Siena Guide: Planning Your Trip

View of Siena, Italy

Ellen Moran / Getty Images

Siena is often mentioned in the same breath as its one-time rival, Florence. As the '"second" city in Italy's most famous 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 for eating and drinking.

Around the 13th century, the Republic of Siena was formed and grew into a 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 the central plaza, hasn't changed much since the 1300s, and most of the buildings, fountains, churches, monuments, and even street names still date to that period.

Planning Your Visit

  • Best Time to Visit: Summer is the busiest time to visit Siena when the city fills up with day trippers from Florence, especially if you're visiting during the Palio horse race festival, which always falls on July 2 and August 16 and brings out thousands of spectators. Visiting in the shoulder season of spring or fall is the best time to visit if you want fewer crowds with comfortable weather. Siena is a university town, so visiting when school is in session is fun for student travelers looking for nightlife (or a time to avoid if you want a quieter trip).
  • Language: The language spoken in Siena is Italian, although most people who work in tourism can speak English.
  • Currency: You'll need euros to pay for things all around Italy, although most businesses accept credit cards.
  • Getting Around: The historic center of Siena is small enough to explore on foot, but taxis are available and inexpensive for short distances. For exploring more of the countryside around Siena, you'll need to have your own vehicle.
  • Travel Tip: If you're taking a taxi within Siena, it has a fixed cost depending on the time of day or if you call the taxi, so you don't have to worry about a meter. It's cheaper if you hail a taxi off the street rather than call for one, but it should never cost more than about 8 euros.

Things to Do

City life in Siena revolves around il Campo, as the main Piazza del Campo is called. This grand shell-shaped plaza is the point of reference for every other site in the city and a 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 palazzo-style buildings, 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 and masterpiece, "Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government," sits in the civic museum and provides a fascinating look at how life was back in Siena's glory days. Climb the adjacent Torre del Mangia for sweeping views of the city and countryside.
  • Duomo of Siena: Reserve in advance to visit Siena's spectacularly colorful cathedral, or Duomo, known for its rose marble facade and the columns of green and white stripes. 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 from Renaissance artists.

What to Eat and Drink

You'll find a lot of meat dishes in Tuscan cuisine, from the grilled Florentine steak to pasta in a ragu sauce made with pork or wild boar. The typical pasta shape you'll find around Siena is called pici, which is a long spaghetti-like noodle but much thicker, often served with game meat like hare, boar, or duck. If you're vegetarian, you'll find plenty of meals featuring local produce, such as pasta with porcini mushrooms or ribollita, a hearty Tuscan vegetable stew. For a souvenir or just as a treat, don't miss ricciarelli, a soft almond cookie that's a specialty of Siena.

To accompany your meal, just take your pick from the wine list. Tuscany is one of Italy's most famous wine regions, so don't skip out on a wine tour in the surrounding countryside. The most famous Tuscan wine known internationally is from the Chianti region, but look out for other popular wines like Brunello di Montalcino or Vernaccia. Don't be afraid to ask your server for a recommendation if you're unsure what to order.

Where to Stay

Siena's main center is surrounded by medieval walls. Staying in the historic center is most convenient for getting around the city, as you'll have every major attraction within walking distance. Plus, most of the buildings date back hundreds of years and there's something undeniably magical about staying in a medieval tower or a 17th-century palace.

If you have a vehicle and you're using Siena as a base to explore the surrounding area, you may prefer accommodations outside of the walls. Driving and parking in the historic center isn't allowed, so you'll want to leave your car outside of the city center, anyway. If you want to be even farther outside of the city, look for an agriturismo in the Tuscan countryside, which is like a rustic bed and breakfast.

For more options on where to spend the night, check out the best hotels in Siena.

Getting There

Train travel is simple in Italy and the best way to get around. Siena's train station has a direct connection to Florence, which is about an hour and 20 minutes away. If you're coming from another city like Rome or Milan, you'll have to change trains in Florence. The Siena train station is about a mile outside of the city center and it's an uphill walk from the train station into town. If you have luggage, taxis are readily available.

The closest airports are Florence Peretola and Pisa International Airport. From Pisa International, the Pisa Mover airport train connects to the main train station 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, and continue to Siena from there.

Driving from Florence takes about an hour and a half. If you're driving from Rome, the journey takes about two and a half hours, although it could be much more depending on traffic.

Money Saving Tips

  • If you're visiting Tuscany on a budget, staying in Siena is much cheaper than nearby Florence. Consider basing yourself in Siena and making a day trip to Florence instead of the other way around.
  • Pisa International Airport is a hub for budget airlines around Europe. If you want to explore Tuscany without spending a lot, look for flights to Pisa and then take the train to Siena from there.
  • When choosing a place to eat in Siena, avoid the touristy and overpriced restaurants on Piazza del Campo. Even if you just walk a block or two away from the Campo, you'll get a much better meal at a much cheaper price.
  • In Italian restaurants or trattorias, you can usually order a glass, bottle, or carafe of the vino della casa, or house wine. It's usually the cheapest drink on the menu, but that doesn't mean it's bad. Many locals order the house wine and it typically has a great quality-to-price ratio.