Siena is one of the most loved and visited cities in Tuscany, a place rich in history and art, but also with strong traditions, mainly linked to its districts (“Contrada”) and the famous Palio di Siena. What makes Siena so fascinating and loved is the fact that it has remained intact as in the Middle Ages. Visiting Siena is therefore a kind of time travel.
One day in Siena is certainly not enough to experience the city in all its nuances, much less to visit all its treasures. In one day, however, with a little organization, you will certainly be able to see the main attractions of Siena and appreciate its charm and atmosphere.
Things to do in Siena
Piazza del Campo
Piazza del Campo is a truly unique and unmistakable square: thanks to the particular shell shape and the brick color given by the terracotta flooring and the facing of the buildings that overlook it, it is rightly considered one of the most beautiful squares in the world. It has a characteristic 9-segment shell shape, a detail that can only be admired from the top of the Torre del Mangia tower. Since 1300 it has been the centre of life in Siena and has served as a market and gathering place for the Sienese during important political moments, parties and jousting. As it still happens twice a year during the famous Palio. The best way to admire Piazza del Campo is to climb the Torre del Mangia, the tower that dominates it from above the Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall). When it was built in the early 1300s, the square was the gathering place for merchants and the only space in the city capable of welcoming all the inhabitants of Siena, especially during parties, jousting and important political events. Since then it has changed its function from a predominantly commercial place to a predominantly tourist place, as evidenced by the restaurants that overlook the square and the souvenir shops that crowd it.
The slight slope makes the shape of the Palazzo Pubblico with the Torre del Mangia even more impressive, while the whole square is surrounded by the beautiful and imposing facades of the noble palaces. In the square there is also the Fonte Gaia, the most beautiful and the largest decorated fountain in the city. The fountain that can be admired today in Piazza del Campo is a copy of the fountain that Jacopo della Quercia sculpted between 1409 and 1419. The original marble panels were replaced by copies in 1868 and are now preserved in the loggia of the Palazzo Pubblico.
The Palazzo Pubblico of Siena is considered one of the most beautiful civil palaces in Italy, which has always been admired for its majesty and harmony. In the building there is the Civic Museum, which contains one of the most famous allegories in the world: the allegory of the Bad and the Good Government, painted on the walls by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. In 1337 the Government commissioned Ambrogio Lorenzetti to decorate the room where visiting guests were welcomed with a fresco that represented the ideals that guided the Government of Siena. For the first time in the history of art, a pictorial cycle is painted in which the prevailing theme is not religious but civil. The result is the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, an extraordinary tale of how the way of governing is the element that decides the well-being or decay of a society. The other great protagonist of the Museum is “La Maestà” by Simone Martini, painted in 1312 to testify to the great devotion to the Virgin. The Madonna is in the center of the painting, seated on a royal throne and surrounded by Saints.
Torre del Mangia
The Torre del Mangia is one of the tallest towers in Italy and has always served as a civic tower, therefore without a religious function, of the city of Siena. It was built between 1325 and 1348. According to the legends that have been handed down in the city for centuries, the stones at the 4 corners of the Torre del Mangia contain lucky coins engraved with Hebrew and Latin letters. This custom was very common in the Middle Ages and was used to defend the towers from lightning and other misfortunes. The Torre del Mangia is 88 meters high. From up there, the show is truly breathtaking. You can see all of Siena: from Piazza del Campo to the cathedral a little further away, to the distant hills.
In front of the Palazzo Pubblico, in the upper part of the square, the red bulk of Sansedoni Palace stands out. The building takes its name from the noble Sienese family, one of the most prestigious in the Middle Ages, who commissioned its construction.
Palio di Siena
Piazza del Campo is the setting where the famous Palio di Siena takes place, which attracts spectators from all over the world twice a year, on July 2 and August 16. In those days, the square returns to its fourteenth-century appearance, with the land covering the square, with period costumes, horses and riders. For a tourist, the Palio di Siena is nothing more than an exciting, very intense and folkloric horse race. For a Sienese, however, it is much more. But the Palio, in its authentic meaning, cannot be understood if it is not part of the division into districts (“contrade”) that characterizes Siena. The districts are 17 small towns within the city, a concrete, organized reality, with laws and customs that go back in time, but which keep their strength intact. Each district is like a small State, run by Prior and guided during the palio by a jockey, called Captain, who mounts the horse. Each district has its own church where the material for the Palio is kept: costumes, banners, drapes, flags. The Palio di Siena is practically a one-of-a-kind horse race where the 17 historic districts that make up the Tuscan city confront and challenge each other. The race includes 3 laps around the track that surrounds the square which is sprinkled with a thick enough layer of tuff earth, so that the horses can run more easily. Horses must complete three laps of the track for a total of 1000 meters, with or without jockey. Only one is the district that comes out victorious.
