Siena (also the capital of the province) is a historic city in the region of Tuscany. Situated just seventy kilometres south of its one-time rival Florence, this Tuscan town is one of the most popular and visited places in Tuscany, and a magnet for travellers who want to soak up magnificent art and outstanding medieval architecture.
Wherever travellers turn, they’re sure to come across a lavishly decorated church, monuments or art galleries with masterpieces from some of Siena’s greatest artists. It is a place that is extremely rich in history and art and with strong local traditions tied to its seventeen districts (contrade) and to the famous Palio di Siena, the biggest annual event that takes place twice each summer in the city and draws thousands of spectators.
Moreover, Siena’s historic city centre has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Placed in the central part of Tuscany, this enticing walled city imparts itself well to wandering on foot. From exploring the magnificent main square Piazza del Campo, to climbing up the Torre del Mangia and strolling through the town’s various contrade in search of a scottiglia or a plate of pici cacio e pepe, be ready to do a lot of walking, most of it uphill – or so it may appear.
To get the most out of your trip to Siena, here are the top 9 things to do in Siena that you can’t afford to miss.
1. Piazza del Campo – Stroll around the main square of Siena
One of the most spectacular medieval squares in all of Europe, the Piazza del Campo is undoubtedly the main square of Siena. This marvellous open square contains some simply astonishing architecture and is always buzzing with tourism and local life.
In Siena almost all roads head to Piazza del Campo. If you are visiting Siena for the first time, you must go straight into the heart of the city, to the beautiful Piazza del Campo, and start your day.
Visitors who have only a limited time to spend in Siena will find many important sites surrounding the square: the Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall), Torre del Mangia and the Fonte Gaia (a splendidly carved rectangular fountain basin designed by Iácopo della Quercia), and other late Gothic architectures surround the city’s premier square.
A magnificent square flanked by Medieval buildings and paved with fishbone-patterned red bricks is truly unique with its shell shape. This stunning square is the beating heart of Siena, where students and tourists come to sit, relax, and enjoy a cappuccino at one of the open-air tables. If you could keep aside mobile phones and other gadgets, you could be in the thirteenth century.
2. Palazzo Pubblico & Civic Museum – Admire some famous frescoes
Among the edifices overlooking Piazza del Campo, you will see and must visit the Palazzo Pubblico or Palazzo Comunale, which is the city’s Town Hall. The Palazzo Pubblico is among the most renowned structures in Siena and stands out due to its incredible architecture.
This medieval structure was built in the thirteenth century and served as the house of the Republican Government of Siena. The exterior with two-tone stone cladding and plenty of nice arched windows features an Italian Gothic design.
Furthermore, the imposing Palazzo Pubblico, made in brick and marble, houses the Civic Museum (Museo Civico) with several masterpieces of Sienese artists, including the beautiful Majesty by Simone Martini and the cycle of frescoes called ‘Good and Bad Government’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, a fascinating example of the Sienese school of painting. You might remember it as it is commonly used in political philosophy books. Both are quite sensational and should be seen in person.
Guided tours of the palace interior are highly recommended and it is also possible to climb to the top of the Torre del Mangia.
3. Torre del Mangia – Climb the tower to enjoy the city’s infinite views
What can be the better thing to do in Siena than climb a Medieval tower?
The slender 87-meter tower (102m with the lightning rod) Torre del Mangia of the Palazzo Pubblico is the most attractive of all structures in Piazza del Campo and is the third tallest ancient tower in Italy. Its bell was used to mark the time and alert local people in case of danger or any important public events.
Today you can get to the top by climbing several hundred steps, but the reward is worth it as you are going to enjoy infinite views over the red roofs of Siena and Tuscan hills. The Renaissance-style Cappella di Piazza at the bottom of the tower was constructed in the year 1352 in gratitude for the city’s recovery from the 1348 plague.
If you want to visit both the Civic Museum and the Torre del Mangia, it’s better to buy the combo ticket (only available at the ticket office of the Tower). To visit the Torre del Mangia, make sure you know the opening times established for the winter and summer period in advance.
4. Piazza del Duomo – Witness Siena’s precious architectural treasures
The precious Piazza del Duomo is full of treasures that will take the rest of the day to explore and is sure to leave you awestruck. Here you will enjoy some of the most magnificent treasures of Siena: The Cathedral, the Crypt and the Piccolomini Library.
The Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta (Siena Cathedral), is one of the most wonderful examples of Romanesque-Gothic churches in Italy. Grand and impressive, almost dazzling because of the extensive use of the white marble, the Duomo captivates even from the outside. Entering the Cathedral will be totally worthy: It is enriched with works signed by renowned artists like Nicola Pisano, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Pinturicchio.
Highlights of this grand complex are the richly frescoed Piccolomini Library, the bronze reliefs by Ghiberti and Donatello in the Baptistery of San Giovanni, and the astoundingly detailed floor of inlaid marble in the nave.
The Crypt is placed under the Cathedral. Here you’ll find many extraordinary frescoes of the Sienese school of the thirteenth century representing scenes of the Old and New Testament.
Make sure you don’t miss the important works and save time by joining a skip-the-line Siena Duomo and City Walking Tour to explore Siena’s old town and cathedral complex with a knowledgeable local guide.
