Siena is a medium-sized town located in Toscana Region. It is famous worldwide thanks to its medieval old town, which was included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1995.
In addition to its rich historical and artistic heritage, Siena is also the place where one of the most popular Italian events takes place every year: the Palio (horse race). It happens twice a year (on July 2nd and on August 16th) in the renown Piazza del Campo, also called Palio Square. During this race, the town’s districts (called “contrade”), challenge one another and the real winner is not the jockey but the horse, that is celebrated as a champion.
The Palio is a very salient issue for locals, who prepare the race and the celebrations for months. Recently, there has been some safety issues raised by animal welfare lobbies: since it’s a really dangerous race for horses, security precautions have been taken and the number of veterinarians has been increased.
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One day in Siena: Things to do and see
Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral
Together with Piazza del Campo, it is the symbol of Siena. It is a wonderful example of Italian gothic architecture and the center of the local spiritual life. Many famous artists worked here and you can still see some precious works of art by Donatello, Michelangelo and Pinturicchio.
Both the external and internal walls are entirely made with white and black marble, which gives this church a unique appearance. The only downside is that you have to pay to enter the church, but the ticket will give you the right to see other unique features of this cathedral: the Piccolimini Library and the Crypt.
Tip:During summer, the queue to the ticket office is long. It is adviced that you buy your skip the line tickets in advance.
San Giovanni Baptistery
Behind the Cathedral, you’ll find the “twin” of the famous baptistery of Florence. It is rich in ancient frescos and its focal point is the central baptismal font which was made by several famous artists like Donatello.
Piazza del Campo
Also known as Palio Square, it has a peculiar shell shape that reflects the point where the three hills of Siena meet. On its highest side, you can admire the Fonte Gaia (Joyful Fountain): it takes its name from the joy of people on seeing water pouring out of the fountain for the first time.
Here you can also admire Palazzo Pubblico, which hosts the Civic Museum, and the elegant Mangia Tower.
This 102 m high tower is part of Palazzo Pubblico, but you can also visit it separately. Its red bricks make it visible from everywhere in town. It derives its name from its first bell ringer who was surnamed Mangiaguadagni (literally “money eater”), for his bad habit of wasting all his pay check. The climb is steep, but once you have climbed all the 400 stairs, you’ll enjoy a wonderful view of Siena’s skyline.
Its bell, called “Campanone” (Big Bell) exhibits a special feature: it’s out of tune! This is particularly evident when the automatic ringing method is used. The only way to make it sound nicely is making it ring by hand, which is only done on Palio days.
The Old Town reflects the evolution of Tuscan architecture from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance period and it is a real open-air museum. Today, its narrow alleys and nice little squares host many restaurants, cafés and craftsmen’s shops, making it one of the most appreciated parts of the city by locals and visitors.
It’s also a very popular nightlife district (nightlife in Siena is mostly quiet and a typical night out consists of sitting in Piazza del Campo drinking wine or strolling through the city center or sitting at one of the many little cafés nearby).
Santa Maria della Scala Museums
Right in front of the Cathedral, you’ll find this complex that was once one of the oldest European hospitals. It was entirely dedicated to the pilgrims passing from Siena on their way to Rome following the Via Francigena (the ancient European pilgrim route to reach Rome). Nowadays, it hosts several museums and collections of pieces of art and archaeology, helping visitors to better understand the origins and the history of the town.
San Domenico Basilica
It is the second most important church of Siena. It is located on top of a hill and it’s visible from everywhere in town. It is a beloved church for locals, because it contains a precious relic: the head of Santa Caterina, the Patroness of Italy who was born and lived in Siena in the XIV century.
It is one of the main entrance gates of Siena and part of the ancient walls.
See the Palio
If you visit Siena in summer, don’t miss the Palio! You can stay both inside the square, close to the race circuit, or sit on a platform on the external perimeter. To stay close to the circuit you don’t have to pay anything and you’ll participate intensely to the race, just like if you were in a stadium during a football match.
On the other hand, you’ll have to stand several hours under the sun and it’s not for you if you suffer from being pressed by the crowd. Platforms are more comfortable, but they can be crazy expensive (up to 300 euros). The race usually starts around 7 p.m. but you had better to arrive by 5 p.m. at the latest.
Drink local wine
The countryside around Siena is called Chianti and it is one of the most renown Italian wine areas. These are the typical wines that are produced here: Brunello di Montalcino (red wine mainly suitable for roasted meat), Chianti Classico (red wine mainly suitable for meat in general), Vernaccia (white wine mainly suitable for “aperitivo” and appetizers), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (red wine mainly suitable for roasted meat) and Passito del Santo (white wine perfect for desserts).
Where to buy them? Some addresses are:
- Cantina del Brunello di Montalcino, in via della Sapienza 66
- Diwine in via Camollia 71
- Cantina in Piazza in via Stalloreggi 15
Eat wild boar
Local game is really appreciated and it is included in many traditional dishes, especially wild boar, which is typically associated with Tuscan cuisine. Some ideas?
