Siena is a beautiful ancient medieval city located in the heart of the Tuscany region. It was built in a picturesque hilly landscape surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, and cypress avenues. The city is known worldwide for its rich artistic and architectural heritage, excellent cuisine, charming stone-paved streets, lovely courtyards, and cultural events.
The best thing about Siena is that it can be discovered on foot in complete tranquility little by little among enchanting streets, majestic squares, and monuments that will take your breath away. Besides, this amazing medieval city did not undergo too many transformations from Middle Ages, so you can still feel the ancient atmosphere while strolling among buildings with reddish colors. Here are the best things to see in Siena:
Piazza del Campo
Piazza del Campo, or better known by the Sienese as “Il Campo,” is the main square and the center of public life in Siena. It is considered one of the most beautiful medieval squares in Europe because of its unique shell shape divided into 9 segments. Due to the slight slope, the rainwater can drain off very well.
The construction of Piazza del Campo dates back to the 13th century under the famous “Government of the Nine” (that is why the square has 9 segments) when the square was a “neutral” seat of government. As in many cities in Tuscany and Italy, there is no church in the main square of Siena. So Piazza del Campo is a purely secular center.
The square is also famous because of the toughest horse races in the world called “Palio di Siena.” You can enjoy watching this exciting race twice every year. Furthermore, Il Campo is a favorite place for young people because of the many clubs, restaurants, and bars that you can find there. So, it is common to see university students hanging and sitting in the square with a drink.
The Fonte Gaia
The Fonte Gaia fountain is located on a higher side of Piazza del Campo, and nowadays, it serves as a popular meeting place for locals and tourists. It is called “Fountain of Joy” because, in 1342, the Sienese succeeded for the first time in bringing water into the city through a 25 kilometers long supply pipe.
Siena was built on three hills, so it was not simple to bring water to the city at that time. Today, the water from the fountain is used mostly by a lot of thirsty pigeons.
The Palazzo Publico
Palazzo Publico, located on the south side of Piazza del Campo, is the political center of the city and one of the most beautiful civil buildings in Italy. It was built between 1288 and 1342 by the Government of the Nine, the magistracy that contributed the most to the city’s splendor in the Middle Ages.
Today the palace houses the Civic Museum of Siena, in which you can see masterpieces of Tuscan art such as La Maestà and the Guidoriccio da Fogliano by Simone Martini in the Mappamondo room. In the Peace Room, there is the famous fresco called “Good and Bad Government” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
Torre del Mangia
If you want to enjoy one of the city’s most beautiful views, you should climb the Torre del Mangia. The tower, located next to the Palazzo Publico, is around 100 meters high, and it served as a bell tower. It is called del “Mangia” from the nickname that the citizens gave to the first bell-ringer of the tower.
To reach the viewpoint at 88 meters, you will have to climb over 400 steps, but the view from up there is truly breathtaking and will pay off the effort. From there, you can see the whole city from Piazza del Campo to the Duomo, up to the Sienese hills.
Cathedral of Siena
Just above Piazza del Campo, there is Piazza Duomo, where you will find the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, a medieval masterpiece and one of the most beautiful Roman-Gothic churches in the world. The imposing facade is characterized by black and white marble stripes alternating with red marble elements. According to legend, black and white are actually the colors of Siena and, according to legend, derived from the horses of Senio and Ascanio, sons of Remo and mythical founders of the city.
Inside the cathedral, built in the 13th century, you will immediately be struck by the marble floor that tells a story about 56 scenes from the Old Testament. It took 600 years to complete this marvelous marble floor. Furthermore, in this monumental complex, you can observe works made by great masters like sculptures of Michelangelo, Donatello, Bernini, Nicola, and Giovanni Pisano, Tino di Camino, altarpieces by Mattia Preti, and frescoes by Pinturicchio.
In addition to the Cathedral, the Crypt, the Baptistery, and the Opera Museum are also part of this huge complex. Even though this cathedral looks massive, here is one interesting fact. The cathedral should have been much bigger, and the original project of the Cathedral of Siena has never been completed. The plague and the lack of funds made the works stop, leaving everything halfway.
