Immediately ravishing, and all on a far less daunting scale than Florence, the glorious mediaeval city of Siena cradles within its ancient walls a majestic Gothic ensemble that can be enjoyed without venturing into a single museum. Far too many visitors breeze through Siena on a day trip, but it’s hard to feel you’ve even scraped the surface unless you stay at least one night here.
The best travel tips for visiting Siena
Have you ever wanted to escape to a picturesque Italian city filled with historic architecture and beautiful sights? If so, Siena is the place for you! As one of Tuscany's most iconic cities, it offers plenty of things to do that will fill your itinerary while providing amazing experiences.
From its ancient piazzas and cobblestone streets, it’s time to embrace Italy’s unique culture right in the heart of this medieval-style town!
However, if you're looking for something a little more adventurous than just soaking up life as an Italian local then don't worry. From sampling the wine that comes straight from its hillside vineyards to joining in one of Siena’s lively festivals or even riding a donkey up Palazzo Pubblico – there are plenty activities awaiting your visit!
The physical and spiritual heart of the city, and arguably Italy’s loveliest square, is the sloping, scallop-shaped piazza Il Campo, the setting for the thrilling Palio bareback horse race.
Planning a trip tip Siena? Browse our itineraries.
Best things to do in Siena
FFrom its famous Piazza del Campo to the awe-inspiring Siena Cathedral, this city transports you back in time while offering a modern twist. Whether you're a history enthusiast, an art lover, a culinary connoisseur, or simply seeking to immerse yourself in the beauty of Italian life, Siena has something for everyone.
Here are the best things to do in Siena.
#1 Wander around The Campo, Italy’s loveliest square
The Campo is the centre of Siena in every sense: the main streets lead into it, the Palio is held around its perimeter, and every evening visitors and residents alike are drawn to it. Four hundred years ago, Montaigne described this as the most beautiful square in the world - and it’s hard to disagree today.
Be sure to soak up the atmosphere, last thing at night, when the amphitheatre curve of the piazza throws the low hum of café conversation around in an invisible spiral of sound that’s drowned out in the daytime.
When the Council of Nine were planning the piazza in 1293, this old marketplace, which lay at the convergence of the city quarters but was part of none, was the only possible site.
Created in nine segments in honour of the council, the piazza became from the moment it was completed in 1349 the focus of city life, the scene of executions, bullfights, communal boxing matches and, of course, the Palio.
#2 Check out the stunning Palazzo Pubblico
The Palazzo Pubblico (also known as Palazzo Comunale), topped by a 97m-high belltower, the Torre del Mangia, is the focus of the Campo, occupying virtually the entire south side.
Its three-part windows pleased the council so much that they ordered their emulation on all other buildings on the square.
Although the palazzo is still in use as Siena’s town hall, its principal rooms, a series of grand halls frescoed with themes integral to the secular life of the mediaeval city.
#3 Explore the Museo Civico
If you only visit one museum in Siena, make it the Museo Civico. It starts on the upper floor with the Sala del Risorgimento, painted with nineteenth-century scenes of Vittorio Emanuele, the first king of Italy.
Across the corridor lie three successive frescoed rooms: the Sala di Balia, the Anticamera del Concistoro and the grand Sala del Concistoro.
Room 13, the Vestibolo, holds the gilded She-Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus (1429), an allusion to Siena’s mythical founding. In the Anticappella alongside, decorations executed by Taddeo di Bartolo between 1407 and 1414 include a huge St Christopher.
Behind a majestic wrought iron screen by Jacopo della Quercia, the Cappella del Consiglio was also frescoed by Di Bartolo, and holds an exceptional altarpiece by Sodoma and exquisite inlaid choir-stalls.
#4 Climb to the top of the Torre del Mangia
Opposite the entrance to the Museo Civico, to the left of the Palazzo Pubblico’s internal courtyard, a door leads to the 503 steps of the Torre del Mangia, which gives fabulous views across the town and surrounding countryside.
The tower takes its name from its first watchman – a slothful glutton (mangiaguadagni) commemorated by a statue in the courtyard.
#5 Check out the Fonte Gaia (Gay Fountain)
On the uppermost slope of the Campo, the Renaissance makes a fleeting appearance with the Fonte Gaia (Gay Fountain), designed and carved by Jacopo della Quercia in the early fifteenth century but now replaced by a poor nineteenth-century reproduction.
