana
In stark contrast to the Duomo di Siena, the Basilica San Domenico is a large, comparatively plain Gothic cathedral. Its imposing size makes it is impossible to miss!
Construction on this church was begun in 1226, with the bell tower added in 1340. Inside is a beautiful chapel dedicated to St Catherine which was added in 1460 to store Saint Catherine’s preserved head.
The preserved, mummified head is kept in a gilded marble tabernacle on the alter, surrounded by frescoes depicting Saint Catherine’s life. Interestingly enough, though Catherine died and was buried in Rome, her head was smuggled back to Siena so she could rest in her hometown.
There are also some stunning religious frescoes, paintings and sculptures that are worth viewing while here.
12. Wander through Fortezza Medicea (Forte di Santa Barbara)
Address: Piazza Caduti delle Forze Armate, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Open Hours: Open 24 hours
Constructed in 1560 for Cosimo I de’ Medici by Baldasarre Lanci, this massive brick fortress was one of the few “new” buildings allowed following the Florentine war on Siena. It was turned into military barracks, and by the late 18th century converted into a public park. You can climb the ramparts and bastions for panoramic views of Siena, wander through the gardens or catch one of the many temporary exhibitions and concerts.
13. Walk through the Medieval Porta dei Pispini (Gate of the Watersprout)
Address: Via dei Pispini, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
During the Medieval era attacks were a constant threat, so strong walls and defensive gates were essential. Even now you can see the remains of the defensive walls that surround the historic centre.
The Porta dei Pispini is one of those gates. Construction of the gate began around 1250, with the gate doors erected in 1326. The double doorway is made from stone, with distinctive large arches, and crenulated rooflines. To the right side of the gate there are remnants of the original city walls and a guard tower.
You can also visit the other historic entrances around Siena, though this is possibly the best preserved.
14. Leonetto Comparini Museum of Human Anatomy (Siena University)
Address: Polo Scientifico di San Miniato, Via Aldo Moro, 2, 53100 Siena, Italy
Entrance Fee: Free (for non-guided tours only)
Bookings: need to be made at least 24 hours in advance by emailing email@example.com
Open Hours: Monday to Friday 9am-1pm; Monday to Thursday 2.30pm-5.30pm
This is an unusual site in that it takes a bit of planning, and is not exactly on the tourist path. Hidden within the University of Siena, one of the oldest (founded in 1240) and first publicly funded Universities in Italy.
This University has several small museums tucked away in its halls, the arguably most interesting one being the Museum of Human Anatomy. The collection originated from anatomist Paolo Mascagni in 1862 and has been added to since then. The collections include preserved organs and skeletons, scientific instruments, wax models, over 300 skulls, detailed illustrations drawn by Paolo Mascagni himself and medical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.
15. Admire the Piazza Salimbeni
Address: Piazza Salimbeni, 1, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
There are many hidden pockets in Siena that you can easily miss, but some are definitely worth seeking out. If you enjoy interesting architecture, then this little Piazza is worth a few extra steps.
Deep inside the historic town centre is Piazza Salimbeni. The three buildings that surround the Piazza each have a unique and distinctive façade that still blend together. What is even more fascinating is that these buildings (Palazzo Tantucci, Palazzo Salimbeni & Palazzo Spannocchi) still house the offices for Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, one of the first banks in Europe.
While you need to see the piazza during the day to appreciate the colours and styling, the best photos are at night when the street lights are on.
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