Also, you can access the highlights of the Siena Duomo complex with a fast-track OPA SI Pass, a combined ticket that enables you to visit the Cathedral, Piccolomini Library, Crypt, Baptistery and the Museum of the Opera del Duomo (where you can enjoy the view of the city from the ‘Facciatone’), saving more of than fifty per cent on individual tickets!
5. Basilica di San Domenico – See the mummified head of Saint Catherine
The Basilica di San Domenico is situated in the western part of Siena’s historic town centre and features a mixture of different styles. In the course of time Basilica di San Domenico has been changed and added to, hence its immense size and strange fusion of design styles.
Although the exterior isn’t as lavish as Siena Cathedral, the interior has some lovely decorations such as the Chapel of Santa Caterina.
The chapel features some stunning religious frescos and a few marble sculptures. Here you find something special, the mummified head of Saint Catherine (the rest of her body is in Rome) and inside, in the Chapel of the Vaults (Cappella delle Volte) is the original portrait of her painted by her contemporary and friend, Andrea Vanni in 1667. It is the only remaining work portraying Saint Catherine that can be counted to be a true portrait of the saint.
An extraordinary character, born in Siena, Saint Catherine is one of only four female doctors of the church and among the patron saints of Italy and Europe. You can discover the Church of San Domenico with its holy relics and the life of Saint Catherine with a knowledgeable guided tour.
The Basilica is yet another magnificent structure in the heart of Siena and is definitely worth a visit.
6. Palio di Siena – Witness the legendary horse race
The Palio di Siena is a popular horse race that draws large annual crowds in Siena. It also has religious importance and is run in Siena’s city centre, with dust hauled in to cover the streets. The Palio dates back to the sixteenth century when early racers rode buffalo and donkeys.
It’s run twice a year, with colourfully garbed racers from seventeen different districts taking about one and half minutes to gallop three times around the Piazza del Campo. The first race is dedicated to Madonna of Provenzano on July 2; the second race is run in honour of the Assumption of Mary on August 16. In rare cases it may be run a third time.
The race is over quickly, but the crowds, the vendors and the race itself make it something not to miss if you’re in Siena at the time. If you plan to be there on or few days before the Palio event, make sure to confirm all your reservations well in advance, as accommodation is scarce anywhere around Siena.
Also, you can take a Palio Walking Tour to learn about the Sienese Palio, one of the most famous horse races in the world with an expert local guide.
7. Pinacoteca Nazionale – Dive into medieval art
Siena’s the Pinacoteca Nazionale, is considered one of the most important museums in Italy. It occupies the fourteenth-century Brigidi palace and the sixteenth-century Buonsignori palace.
Visitors will find inside a treasure trove of paintings by Siena’s greatest artists from the thirteenth centuries to the seventeenth centuries, including Duccio di Buoninsegna, Lorenzetti, Simone Martini, Besozzo and Fredi.
The museum is especially well-known for its fourteenth and fifteenth-century paintings with gold backgrounds. The Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena is a great place to dive into medieval art.
This is a complete indulgence in Sacred art and the Medieval iconography of Siena, and an outstanding way to pass a couple of hours. Undoubtedly, among the top things to do in Siena for art lovers!
8. Look For the best sweets and ice cream treat in town
Don’t leave Siena without trying their traditional sweets and ice cream.
In Italy sweets are especially common during the Christmas period, but in Siena you can enjoy them all year round.
Treats like Dried fruit, almond biscuits, ricciarelli, and nut cake panforte or aniseed-flavoured old-style Cavallucci are as much a part of Siena’s history as its beautiful monuments.
One of the best things to do in Siena is to visit the pastry shops in search of your favourite chocolate or cantucci: try ‘Nannini’ or ‘La Nuova Pasticceria’ (near Piazza del Campo), perhaps the most famous of them all.
Are you looking for an ice cream treat?
All the Ice cream (gelato) lovers out there, look no further! You’re going to spoil yourself for choices at the authentic ice-cream parlour (gelateria) ‘La Vecchia Latteria‘.
Generous portions of creamy ice cream in enticing flavours await – whether you’re nutty for pistachio (best in the city) or have a hankering for something sweeter. This ice cream parlour is just a couple of minutes’ strolls from Siena Cathedral and is well worth the brief detour.
9. Un Tubo – Enjoy a drink and jazz music
Un Tubo is a swanky bar located only a short distance from the Piazza del Campo.
This bar is well-known for its great selection of wine, cozy ambience, and regular live jazz music. You can find inside a dimly lit interior that is welcoming and inviting – you will feel at home immediately!
Moreover, hosting regular exhibits of contemporary art and the live jazz music-making Un Tubo worthy of a visit in its own right. Embrace the music as you sip on some of the finest collections of wine the city has to offer for a captivating and magical experience.
Reservations are recommended, in case you want to sit at the tables, especially if you have quite a number of people going to this place during the evening! The price of the drinks is undoubtedly above average compared to all the other bars in Siena but it is justifiable above all for the amazing hospitality of the place and the quality of the music offered.
So, if you are looking for a classy evening of art, culture, music and fine drink, Un Tubo is undoubtedly the best place to visit in Siena.
A day in Siena is surely not enough to witness the city in all of its many sides, nor to experience all of its treasures.
These 9 top things to do above are just a few ideas that can help you to organize your day in Siena. They include experiences that you should definitely enjoy while you are in the city.
However, we believe this article will inspire you to include some of the places on your Siena bucket list because it’s truly a unique city to absorb outstanding medieval architecture and magnificent art.
Photos via Dreamstime