What to Do & See in Siena

Among the most popular day trips from Florence is the charming city of Siena. Siena has earned all the praise it routinely gets, and although it’s not what anyone would call “off the beaten path” you can still have a more intimate experience of Tuscany by simply spending the night and getting to see the city after the day trippers depart.

Whether you’ve got a day or more to spend in Siena, this is the kind of Italian city that’s a joy to explore on foot. Once you’re in the historic center, it’s all walkable (it’s hilly, so be aware of that, but the distances are relatively short). This is great news for all travelers, and especially those with limited time – it means you can check a lot of things off of your to-do list without rushing.

Now, that doesn’t mean this list of things to do in Siena is comprehensive. There’s plenty more besides what I’ve listed here that could occupy your time for awhile – but this list should get your started with your travel planning. And, as I’ve done in my other “what to do and see” articles, I’ve included a few somewhat weird attractions along with the standard ones. I like including one or two oddities in my sightseeing, not least because they’re sometimes less crowded. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

For more help in planning your trip, don’t miss my Siena travel guide.

Siena’s Top Attractions

View of the Torre del Mangia || public domain photo by Davide Cantelli

View of the Torre del Mangia || public domain photo by Davide Cantelli

  • Siena Duomo – The striped facade of Siena’s 13th-century cathedral, layers upon layers of black and white marble, is only a hint at the gorgeous decorations inside. The tile designs on the floor are some of my favorite things to look at, but you’ll also be wowed by the black-and-white striped columns that line the nave. The black and white, incidentally, are nods to the colors of the horses ridden by the city’s two founders.
  • Piazza del Campo – The city’s main square isn’t in front of the cathedral, but rather the city hall. The Piazza del Campo is shell-shaped, fanning out in nine equal segments from the Palazzo Pubblico at its base. The nine sections are symbolic representations of “The Nine” who ruled the city-state in the Medieval era. The Campo is also the site of the famous horse race in Siena, the Palio.
  • Palio di Siena – The Palio is held twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th. It’s a bareback horse race around the Campo (covered in sand for the occasion) between riders representing 10 of the 17 contrade (neighborhoods). The events attract enormous crowds, so if your trip includes a Palio race be sure to book everything (accommodation and a ticket with a seat, if you’re not willing to take a chance on a good view) well in advance. (Also note that incidents of injured horses and riders are not uncommon, so that may be difficult to watch for some people.)
  • Torre del Mangia – This tower stands on the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s city hall, and overlooks the Piazza del Campo. It was built in the mid-14th century and stands at 289 feet tall (the exact height of the Duomo – yes, that was intentional). You can climb up the steps inside the tower for a great view.
  • Palazzo Pubblico – Siena’s city hall dates from the late 13th century and the rooms are almost entirely covered in frescoes. The best-known are three panels called “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The building is still used as Siena’s city hall, though it’s also open to visitors now. The Museo Civico (Civic Museum) is on the first floor, and that’s where you’ll see the Lorenzetti frescoes (among other things).
  • Sanctuary of St. Catherine – St. Catherine is Siena’s patron saint (there’s more about her under the “Weird Attractions” section below), and she was born in the city in 1347. The house in which she lived is now a shrine, and though it doesn’t look much like it did when she lived there, it does contain the crucifix from which she received the stigmata.
  • Museo dell’Opera del Duomo – Many of the valuable pieces of art or historical items that were once inside the Siena Duomo are now on display in this, the Duomo’s museum. One of the best reasons to visit this museum, though, is the point where you can see how big the Duomo was meant to be. The viewpoint, called the “Panorama e Duomo Nuovo,” offers a perspective on the existing structure (and the one extra wall that got built before the plague halted construction) that you can’t get from the ground.
  • Pinacoteca Nazionale – This art museum specializes in works by Italian painters from the Medieval and Renaissance era, including pieces by Lorenzetti (whose work is on the walls of the Palazzo Pubblico).
  • Piccolomini Library – This so-called library is inside the Duomo, and is worth the detour to see the spectacular wall and ceiling frescoes alone. It was designed to hold a pope’s private book collection, but today contains illuminated choir books.
  • Baptistery – The Duomo’s 14th-century baptistery is built sort of beside and underneath one side of the Duomo itself (one of the side effects of building your cathedral on top of a hill), and is best known for the beautiful marble baptismal font carved by Jacopo della Quercia. The font also contains works by Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti (the latter is famous for the bronze panels on one of the baptistery doors in Florence).

Guided Tours in Siena

Weird Attractions in Siena

Head of St. Catherine || creative commons photo by GIovanni Cerretani

Head of St. Catherine || creative commons photo by GIovanni Cerretani

  • Basilica di San Domenico – This large Dominican church dates from the early 13th century and is rather austere-looking, but it’s a popular stop for visitors in Siena for one reason: St. Catherine’s head. This was Catherine’s church, but the main draw is that San Domenico contains a chapel with the saint’s “incorrupt head and finger” on display. (The remainder of her body is buried in Rome.) The former home of St. Catherine, now a shrine to her, is in the same neighborhood as San Domenico.
  • Contrada Museums – Each Medieval neighborhood – or contrada – has its own museum within its boundaries. Each one is free to enter, and contains historic items (including ceremonial garb), many of which relate to the Palio di Siena in which the contrade compete for bragging rights. There are a total of 17 contrada museums in Siena. Not sure which ones to visit? The Aquila (Eagle) Museum contains the oldest intact Palio banner, from 1719. The Lupa (She-Wolf) contrada was given a photo of Italian unification fighter, Giuseppe Garibaldi, when it won the Palio in 1867, and that’s on display in their museum. The Torre (Tower, though the symbol is an elephant) Museum has lots of historic costumes on display. The Drago (Dragon) Museum has a wooden carving by Jacopo della Quercia (he of the marble baptismal font in the city’s baptistery). Or you can simply find the one located in the neighborhood in which you’re staying – that’s always a good start. (Note that the museums aren’t always open, so check with the tourist information office before you go.)
  • Palazzo Salimbeni – The oldest continuously-operated bank in the world is Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded in 1472. Its headquarters are in the Palazzo Salimbeni, a 14th-century palace in Siena. So, the oddity here is really visiting the offices of the world’s oldest bank, though there’s another reason to go. In addition to housing the bank’s offices, there is also an art gallery in the palace that features works by Sienese painters from the 16th-17th centuries. (The statue in the square outside the palace, by the way, is of Sallustio Bandini, who was both an archdeacon and – as is fitting for an ancient bank – an economist.)

3 responses to “What to Do & See in Siena”

  1. Good list. LOVE the cover photo – reminds me that I have to look UP more!

  2. Kathryn says:

    I agree. Cover photo is great! Will keep this list as a reminder when I get to Sienna. It all sounds great!

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