Guide to the main thing to do in Siena
Siena is a truly extraordinary city, chock full of things to see. Once a proud rival of Florence for domination over Tuscany, the city has gradually filled up with artistic and architectural treasures of the highest level that have made it famous all over the world. It is really difficult to make a selection of the most interesting things to see in Siena but in this guide I want to try to indicate some of them through the classic “10 things to do in”, in order to offer a general overview of what awaits you in the city.
Places to visit in Siena
- Piazza del Campo
- Palazzo Pubblico
- Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
- Santa Maria della Scala
- Pinacoteca nazionale di Siena
- Santuario di Santa Caterina
- Fortezza Medicea
Piazza del Campo
Who does not know the famous Piazza del Campo in Siena? Certainly no great presentations are needed for this unique place, famous all over the world for its beauty and for the Palio that is held here twice a year. This square is a real open-air museum where you can admire the majestic Palazzo Pubblico with the Torre del Mangia, the Cappella di Piazza, Fonte Gaia and many other historic buildings of great value. Born to host the market, this square quickly became the beating heart of the city so between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it was elected seat of the government with the construction of the Palazzo Pubblico.
Piazza del Campo, or simply “il Campo” (the field) as the Sienese call it, is truly unique starting from its very particular shell shape divided into 9 segments, to continue with the inclination due to the trend of the ground below and with the pavement that it is brick in the center and stone on the outside. Piazza del Campo deserves to be explored centimeter by centimeter because it is always able to offer new surprises.
Undisputed masterpiece of Gothic architecture, the Palazzo Pubblico rises majestically at the lowest point of Piazza del Campo, almost as if everything were to flow towards it. Built between 1297 and 1310, the palace is organized around a central courtyard from which you can admire one of the most famous views of the city with the tower that stands out in the sky framed in a frame of Guelph battlements. Although built later, the Torre del Mangia rises in perfect harmony with the building of which it also incorporates the contrast between the bricks and the stone. The climb to the top is certainly challenging but the view is truly priceless!
Inside the palace there is the Museo Civico which develops along a series of richly frescoed rooms with absolute masterpieces such as the Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government cycle by Ambrogio Lorenzetti which is located in the Sala dei Nove, the Majesty of Simone Martini and the frescoes depicting the military victories of Siena in the Sala del Mappamondo.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is one of the most shining examples of Romanesque-Gothic architecture in the world. The Cathedral of Siena is a real treasure chest made by some of the main masters of the Middle Ages. Although the consecration of the Duomo dates back to 1179, the works for its construction lasted for another two centuries. In 1314 the bell tower was completed while in 1317 it was the turn of the facade.
At that time the city was very rich and powerful and to demonstrate this status the Sienese decided to enlarge the cathedral by revolutionizing the initial project. The expansion was not successful because in the middle of the century the city was hit by the plague and the new project proved to be infeasible. Of this new great cathedral there remains today the so-called “facciatone” which should have been the new facade of the cathedral. Having abandoned the dream of the new cathedral, the Sienese resumed work on the original project which was completed in 1370.
The visit to the Duomo can only begin by admiring the marvelous facade, which is entirely covered in white marble with elements in red marble from Siena and serpentine from Prato. Built in two phases, the first in Romanesque-Gothic style and the second in Flowery Gothic, the facade is rich in details, statues and sculptural decorations.
The interior, with three naves, is characterized by the constant repetition of the alternation between black and white which are the colors of Siena. The things to see are countless, so I will limit myself to mentioning only the main ones. I immediately start with what in my opinion is the masterpiece among the masterpieces present in the cathedral of Siena: the floor. The greatest masterpiece of its kind, the floor of the Siena Cathedral was made with the technique of marble inlay. Several great artists worked on its creation including Pinturicchio, Sassetta, Antonio Federighi and above all Domenico Beccafumi who created 35 scenes out of the 56 total.
Among the numerous works of art preserved inside the cathedral you can admire some statues made by Michelangelo, the St. John Baptist by Donatello and the fabulous pulpit by Nicola Pisano, while other works of great importance, such as the Majesty and the stained glass window da Duccio di Buoninsegna, can be found in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo or in other museums. Also worth seeing is the Libreria Piccolomini which is located along the left aisle. Built to house the book heritage of Pope Pius II, the library is a wonderful environment, richly frescoed by Pinturicchio with the Stories of the life of Pius II.