#6 See where merchants lodged at Loggia della Mercanzia
Behind the Fonte Gaia, assorted stairways and alleys between the buildings climb up to where the intersection of Siena’s three main streets is marked by the fifteenth-century Loggia della Mercanzia. Reluctantly Renaissance, with its Gothic niches for the saints, it was designed as a tribune house for merchants to do their deals.
From the Loggia della Mercanzia, Banchi di Sopra heads north, while Via di Città curves west. Follow Banchi di Sotto east, and you soon reach the Logge del Papa with, alongside it, the Palazzo Piccolomini, a committed Renaissance building by Bernardo Rossellino, the architect employed at Pienza by the Sienese Pope Pius II (Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini).
#7 Check out Siena’s Duomo
Siena’s Duomo is an absolute delight, with its exterior an amazing conglomeration of Romanesque and Gothic, delineated by bands of black and white marble, and its facade designed in 1284 by Giovanni Pisano. Few buildings can reveal so much of a city’s history and aspirations.
Although the Dumo was completed to virtually its present size around 1215, it was subjected to constant plans for expansion. Early in the fourteenth century, attempts were made to double its extent by building a baptistry on the slope below, to serve as a foundation for a rebuilt nave, but work ground to a halt when walls and joints gaped under the pressure.
After the Black Death reduced the city’s population by two-thirds in 1348, funds were suddenly cut, and the plan abandoned. The part-extension stands at the north end of the square – a vast structure that would have created the largest church in Italy outside Rome.
#8 Go down into the baptistry and crypt
Behind the Duomo, down some steep steps, is the baptistry, beautifully frescoed by Vecchietta and his school in the mid-fifteenth century, and restored in the nineteenth. The main focus is the hexagonal marble font (1417–30), with gilded brass panels by Ghiberti, Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia.
Donatello’s depiction of the Feast of Herod is perhaps the finest work: a dramatic scene in which John the Baptist’s executioner kneels, carrying the head of the saint on a platter, as Herod recoils in horror.
Accessed through the baptistry, the crypt was only discovered in 1999 and is worth a visit for the remains of a marvellous, richly coloured fresco cycle of Old Testament stories (c.1270–80).
#9 Browse the Santa Maria della Scala complex
For nine hundred years until the 1980s, the vast Santa Maria della Scala complex, opposite the Duomo, served as Siena’s main hospital. Today its wonderful interiors have been converted into a major centre for art and culture, revealing works that remained barely seen for centuries.
Beyond the ticket hall, the first room you enter is a small chapel adorned with fifteenth-century frescoes by Vecchietta. That leads in turn to the larger church of Santissima Annunziata, where the same artist’s bronze statue of the Risen Christ is on the high altar – the figure is so gaunt that the veins show through the skin.
Beyond that, the Cappella del Manto holds a strikingly beautiful fresco by Beccafumi, St Anne and St Joachim (1512).
#10 Be wowed by the art inside the Museo dell’Opera
Home to some superlative artworks from the cathedral’s history, and also offering amazing views over the city, the impressive Museo dell’Opera is tucked into a corner of what was originally intended to be the Duomo’s new nave.
As you enter on the ground floor, you’re immediately confronted by the Galleria delle Statue. Donatello’s delicate ochre Madonna and Child is at your back as you enter the Galleria, while huge, elongated, twisting figures by Giovanni Pisano loom on all sides.
The museum’s greatest treasure, Duccio’s vast and justly celebrated Maestà, dominates a dimly lit air-conditioned gallery upstairs.
Brief history of Siena
Established as a Roman colony by Augustus, Siena enjoyed its heyday in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when it became for a brief period one of the major cities of Europe.
Almost as large as Paris, it controlled most of southern Tuscany and its wool industry, dominated the trade routes between France and Rome, and maintained Italy’s richest pre-Medici banks. This era climaxed with the defeat of a far superior Florentine army at Montaperti in 1260.
Although the result was reversed permanently nine years later, Siena embarked on an unrivalled urban development under its mercantile governors, the Council of Nine. Between 1287 and 1355, the city underwrote the completion first of its cathedral, and then the Campo and its exuberant Palazzo Pubblico.
Prosperity came to an abrupt halt with the Black Death, which reached Siena in May 1348; by October, two-thirds of the 100,000 inhabitants had died. The city never fully recovered (the population today remains under 60,000) and its politics, always factional, descended into chaos.
In 1557 Philip II gave up Siena to Cosimo de’ Medici in lieu of war services, and it became part of Cosimo’s Grand Duchy of Tuscany. The lack of subsequent development explains Siena’s astonishing state of preservation: little was built and still less demolished.