- Pici (local pasta shape) with wild boar sauce – a sort of Bolognese sauce made with wild boar meat
- Wild boar in dolceforte sauce – a wild boar stew in a red wine and chocolate sauce
- Stewed wild boar – a stew with tomatoes, olives and fresh herbs
Where to taste local dishes? Some addresses are:
- Taverna di Cecco, in via Cecco Angioleri 19
- Osteria La Piana, in via Camollia 122
- Ristorante Guido, in Vicolo Pettinaio 7
Buy a decorative little ceramic plate
One of the most typical souvenirs of Siena is a little ceramic plate decorated by hand with bright colors. Some typical laboratories are:
- Laboratorio ceramiche bianco e nero della famiglia Staccioli, in via di Fusari 21
- Antica Siena, in Piazza del Campo 28
- Rosco Art, in via delle Terme 74
Taste Ricciarelli with a glass of wine after dinner
Ricciarelli are local biscuits made with almonds, sugar, flour, eggs and candied orange zest. They were originally prepared for Christmas, but they can be found all year long and they are a popular after dinner treat. Where to buy them? Some addresses are:
- Pasticceria Bini, in via Stalloreggi 91
- Peccati di Gola, in via Piccolomini 41
- La Nuova Pasticceria, in via Dupré 37
Attend a concert during the Musical Week
In July, one week is entirely dedicated to classical music, with many concerts held in the beautiful Teatro dei Rinnovati.
Visit the Campo Market
Every first weekend of December, there is a medieval market offering local specialties and handicrafts.
How to plan your one-day trip to Siena:
Best period: Spring
It is particularly suitable to visit the beautiful countryside nearby. During Easter holidays, many Italians go on vacation or visit other members of the family living far away, for that you should avoid that particular Spring week, because it can get really crowded everywhere. Summer can be too hot for sightseeing, so that it’s not the best period to go to Siena and to visit Italian cities of art in general. Autumn is also a good option, at least until mid-October, before it starts raining.
You could spend 4 days in Florence and add one day for a trip to Siena (you can easily reach it from Florence train station in 1h30). You could also spend 1 week in a farm (agriturismo) nearby, to enjoy some open-air activities and visit the beautiful countryside and the famous Chianti wine area.
Restaurants in Siena
- To taste typical dishes in a picturesque location, choose Osteria Permalico, in via Costa Larga 4
- If you are a cheese lover and you like Pecorino go to Osteria Le Sorelline, in via dei Rossi 76
- To taste the original Tuscan “pici” choose Bagoga, in via della Galluzza 26
Cafés, bars and street food in Siena:
- For a quick lunch try the platters of Toscana Golosa, in via della Sapienza 35
- For one of the best sandwiches in town try Gino Cacino, in Piazza del Mercato 31
- If you like Italian-style happy hours (aperitivo) head to Piripì Pizza Urban Food, in via dei Rossi 71
Shopping in Siena:
Siena offers much more than its traditional coloured ceramic objects. For your shopping, try these addresses too:
- Casa della Pelle in via Camollia 153 (for handmade leather bags)
- Fabbrica delle Candele in via dei Pellegrini 11 (for original and artistic candles)
- Cappelleria Bertacchi in via di Città 60 (for a handmade hat)
Hotels: if you feel like staying overnight, choose a hotel in a semi-central position. You will be able to reach the main points of interest with a short walk and you’ll enjoy a quieter environment, far enough from the tourist crowds.
If you are visiting Siena in the summer make sure the hotel has air-conditioning.
Some good addresses are:
Situated at the centre of Siena, on a 13th century buliding just a 2 min walk from San Domenico Basilica and 5 min away from Piazza del Campo. It offers air-conditioned rooms with a flat screen TV with satellite channels, free Wi-Fi and toiletries. Click here for more information and available rates.
Located 500 m from Piazza del Campo, in a 19th century neoclassical building with no elevator, the hotel offers air-conditioned rooms with satellite Tv and free Wi_Fi. Click here for more information and available rates.
One day itinerary in Siena
- On your arrival, have a walk to reach Piazza del Campo (just 20 minutes from the train station. If you prefer not to walk, just catch the bus s77 just outside the train station).
- From there, you will reach the Cathedral. Take your time to visit it slowly, enjoying its works of art, the Piccolomini Library and Crypt too.
- If it’s a sunny day, climb the 400 stairs of Mangia Tower, to enjoy a beautiful view and take some pictures!
- Lose yourselves in the small alleys of the old town and stop at a wine bar for a lunch made of local cold cuts and cheeses (with a glass of local wine, of course!)
- Early in the afternoon, you can choose to spend a couple of hours in a museum (the Civic Museum if you like art or the Santa Maria della Scala Museums if you prefer to learn more about the history and the origins of the town) or to walk around and visit the San Giovanni Baptistery and search for the Porta Salaria. During your wanderings, don’t forget to buy a souvenir in one of the many craftsmen’s shop you’ll encounter along the way!
- If you still have time, reach San Domenico Basilica (only 15 minutes from the Cathedral) and learn more about the life of Santa Caterina, the Patroness of Italy.
- If you decide to stay overnight, enjoy a typical dinner in a local trattoria (informal Italian-style restaurant) and taste some pici, the local pasta shape, with a wild boar sauce, to try a real Tuscan-style dinner!
- If it’s summer, you might also bump into the Musical Week and enjoy a classical concert at the Teatro dei Rinnovati.
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