The city of Siena, in the heart of Tuscany, is perhaps the most beautiful medieval town in Italy (although we were very found of Lucca as well!) There are numerous highlights and places of interest in the city and we recommend you allow two days for a visit if possible so that you also have time to relax and take in the atmosphere.
Staying in Siena overnight will also allow you the chance to wander around the historic centre after dark and when there are much fewer visitors - another treat!
Established as a settlement in both Etruscan and Ancient Roman times, Siena was at the height of its powers during the gothic period in the 14th century. This is earlier than Florence which flourished during the renaissance period. Because of this you will notice that the architectural styles of the two cities are quite different - although both very lovely!
Below we tend to focus on the principal highlights in Siena, but it is really the city as a whole that will make the greatest impression on you rather than any particular monument - impressive as these are!
The historic centre of Siena is now also a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site.
The center of the city, and the best place to start your visit, is in the Piazza del Campo, historic heart of medieval Siena even in Roman times, when it is said the city forum was in this location.
Most places of interest are here and within the surrounding streets, and the centre is compact enough that you can easily explore on foot. This medieval centre retains its original medieval walls and the gateways that allowed access to the city.
Piazza del Campo
The piazza was originally laid out as early as the end of the 13th century. It is roughly semi-circular (usually described as shell shaped) and surrounded by many beautiful medieval buildings with arcades at ground level.
Several of these buildings are now cafes and restaurants where you will certainly want to pause for a while to absorb the atmosphere of the square.
The Piazza del Campo is a remarkable ensemble of medieval buildings that make it one of the most beautiful squares in the world. Because it is slightly sloping it also seems it is quite natural for people just to sit down everywhere on the floor, as if in a theatre: we haven't noticed anywhere else in Italy where this happens!
Dominating the Piazza del Campo is the town hall, built in the first half of the 14th century. Called the Palazzo Pubblico (and sometimes the Palazzo Comunale) the building is a very good example of the gothic style of architecture, built in brick and stone with rows of arched windows.
The Palazza also has one of the tallest medieval towers in Italy, called the Torre del Mangia, to the left of the main building. You can ascend the 100 metre high tower (just over 500 steps!) for views across the Piaza and the rest of Siena - the entrance is in the courtyard of the Palazzo.
Inside the Palazzo, which is still the Town Hall after 700 years, you can visit the Museo Civico, the town museum, which contains numerous important frescoes, some dating back to the early 14th century. The highlight is the famous Virgin in Majesty by Simone Martini in the Sala del Mappomondo from 1315.
Directly opposite the Palazzo Pubblico there is a pretty fountain called the Fonte Gaio surrounded by stone relief carvings of religious subjects. This is actually a 19th century reproduction of the original 15th century fountain, replaced due to the poor condition of the original.
Just behind the fountain you can see the Loggia della Mercanzia, heart of the financial centre in Siena in the 15th century.
Siena Duomo and Baptistry
A short distance outside the square along Via dei Pellegrini you can visit the gothic style Duomo and the Baptistry, the most important historic monuments in Siena. Most of the Cathedral was built in just 20 years between 1196 and 1215, although work continued on the facade and dome for two centuries after that.
Note: you can buy a combined ticket which gives you admission to the cathedral, Piccolomini Library, cathedral museum, baptistry and crypt and allows you to climb the tower for extraordinary views across the city. This ticket is excellent value for money.
Admire the detail and statues in the cathedral facade, built in different colour marble to a design by Pisano, and the splendid belltower in black and white stripes to the right side before entering to admire the interior, dominated by soaring columns also in stripes of black and white marble and with a frieze representing the popes above the columns.
Almost every surface in the cathedral from decorative marble floor to frescoed ceiling is covered with interesting decoration or artworks, which even continues in the crypt below the cathedral with its 13th century frescoes
There are too many artistic highlights in the cathedral to list here and include numerous frescos, relief carvings, paintings and sculptures by leading artists from both the Gothic and Renaissance periods such as Pisano (above all his relief work in the pulpit), Pinturicchio (an extraordinary fresco cycle), Donatello (a statue of Saint John the Baptist) and Ghiberti.
In the baptistry you can see more important works of art by such esteemed artists as Donatello, della Quercia and Ghiberti, and the crypt has yet more beautiful frescoes.
Italy This Way comment: inside the cathedral on the left is the entrance to the Piccolomini Library. Every part of this room is painted with beautiful frescoes, designed by Raphael and painted by Pinturicchio. Don't miss it, it is one of the highlights of your visit to Siena and one of the most beautiful rooms in the world!
Adjacent to the cathedral in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo you can see lots of statues which originally decorated both the inside and outside of Siena cathedral, including a good number by Pisano from the original cathedral facade.
More Siena highlights
All the narrow streets around the Piazza del Campo contain buildings of interest and beauty, so allow plenty of time to explore - and plenty of time to relax. The Via di Citta, the road just outside the west of the Piazza del Campo, is a good starting point with its many palazzos, shops and cafes.
You will find the market square, the Piazza del Marcato, just behind the Palazzo Pubblico: take the Via Dupre just to the right of the building), and another interesting house is the Logge del Papa (follow Via Rinaldina from the corner to the left of the Town Hall, then right on Via di Pantaneto, to find this loggia that was built in 1462 in honour of Pope Pius II.
Another important religious monument is the Santuario e Casa di Santa Caterina (Sanctaury and House of Saint Catherine) to the west of Siena town centre. Saint Catherine is the Patron Saint of Siena. The sanctuary consists of several chapels and a small cloisters and her house is decorated with paintings of events from her life.
On Via Banchi di Sotto (along Via Rinaldina as for the Logge del Papa then turn left on to Via Banchi di Sotto) there is yet another imposing small palace called the Palazzo Piccolomini, built in the 1460's for a wealthy local family.
If you have the chance to stay here a couple of days, another important museum we should mention and which also contains valuable art works is the Pinacoteca Nazionale while the Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala (part of the Duomo complex and Siena hispital for several hundred years) contains more examples of beautiful frescoes.
Among the most popular trips from Siena are visits to the extraordinary historic town of San Gimignano, a lovely village dominated by many medieval towers, and also a visit to Volterra, best known for its Etruscan heritage.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Tuscany guide.