Discovering the magnificent Siena in one day
Dear Traveller friends,
after exploring the neighbouring areas, such as Chianti and the Orcia Valley, it’s time to visit one of the most beautiful towns in Italy—Siena.
You shouldn’t need to be convinced to visit Siena. However, if you need a reason, the entire historic centre is part of UNESCO World Heritage.
Even if Siena is not a big town, it has many things to offer. This is the reason why visiting Siena in one day requires a lot of energy and some cuts. If you have the chance, the best solution is saving two days for Siena, so that you can enjoy it thoroughly.
Visiting Siena requires a lot of walking. The entire historic centre is a pedestrian area. You’ll have to wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to stack up many kilometres on foot.
Another thing to consider is cost. Hotels and facilities in the centre are convenient but quite expensive. If you want something cheaper, you can choose a hotel outside the old part of town. However, you’ll have to go to the centre by car, and parking lots are quite expensive too.
The right compromise between a hotel in the city centre and one in the outskirts could be Hotel Piccola Siena. The hotel is nothing exceptional since the three stars don’t reflect the actual value of the facility. However, the private parking and the chance to reach the historical centre by bus make it an excellent starting point for your visit.
If you decide to spend only one day in Siena, it’s essential to arrive in town the evening before, so that you are ready to start visiting early the next morning.
First of all, THE unmissable stop while visiting Siena is Piazza del Campo, one of the most famous and fascinating squares in the world. What makes it unique is its shell-like structure, which follows the shape of the ground below. The “shell” is split into nine segments, referring to the ancient Government of the Nine. The nine sections all converge towards Palazzo Pubblico, the core of the power in the ancient Siena. These characteristics make Piazza del Campo one of the most peculiar examples of Medieval architecture.
From the loggia inside Palazzo Pubblico, you can access two of the unmissable attractions in Siena—the Torre del Mangia, tower of Palazzo Pubblico, and the interior of the palace.
If you want, you can buy a combined ticket which allows you to save some money. The ticket includes Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia, or Palazzo Pubblico, the Torre del Mangia and Santa Maria della Scala.
If you want to climb the tower, it’s absolutely necessary to be at the palace early in the morning, possibly before the opening hour. The tower, in fact, is accessible to 35 people at a time. If you arrive early, you’ll be able to buy your ticket quickly and be part of the first group of visitors. If you arrive at a later hour, be prepared to stand in a long queue for the ticket and possibly a longer line for the tower.
The best solution is arriving around 9:30, 20-30 minutes before the opening hour. By doing this, my wife Irene and I were able to be the first to arrive on top of the Torre del Mangia, and we didn’t get caught in the queue.
Climbing the tower requires some time, but it isn’t as challenging and claustrophobic as other towers we visited in Tuscany. The fact that the staff allows a limited number of visitors inside makes everything easier.
After the long ascent (100 meters more or less), the reward is amazing—an incredible view over the city and the square, giving you the chance of a different perspective over Siena.
Once outside the Torre del Mangia, you can visit Palazzo Pubblico, built between the end of 1200 and the beginning of 1300. For centuries this building has been the centre of the political power.
The visit to Palazzo Pubblico can be split into two parts. In the first part, you’ll walk among the halls decorated with frescoes dedicated to Vittorio Emanuele II and the events that brought to the unification of Italy.
In the second part, you’ll step back to a more ancient time. The frescoes in this part of the palace are about the history of the Republic of Siena. Here you can see two of the most famous halls in the world—the Sala del Mappamondo (Hall of the Globe) and the Sala del Buon Consiglio (Hall of the Good Government).
The fresco giving the name to the first hall, the Sala del Mappamondo, isn’t visible anymore. However, this vast room is full of art masterpieces you don’t want to miss, such as the paintings by Simone Martini.
In the second room, decorated by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, there is a cycle of frescoes representing the good and bad government. Two of the four walls shows the virtues, the acts the Good Government must promote, and the wealth and prosperity they bring to the people. The other two walls, instead, are decorated with the vices, the faults the Good Government must avoid, and the ruin they can bring to the population.
Once outside Palazzo Pubblico, you can start exploring Siena. The best way is strolling along Via di Città and explore some of the “contrade”, the districts of Siena. In this part of the city centre, you’ll find the Contrada dell’Aquila (Eagle), Contrada dell’ Onda (Wave), Contrada della Pantera (Panther), and Contrada della Tartuca (Tortoise).
For us, the visit to this last Contrada was suggestive. The Contrada della Tartuca was the winner of the most recent Palio when we went to Siena, and its streets were decorated with the flags, banners and skylights with the traditional colours. Before visiting Siena, check which Contrada won the latest Palio and be sure to visit it. The decorations and festive atmosphere won’t disappoint you.
After a quick lunch, it’s time to visit the famous Dome and the buildings around it. You can buy a cumulative ticket at the entrance of Santa Maria della Scala. If you want to visit every part of the complex with leisure, you should probably dedicate an entire day to this relatively small part of town. If you plan to stay in Siena for two days, you can devote the rest of your day to the Dome and its complex. Otherwise, you’ll have to skip something.
The first place to visit is Santa Maria della Scala, a vast and rich museum created inside what was a hospital in the Middle Ages. The most fascinating part of the visit is the Pilgrim’s Hall (Sala del Pellegrino). Here you can admire ten frescoes paying homage to the history of the hospital and depicting scenes of Christian charity. The most interesting aspect is that, despite the murals being painted by different artists, all the artworks are in perfect harmony.