The Baptistery of the Cathedral of Siena is located in a very particular position, at the base of the apse of the cathedral. The baptistery overlooks the square of the same name which is connected to that of the cathedral through a beautiful staircase which, in my opinion, offers one of the most beautiful views of the whole city. The building was built between 1317 and 1325 while the facade, which remained partially unfinished, dates back to 1382.
The interior of the baptistery, with a rectangular plan, takes up the motif of the two-tone black-white also present in the Duomo. During the fifteenth century, the Baptistery was enriched by an important cycle of frescoes by Lorenzo di Pietro known as il Vecchietta; other frescoes were instead made by Benvenuto di Giovanni and Pietro degli Orioli. At the center of the room the scene is all for the beautiful baptismal font, an authentic masterpiece of the early Tuscan Renaissance. Made in 1417 and 1431 in marble, bronze and enamel, the baptismal font was made by various masters of the caliber of Jacopo della Quercia, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Giovanni di Turino… in short, a real Parterre de rois!
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
To complete the visit to the Duomo and everything that is part of the Opera Metropolitana, you have to see the Crypt (not included in this guide but which I recommend you visit), the Oratorio di San Bernardino and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Set up in the right aisle of what must have been the New Cathedral, the museum is very interesting both for the quality of the works on display and for the possibility of climbing to the top of the Facciatone from which you can enjoy a truly special view of the city.
The museum itinerary is spread over several levels starting from the ground floor where there is a large hall where numerous sculptures are exhibited such as the Madonna del Perdono by Donatello, and several works by Giovanni Pisano. The element that, however, more than any other captures the attention in this room is the large Window of the Cathedral, designed by Duccio for the apse of the cathedral, which is located at the end of the gallery creating a unique atmosphere.
On the first floor is the Sala di Duccio where you can admire the fundamental Majesty of the Cathedral of Siena and the Madonna di Crevole by Duccio and the Nativity of the Virgin by Pietro Lorenzetti. The visit continues in the Sala del Tesoro where sacred furnishings are kept such as the Reliquary of San Galgano, the Reliquary of the Baptist’s arm and some paintings.
The second floor houses, among the various works, the Madonna degli occhi grossi (Madonna of the big eyes), attributed to the Maestro di Tressa, and the San Paolo Enthroned by Domenico Beccafumi. As anticipated, the visit ends with the climb to the top of the Facciatone, to enjoy the boundless beauty of Siena from above.
Santa Maria della Scala
Santa Maria della Scala in Siena was an important hospital in medieval times, which welcomed pilgrims passing along the Via Francigena and took care of poor children. Today the huge complex, located in Piazza del Duomo, houses various collections ranging from antiquity to the modern era and represents one of the main stops in the visit to the city.
Some of Siena’s most important artists worked in Santa Maria della Scala and contributed to create a series of monumental environments of great charm. The most famous of these is the so-called Pellegrinaio which was built during the fourteenth century and entirely frescoed in the fifteenth century by Domenico di Bartolo and Lorenzo Vecchietta who also worked on the Sagrestia Vecchia. Other areas of great interest are the Cappella della Madonna, the Cappella delle Reliquie and the Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata.
In the lower level there is a small courtyard, the so called Corticella, from which some paths branch off that lead to various rooms including the medieval barn, where you can admire the original reliefs made by Jacopo della Quercia for Fonte Gaia, the Warehouses that guard the Treasure of Santa Maria della Scala and the Oratorio di Santa Caterina della Notte. Going down one more level you finally reach the Museo archeologico nazionale di Siena.
