Spend a day soaking up the moody atmosphere, exquisite architecture, and Italian culture in Siena; one of the most intriguing medieval cities in the world.
Siena is one of our favourite cities in Italy.
With a long history of battles against arch-enemy Florence, Siena rose to become one of the most powerful banking cities in medieval Europe. Vicious fighting between noble families caused them to build massive defensive buildings within the city walls.
The result is a city that, in some ways, couldn’t be more different from its Tuscan rival in the north.
Towering houses built on tightly packed lanes enclose streets so much that barely a ray of light reaches the worn cobbled stones beneath your feet. Huge defensive walls create a maze-like environment that is like being transported back to the Middle Ages.
Recognised as the “ideal embodiment of a medieval city” by UNESCO, Siena is dark and moody; mysterious and noble.
As you stroll the walled city of Siena, some truly remarkable sights are revealed. From art galleries to local delis; tiny squares to lively streets; Siena is Italy’s medieval masterpiece.
Here’s how to see Seina in one day.
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BEST THINGS TO DO IN SIENA ITALY // A 1–DAY ITINERARY
1 – SIENA CAFÉS
There’s no better way to get under the skin of Siena, and Italian culture in general, than by starting the day sipping a coffee in a medieval square. There’s no shortage of atmospheric cafes in Siena, but here are our favourites.
Torrefazione Fiorella // This authentic Siena stable is a tiny café where you’ll find locals spilling out onto the street chatting excitedly while waiting for their morning coffee. There are two tables out the front but you’d be doing very well to get one.
Caffé A. Nannini // A vast patisserie with pastries and sweets available for inspection on a long bar. It’s far more touristy than Torrefazione Fiorella, but the coffee has got a bit more kick to it without losing any of the traditional Italian frenzy. Ordering at your seat incurs a hefty service fee, so order at the bar.
Bar Pinacoteca // For classic Italian service, friendly baristas and some of the best coffee in Siena, Bar Pinacoteca is a neighbourhood bar without the tourist surcharge that you might find elsewhere.
2 – ADMIRE THE SIENA CATHEDRAL
The Duomo di Siena is a remarkable Gothic cathedral and one of the grandest in Italy. The façade consists of alternating layers of black and white marble, with intricate statues and grand bronze doors.
The interior is a magnificent combination of light and dark, with black and white pillars rising to star-studded ceilings. Containing works by Donatello, Bernini, and Michelangelo, as well as an intricately carved pulpit by Nicola Pisano, the Siena Duomo is a living monument to the incredible contributions of Italian artists and an unmissable thing to do in Siena.
Don’t miss the ornately frescoed Piccolomini Library. More details are on our guide to visiting the Siena Cathedral.
3 – MUSEO DELL’OPERA DEL DUOMO
In 1339, a massive extension to double the already huge Siena cathedral was planned. The work began, but the project was abandoned when money ran short. The Duomo’s Museum (Museo dell-opera del Duomo) is today housed in the unfinished nave.
The museum contains a range of works of art including the cathedral’s original statues delicately lit by a large circular stained glass window made in 1287.
The highlight is the Maestá of Duccio; an altarpiece of forty-three small scenes which tells the stories of the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ. It marks the beginning of the transition from Byzantine art towards the more realistic representation popular in the Renaissance.
From the second floor of the museum, a staircase winds up to the top of the unfinished nave. A narrow ledge (Panorama dal Facciatone) offers wonderful views over the city and the rest of the Duomo. The staircase consists of 131 tight spiral stairs and there’s not a lot of space at the top, but it’s a wonderful thing to do in Siena.
4 – BAPTISTERY OF SAN GIOVANNI BATTISTA & CRYPT
The final attraction to visit at the Siena Duomo is the Baptistery of San Giovanni Battista and the Crypt (separate accesses). The Baptistery was built in the 14th century and contains a wealth of frescoes surrounding a grand marble, bronze, and enamel baptismal font.
