Siena, one of Tuscany’s most beautiful cities, is located South of Florence and for many centuries was the capital’s major economic rival. Siena was a famous commercial and banking city in the 13th and 14th Centuries and is even home to the world’s oldest bank, the Monte dei Paschi Bank, which has been operating since 1472.
Siena also has an amazing artistic heritage that stretches right back to the Renaissance and its wealthy elite patronized great Italian artists including Simone Martini, Stefano di Giovanni, Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Duccio. In fact, during the 14th and 15th Centuries the artists of Siena were widely considered to match the legendary artistic figures of Florence!
Siena was a powerful Medieval city and it’s impressive historic center is one of Italy’s most stunning UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Each year around 1 million tourists visit Siena which means that compared to other places in Italy it’s somewhat off the beaten track and often overlooked on people’s travel itineraries.
However, as you’ll soon see, Siena is a magnificent city and is worth visiting in its own right. The city hosts the famous Palio horse race twice a year but it’s also packed with art galleries, fascinating museums, great restaurants serving local cuisine, a good range of accommodation and family run souvenir shops. Siena is about an hour from Volterra, which is where I live as an expat. Both are ancient Tuscan hill towns. But Siena is much bigger and is very touristic.
Most Popular Attractions In Siena.
The following are the best attractions in Siena:
Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Piazza Del Duomo 8, Siena.
As one of Europe’s best examples of Gothic architecture at its peak, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta’s bell tower looms impressively over the Piazza del Duomo while the vast rose window’s elegance perfectly complements the cathedral’s imposing form.
Giovanni Pisano designed the cathedral’s façade and sculpted many of the statues that decorate it, incorporating stripes of light and dark marble that give the structure its unique look; helping it to stand out strikingly from the mainly red brick buildings of the rest of Siena.
It’s not just the cathedral that is worth visiting because it houses as many artistic masterpieces as any great gallery! For example, there are works by Giovanno Pisano and his brother, Nicola, as well as masterpieces by Donatello, Giovanni di Turino and Bernini.
The interior of the cathedral is filled with art that covers the ceilings, floors and walls! It’s truly a remarkable experience to take some time to appreciate the cathedral’s interiors which includes incredible wood carvings, gold and silver work, paintings, mosaics and priceless illuminated manuscripts.
While you appreciate the marble flooring you should be sure not to miss some of the artistic highlights such as the bronze reliefs created by Donatello in the Baptistery of San Giovanni and the frescoes by Piccolonini in the cathedral’s library.
If you want to skip the line and be shown around the cathedral complex by an expert guide you can check out the Siena Duomo Walking Tour for details on how to reserve your tickets.
Palazzo Pubblico And Museo Civico, Piazza Del Campo 1, Siena.
Taking up most of one side of Piazza del Campo, the Palazzo Pubblico and Museo Civico is another prime example of Sienese Gothic architecture with elegant cornices, battlements and grand facades. The interior of the building is also beautifully designed with multiple frescoes from the renowned Sienese school of art.
The upper floors of the building house the Museo Civico, where you can explore the history of Siena as well as view Renaissance paintings, drawings, Baroque silverwork and other unique documents that are related to the region’s prosperous history.
Torre Del Mangia, Piazza Del Campo, Siena.
Standing at one corner of the Palazzo Pubblico the huge 100 meter tower of Torre del Mangia is one of the most impressive engineering feats of the Medieval era. The narrow tower stretches up into the sky and is flanked by brackets that support impressive battlements at its peak. The tower was designed and built by the brothers Francesco and Minuccio di Rinaldo between 1338 and 1348.
Tourists enjoy climbing up the steps of the Torre del Mangia to marvel at the panoramic views of the city below. Beneath the tower the Cappella di Piazza, built in the Renaissance period style, was created to celebrate the end of the 1348 plague that killed many of the city’s residents.
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Via San Pietro 29, Siena.
The Pinacoteca Nazionale, or the ‘National Gallery’, is a treasure trove of art that’s housed in a beautiful Late Gothic palace that was built during the 15th Century. As you wander through the galleries you’ll get the perfect overview of the development of the Sienese art from the the 13th Century, when the city began to make its name as an artistic center of excellence, right up to 16th Century and beyond.
The gallery’s exhibitions host almost entirely Sienese artists and as you realize the diversity and quantity of the work on show the city’s status as one of Italy’s most important cradles of art becomes clearly evident. Among the most famous pieces of artwork in the gallery you can see the 13th Century painting by Guido da Siena of The Raising of Lazarus and his later work, Entry into Jerusalem. Other important works include Pietro Lorenzetti’s John the Baptist, Pinturicchio’s Holy Family and Duccio’s Madonna dei Francescani.
The Facciatone, Piazza Del Duomo 8, Siena.
The Facciatone is one of Siena’s most unusual attractions. It is a partially completed façade of the cathedral that was started in the 14th Century but then work was abandoned due to the arrival of the plague in the city.
