Things to Do in Siena
Siena's magnificent Tuscan Gothic cathedral is not to be missed. And if you're in Siena you can't miss it because it dominates the place. Rising high with its magnificent white and greenish black stripes, it has a bit of red thrown in on the front facade and lots of detailing - including scrolls, biblical scenes and gargoyles. In the centre is the huge rose window designed by Duccio di Buoninsegna in 1288. Statues of prophets and philosophers by Giovanni Pisano which used to adorn the facade are now housed indoors at the nearby Museo Dell'Opera.
Inside the place is equally impressive with art by Donatello, Bernini and early Michelangelo. Some of the best pieces such as Duccio di Buoninsegni's Maesta have been moved next door to the Museo Dell'Opera. Unlike other cathedrals where you are craning your neck to see magnificent ceilings and frescoes, here you need to look down at the mosaic floor. The whole floor is tiled and is one of the most impressive in Italy.
Every Italian city has its central piazza where the city's political, social and cultural business took place, and Siena's is pretty magnificent. The Piazza del Campo was developed in the mid-14th century by the ruling Council of Nine who, naturally, divided the space into nine sectors, each representing one of them. Never be in any doubt that a lot of self-aggrandizement existed during this period.
At one end of the square is the magnificent Palazzo Pubblico, or town hall (now also housing the Museo Civico) and from here the shell-shaped space radiates out. The bell tower of 1297, Torre del Mangia, rises from the palazzo and from up here there are great views. Enclosing the remainder of the square are the Late Gothic palaces of the grand medieval families of Siena. The Fonte Gaia, or fountain of life, is a white marble focal point and meeting place at the top end of the piazza. Twice a year, in July and August, the madness of the traditional bareback horse race.
With its lively piazzas, striking Gothic monuments and remarkably preserved city walls, the historic centre of Siena is one of Italy’s most impressive medieval sites and it remains the nucleus of the modern-day city. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, the old town is a veritable open-air museum, crammed with architectural gems, historic buildings and museums, as well as one of Europe’s oldest universities.
The historic centre of Siena is best explored on foot and the obvious starting point is the enormous Piazza del Campo. Located at the heart of the city, the piazza hosts Siena’s famous Palio horse races, as well as being home to landmarks like the medieval Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall), the Fontana Gaia fountain and the 90-meter high Torre del Mangia. Nearby, the marble-fronted Duomo cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and one of Siena’s most impressive sights.
The Palazzo Pubblico is hard to miss. A magnificent stone and red brick building begun in 1297, with excellent towers and crenellations, it is everything one could hope for from a Gothic town hall. Situated on the lower side of the Piazza Campo, the building is shaped to fit the design of the civic square and has a subtle curve to it.
These days it retains its government functions and also houses the city museum, Museo Civico, which is well worth a visit for its frescoes, paintings and sculptures. The Sienese school was artistically significant and the late medieval frescoes were some of the first to depict non-religious themes. Instead they made statements about government, justice and patriotic devotion. The most significant is the huge fresco cycle of 1337 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, entitled Allegory of Good and Bad Government; it’s not difficult to get the painting’s message.
Rising high above the Piazza del Campo is the bell tower, Torre del Mangia, built in the early 1300s. It reaches nearly 90 metres above the Palazzo Pubblico and was intended to be exactly the same height at the bell tower of the Duomo to indicate equality between church and state. These are the two structures that still soar high above the historic center of Siena.
If you have the stomach for heights and no fear of tight spaces, climb the 500 steps for a great view down onto the square and across the city beyond. The irony is, of course, that the tower is named after its first watchman, an overweight glutton, hence the name Tower of the Eater. It’s not sure he would ever have made it up the top to see the view.
The heart of Siena is the Piazza del Campo and the beating heart of the piazza has to be Fonte Gaia, the ‘fountain of joy’. Dating from the 15th century, it is surrounded on three sides by bas-relief panels made by Jacopo della Quercia who is considered a precursor to Michelangelo.
These days the original panels are housed in the Ospedale di St Maria della Scala in Piazza Duomo, and the fountain’s waters splash around 19th century copies (minus two female nude sculptures considered too risqué back then).
The white marble fountain is a magnet for those looking to rest their weary feet and be lulled by the sound of running water. Hopefully, despite being thoroughly fenced off, it continues to deliver the promised happiness.
Saint Catherine of Siena brought this basilica to prominence by taking her vows here in 1363 when she was just 15. Having had her first vision at the age of 6 near this church and deciding to follow a religious life from 7, she went on to lead a highly significant existence tending the sick, receiving the stigmata from a wooden cross in Pisa, mediating for the Papacy during its exile in France and also the time of Great Schism of the West when the cardinals could not agree on who should be the next pope.
She died at the age of 33 in Rome. In 1461 she was made a saint, in 1866 she became a patron saint of Rome, and in 1939 a patron saint of Italy. Finally in 1999, she was proclaimed a co-patron saint of Europe.
The Baptistry of St John is located near the Duomo in the center of Siena. Built in the same Tuscan Gothic style, although less externally ornamented – the facade is unfinished. But it’s inside that is really worth seeing.
The baptismal font is hexagonal, decorated with panels depicting scenes from the life of John the Baptist, by leading artists of the 15th century: Donatello, Ghiberti, Giovanni di Turino and Jacopo della Quercia. Six sculptures represent Faith, Hope, Fortitude, Justice, Charity and Providence. There are bronze angels by Donatello and prophets by della Quercia. And completing the intense decorative motif, the walls and ceiling are frescoed.
You could describe Siena’s famous Palio as a horse race, but it’s so much more than that. Il Palio di Siena is a throwback to medieval times, a good-natured rivalry between neighborhoods, and an excuse to hold big block parties twice each summer.