Your second stop is the Dome, one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world. The outside is made with white marble and serpentine, with details in red marble. The facade is magnificent, incredibly rich in decorations. The exterior of the Dome foreshadows the magnificence of the interior.
It’s challenging to decide which are the unmissable details. The best thing you can do is devote the appropriate time to the visit. Don’t rush through it, take a good look all around you, this way you’ll be able to see all the treasures. Some examples are the glass window, the Popes and Emperors’ busts along the central nave, the marble stoup and pulpit. The most beautiful part of the Dome, however, is the floor, decorated with true works of art. The pavement is covered in wide squares realized with the opus sectile technique and representing a great variety of subjects, from scenes to landscapes. Unfortunately, to preserve this unique heritage, only part of the floor is visible. The paving is fully viewable in September only.
Before leaving the Dome, don’t forget to visit the Piccolomini Library. You can enter the library from the left nave. Several works of literature used to be kept there. The hall is entirely decorated by a fantastic cycle of frescoes by Pinturicchio. The paintings celebrate Pope Piccolomini’s life, with scenes from the crucial moments of his life.
The third stop in your tour of the complex is the so-called Facciatone—the Big Facade. But what is it? The Facciatone is the facade of what should have been the new cathedral of Siena. The imposing project of expanding the Dome was designed to host the ever-increasing inhabitants of Siena. However, due to the plague in 1348 and several other unexpected events, such as the lack of funds, most of the project remained unfinished. What is visible now are a few columns and the famous facade. You can climb over the Facciatone and admire the view from there, but you’ll have to stand in two long queues for hours. After the first queue, you’ll be able to access the Museum of Sacred Art. After the second queue, inside the museum, you’ll manage to climb the stairs leading to the facade and admire the landscape. However, before stepping into the line, evaluate carefully. If it’s is longer than 100 metres from the entrance of the museum, you’ll probably have to wait a couple of hours. As it happens on the Torre del Mangia, only a limited number of visitors are allowed at a time on the facade. The view from the top is remarkable, but if you already climbed the Torre del Mangia, I’m not sure it’s worth the long waiting.
We decided to stand in the queue and climb the facade, but we won’t repeat the experience. However, there’s an excellent way to while your wait. If you are travelling with someone, you can take turns at keeping your place in the queue while the other can visit the last two attractions—the Crypt and the Baptistery.
The Crypt and the Baptistery are included in the cumulative ticket. The Crypt holds some frescoes depicting the life of Jesus, while the Baptistery is entirely decorated with paintings depicting catholic scenes. At the centre of the Baptistery, you can see the baptismal font, an imposing sculpture in marble and bronze.
Once outside the complex of the Dome, you can resume your exploration of the town. This time you can head towards the opposite part of the city centre, on the other side of Piazza del Campo. Walking among the narrow streets and alleys, you’ll be able to see several districts: Contrada della Civetta (Little Owl), della Giraffa (Giraffe), del Leocorno (Unicorn), and della Torre (Tower). You can have fun searching around for the statues representing the symbols of the districts.
One of the most unique experience you can enjoy in Siena is visiting one of the museums of the Contrade. Each district has its own museum, but it’s not easy to visit them because they are rarely open. The best way to visit one is by asking for direction to some shop owner, who will be happy yo help you reaching the museum of his Contrada. Anyway, if you want to make your life easier, you can consider each district’s church as a reference point. Museums are likely to be nearby the churches. Once you have located the museum, you can only hope for it to be open. The best solution is to book a visit in advance, at least five to seven days before your visit. You can find the contact information on each district’s website.
We didn’t book a visit, because we weren’t sure to be able to find ourself in a specific part of town at a particular time. However, we were lucky enough. Going from one district to the next, we finally managed to find an open museum in the Contrada del Leocorno. If you are unwilling to book a visit, your chances to find this museum open are higher than other museums, because volunteers are very active.
In the Museum of the Contrada del Leocorno, you’ll be able to admire the clothes and costumes used during the Palio, several pictures and mementoes, and the helmets worn by the jockeys.
Don’t miss the narwhal’s horn, more than two meters tall, standing out in the central room.
Now it’s time to find someplace for dinner, and you’ll be spoilt for choices. We tried two places. One is Trattoria Barberi, an excellent restaurant where you can eat local cuisine while admiring mementoes from the Palio. The other is Osteria Permalico, a delicious and cheap restaurant. In both cases, you have better make a reservation in advance.
If you decide to spend two days in Siena, don’t worry. The town has much more to offer.
The first thing you can do is lightening your first day’s programme. This way you’ll be able to devote more time to the unmissable attractions—Piazza del Campo and the Dome with its complex.
Take advantage of your extra time by getting to know some of the furthest districts and maybe to visit another museum of one of the contrade.
With a two days tour of Siena, you can’t miss a visit to the Basilica of San Domenico, also known as Basilica Cateriniana. This church is quite simple if compared to the magnificence of the Dome. The exterior is made in red bricks, and the interior is almost entirely plastered white. But what interest visitors is the Chapel of St. Catherine, where the skull of the patron saint of Italy is held. Another interesting detail is the fresco by Andrea Vanni, considered to be the only faithful portrait of the saint.
If you are passionate about art, the last unmissable stop in Siena is the National Art Gallery. Here you’ll be able to admire the most important paintings by Sienese artists who lived between the XVI and the XVII centuries.
With these little extras, you can consider your visit to Siena concluded.
I hope to see you on the next destination of our Tour of Tuscany—Volterra.