Originally the new wing of the cathedral was intended to be 100 meters long but after the plague swept through the city the work was never taken up again. Later, it was discovered that the foundations of the façade were not secure enough to be able to hold up the weight of the planned addition to the cathedral and so it was simply left as it was!
However, fortunately, today tourists and visitors can climb up the spiral staircases to the top of the structure to shoot great photos of Siena and the surrounding Tuscan countryside.
San Francesco, Piazza San Francesco.
Work began on San Francesco in 1326 but wasn’t completed for over 150 years until 1475! This magnificent Gothic church perfectly demonstrates the architectural style of the Italian ‘Mendicant Orders’; which is exemplified by the aisleless nave and the lack of an apse in the east end of the building. The interior of the church has a stunning timber roof that is decorated with alternating bands of white and black; a theme that appears in several of Siena’s Gothic buildings.
Nestled in one of the transepts of the church you can see an amazing painting by Pietro Lorenzetti of the Crucifixion that was completed in 1330. You should also keep your eye out for the frescoes of the Martyrdom of Franciscans by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
Il Palio Horse Races.
Il Palio is one of the highlights of Siena’s yearly calendar and involves exciting horse races that take place on July 2nd and August 16th. The two summer races see representatives of the city’s neighborhood associations, known as ‘contrade’, competing for victory in the prestigious event. Throughout the city banners are erected with pictures of the neighborhood mascots while street vendors and stalls sell souvenirs and snacks for the event.
The Il Palio races are held in the Piazza del Campo and 10 riders race bareback on their horses through the Medieval square. The winner takes home a large silk banner which is called the ‘pallium’. Of course, the winner also brings pride to their neighborhood association which is truly the main prize!
What’s remarkable about the race is that the rider themselves doesn’t need to actually cross the finish line first to win because it’s only the first horse that crosses the finish line which matters! This means that riders regularly fall off their horses as they jostle for position giving the races an extra element of excitement and danger.
To add to the carnival atmosphere, the races also include costumed parades through the city’s streets, flag throwing demonstrations, live bands playing traditional music and even fully armored knights riding around the proceedings.
Every contrada has their own orate chapel that is heavily decorated while many also have a museum attached to the complex. As you explore the streets of Siena you can often find these open to the public and they’re well worth dropping into to learn more about that particular contrada and its history in the races.
If you are planning to visit Siena for the Palio races then you should book your accommodation well in advance because the city fills up with visitors for these hugely popular events. You can visit the official Il Palio website for more information about the proceedings, race schedules and videos of the event.
The Best Hotels To Stay In Siena.
There’s a good selection of accommodation in Siena for tourists and visitors on any budget.
Luxury Accommodation In Siena.
Siena has several extremely elegant hotels but the Relais degli Angeli is one the city’s best choices. The spacious hotel rooms and apartments are decorated with stunning frescoes and have lovely canopy beds, seating areas, large bathrooms and chandelier lights in the executive suites. All rooms have air conditioning, a fridge, minibar, flat screen TV and a safe.
There’s a wide range of rooms in the boutique hotel including a bridal suite, executive suites and family rooms. The hotel restaurant serves local specialties as well as international dishes. Ideally located for sightseeing in Siena the Relais degli Angeli provides world class luxury accommodation throughout the year.
Mid-Range Accommodation In Siena.
The Hotel Santa Caterina is a cozy 3 Star hotel in a gorgeous 18th century villa that has recently undergone extensive renovations. With private on site parking, a free breakfast and comfortable rooms the hotel is pet friendly and is located a short walk from numerous restaurants and the historic city center.
Budget Accommodation In Siena.
Located just 10 minutes walk from the Siena cathedral the Hotel ai Tufi has private parking, comfortable rooms and gorgeous views of the Tuscan countryside from some of the upper floor rooms. The hotel serves breakfast until 11am and offers a choice of traditional regional dishes as well as a full American breakfast buffet. Prices are extremely reasonable in this air conditioned hotel that has a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
One Of Italy’s Most Under-Rated Destinations.
Siena is a magnificent Tuscan city that has an ancient artistic, commercial and cultural history that is too often overlooked by tourists in Italy. The city has a remarkable range of world class attractions that represent some of the best artistic work of the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods.
The city also hosts the unique Il Palio each year during the summer which is a spectacular event that draws visitors from all over Italy and beyond. So if you’re planning to visit at this time of year make sure you book tickets and accommodation several months in advance!
The beautiful streets of the historic center of Siena are packed with charming restaurants, cafes, souvenir stores and artisan workshops. You can explore much of the city on foot which makes a visit to the city relaxing and fun.
A trip to Siena is ideal for all types of visitors including couples looking for a romantic getaway, solo travelers and families. There’s a good selection of accommodation to suit every budget so no matter what you want to spend you can explore this remarkable jewel in the Italian crown without breaking the bank.