Along the left aisle of the Siena cathedral, you will notice a fully decorated room full of ancient books. That room is the Piccolomini Library, built in 1492 and decorated in the early 1500s by Pinturicchio. You will immediately fall in love with this amazing room full of books and frescoes.
Santa Maria della Scala Museum
Santa Maria della Scala was originally a hospital facility designed to support the poor, pilgrims, and abandoned children. It is located on the Via Francigena, a few steps from the Cathedral of Siena, and today represents one of the most important and impressive museum complexes in the city. The museum will satisfy all kinds of tourists, with its wide range of exhibitions ranging from archeology to contemporary art.
Furthermore, it has a huge exhibit and contains works covering a time span of about 1000 years. The museum is also great for your kids because there is actually a special art museum dedicated to children.
Palazzo Salimbeni has been the historic seat of Monte Dei Paschi di Siena, one of the oldest Italian banks. Since the early 15th century, it has been the seat when the Republic of Siena confiscated the building complex from the powerful Salimbeni family. Originally, it was a small institution, but the adjacent Palazzo Tantini and Palazzo Spannocchi were also incorporated after the unification of Italy.
In the second half of the nineteenth century and then, again, in the seventies of the last century, the Monte Dei Paschi was affected by important restoration and restructuring works that updated its characteristic Sienese-Gothic style. The facade on the 2nd floor is magnificent with its six triple windows under a pointed Sienese arch and the small blind arcades under the battlements. Inside, there are important documents from Senese history, such as the lists of debtors from 1545, the bank’s charter from February 1472, and the bank’s balance sheets from 1570.
Located within the city’s medieval walls, the Botanical Garden is a sort of open-air museum that offers visitors a large collection of indigenous and exotic plants, easily recognizable thanks to the special tags. Established in 1784 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany at the end of 1850, it contained more than 3,000 plants, most of which came from distant areas.
Over the years, the Garden has expanded more and more, reaching 2.5 hectares in the mid-60s of the twentieth century. This place is definitely an oasis of peace out of the chaos of the city, where you can immerse yourself in nature before returning to discover the artistic beauties of Siena.
National Art Gallery
If you are an art lover, you should not miss National Art Gallery located at the Buonsignori and Brigidi Palaces. It was formed at the end of the 18th century, and today it houses the largest collection in the world of Sienese school Gothic art. Exhibitions are placed on three floors which have a total of 36 halls.
On the ground floor, there is an Etruscan sarcophagus and masterpieces from the 16th century. The second floor houses older works from the 14th and 15th centuries, while the third floor is home to the Spannocchi collection, which is more dedicated to northern Italian and international artists.
The Medici Fortress, also known as Forte di Santa Barbara, was built in 1563 at the behest of Cosimo de ‘Medici. It is square in shape and, at every corner, has a bastion from which you can enjoy a splendid panoramic view of the city. It is an ideal place to stroll and spend a few relaxing hours.
During the summer months, Medici Fortress has a purpose of an open-air cinema. Outside the fortress, there is the Parco della Rimembranza, with the scenographic fountain of San Prospero and the gardens of the Lizza.
Basilica of San Domenico
Just outside the fourteenth-century walls, between Piazzale San Domenico and via della Speranza, there is an impressive Gothic brick church of San Domenico. The church, built in the 13th century, is often the first stop on the daily guided tours that pass through the city. It is linked to the figure of Saint Catherine of Siena and was the main place of the saint’s religious life.
Inside, you can see the oldest portrait of the saint Catherine, some other relics and artworks, and beautiful frescoes made by “Sodoma.” In the early hours of the morning, when the morning sunlight shines through the red and blue decorated glass windows above the main altar, a visit to the basilica is particularly worthwhile.
Fontebranda is the most popular historic fountain in the city, reported in the chronicles since 1081 and mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy. Originally it consisted of three large basins. The first one contained drinking water, while the second one was used to water the animals.
The third one was filled with waste water and was used by millers, dyers, and tanners. It is essential for Siena because it brings water to the city with over 25 kilometers of underground pipelines.
