What to see in and around Siena, Tuscany


June 1

When I start working with a new trip planning client, I always ask why they want to go to Italy. A recent response inspired today’s post.


We want to see amazing museums, historic churches and squares, small atmospheric medieval streets, and a beautiful countryside with charming towns. We love food and wine, and I’m learning some Italian so I’d love to practice.


I thought a week in and around Siena, Tuscany would be a perfect fit for this client. Here’s what I recommended they – and you – should see and do.


Art & Architecture in Siena

Siena’s Campo or main square

Start in Siena’s main square, or Campo, home of the famous yearly Palio horse race. Sit in one of the cafés alongside the Campo and people-watch, admire the big fountain (an exact copy of) the Fonte Gaia with reliefs by Jacopo della Quercia (the original fountain is on display in Santa Maria della Scala). And notice the pavement design: very carefully considered, a shell-shaped space with nine spokes to represent the government, Il Nove (The Nine), who ruled at the height of Siena’s glory.


Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico

Climb up the 500 steps of the Mangia Tower (in photo, above) and enjoy the view over Siena, then visit the Palazzo Pubblico (also in photo above) and admire the famous political frescoes done by Martini and Lorenzetti in the Sala dei Nove. Martini’s most famous fresco, Maesta’, was completed before he relocated to Avignon, France to work in the Papal court. The Il Nove government then chose Lorenzetti to complete the room, and he did the Allegory of The Effects of Good Government and Bad Government.  

Siena’s Cathedral or Duomo

Start by stepping back to look at the façade. While my husband was taking the photo above, I was getting bored and decided to sketch the cathedral. Then a bride and groom emerged from the church, providing husband-photographer with a new subject, and giving me more time for my sketch. I probably spent
at least 30 minutes trying to reproduce the cathedral on paper, and yet I was still surprised to find out that
 the lower part of the façade was done by Giovanni Pisano, and the upper part was done by someone else, at a later date.

Go inside to admire the incredible black and white striped design, Pisano’s marble pulpit, and don’t forget to look up: the ceilings are breathtaking. For a few weeks every year, its protected floors are uncovered for viewing, usually between August and October.


The Piccolomini Library

Inside the duomo, this gorgeous space was financed by the nephew (and future pope Pope Pio III) of Pope Pio II to house his book collection, but was never actually used to store his books. It’s famous for its ceiling and its frescoes by Pinturicchio and Rafaello, and you can see why from the photo, above.

Tavolette of Biccherna: Even the government’s account books were decorated with incredible art: the 103 Tavolette of Biccherna, done by the most famous artists of the time, were covers for the governmental 13th- to 17th-century accounting books.

Siena’s Baptistry

Next door to the cathedral, the baptistry houses Jacopo della Quercia’s amazing baptisemal fountain.

Museums in Siena
  • Visit the Pinacoteca Nazionale to see Giovanni di Paolo’s Madonna dell’Umilta’, the Annunciazione by Lorenzetti, and the Annunciazione Con i Santi Ansano e Margherita e Quattro Profeti by Martini. 
  • Santa Maria della Scala: Named “della scala” because it’s opposite the Cathedral’s staircase, this is now a museum but started as a hospital for children, the poor, and pilgrims en route from Canturbury to Roma on the Via Francigena (which enters Siena via the Porta Camollia and exits via the Porta Romana). Worth a visit for both the architecture and art.

What to do with Kids in Siena

Siena is a fabulous city for kids, because it is mostly traffic-free, small and walkable. It also works well for a treasure hunt: have the kids try to spot flags or fountains of the 17 contrade or neighborhoods. Each contrada has a fountain, stables, and a church – though they are not marked on maps so you’ll just have to stumble upon them. For kids who are a little older, a unique activity is to sign up for a hot-air balloon ride: try www.flyballoon.it, www.chiantiballooning.com, www.balloonintuscany.com.

Most of my recommendations on the best things to do with kids in Italy work very well in Siena.

Markets in Siena

Every Wednesday from 8.30 – 12.30, the La Lizza market is open around the Fortezza. You can find clothing, scarves, bags, flowers, vegetables and fruit for reasonable prices. This is a huge market – probably 300+ vendors, and is geared more to the needs of locals than tourists.

There is an antiques market on the third Sunday of every month in Piazza del Mercato.

In and Around Siena, Tuscany

Spend a day or two in Siena and a few days exploring the countryside. Do a wine tour, and consider visiting Monteriggioni, Montepulciano, Pienza, San Gimignano, and of course, Florence. If you’re there in the spring or early summer, you may even stumble upon a field of poppies or sunflowers.

Getting to Siena

Trains go to Siena but the bus station is more central, and if you’re coming from Florence, the bus and train take about the same amount of time. More information here.

Photo by Sanjay

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