Since World War II, Siena has again become prosperous, thanks partly to tourism and partly to the resurgence of the Monte dei Paschi di Siena. Founded in Siena in 1472, the bank is the city’s largest employer and a major player in Italian finance. Today, it sponsors much of Siena’s cultural life, coexisting, apparently easily, with one of Italy’s strongest left-wing councils.
Best areas to stay in Siena
Siena is small enough that every hotel within the old walls is within a 15 min walk of the main sights.
Anyone visiting in summer should reserve accommodation as far in advance as possible; hotels are specially booked up at Palio time (early July & mid-Aug), when they charge higher prices. You’ll also be glad of air conditioning in the summer heat.
A Siena hotel tax is charged at €1–5/person/night, depending on the class of the hotel and the time of year, for a maximum of six consecutive nights: the tax is often, but not always, included in the given rate.
This is where the vast majority of travellers will stay. Expect five-star luxury, pricey mid-range options, and a few half-decent guesthouses.
Orto Botanico dell'Università di Siena
For more affordable, but good-quality hotels within walking distance, try the area around Orto Botanico dell'Università di Siena.
There is a clutch of decent midrange hotels to the west of the city, up near the Siena Ovest motorway.
Browse accommodation options to stay in Siena.
Best restaurants and bars in Siena
Although Siena has no shortage of places where you can eat well, it can feel distinctly provincial after Florence.
However, with several new, imaginative osterie having raised the general standard of Siena’s restaurants, you’ll have no trouble finding good places in all price ranges – though the Campo is to be avoided unless all you want is an overpriced pizza to go with the view.
The main action of an evening is the passeggiata from Piazza Matteotti along Banchi di Sopra to the Campo – and there’s not much in the way of nightlife after that.
For most visitors, the Campo, the universal gathering place, provides diversion enough, while local students ensure a bit of life in the bars, which are scattered all over town.
How to get around Siena
This central core – almost entirely medieval in plan and appearance, and closed to traffic – can get a little disorienting, but use the Campo as your guide and you can’t go far wrong. Here’s how to get around Siena.
The best way to explore Siena, is by foot. The city centre is compact and easy to navigate. If you don't like walking or want to explore more than just the city centre, the bus is an option too. Siena has three types of buses:
- pollicino for the city centre
- urbano for the wider city
- suburbano for out of town
Buses 3 and 7 connect the train station to the historic centre.
There are car parks north of Piazza San Domenico: one around the Fortezza Medicea and the other the Stadio Comunale. The historic centre doesn't allow cars, though check with your hotel if it's possible for drop off your luggage.
How many days do you need in Siena?
During a 2-day visit, you can explore Siena's prominent attractions, including the renowned Piazza del Campo, the awe-inspiring Siena Cathedral, the majestic Torre del Mangia, and the distinctive Contrade neighbourhoods.
You'll also have ample opportunity to meander along the picturesque streets, savour the delectable local foods including the trademark panforte – a dense and delicious wedge of nuts, fruit and honey – and biscuits such as cavallucci (aniseed, nut and spice) and ricciarelli (almond).
Extend your stay to 3 days and you can delve into the city's cultural heritage by visiting art galleries before taking a day trip to the surrounding countryside or to nearby towns like San Gimignano and Monteriggioni.
Best time to visit Siena
Siena is a city that beckons travelers year-round. High season falls during the summer months, from June to August. The city is alive with festivities, including the renowned Palio horse race, so be prepared for larger crowds and higher accommodation prices. Book well in advance.
For pleasant weather but fewer tourists, visit during the spring (March to May) or autumn (September to November) shoulder seasons.
If you prefer a quieter, more local experience, consider visiting Siena during the off-peak months of winter (December to February). While the weather may be colder, the museums are really quiet. But do your research as some will shut entirely.
Find out more about the best time to visit Italy.
How to get to Siena
Siena’s train station is at Piazza Fratelli Rosselli, in the valley 2 km northeast of town. Trains from Florence Trains run at least hourly from Florence direct to Siena, but some services involve changing at Empoli.
Buses from Florence, hourly or more frequent buses for Siena depart from the bus station on Via di Caterina da Siena, just west of the main train station; take a Corse Rapide or Rapido (about 1hr 15min), as some buses (misleadingly called Corse Dirette or Diretta) are much slower and run via Colle di Val d’Elsa and Poggibonsi.
Most intercity buses arrive in the city centre on Viale Federico Tozzi or at La Lizza nearby, but note that some stop near the church of San Domenico or terminate at the train station.
Plan your trip to Siena with our book guide to Italy.