With more than 50 charming towns and villages in Tuscany it can be hard to know where to start, but Siena is a very good bet. This is the only place in the region that offers the combination of a UNESCO World Heritage site, a world-famous horse race, and one of Italy’s most beautiful cathedrals. As if that weren’t enough, Siena also boasts a fascinating and complicated history, exquisite artwork, and -- of course -- delicious food.
Here’s how to spend a wonderful day in Siena.
Admire Siena’s Stunning Cathedral, Inside And Out
A visit to Siena should definitely include the city’s cathedral, which was built between 1215 and 1263 and is frequently described as one of Italy’s most beautiful churches. Several of Italy’s greatest artists contributed to its construction and ornamentation, including Pisano, Donatello, Ghiberti, and Bernini.
The outside is covered in white and black marble, the symbolic colors of Siena that represent the white and black horses of the city’s founders. Walk around the perimeter of the cathedral to appreciate its size and extensive embellishments. The west-facing facade -- also the primary entrance -- features numerous statues of saints and gargoyles as well as mosaics portraying scenes from the Bible.
Then step inside the cathedral to appreciate its impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and stained glass. There is so much to see inside that it’s hard to know where to start. The first thing visitors often notice is how the black and white marble stripes continue inside, mirroring the decor of the facade. Most people’s eyes will be drawn upward to the dome at the top of the nave. But don’t forget to look down, too, since much of the floor is covered with ornate mosaics.
To fully appreciate the cathedral, be sure to visit the Museo dell’Opera just across the piazza from the church. In order to protect the fragile artwork, many of the pieces in and around the cathedral are copies. To see the originals, you must visit the museum. The museum also provides more information about the history of the cathedral.
One reasonably priced ticket includes admission to all parts of the cathedral and the museum. Allow 2 to 3 hours to see everything.
Explore The Piazza Del Campo
There is so much history and culture packed into the Piazza del Campo that visitors should allow a couple of hours to explore this large square. This is Siena’s historic city center, and it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Piazza del Campo is also the location of the centuries-old horse race known as the Palio di Siena. This short, adrenaline-fueled race features jockeys riding bareback and has been the most important event in the city since 1633. Each contrade, or district, of the city enters a horse and rider in the race. The contrade is recognized through its unique logo and colors displayed on flags and the jockey’s silks. The piazza is so large that it can host the race and 30,000 spectators at once. A unique aspect of this race is that the winner is the horse that crosses the finish line first -- with or without its rider.
The largest building on the piazza is the Palazzo Pubblico, or city hall, which was built in 1297 and is still home to local government offices. Inside is the Civic Museum of Siena, which features a beautiful collection of frescoes by Sienese artists.
If it’s nice out, many locals and visitors simply spend time sitting in the Piazza del Campo. Grab a seat at one of the many surrounding bars and cafes and consider how much has taken place in this one historic square.
Get Up High For A Marvelous View Of The City
Also located in the Palazzo Pubblico is the Torre del Mangia, the third-tallest tower in Italy. The height of this tower was intentional: City rulers wanted it to be as tall -- or taller -- than the cathedral’s bell tower. This was to make a statement that the secular government and church were equal.
Constructed between 1325 and 1348, the tower got its interesting name from the original bellringer, Giovanni di Balduccio. Mangia comes from the Italian word mangiare, which means “to eat.” According to legend, Balduccio loved to eat!
For a small fee, adventurous visitors can climb 400 steps to the top of the Torre del Mangia. The views at the top are worth the effort. Just be forewarned that the stairways are narrow, and the steps can be uneven.
Appreciate Local Artists At The Pinacoteca Art Museum
Art lovers won’t want to miss the Pinacoteca Art Museum, famous for its collection of works by Sienese masters. Many of the pieces on view are large altarpieces, typically adorned with gold. Artists from Siena -- and all of Tuscany -- influenced art throughout Europe, and this is an ideal place to see how their subjects, style, and technique evolved over time.
It’s recommended that visitors start with the early works from the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries on the second floor, and then proceed to the first floor to appreciate the art from the 16th and 17th centuries. You’ll want to spend at least an hour or two here.
The museum is located in two old palaces, Palazzo Brigidi and Palazzo Buonsignori, near the city center. Visitors looking to escape the crowds in the cathedral and Piazza del Campo will appreciate this lesser-known attraction in a quiet location.
Eating In Siena
Like Tuscany in general, Siena offers cuisine based on delicious local ingredients. While regional specialities can be found at most restaurants, there are some city-specific items worth seeking out.
Start with the local sweets. Panforte, a traditional chewy Italian dessert containing fruits and nuts, did not originate in Siena, but today the city is widely considered the best place to sample this cake. Next, be sure to try ricciarelli, a soft cookie made of almond paste.
Many towns in Italy have their own type of pasta; in Siena, it’s pici, a thick, handmade spaghetti often made only with water and flour. Pici is commonly served with aglione, a sauce made of garlic, tomatoes, oil, and chili peppers.
For a classic Tuscan meal, head to La Taverna di San Giuseppe, centrally located near Piazza del Campo. The pasta is homemade, the ingredients are seasonal, and the wine cellar is well stocked. Or for a place highly recommended by locals, opt for Osteria Boccon del Prete. This restaurant is located near the cathedral and serves an excellent pici cacio e pepe (spaghetti with olive oil, cheese, and pepper).
If you don’t have much time to sit down for a meal, grab a quick sandwich from Te Ke Voi? Its focaccia sandwiches make a quick, cheap, and delicious meal.
Shopping In Siena
It may be hard to find time for shopping with all the sights to see and food to eat, but there are many local and handmade goods in Siena to consider purchasing as souvenirs and gifts.
Siena is well known for its colorful ceramics, an artistic tradition dating back hundreds of years. One of the best shops in the city for ceramics is Antica Siena, owned by a local family. It might be difficult to take these items home in your luggage, so ask about shipping them home instead.
Florence is often the city people think of for leather goods, but Siena also has a long tradition of producing handmade leather items. Casa Della Pelle is a favorite with visitors. All the items in the store are crafted by the owner, Paulo.
A packaged panforte or box of ricciarelli would also make a wonderful souvenir. These can be purchased in bakeries throughout the city.
Palio di Siena souvenirs are another great option. Wood carvings of the jockeys, silk banners with contrade logos, and even ceramics picturing the race are all items unique to Siena.