Siena is often mentioned in the same breath with its one-time rival, Florence. As the '"second" city in Italy's best-known region, Siena is typically added on as part of a tour of Tuscany, or even as just a day trip from Florence. While it lacks the blockbuster museums and Renaissance history of Florence, Siena has plenty to captivate visitors, including a romantic "centro storico" of narrow streets and alleys, good shopping, and lots of cozy trattorias.
City life in Siena revolves around the Campo, as the main Piazza del Campo is called. This grand shell-shaped piazza is the point of reference for every other site in the city. We recommend a good street map of the centro, available at most hotels, in lieu of or in addition to a smartphone navigation system. In Siena's winding streets and between its tall, thick building of brick and stone, a cellphone signal may be hard to come by.
History of Siena
The settlement that would become Siena was founded by the Etruscans, the pre-Roman tribes that controlled most of central Italy before the rise of Rome. With the fall of Rome in the 4th century CE, Siena was inundated with waves of invasions, and was at various times an important trading post for merchandise moving up and down the Italian peninsula. By the 13th century, the Republic of Siena was formed and grew to a wealthy, powerful banking center, a model European city and a rival of Florence. But the Black Plague decimated Siena in 1348, and the city never regained its might or importance.
It's largely due to the plague that Siena became a city stuck in time. Its compact city layout, with streets emanating from and wrapping around central Piazza del Campo, hasn't changed since the 1300s, and most of the buildings, fountains, churches, monuments, and even street names still date to that period.
What to See and Do
Here are some of the most popular monuments, museums and attractions in Siena.
Piazza del Campo: Siena’s shell-shaped main square is the bustling area of the city from morning to night. This monument to Medieval city planning was completed in the 1300s, and is lined with elegant, uniform palazzi, many of which still belong to Sienese families who trace their lineage to the earliest days of the city.
Palazzo Pubblico and Torre del Mangia: Sitting at the bottom of Piazza del Campo, the Palazzo Publico has been Siena’s town hall since the 1200s. Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s massive fresco cycle, "Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government" sits in the civic museum and provides a fascinating look at Medieval city and country life. Climb the adjacent Torre del Mangia for sweeping views of the city and countryside.
Duomo of Siena: Reserve in advance to visit Siena's spectacular cathedral, or Duomo, known for its rose marble facade and structure of stripes of green and white striped marble. Guests typically have access to the cathedral interior, crypt and baptistery, though this is subject to change depending on the time of year. With any luck, some of the incredibly intricate inlaid marble floors will be on view.
Santa Maria della Scala: Facing the Duomo, Santa Maria della Scala was one of Europe’s first hospitals, intended for pilgrims arriving in Siena on their way to Rome. It's now a museum that offers an intriguing look at Medieval medicine, as well as important frescoes.
The Palio of Siena: If you really plan ahead—a year or more in advance—you can time your trip to coincide with Il Palio, Siena's famously wild bareback horserace in a sand-filled Piazza del Campo. The event takes place every year on July 2 and August 16.
Where to Stay and Eat
Other than during the Palio, the majority of Siena accommodations are offered at moderate price points. Right in centro, we like Hotel Antica Torre, which offers comfortable rooms in a Medieval watchtower. Hotel Palazzo Ravizza is about a 10-minute walk from Campo, and has a leafy garden with countryside views. Palatial Grand Hotel Continental, in a 1600s palace, is the only five-star accommodation in Siena.
Just off Campo, Caffè Fiorella is widely regarded as having the best coffee in Siena, and it's a good quick stop for a mid-morning break. Have a memorable (but pricey) meal at La Taverna di San Giuseppe, a traditional and highly rated restaurant in a series of vaulted dining rooms. For a souvenir or just as a treat, don't miss ricciarelli, a soft almond cookie that's a specialty of Siena; Il Magnifico bakery makes some of the best in town. Unless you're just there for the views, avoid the touristy, overpriced restaurants on Piazza del Campo—you'll eat better by getting just a block or two off the Campo.
Location and How to Get There
Siena is in central Tuscany, about 70 kilometers (44 miles) south-southeast of Florence. The city is built on several hills in the midst of an even hillier landscape. The Chianti hills lie to the north and the Val d'Orcia is to the south. Both are famous as wine-producing areas and for their iconic landscapes. The A1 autostrada, Italy's main north-south highway, is about an hour east of Siena.
Pisa International or Florence Peretola airports are the closest to Siena. From Pisa International, the Pisa Mover airport train connects to the main train station, from where travelers can catch trains to Siena, typically with a change in Empoli. From Florence Peretola, travelers take the airport tram to Santa Maria Novella, Florence's main train station. From there they can catch direct trains to Siena, with a journey time of about 90 minutes. Train travel from Rome takes about three and a half hours total, with a change of trains at Florence Santa Maria Novella. Driving from Florence takes about an hour and a half, and from Rome, about two and a half hours depending on traffic.
The Siena train station is 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) outside and downhill of the centro, so not really practical for travelers with luggage. Frequent buses connect to the town center, or you can take a taxi. If you're arriving with a car, ask your hotel in advance where you can park it—the center of Siena is pedestrian-only.