Traveling to Italy never gets old— Il Bel Paese delivers in historic sights, culture, art, food, wine, nature and more. No matter how many times you visit, there is always another beautiful town waiting for you. If you are visiting Tuscany, you cannot miss a day trip to Siena from Florence. Whether visiting for the day or staying longer, we have recommendations on what to do in Siena, Italy.
Siena is one of Tuscany’s many gems. While Florence, Tuscany’s largest city, came to prominence during the Renaissance, Siena had its heyday earlier. This can be seen mainly in the architectural differences between the two cities. Florence has its grand Renaissance architecture and (somewhat) more planned out streets. On the other hand, Siena’s architecture, although equally as grand as Florence’s, is of Gothic style and the city’s street patterns are much crazier, for lack of a better descriptor. Some people develop a strong love for one city over the other, but others skip right over Siena as they head from Rome to Florence — don’t do that because you will be missing out.
What to do in Siena
Getting to Siena
The most common way to arrive in Siena is from Florence (see how many days in Florence you should plan), either by train (from Santa Maria Novella station) or by bus. You could theoretically get to Siena from Rome but it’s a pain and doing so would take up a lot of your time. The bus and the train from Florence both arrive at stations outside of the city center. However, note that the bus station is significantly closer to the city center. Since Siena is small, neither are too far from the city center. Walks from either station will help give you a nice feel for the outskirts of the old part of town.
If you are staying in the countryside and arrive by car, I recommend parking near the Stadio Comunale as it is a nice big lot. Just note, that lots may fill up so it is best to arrive by 10 am.
Piazza del Campo and the Center of the City
Once you have arrived, find your way to the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s enormous main plaza set on a sloping hill, and one of the monuments in Italy you should visit. The piazza is beautiful and it is almost worth it to come to Siena just to see the gaping, shell-shaped plaza lined with exquisite architecture. The most stunning building on the plaza is the Palazzo Publico, located on the downhill end with its looming Gothic tower. This once housed the government of Siena when it was its own republic, but the palace is now a museum. The inside is worth a visit if you like religious art, but if that does not interest you, there are plenty of other things to see in Siena other than the stunning collection inside the palace.
Duomo and Around
After visiting the square, you might think that Siena cannot possibly impress you anymore— and you would be wrong. Find your way to Via di Città (you can catch it if you walk up Via di Fontebranda from the square and turn left.) Keep going until you can turn right on Via del Capitano. Go a little bit further, and you will be met with the best view of the front of Siena’s Duomo, the main cathedral of the city.
The cathedral is massive, like the Duomo in Florence, but the architecture is much different. Siena’s Duomo is also a strange shape, which you will easily notice by the longwall sticking out from the nave of the church on the right. This is because it was Siena’s ambition to build an even larger Cathedral essentially by recycling the current Duomo, or rather incorporating it into a new Duomo by using the current cathedral as the nave of the even bigger Cathedral. Plans fell through centuries ago after Siena hit an economic depression as Florence came to be the wealthiest and most powerful city in the region, and the new Duomo was never finished— the wall is still there, though, and climbing it from inside the Duomo will give you the best panoramic views of Siena.
The interior of the church is stunning, too. Looking up at the ceiling, you will have trouble fathoming how such a grand building was constructed hundreds of years ago. There are lots of informational stops in the church where you can learn about the cathedral’s features with the audio guides that are available in many different languages. The interior of the church can be crowded during the tourist season, so plan a time that is less busy to go.
In addition to the views off of the right side of the church from the wall, the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitano del Duomo offers another good collection of religious art and Catholic relics. The Libreria Piccolomini off of the left flank of the church is also awe-inducing, and the medieval books and musical scores housed inside are impressive.
Don’t head back to the main square after visiting the Duomo without going into the baptistry, which is down the hill on the backside of the church. It isn’t quite as large as the baptistry in Florence, but it is impressive, albeit a bit eerie inside. On the other end of the cathedral, the Santa Maria della Scala (next to the tourist office), is another museum located inside of a medieval medical complex.
North of the Piazza del Campo
There are many other lovely plazas in Siena to explore. One of my favorites is the small Piazza Tolomei off of Banchi di Sopra near the Palazzo Communale. If you are walking up this way, continue on after the plaza until you can make a right on Via dei Rossi. This will lead you to the beautiful Chiesa di San Francesco. The church itself is rather plain, but it is the setting that is beautiful— from this point, you can look down into the valley below. A trip to this church is a trip to another one of Siena’s many impressive vistas, and if you are lucky, you might catch the church bells while you are there. A peaceful view with the tolling of church bells is true Italian bliss.
Elsewhere in Siena
If this route does not interest you, there are plenty of other churches and piazzas to visit in Siena: Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico and Basilica di San Clemente in Santa Maria de Servi are two of the large churches. If you want more art or more nature, a trip to the Pinacoteca Nazionale art gallery and/or the Botanical Gardens might be worthwhile, too.
Just outside of the old town, the Medici Fortress has a wonderful public garden for kids to play and it houses an Enoteca Italiano for wine tasting. You can also explore Siena from underneath by walking in the old aqueduct dug by hand. Just keep in mind that reservations are required.
You should be able to visit all of these sites on a day trip to Siena. However, you may feel pressed for time. If you stay longer, you may also visit some of Siena’s many gates. Also, take time to wander the streets with a gelato from Grom (a popular Italian gelato chain.)
Before you visit, check the calendar for major events like the Palio horse race and the Flag Parades, as both draw large crowds. I was in Siena for the beginning end of one of the Flag Parades, and I would have loved to have stayed longer to watch all the madness instead of taking the train back to Florence. I don’t quite understand the whole concept, but a Flag Parade is something like when members of all ages of all of the big families of a city race buoyantly through the streets on Sunday evenings… I was completely lost in what was happening but it was really entertaining to watch such an interesting cultural event. Just make sure not to get trampled!
If you visit on a Wednesday morning, visit the Fortezza Medicea and Stadio Comunale area for one of Tuscany’s largest markets (clothing and some food, antiques on the third Sunday of each month.)
Where to Eat in Siena
As Siena is small compared to Florence, dining is obviously more limited in Siena, but there are still options. Although overpriced and a tad kitschy, I would recommend at least once eating at a restaurant on the Palazzo Communale. It truly is overpriced, but lunch (and maybe a glass of wine) with a view of the piazza is a slice of heaven.
Other restaurant recommendations include:
- L’Oro di Siena
- Osteria Le Logge
- Liberamente Osteria
Although Siena is smaller than Florence, it is also significantly less touristy, and it felt more traditional and more lived in to me when I was there—it offers a nice break if you are getting sick of the Florentine crowds and the tourist kitsch there.
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Today’s guest post is written by Max Levine. Max has been traveling ever since he can remember with his family. In recent years, he has been the one who plans vacations for his family and for himself, from researching airfare and railway tickets to crafting itineraries. In recent years, Max has traveled a lot both in the US and internationally. He has also developed a penchant for writing. Max hopes to continue pursuing opportunities to travel and write both in college and beyond that. You can also see Max’s suggestions for two days in Budapest and a walking tour of Porto.