Pinacoteca nazionale di Siena
If you are passionate about art history, the Pinacoteca nazionale di Siena is exactly what you are looking for. This museum houses the most important collection of paintings from the Sienese school and is one of the most important art galleries in Italy. Located inside Palazzo Buonsignori and Palazzo Brigidi, the Pinacoteca di Siena offers an extensive review of the works created in Siena, through a path that winds along various artistic periods starting from the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century to arrive until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The museum itinerary begins on the second floor where we find many of paintings with golden background created by the most popular authors in medieval Siena. It begins with the Maestro di Tressa and his Paliotto del Salvatore, Guido da Siena, Duccio di Buoninsegna with the Madonna dei Francescani and the Polyptych n. 28 and Simone Martini. Continuing, we meet the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti of which numerous works are exhibited such as the Pala del Carmine made by the older brother Pietro between 1327 and 1329. The other rooms on the second floor are dedicated to the masters of the fifteenth century such as Giovanni di Paolo, Sassetta, Sano di Pietro, Domenico di Bartolo and il Vecchietta.
Going down to the first floor you can admire the works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here, among many names, those of Domenico Beccafumi and Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as il Sodoma, stand out. In particular, Beccafumi is responsible for some masterpieces such as the Triptych of the Trinity, Saint Michael Defeats the Rebel Angels and the Descent of Christ into Limbo as well as the beautiful preparatory drawings for the floor of the Siena Cathedral.
Finally, on the third floor there is the Spannocchi-Piccolomini collection which, among the various works, boasts a San Girolamo by Albrecht Dürer.
Located in the territory of the Contrada dell’Oca, the famous Fontebranda is in all probability the oldest among the monumental sources of Siena. The source is located not far from the city walls a few steps from the homonymous Porta di Fontebranda. This area was one of the richest in water and in fact the art of wool, which needed huge water resources for its processing, settled here. Documents mention this source as early as 1081 and we know that in 1193 it was enlarged by Bellamino and then rebuilt more or less in its present shape by Giovanni di Stefano in 1246.
Like other medieval sources, Fontebranda was also equipped with three distinct basins, the first intended for people with drinking water coming from the bottini, the second which was used to water the animals and finally one which was used to wash clothes; the waste water was finally used for processing and to feed the factories. The structure is characterized by three large Gothic pointed arches that correspond to the three basins of the past even if today there is only one larger. In the upper part there is a battlements and in the center is the black and white coat of arms of Siena.
Santuario di Santa Caterina
From Fontebranda a path starts, all uphill, which leads to the Basilica of San Domenico and runs alongside the sanctuary house of the Sienese saint par excellence: Santa Caterina. As we said, this area was inhabited by numerous wool workers and also Caterina’s father, Jacopo Benincasa, was one of them. Following the canonization of the saint (which took place in 1461), the Municipality of Siena bought her birthplace and the adjacent buildings to create a sanctuary dedicated to her.
The complex of the Casa Santuario di Santa Caterina is accessed through the portico dei Comuni Italiani which was built in 1939 when the saint was proclaimed Patroness of Italy. Inside, the various rooms allow you to get in touch with the world and the spirituality of Santa Caterina. Over the centuries these rooms have been enriched with works of art of considerable interest. In the complex there are two other loggias, the Chiesa del Crocifisso and three oratories: the oratorio della cucina, the oratorio della camera and the oratorio di Santa Caterina in Fontebranda.
The history of the Fortezza Medicea of Sienais closely linked with the end of the Republic of Siena. Built between 1561 and 1563 in place of a previous Spanish fortress, the Medici Fortress was built with the intent to control the city that had recently passed under the control of the Medici and prevent any rebellions. The project was entrusted by Cosimo I to the architect Baldassarre Lanci who built an imposing quadrilateral in stone and brick with four mighty corner bastions, two facing the city and two facing the countryside.
The fortress was demilitarized at the time of the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo (late 18th century) and the spaces dedicated to military exercises were converted into public gardens. Today the fortress houses a wine shop, exhibition spaces and an open-air theater. Cultural events and manifestations often take place here, among which the Siena Jazz concerts stand out. Excellent panoramic point of view over the city, the fortress is the ideal place for a relaxing walk and also for jogging along its ramparts (the outer perimeter of the fortress measures about a kilometer and a half).
Where to stay in Siena
Siena is a very strong city from a tourist point of view and inevitably also has a considerable accommodation capacity. In the historic center you can find many hotels that will allow you to sleep a stone’s throw from all the main attractions of the city. Alternatively, you can choose a hotel or a farmhouse outside the city walls, gaining a lot in the possibility of travel if you also want to visit the surroundings of Siena.