Most of the time, this scenic Tuscan town is one of the favorite day trips from Florence thanks to being so close and so well connected via railway rather than a holiday destination on its own. Of course, if you are spending only one day in Siena, the things you can see are limited, but if you are planning a few days in the city, your itinerary can definitely be more complete and your trip more relaxed. Discover the best things to do in Siena to explore traditional Tuscany in this historical medieval town.
What to see and do in Siena
Visit Piazza del Campo
Whether you are here for a few days or on a Florence to Siena day trip, I suggest you start your itinerary from the striking heart of the old town, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo.
This beautiful square paved with red bricks has a marble fountain in the middle and historically is the center of the city’s secular power as opposed to the religious power. Piazza del Campo is where, twice a year, 17 historic local quarters compete against each other during the famous Palio di Siena horse race.
In and around the square are several restaurants, coffee shops and boutique stores, especially in the nearby Via Camollia.
If you have a few days, make sure you plan your Siena itinerary in a way where you can enjoy the city relaxed and without rushing so you can also take time to discover semi-hidden treasures like the chapel of the square located below Palazzo Pubblico and built by the citizens after the deadly 14th-century plague that killed thousands.
Piazza del Campo will look impressive from the moment you arrive, but once you are on top of Torre del Mangia, you can admire it in all its beauty and majesty.
Duck into Palazzo Pubblico
One of the best examples of local Gothic architecture, 13th-century Palazzo Pubblico hosted the offices in charge of local customs and taxes and is one of the first places to visit in Siena. Dominating the view of Piazza del Campo, it was once the seat of the Government of the Nine, made it big enough to force all the Nine ruling city councils to stay within the premises, allowing them to leave only during holidays. The works on the different floors of the palace were completed in the 17th century.
Today, Palazzo Pubblico is where the Council’s offices are, while its first floor was kept for the Museo Civico open to the public that displays many artworks, including the frescoes of Ambrogio Lorenzetti portraying an allegory of the Good and the Bad Governance in the Hall of the Nine.
Opening hours: Daily 10.30 am-6 pm, last entrance 5.15 pm.
Entrance fee: Single ticket 10€, students 8€, family ticket 22€, joint ticket per person including also Santa Maria Della Scala 14€, joint ticket including also Torre del Mangia 15€.
Climb Torre del Mangia
Dominating the view on the Piazza del Campo, 88-meter-tall Torre del Mangia takes its name from the first person who rung the bell in the 14th century, Giovanni di Duccio, nicknamed Mangiaguadagni, “money eater”. Unlike the Giotto Bell Tower in Florence, which stands a few meters from Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, Torre del Mangia is connected to Palazzo Pubblico.
Walking up its 400+ steps is not easy as the steps get pretty narrow but from the top, the magnificent 360-degree view of this medieval town is totally worth the fatigue. If you are traveling with your family, it will probably too hard for toddlers or if you have to climb carrying your baby on your shoulders. We went before our baby was born so we did the climb, but now with our baby D., I think at least one of us would skip it.
Opening hours: Daily 10.30 am-1.30 pm and 2.15-6 pm, last entrance 5.15 pm.
Entrance fee: Single ticket 10€, family ticket 25€, joint ticket including also Museo Civico 15€, including Museo Civico and Santa Maria della Scala 20€.
Visit Santa Maria Della Scala ancient hospital
First public hospital in Europe at the time, Santa Maria della Scala is located in front of Siena’s cathedral. One of the very first hospitals to give shelter to pilgrims, the poor and orphans, much of its expenses were paid through the lands donated by the noble Senese families and by the municipality.
Visiting Santa Maria Della Scala now, you will visit a museum where artworks such as frescoes are on display with chapels and the former working areas including the hospital reception where men and women were divided and sent to their respective areas.
In one of the four floors of this large complex, a man’s skull will welcome you to a 13th-century church with the somehow disturbing reminder “COME TU SEI FUI ANCOR IO: COM’IO SONO SARAI ANCOR TU”, that translates roughly like this: How you are I was, how I am you will be.
We were probably expecting to see some of the old beds and equipment used in this hospital but there weren’t any. The sculptures and decorations, however, make your visit worth it.
