Siena is located in the picturesque Tuscan hills south of Florence, which has been the main competitor for wealth and power throughout the city’s history. Siena began to flourish in the 12th century and reached its artistic peak in the 13th and 14th centuries, when its artists rivaled those of Florence. Siena’s cathedral and palaces, most of which are built of brick made from the red clay, are outstanding monuments of Gothic architecture. As you explore the many tourist attractions in Siena’s beautiful Centro Storico, the historic old town, you can do a lot of walking, mostly uphill – or so it seems.
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1 Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
Always listed as one of the most important examples of Gothic architecture in Italy, Siena Cathedral owes its impressive first impression to the genius of Giovanni Pisano, who designed the façade and decorated most of the statues and reliefs that adorn it. The alternating stripes of dark and light marble that cover most of the church and its high campanile contrast not only with each other, but with the predominant red brick of the rest of Siena’s buildings. The cathedral has more masterpieces and art treasures than many prestigious museums, or in fact, many entire cities, with multiple works by both Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Donatello, Bernini, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Pinturicchio, Iácopo della Quercia, Giovanni di Turino, Vecchietta, and others. The works that the walls,
Highlights of this immense complex include the Biblioteca Piccolomini frescoes , the bronze reliefs by Ghiberti and Donatello in the Baptistery of San Giovanni , the 13th-century carved marble pulpit by Nicola Pisano , and the stunningly detailed inlaid marble floor in the nave. You can make sure you don’t miss the important works and save time queuing by joining a Skip the Line: Siena Duomo and City Walking Tour, explore Siena’s old town and cathedral complex with an expert local guide.
One of the most unusual things to do in Siena is to climb to the top of the Facciatone , the cathedral’s unfinished façade that was never built. In the 14th century, the citizens of Siena planned and began an extension to create a new nave, 100 meters long, leaving the original nave as a transept of this gigantic church. Plans were abandoned, leaving only the incomplete facade, and a beautiful view of Siena.
Address: Piazza del Duomo 8, Siena
Official site: https://operaduomo.siena.it/en/
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Siena
2 Field Square
The central feature of Siena’s old town, the sprawling Piazza del Campo is surrounded by the curved facades of palaces and dominated by the elegant Palazzo Púbblico (Town Hall) and tall, ornate tower. Its unity and harmony make it one of the most beautiful city squares in Italy. At the top of the sloping plaza is the Fonte Gaia , a richly carved rectangular fountain basin by Iácopo della Quercia. Created in 1419, della Quercia’s masterpiece was restored in 1868, and its original marble reliefs were removed to protect them. The ones you see today are exact reproductions, but you can see the originals in the display Museo Civico. The harmonious effect of the Piazza del Campo is largely due to the fact that the houses opposite the Palazzo Púbblico are in a similar style to the palazzo. Particularly notable is the Palazzo Sansedoni , built from 1216 to 1339, to the right of the Fonte Gaia.
3 Palazzo Pubblico and Civic Museum
The Gothic town hall took up almost an entire side of the Piazza del Campo and was built in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The travertine and brick facade is illuminated by rows of elegant windows and cornices of round-headed arches and topped by battlements. Siena’s black and white rosette, known as the Balzana, is repeated in the arches over the windows. Below its top is a circle with Christ’s monogram (IHS), in recognition of San Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), who preached in the church in Piazza del Campo . In the center of the first floor is the coat of arms of the Medici, who ruled Siena as Grand Duke of Tuscany in the 16th century.
The interior of the Palazzo Púbblico is remarkably well preserved, with frescoes from the Sienese school offering a glimpse into the spirit of Siena’s proud bourgeois families of the 14th and 15th centuries. In the Sala della Pace, frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti depict good government and bad government overlooking Siena. In the Sala del Mappamondo is a beautiful fresco entitled, Maestà , by Simone Martini. Adjacent to this room is the chapel with frescoes by Taddeo di Bártolo. The upper floors house the Museo Civico , with drawings, paintings and other documents about the city’s history, Renaissance paintings, and examples of Renaissance and Baroque silverware. On a high loggia is the original statue from theSource Gaia .