Il Palio of Siena dates back to the 16th century when locals wanted a sporting event to replace the recently-outlawed bullfighting. The first races used buffalos rather than horses, with the Palio as we know it today starting in the mid-1600s. Of Siena’s 17 old neighborhoods - called “contrade” - 10 are represented by a horse and rider in each event, and the winner gets bragging rights until the next Palio.
Santa Maria della Scala was one of Europe’s first hospitals. Established by the Catholic priests of the Siena Duomo, it housed and cared for those making the pilgrimage across Europe to Rome, and also took care of the local poor and took in orphaned and abandoned children.
To impress God and each other, the local wealthy families of the 15th century gave generously to the hospital, including commissioning important artists to decorate the building. The external frescoes are now all lost but interior works remain, including a series of frescoes telling the story of the hospital located in the Pilgrim’s Hall on the fourth floor.
Nearby is the original church that the hospital grew around, Church of Santissima Annunziata. On the third floor is the original of Jacopo della Quercia’s Fonte Gaia, the fountain of joy – a copy is in the Piazza del Campo.
More Things to Do in Siena
If you're at all familiar with the Italian language, you'll no doubt recognize that the Piazza del Mercato in Siena is the city's historic market square.
Located behind the iconic town hall and tower in Siena's historic center, the Piazza del Mercato was the setting for an outdoor market in this Tuscan town as far back as the 12th century. Vendors at those first markets sold the same things you'll find on sale at Italian markets today – meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, as well as household items, clothing, and even fuel such as coal and oil.
Early on, the stands were structures that remained in the Piazza del Mercato all the time, even when the market was closed. Later, the vendors were moved to the nearby Piazza del Campo, and in the 1950s the market was moved to Viale XXIV Aprile.
Today, even though the name Piazza del Mercato no longer reflects the purpose of the square, it's a good spot to go in Siena to enjoy views of the hills behind the town hall.
Since 1932, one of Italy's largest art collections has been housed here in the Late Gothic Palazzo Buonsignori. Begun in the late 18th century by collector Abbot Giuseppe Ciaccheri, the collection continued to grow through donations and bequests and was taken over by the Italian State in 1930.
The collection is made up of masterpieces from the Sienese school of the 14th and 15th centuries including paintings by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers. The painters from Siena might not be as famous as the big stars from Florence (Michelangelo, da Vinci, etc.) but their painting is just as impressive, if less concerned with changing the world of art.
In the 1970s, the Spannocchi Collection was added which focuses on Northern and Flemish artists such as Durer. There is also now a Sala delle Sculture to house sculpture from the Sienese school of the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Piccolomini Library is a library within the cathedral in Siena, Italy. The library was designed in the 1400s, and visitors can admire the beautiful ceiling that is covered in frescoes painted by Pinturicchio in 1502. The colorful frescoes depict images of figures in luxurious clothing, indoor settings, and detailed landscapes. The walls show important stages of the life of Pope Pius II in ten different sections. Some of the parts of his life that you can see painted here include when he was an ambassador to the European courts, paying homage to the new Emperor and then to the Pope at the time, presenting Eleonora of Aragon to the Emperor Frederick III, becoming a cardinal, and then becoming the Pope.
The library was built by Pope Pius III to house the manuscripts of Enea Silvio Piccolomini, his uncle who was Pope Pius II before him. Though most of the manuscripts are not here, visitors can see several hand-designed volumes on display.
Also known as the Duomo Museum, the building was intended to be part of the Nuovo Duomo, the expansion of Siena’s cathedral to become the largest in Italy in the 14th century. However, the plague of 1348 put a stop to such grand plans and now what was once a nave is a museum housing important art works from the cathedral.
On the ground level are sculptures including the 13th century statues by Giovanni Pisano that once adorned the front of the Duomo. Upstairs is an early 14th century masterpiece by Duccio di Buoninsegna, the Maesta (Virgin Mary in Majesty). It’s a double sided screen which was once on the high altar in the next-door cathedral. Other important paintings of the Senese school are here including Lorenzetti’s Birth of the Virgin which broke with tradition and could have signaled a new genius if he hadn’t died of the plague.
The pretty Tuscan hill town of Montalcino is about 25 miles southeast of Siena, and perhaps best known for its exceptional Brunello di Montalcino wine.
The founding of Montalcino is closely associated with the nearby Abbey of Sant'Antimo – the monks likely established a church on this hill in the 9th century as they were establishing their monastery. The medieval walls (dating from the 13th century) still surround part of the city, and the 14th century fortress still occupies the summit of the hill. Many of the buildings in Montalcino date from the 13th-14th centuries.
As you might expect from a wine-producing town, many of the slopes of the hills surrounding Montalcino are covered in vineyards. The famous Brunello di Montalcino is made from local sangiovese grapes, and is responsible for much of the economic growth of the town in recent decades. Montalcino and another wine-producing town nearby, Montepulciano, are great day trips in Tuscany for wine lovers.
Reportedly founded by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne back in 781, the abbey church at Sant'Antimo is one of Tuscany's most beautiful sights, set against a backdrop of olive-smothered hills in a river valley. Constructed of mellow, cream-colored travertine, the structure more likely began life in the ninth century before the apse, delicately frescoed side chapels and cloisters were completed in 1260. Its Romanesque style features a façade carved with figures of the Apostles, while an ornate bell tower is decorated in Lombardian style with two bells. Travelers can further admire the church's luminous, alabaster interior and its carved columns while keeping an eye out for the 13th-century crucifix that guards the altar. Thanks to its proximity to the Via Francigena pilgrimage route between France and Rome, Sant'Antimo was once one of the most powerful Benedictine abbeys in Tuscany before it was closed by Pope Pius II in 1462.
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