Located right in the heart of the city and surrounded by many other historical buildings, the complex of Santa Maria Della Scala is hard to miss. Include it in your Siena bucket list for a more valuable stay and to add an important piece of local history and society.
Opening hours: Daily 10 am-7 pm. In Winter until 5 pm every day and 7 pm on weekends.
Entrance fee: Single ticket 9€.
Pay a visit to the Duomo di Siena
One of the highlights of your trip to Siena is certainly its 13th-century cathedral. Designed after a project by Giovanni Pisano and Giovanni di Cecco to be built on top of another church of this hill town.
Both exterior and interior are no less than spectacular, the stripes of white and black marbles receiving the effects of stained glasses that make it even more beautiful. The round colorful stained glass made in the 13th century by native painter Duccio Di Buoninsegna is an admirable work, so is the marble mosaic floor that creates a unique pavement, some part of which is covered most of the year to preserve it.
On the left side of the church, 15th-century Piccolomini Library houses a precious collection of illuminated manuscripts. Some of the highlights of this stunning library are the bright-colored frescoes by Perugia painter Pinturicchio and a young Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael).
The Gate of Heaven, above the Duomo, offers a panoramic view of inside and outside the cathedral. This can only be visited with a separate ticket.
Entrance fee: Ticket that includes Duomo and all the museums 13€, joint ticket to Duomo di Siena, Cripta Del Duomo, Battistero di San Giovanni, Museo Dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Facciatone viewpoint and Duomo rooftops 20€.
Go down the Duomo’s Crypt
Built in the 13th century alongside the cathedral, unlike many other crypts, this was never used for burials. Some believe it might have simply functioned as a porch leading into the Duomo. The Crypt was closed and remained untouched for nearly 700 years and the people of Siena didn’t have the chance to enjoy this part of the history until it was discovered in 1999 during an excavation in the Siena Duomo itself. Frescoes mainly done by unknown artists are the interesting part of the Crypt. Cripta Del Duomo is included in your joint ticket.
Marvel at the Baptistery of St. John
Built between 1316 and 1625, 14th-century Siena’s Baptistery of St. John (Battistero di San Giovanni) has been serving as the church to perform baptisms for centuries. It’s adjacent to the cathedral and definitely one of the things to see in Siena for its stunning and finely decorated interior.
Along with a beautiful Renaissance-style baptismal font designed and realized by Jacopo della Quercia with the contribution of other important names such as Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti, don’t miss the sculptures from the school of Giovanni Pisano and the frescoes by Vecchietta.
You can access the Baptistery from the staircase in Piazza San Giovanni.
Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo
Founded in 1869, Museo dell’Opera, the museum showing the artwork related to the Duomo complex, is located right behind the Duomo itself inside what is now called the New Cathedral. On the ground floor of the museum, you can see a collection of 14th-century statues of philosophers, prophets, and sibyls done by Giovanni Pisano. Among the other important 15th-century artefacts are the statues of an enthroned Madonna and Child with the Cardinal Casini portraying the Madonna and Child with four cherubs by Jacopo Della Quercia, and Donatello’s tondo of the Madonna with Child.
Another artefact worth viewing is the 6-meter-diameter round stained glass window at end of the hall made by Duccio di Buoninsegna between 1287 and 1290. The center of the window tells three tales linked to the life of the Virgin Mary: the Assumption, the Burial and the Coronation. The aptly studied lighting of the ground floor of Museo dell’Opera gives life to the statues and the window.
On the first floor of the museum, you can see some precious altarpieces from the 14th-18th centuries that show masterpieces by Duccio di Buoninsegna like the painting of Madonna and Child enthroned (Maestà) and the painting of the Christ on the donkey entering into Jerusalem. The Treasury, also on the first floor, houses hundreds of precious sacred objects and reliquaries, while the top floor house is home to a precious collection of paintings and tapestries.
Opening hours: March – November 10.30 am-7 pm; November – 28th February 10.30 am-5.30 pm.
Entrance fee: 13€.
Visit Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena
If you are staying in Siena long enough and are an art lover, you will enjoy a visit to the city’s Pinacoteca Nazionale. Across the three floors, you can view the work of local painters between the 14th and 17th centuries with names such as Duccio, Simone Martini, Pietro e Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Sano di Pietro, Giovanni di Paolo, Sassetta, Matteo di Giovanni e Francesco di Giorgio Martini. The third floor houses the private art collection of the rich Siena family Spannocchi-Piccolomini.