The ceiling vaults represent the 12 articles of Christian faith and are considered some of the best examples of Sienese art anywhere. Don’t miss the six gilded bronze panels telling the story of John the Baptist.
The Crypt was only excavated in 1999 and contains some of the most important archaeological finds from the city. Frescoes from the 12th and 13th centuries are preserved in vibrant colour along with decorated pillars and geometric stone features. You can also explore the structure of the cathedral dating back to the 12th century; hiding the secrets of medieval Siena in atmospheric worn decay.
5 – A SLOW LUNCH AT I TERZI
Grabbing a slice of pizza and finding a spot on a medieval square for a casual lunch while watching the world go by is a wonderful thing to do in Siena. However, if you are looking for some quality Italian cooking in a hidden little corner of the city, we highly recommend Enoteca I Terzi.
Set in a medieval vaulted building, I Terzi is located at the junction of the three sub-divisions of Siena which were created by the ruling Nobel families to protect their interests.
It’s just a few minutes from Piazza del Campo, yet despite the central location, I Terzi remains off the regular tourist trail and the food is all the better for it. With a purely Tuscan menu, enjoy delicate handmade pastas with a masterful blend of flavours or traditional meat dishes including rabbit, venison and ox tongue.
The extensive wine list is all local to Tuscany and the few tables out the front are the best seats in the house.
6 – HISTORIC CENTRE OF SIENA
One of the best things to do in Siena is to stroll the narrow laneways. There are three good areas to explore.
Wander northwest towards Basilica San Domenico. The church itself is rather plain but the little alleyways along the way have some great shops, delis, and cafes to explore. The views back up to the Duomo from the Basilica are some of the best in Siena.
On the eastern side of town, stroll down the buzzing Via dei Rossi towards Piazza San Francesco. The medieval street has developed into one of the most atmospheric strolls in Siena.
Finally, explore the area around Piazza Del Campo, the historic centre of Siena. Via La Citta has some wonderful little shops to pop into. Antica Drogheria Manganelli is a fantastic old pharmacy packed with tasty deli goods including pasta, olive oils, wines and chocolates. A few doors down, La Bottega Senese has a range of local wines and traditional sweets. On Wednesday morning, don’t miss the Siena market laid out across Piazza Mercato.
7 – PIAZZA DEL CAMPO & PALAZZO PUBBLICO
Piazza del Campo is one of the grandest squares in Europe. Built on the intersection of three roads where three antique hill towns came together, it was designed to be neutral ground to celebrate civic holidays.
The square is paved in red brick with a fishtail design split into 9 sections by 10 lines of white travertine stone. Each section represents one of ‘The Nine’ who governed Siena at the height of its medieval power from 1292-1355. The square is surrounded by harmonious red brick structures in adherence to the strict building guidelines set down in 1297.
On the southeast side stands the Palazzo Pubblico. Originally home of ‘The Nine’, the palace now houses the Civic Museum (Museo Civico). Nearly every room is packed with intricate frescoes; unusual at the time because they were commissioned by governors rather than the church. If the Duomo is Siena’s tribute to the divine power, the Museo Civico is the tribute to its secular leaders.
Don’t miss the three frescoes together called the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and the rather magnificently carved wooden choir seats in the chapel.
8 – TORRE DEL MANGIA
Right next to the Palazzo Pubblico, the Torre del Mangia is the second tallest secular tower in Italy (just ahead of the Asinelli Tower in Bologna) at 102 metres. Taking the 400 steps to the top is an excellent thing to do in Siena.
From the tower, tightly packed red-tiled houses disappear towards Tuscan hills and the Piazza del Campo is surrounded by grand houses. The gothic Duomo seems to float above it all. Try to be at the top of the tower as close to sunset as possible when the city will be looking its best.