Duomo di Siena
The Duomo of Siena, or Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, stands in the centre of the homonymous square. Built between the late 12th and early 13th centuries, where an ancient church once stood, it is one of the most significant examples of medieval architecture in Italy, Gothic but with significant Romanesque traces.
Black and white prevail in the decoration of the facade of the Cathedral, with three large portals dominated by triangular cusps and a remarkable central rose window. The lower part is in the Romanesque style, while the upper part is in the Gothic style. The particular Romanesque bell tower, with black and white stripes, was built towards the end of the 13th century.
The interior of the Cathedral is a Latin cross, with three large naves and blue vaults with gold stars. The wonderful marble floor accentuates the suggestive effect of the two-tone colour of the black and white bands that dominate the church. The floor is very particular with its 56 marble panels, executed between 1369 and 1547, which depict sacred and profane scenes.
At the far end of the left aisle of the Cathedral, you will discover the entrance to the Piccolomini library, built in 1492 by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius III, to house his collection of books. All the wonderful pictorial decoration was made by Pinturicchio. Not only are the walls of the Library frescoed, in which you will admire some scenes from the life of Pope Pius II, but also the ceiling, shining with the abundant use of gold. Immediately after the library, in the left aisle, you will find the large altar with statues of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Pio and St. Gregory by Michelangelo.
The Crypt is instead located under the Cathedral. Here are preserved the extraordinary frescoes of the Sienese school of the thirteenth century representing scenes from the Old and the New Testament.
From the right of the Duomo you enter the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, a museum that collects works from the Duomo and the Diocese of Siena. Inside there are works of art by Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia, Duccio da Buoninsegna, Giovanni Pisano, Pietro Lorenzetti and many others.
Baptistery of San Giovanni in Siena
Just behind the Duomo, since 1325 the Baptistery has been competing with the cathedral for the role of the most important religious place in the city. For many centuries it served as the baptismal church of the city. The Gothic style façade rivals that of the Duomo in beauty. The walls are frescoed by Benvenuto di Giovanni, Pietro degli Orioli and Lorenzo di Pietro (known as the “Vecchietta”). But the protagonist of the Baptistery is the baptismal font in bronze and marble, located right in the centre of the building, which artists such as Jacopo della Quercia, Giovanni di Turino, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello worked on.
Santa Maria della Scala
The complex of Santa Maria della Scala is first of all one of the oldest hospitals in Europe, where pilgrims along the Via Francigena were welcomed and the poor and abandoned children helped. It is located right in front of the Duomo, so you will have to take just a few steps to visit it. Santa Maria della Scala hosts a vast artistic heritage and temporary exhibitions.
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena
If you still want to admire works of art, then you cannot miss a visit to the National Art Gallery (Pinacoteca Nazionale, in Via di San Pietro), where works from the 15th and 16th centuries in Siena are kept.
Also in the historic centre of the city, we find Salimbeni Palace, the historic seat of Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world, founded in 1472. Here you can visit the Cortile della Dogana and the ground floor of the Palace for free. It is the bank’s historical archive, plus some of the works of art from the vast collection.
Basilica of San Domenico
The Basilica of San Domenico is also of considerable interest, located just outside the fourteenth-century walls, between Piazzale San Domenico and via della Speranza. This Basilica is the first stop on the guided tours that pass through the city daily. It is one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in Siena, famous above all because the head-relic of Saint Catherine, patroness of the city and of Italy, is preserved here. However, there are also other reasons of fascination: starting with the frescoes by “Sodoma” (Antonio Bazzi), disciple of the great Leonardo da Vinci, continuing with the tables of Saint Francis made by Giorgio Martini, up to the “Wonderful Majesty” by Guido from Siena. An apparently bare church, with one nave, and yet full of priceless works of art. The view from the outside is also beautiful with a privileged view of the Duomo and Torre del Mangia.
Last but not least, for nature lovers, we remember the ancient botanical garden. Established in 1784 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany behind the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, already at the end of 1850 it had more than 3000 plants, most of which came from distant Countries, and therefore little known from a botanical point of view. Over time, the Garden has expanded more and more, reaching 2.5 hectares of surface in the mid-60s of the last century. Admission is subject to a fee.
Foods in Siena
You cannot leave Siena without first tasting one of its traditional dishes. The Sienese cuisine is based on the land, firmly anchored to the peasant roots of the area. A type of cuisine that years ago would have been defined as poor and which instead, over time, proved to be the best of Italian gastronomy. Of course, oil and wine produced in the province of Siena are unmatched (Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino are two of the most famous wines). The same goes for cured meats and cheeses, without forgetting truffles and traditional winter soups, a heritage of regional cuisine. Then there is the vast chapter dedicated to sweets, including cantucci and panforte, which are inevitable delicacies on Sienese tables.