Try the local food
One of the best things to do in Siena to try the local dishes. Like in other parts of Tuscany, you will find pici thick, rustic spaghetti served with different types of sauces, but one of the foods that are well-known from Siena is the Senese wild boar sausage. As a matter of fact, one of the typical pasta sauces is wild boar ragout as well as hare ragout.
Like in other cities in Tuscany such as Florence, one of the dishes you will find in Siena is the ribollita, a vegetable soup starring beans, shallot, carrots, the Tuscan cavolo nero (black cabbage) and seasonal wild herbs. It’s usually made the day before to absorb and keep all the flavour. Among the types of meat, in Siena, there is a local pork breed called Cinta Senese of very ancient origins from which they make cold cuts, sausages and several recipes.
Enter Palazzo Chigi-Saracini
Near Piazza del Campo is another place to visit in Siena if you are staying for a few days and if you are into art and history. Palazzo Chigi-Saracini was the residence palace of the noble family, known for their love for art and music. From the Neo-gothic facade that features also a 12th-century tower, the interior of the building is finely decorated with artwork, sophisticated furniture, an art gallery from their private collection, and a museum with ancient music instruments among the other areas.
Where to sleep in Siena
Siena has a large choice of accommodations for all budgets and travel styles.
High-end: If you are looking for luxury, your best hotel is 5-star Grand Hotel Continental Siena, very central, gorgeous decorations and all types of modern amenities (€400-600 per double room per night, optional breakfast to be selected when booking). Some 2 km from central Siena is the beautiful former monastery Hotel Certosa di Maggiano (€420-500) featuring a scenic countryside location and luxury services such as heated outdoor pool, tennis court, and state-of-the-art room facilities.
Medium-range: Some mid-range hotels and accommodation options near the city center are 3-star Hotel Duomo (around €100 per night per double room, great breakfast included), 4-star Hotel Executive (between €100-120 per room, complimentary breakfast if you are a Genius customer with Booking.com) and Palazzo del Magnifico B&B (€130-140 per double room, great breakfast included). A bit more expensive are the elegant Palazzo Lenzi (around €300), Residenza d’Epoca Campo Regio Relais (€300-350), and Palazzo De’ Vecchi (€200-250).
Budget: A great budget accommodation option in Siena is Hotel Alma Domus. Located in the very city center, it’s set in a historical building. The price for a double room is around €70/80 per night, breakfast included. Also in the city center, so a great place if you are sightseeing in Siena, B&B Sallustio offers rooms and breakfast for some €80 per night, which might become €100 in the high season.
Where to eat in Siena
Around the city center, including the popular Via Camollia near Piazza Duomo, there are several traditional restaurants, while probably in Piazza Duomo itself, there are more tourist menus to please an international palate.
One of the restaurants in Siena you can try is Osteria Boccon del Prete (17, via San Pietro; phone +39 0577 280388) for a menu of traditional recipes as well as original creations of the chef and affordable prices. Among their popular dishes are the sausage polenta (cornmeal mush) and the pici pasta with sage and almonds.
Right in Via Camollia (n. 49) is the excellent Ristorante Enzo (phone +39 0577 281277) with dishes from Tuscan and Siena tradition, so perfect if you are visiting Siena’s main landmarks as it’s a stone’s throw from the Duomo.
If you are into gourmet food, check out Osteria Castelvecchio (Via Castelvecchio 65; phone +39 0577 47093) for truly excellent food and a scenic location carved inside a cave. With a modern and sophisticated design, probably here prices are a bit more expensive but still affordable.
For a great pizza, pasta and street food like dishes try Cavaliere Errante (Piazza Provenzano 3; phone +39 0577 222496). Some even define this as the best place for pizza in Siena!
Best time to visit Siena
Siena is a perfect travel destination all year, but if you are into festivals, traditions, and anthropology, don’t miss the two horse races Palio Della Madonna di Provenzano on July 2nd and Palio dell’Assunta on August 16th.
During summer it might be quite hot, while spring and fall are perfect for their mild temperatures. Winter can be pretty cold and humid but it’s not very long, in March spring already makes all flowers blossom.
Rome-based travel writer, blogger and photographer.