Book tickets in person at the Palazzo Pubblico at the beginning of the day. Timed entrances occur every 45 minutes and allow for 45 minutes to get to the top, take in the view and get back down again.
The steps are tight and narrow and can be a little claustrophobic, but it’s a very rewarding activity to wind down a day in Siena.
9 – VIA CAMOLLIA
Aperitivo is a pre-dinner drink and something of a cultural ritual in Italy. Usually between 6pm and 8pm, Aperitivo is a dry alcoholic drink designed to wake up the digestive system and get you ready for the meal ahead.
There are plenty of places to have an aperitivo in Italy and Siena is no exception.
Our favourite area is along Via Camollia, which has a strong selection of bars to try. We went to 53100 Street Food & Wine, a cosy unassuming bar with a great selection of Aperitivo drinks and snacks. The cold cuts are delicious, and they have an extensive wine list.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN SIENA
There are too many things to do in Siena to be squeezed into one day, but if you have extra time, here are some other suggestions.
Pinacoteca Nazionale // Siena’s Pinacoteca covers the grandmasters from the 13th to 18th centuries. Most of the famous stuff is on the top floor. Keep an eye out for Vasari’s Resurrection, the works of Il Sodoma and the cartoons that were used to design the inlaid marble floors in the Duomo.
Museo Santa Maria della Scala // Set in a medieval hospital, Santa Maria della Scala covers modern art installations through to Etruscan and Roman artefacts. The eerie crypts and strange mirror installations are also worth checking out.
Oratoria di San Bernardino // The Basilica of San Francesca has a towering red brick façade and moody gothic interiors. But the real reason to come here is the Oratorio di San Bernardino next door. Head upstairs to the upper oratory chapel to see a wealth of 16th-century frescoes.
TIPS FOR VISITING SIENA
01 – Entrance for the Civic Museum costs €10 and the Torre del Mangia another €10. But if you intend to do both you can buy a €15 joint ticket. For €20 you can also see the Santa Maria della Scala. A €40 family ticket covers them all for 2 adults and 2 children.
02 – We are not aware of any way to book Torre del Mangia tickets online in advance so make your way to Palazzo Pubblico to buy tickets in person as soon as you arrive in Siena. If you only want to go to the Museo Civico you can book in advance through Get Your Guide.
03 – If you are driving to Siena, park in the massive Parcheggio Il Campo car park. It’s a 10-minute walk from the Piazza del Campo but most importantly, it does not involve driving through any narrow medieval streets. It costs €2 an hour.
04 – If you are using public transport, the easiest day trip is from Florence where trains run hourly and take about 1 hour, 30 minutes. It’s a 15-minute walk from the train station to the northern end of the medieval old town.
SIENA ITALY MAP
We have included our list of the best things to do in Siena on the below map so you can plot your course while visiting the medieval heart of Tuscany and the soul of medieval Italy.
How to use this map / Click on the top left of the map to display the list of locations, then click on the locations to display further information. Click on the top right corner of the map to open a larger version in a new tab or the star to save to your Google Maps.
BEST TIME TO VISIT SIENA
Siena is a great year-round destination. The wealth of indoor sites and tightly packed outdoor lanes are as moody in winter as they are glorious in summer.
Peak Season // Temperatures can be hot and the tourist sites busy during the peak season of July and August. However, the Siena Duomo inlaid floors are usually uncovered during the month of July and from mid-August to mid-October, which is a great time to visit Siena.
Shoulder Season // The shoulder seasons of spring and fall bring the nicest weather. In particular, September to mid-October is a great time to come; it’s not too hot, the Duomo floors are uncovered, and the peak crowds have disappeared.
The Palio, Siena // The famous Siena horse race, The Palio, takes place on July 2 and August 16 every year. Ten horses and riders, dressed in the colours of their city ward, race around the Piazza del Campo. Tickets can be reserved online, but even if it’s fully booked it’s worth turning up the day before when many of the locals dress up and march around town preparing for the festival.
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