Address: Piazza del Campo 1, Siena
4 Mangia Tower
At one end of the Palazzo Pubblico stands the narrow 102-meter Torre del Mangia, one of the most daring medieval towers. The narrow stone shaft rises to an elevated platform with supporting brackets and a travertine superstructure. It was built between 1338 and 1348 by two brothers, Minuccio and Francesco di Rinaldo. You can climb the hundreds of stairs to the platform for a beautiful view of the city and the Tuscan hills. The Renaissance-style Cappella di Piazza at the foot of the tower was built in 1352 in thanksgiving for the liberation of the city from the 1348 plague.
Address: Piazza del Campo, Siena
5 Il Palio (horse race)
Even if you’re not in Siena on July 2 or August 16, the dates of the summer’s two Palio races, you’re sure to see a mention or sign of it. Banners and souvenirs depicting the mascots of the various contradi – the competing neighborhood associations – are in every souvenir shop, and you can see them on houses or opposite contrada clubhouses. On Palio days, the race itself takes place in the Piazza del Campo, as 10 horses and their bareback riders compete for the pallium, a silk prize paper. The jockeys do not have to stand on the horse at the finish line; the prize is for the horse that passes it first. Adding to the excitement of the day – more like pandemonium – are parades of costumed bands, flag-throwing demonstrations, even fully armored knights riding through the narrow streets on horseback, a reminder that this race began in the 1500s.
Each contrada has its own oratory – lavishly decorated chapel – and often museums, too, which you may find open as you explore Siena. If you plan to be there on or near the days of the Palio, make sure to make all your reservations well in advance, as there are few available anywhere in Siena.
Official site: https://www.ilpalio.org/palioenglish.htm
6 National Art Gallery (Nationale galerij)
The Pinacoteca Nazionale occupies one of the most elegant palazzi in Siena, the late Late Gothic Palazzo Buonsignori , built in the early 15th century. The gallery offers an excellent overview of Sienese painting from the 12th to the 16th century, with photographs of almost all the painters working in Siena. Most notable are the 13th century Raising of Lazarus and Entry into Jerusalem by Guido da Siena, Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Virgin and Child and Madonna dei Francescani , Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 14th century Madonna Enthroned and Annunciation , Pietro Lorenzetti’s John the Baptist andAllegory of Sin and Salvation, and Holy Family by Pinturicchio. Look for Beccafumi’s cartoons for the marble inlays in the floor of the cathedral.
Address: Via San Pietro 29, Siena
7 San Domenico
The Church of San Doménico, an austere brick building in Cistercian Gothic style, was originally built in 1226 but has been modified and enlarged; the winged campanile, in a style foreign to Cistercian architecture, was built in 1340. The nave has no aisles, an enclosed rectangular choir and a surprisingly high and spacious transept opening to a pair of chapels flanking the choir. The lack of decoration enhances the impression of space. A vaulted chapel off the nave holds the earliest known likeness of St. Catherine of Siena, a fresco by Andrea Vanni painted about 1400.
The Cappella di Santa Caterina , on the right wall of the nave, contains two 1525 masterpieces by Sodoma, The Ecstasy of St. Catherine and St. Catherine Fainting and a 1446 marble tabernacle by Giovanni di Stéfano with the head of the saint who died and was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. On the main altar are two angels with a candlestick, by Benedetto da Maiano. Frescoes and murals by Matteo di Giovanni are in the side chapels of the choir. Under the apse of San Doménico is the Fonte Branda, a fountain mentioned in records as far back as 1081.
Address: Piazza San Domenico, Siena
Official site: https://www.basilicacateriniana.com/index_en.htm
8 San Francesco in the Oratory of San Bernardino
The Gothic church of San Francesco was begun by the Franciscan order in 1326, but not completed until 1475. Like San Doménico , San Francesco shows the architectural style of the mendicant orders, with an aiseless nave and no apse on the eastern side. And also like San Doménico, its campanile was added much later, in 1765. The interior, with its open wooden roof, is painted in alternating black and white stripes that will remind you of the cathedral’s marble facade, and is enlivened by banners of the old craft guilds. In the left transept is a beautiful fresco of the Crucifixion, painted around 1330 by Pietro Lorenzetti, and frescoes of St. Louis of Toulouse and the Martyrdom of Franciscans in Ceuta by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
Adjacent to the church, the Oratorio di San Bernardino was built in the 15th century on the spot where the Franciscan friar San Bernardino of Siena often preached. On the top floor are impressive 16th-century frescoes by Sodoma, Doménico Beccafumi and Girólamo del Pacchia, depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin and various saints.
