At just an hour from Florence, Siena is a popular day trip destination, but it has enough to offer that you can easily enjoy a weekend here!
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Smaller than Florence but bigger than nearby San Gimignano, it’s very walkable. Wear comfortable shoes because although the city is small, it sits on three hills. You’ll find yourself going up and down quite a bit even when you’re not covering much distance.
The streets in Siena feel wider than your average Italian street, but that’s because Siena has been a notable destination for centuries. It’s symbol is the she-wolf, because the city claims to have been founded by Remus’ two sons, and you’ll see the symbol on just about everything!
Where to Stay & Park in Siena
The Tuscan countryside is a perfect area for exploring by car, jumping from winery to small town to sedate village. If you choose that, keep in mind that even medium-sized cities like Siena have ZTL’s, so always have a plan for parking. There’s a free lot on viale Vittorio Veneto, but unsurprisingly it’s very popular, so you may need to pay. There are also plenty of hourly and day parking options, and read this if you have no idea what a ZTL is.
You can easily stay anywhere in the historic part of Siena and be within walking distance of everything you’ll want to see! We stayed in a cute and inexpensive hotel called Casa Mastacchi that we absolutely loved: great breakfast included, dog friendly, and the owner recommended the free parking area!
Siena society revolves around the Campo, reflecting the city’s interest in planning around the economy rather than the church. Over the centuries the campo (meaning field) has been paved over with brick, creating an unusual sloped square where both tourists and locals hang out.
The campo is also host to Il Palio, the famous horserace that happens twice a year. Horses representing the neighborhoods of Siena race three laps around the campo, a matter of huge local pride. The winner is whichever horse crosses the finish line, with or without his rider!
If you like learning historical bits like this without signing up for a big tour, make sure you download the Rick Steves audio guide app. They have free city guides for many European destinations, and they strike a good balance of informative but still entertaining.
Unmissable as you walk into the campo is the Torre del Mangia. You can climb it and get great views of the surrounding Tuscan countryside! The Museo Civico sits just under it – it gives a good overview of the history of the city.
If you only see one thing in Siena, see the Cathedral di Santa Maria Assunta, or Siena’s Duomo. In my opinion, the Siena Duomo rivals Florence for beauty and sheer intricacy of design.
If you have a choice, go in the fall. During September and October, the famed Duomo floors are on display. These intricately carved stone floors are covered for much of the year to preserve them, but on display for about six weeks in the fall. They’re unique for the level of detail achieved by detailed carving as well as mosaic. They’re truly gorgeous.
The Duomo itself is stunning, even if you can’t see the floors. The stark striped columns contrast gorgeously with the starry sky painted on the ceiling. The building is full of gorgeous sculptures made by notable names like Donatello and Bernini.
Don’t overlook the Biblioteca Piccolomini, tucked into the left side wall if you’re facing the altar. It has a much different feel than the rest of the Duomo, small but full of light. The focus here is on the panels telling the life story of Pope Pius III, who eventually became pope
Your ticket also gets you into the crypt, baptistry museum, and panoramic viewing platform along the unfinished facade.
As of October 2020, advanced reservations are required but they’re easy to get online.
Basilica Cateriniana di San Domenico
The second most notable church in Siena stands impressively on a hill, but is in sharp contrast to the Duomo. Basilica Cateriniana’s exterior is like a typical church design in Italy but looks underdressed compared to the Duomo. Inside is the same: the walls are mostly white, with a simple but massively high wood beam ceiling. Not all windows have stained glass, but those that do reflect a newer style that classic elaborate stained glass we associate with cathedrals.
My opinion? The church is interesting and the site of so much history in the city. So if you’re nearby, go stick your head in for a minute or two. But if you’re short on time, prioritize the Duomo or Campo.
If you’re planning a trip to the area, my suggestion is to make it a weekend in Siena, or at least 48 hours. Half the draw of the city is the incredible restaurant scene! I’ll be sharing a few of my favorites to make your Tuscan food dreams come true next week, so check back soon!