The province of Siena is gorgeous and full of various touristy places. You can visit the municipalities of Chianti, Val d’Elsa, Val di Merse, or the Crete Senesi, which are all wonderful with their own particularities. You can taste the wine, the oil, the white truffle, or enjoy the spas, historical churches, the monuments, and the outstanding views.
Furthermore, the surrounding area is perfect for trekking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Siena also offers the opportunity to visit its beautiful countryside and surrounding villages with the “Nature Train.” That train has the ancient “centoporte” carriages and the puffing steam locomotives that take visitors along the most picturesque railway tracks.
If you are still not convinced to explore Siena’s surroundings, visiting the ancient medieval villages is something for you. Just a few minutes away, there are jewels such as Monteriggioni or San Gimignano, small villages where the time has been stopped. They are worth staying an extra day in the province of Siena and planning a trip out of town.
What to eat in Siena
Tuscany is known for excellent wine and food, and Siena is no exception. There are many specialties that you cannot miss, such as pici, the famous hand-made pasta seasoned with many tasty sauces. Furthermore, you should try gnudi, giant gnocchi composed of ricotta, spinach, parmesan, cut of beef, black pepper, coarse salt, and extra virgin olive oil.
Among the oldest dishes in the Sienese cuisine are pappa with tomato, bread soup, stewed beans, bean soup, and chickpea soup. Also, do not miss the typical sweets that you can find at any time of the year in the cafes and shops of Siena, such as panforte and ricciarelli.
Shopping in Siena
Among the picturesque streets of Siena, you will find a large number of shops, boutiques, and workshops, especially in the center. The most important shopping street is Via Banchi di Sopra where you can find anything from clothes, leather goods, jewelry, pottery, hand-painted ceramics to typical Tuscan food and wine products. Siena is also known for its large selection of excellent sweets and baked goods, some of which are made according to traditional recipes from the Middle Ages.
Every Wednesday, around the Medici Fortress, the local market in Siena is held from 8:00 (8 AM) to 13:30 (1.30 PM). A local market is an event when all city comes to life, and it is something you should not miss. You can find various clothing, fabrics, and old stuff, but there are also local meat products, cheeses, fruit, vegetables, and aromatic herbs. Prices are usually lower than in street shops, and the good thing is that you can always arrange prices with sellers.
Transportation in Siena
Siena has a historic center closed to traffic and entirely pedestrianized. It cannot be accessed by private cars, and the only way to get around is on foot or by public transport such as mini buses and taxis. From 2019, bicycles can also circulate freely within the limited traffic area, by reduced speed, at a walking pace.
Parking in Siena
There is a good of parking lots in Siena, but they are outside the old town. In Siena, there are over 4 thousand parking spaces, mostly paid ones. The square of the Stadio Comunale, where paid parking spaces are available, is completely closed on Wednesdays due to market day.
The relatively new paid car park Santa Caterina-Fontebranda is highly recommended because of little or no traffic. If you are lucky enough, you can find a few free parking spaces below the Fortezza di Medici, but they are occupied most of the time. The price for paid parking in Siena is 1,50 euros per hour.
How to get to Siena
Siena does not have an airport, so the nearest airports are in Florence and Pisa. Florence airport is around 60 kilometers away, and Pisa airport is just over 100 kilometers away from Siena. Both airports are connected to Siena with a shuttle bus system.
Siena can be reached by car from the north along the A1 motorway towards Florence. You should exit at “Firenze Impruneta” and then continue on the Firenze-Siena highway for around 40 minutes to reach your destination. From the south, you should take the A1 motorway, exit at “Valdichiana,” and then go to Bettolle-Siena road.
Traveling by train is one of the most comfortable ways to reach Siena. Trains to Siena come from Florence Santa Maria Novella, Empoli, Chiusi Chianciano Terme, Grosseto, and Orbetello. The Siena station is in Piazza Carlo Rosselli, which is about 2 kilometers far from the city center.
From the bus station in Florence (via Santa Caterina da Siena, 7) buses leave (with a frequency of two vehicles per hour) to Siena. From various Italian cities, there are bus connections with the Tuscan city. The Siena bus station is in Piazza Gramsci, from where it is possible to walk to all the important places in the city.
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