Address: Piazza San Francesco, Siena
9 Santa Maria della Scala (Santissima Annunziata)
Adjacent to the Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala, opposite the cathedral, is the Church of Santíssima Annunziata better known as Santa Maria della Scala. Built at the end of the 13th century, it was extensively remodeled at the end of the 15th century by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, with the decoration of the apse and coffered ceiling. In 1730, the large fresco that fills the apse was painted by Sebastiano Conca, depicting the sick awaiting miraculous healing at the Pool of Bethesda, befitting the church’s mission as part of a hospital. On the main altar is an excellent bronze Risen Christby Lorenzo Vecchietta, dated and signed by the artist in 1476, a masterpiece of Renaissance painting often compared to works by Donatello. The hospital, which is open as a museum, also has some large frescoes. It was one of Europe’s first hospitals and it is one of the world’s oldest still.
Address: Piazza del Duomo 2, Siena
Official Site: https://www.santamariadellascala.com/en/
10 Sanctuary of Santa Caterina
Sanctuary of Santa Caterina
Throughout the city’s churches and elsewhere, you will find references to Saint Catherine of Siena, one of the most beloved saints of the Roman Catholic Church. The daughter of a Siena dyer named Benincasa prevailed upon Pope Gregory XI to return from Avignon to Rome in 1377. The most famous of her visions was her “mystical marriage” to the Infant Christ, a favorite theme with painters . The earliest known depiction of her is in a fresco by Andrea Vanni in the Church of San Doménico , painted about 1400, just 20 years after her death. Her childhood home is now venerated as the Shrine of St. Catherine. The beautiful Renaissance gate has the Latin inscription “Sponsae Kristi Catherinae Domus” (House of Catherine, Bride of Christ).
Address: Via Santa Caterina, Siena
11 Santa Maria dei Servi
On the southeast side of the old town, the Church of Santa Maria degli Servi was originally built in the 13th century, but was modified in the 15th-16th century to match the style of the period. The simple facade was left unfinished; the Romanesque campanile, like that of the cathedral, has four tiers of windows, increasing in number with each level to make it appear tapered at the top. Notable works of art inside include the 1261 Madonna del Bordone by Coppo di Marcovaldo and the famous 14th-century fresco, Massacre of the Innocents, by Pietro Lorenzetti in the second chapel in the south transept. On the altar is Lippo Memmi’s Madonna del Pópolo, from about 1317. Not far from the church is the imposing Porta Romana, a 1327 gate in the old city walls.
12 Palazzo Salimbeni
The facades of three palaces surround Piazza Salimbeni , with the 14th-century Gothic Palazzo Salimbeni in the center. The square itself used to be the garden of the palace, but the square was created in the mid-19th century and Palazzo Salimbeni was updated to the then popular Neo-Gothic style. The Palazzo Salimbeni is now occupied by the headquarters of one of Italy’s oldest banks, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena founded in 1472. Its remarkable art collections are rarely open to the public. To the right of the Palazzo Salimbeni is the Palazzo Spannocchi, built by architect Giuliano da Maiano for Ambrogio Spannocchi, treasurer of Pope Pius II. Loggias were added to the front of this elegant Renaissance building in 1880 by Giuseppe Partini, who designed the square and renovated the Palazzo Salimbeni.
Address: Piazza Salimbeni, Siena
Where to stay in Siena for sightseeing
We recommend these charming hotels, near the old town of Siena and the beautiful Tuscan countryside:
- Relais degli Angeli: boutique luxury, good value, old town location, elegant decor, frescoed ceilings.
- Palazzo di Valli: mid-range pricing, 15-minute walk to town, breathtaking countryside views, quaint decor.
- Hotel Santa Caterina: 3-star hotel, great staff, nice terrace with country views, quirky decor.
- Hotel Tre Donzelle: budget hotel, great location, shared bathrooms, helpful front desk staff.
More must-see places to visit near Siena
Siena is located in the hills of Tuscany, not far south of Florence. One of the easiest day trips from Siena, Arezzo is not far to the east, as is the ancient Etruscan town of Cortona. Beyond Arezzo are the Principality of San Marino and Rimini, on the Adriatic Sea, which are home to some of Italy’s most popular beaches. The Tuscan hill towns of San Gimignano and Volterra lie to the west, towards Livorno and Pisa. Perugia and Orvieto are located south of Siena, in Umbria.