Rising from the rolling green hills of the Italian countryside, the medieval town of Siena is a Tuscan delight. Small and beautiful, this hilltop settlement is sure to be the highlight of any tour of the region, offering a well-balanced blend of ancient tradition, naturally beautiful surroundings, and modern cuisine. Is Siena, Italy worth visiting? We certainly think so…
Mention cities in Tuscany and most people’s immediate thought will be Florence or Pisa. But what Florence, the Tuscan capital, offers in terms of Renaissance art and architecture, Sienna makes up for in medieval splendor. What’s more, this town can match the great sights of Pisa with its own charm and character. As the lesser-visited of the three cities, it’s also the more peaceful destination.
If you’re looking for reasons to visit Siena, you’ve come to the right place. Join us as we walk you through everything that is worth knowing about this ancient Italian town…
You can witness the famous Palio di Siena Horse Race
Perhaps one of the most famous reasons to visit Siena is to witness the Palio di Siena Horse Race. This ages-old race is one of Italy’s longest prevailing cultural traditions. The race takes place at the central square, Piazza del Campo. It was first held in the 16th century after bullfighting was outlawed in Siena. However, the history of horseracing in Siena predates the Palio by quite a stretch, with historical records suggesting races took place as early as the 6th century.
So, how does the Palio work? Well, each of the city’s districts, or contrades, has a representative horse and jockey that compete to take home the title. You can tell the contrade apart when walking around the city as each different district is demarcated by colorful symbols featuring animals and mythical creatures such as panthers, unicorns, and snails. Originally, there were around 59 contrade, but now only 17 remain, with just 10 actually taking part in the race.
The Palio is held biannually, on July 2 and August 16 every year. While the actual race is usually less than a minute in length – the time it takes for each horse to circumvent the square three times – each Palio is a four-day event. The race is somewhat of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it occasion, but it’s the electric atmosphere in the lead-up and aftermath of the race that really cements the event as a fantastic spectacle.
If you’re a fan of horse racing, or simply want to soak up the lively festival atmosphere, we recommend organizing your trip to coincide with the Palio di Siena.
It’s home to striking medieval architecture
If you’re interested in medieval architecture, Siena is definitely worth visiting. The city’s historic old town has been named a Unesco world heritage site, attesting to Siena’s status as one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Italy.
There are a number of architectural wonders to marvel at as you stroll the narrow, red-bricked streets of the old town. By far the most impressive is the Duomo di Siena. The gigantic and gothic black-and-white-striped cathedral is a defining feature of Siena’s cityscape. Built between 1215 and 1263, it towers above the Piazza del Campo. Take a seat at one of the square’s many bars and cafes to take in the cathedral’s magnificent exterior, but don’t forget to venture inside, where you can see artworks from medieval and renaissance artists Pisano, Donatello, and Michelangelo.
Piazza del Campo, the site of the Palio di Siena, is another highlight of the old town. It is considered one of the greatest and most beautiful squares in all of Europe due to its architecture, bell tower, and shell-shaped form. After enjoying the Piazza del Campo, be sure to take a trip up Torre del Mangia, the tower that looms over the square. It’s well worth ascending the 500 steps for the panoramic views over Siena and the surrounding Tuscan countryside.
There are many special places to stay
It’s not just the churches, public buildings, and museums that are beautiful in Siena, there are plenty of simply stunning places to stay. From eclectic residences with duomo views to former country estates, both inside and outside of the city’s walls you’ll find a brilliant array of truly special hotels – not a generic hotel chain in sight!
Take Residenza d’Epoca Palazzo Borghesi, for instance. This lavishly decorated bed and breakfast is housed in one of the most historic buildings in all of Siena, the former home of the noble Borghesi family that dates back to the 14th century. With decadent, period interiors and sweeping views over the old town, it’s a truly romantic setting for special occasion holidays.
Casatorre dei Leoni Dimora Storica is another gorgeous place to stay in Siena. Its vast suites come complete with high, wooden-beamed ceilings, tiled floors and four-poster beds, while its on-site restaurant Gallo Nero is among the most highly regarded in Siena.
Interested in learning more about Siena’s hotels? Check out our guide to the best places to stay in Siena!
It’s worth visiting for the delicious food alone!
It’s no secret that Italy is a country of culinary delights, and the city’s many restaurants offer countless opportunities to sample the breadth of Italian gastronomy. In addition to classic Italian dishes, it’s well worth sampling local specialties.
Pici, for example, is a Sienese take on spaghetti. Try it accompanied by rich meat ragú, or for vegetarians, it’s superb served with locally grown garlic, vegetables, fresh tomato, and white wine – a dish called pici all’aglione. Lovers of cheese should be sure to try the pecorino of Pienza. This is the Siena region’s most iconic cheese, made from sheep’s milk. It’s sometimes served with a drizzle of local honey – a salty-sweet delight.
Finally, for those with a sweet tooth, trying the panforte is a must. This Sienese sweet is prepared with flour, sugar, candied orange and citrus peel, honey, cinnamon, and vanilla.
With over 400 different restaurants to choose from, Siena is definitely worth visiting if you’re a foodie.
You can explore local wineries
Every delicious Italian meal is accompanied by good wine. If you’re a wine-lover, Siena is definitely worth visiting. The wider province of Siena is known for its wines – particularly red wines from the Chianti region.
If you’re interested in learning more about the region’s winemaking tradition, there’s plenty of opportunities to go on wine tasting tours of the region’s vineyards. Trips to local towns such as Montalcino (origin of Brunello di Montalcino wine), Montepulciano, and many others are readily available, with travel from Siena included in the package.
If you’d rather stay in the city of Siena, the Tuscan Wine School – located just 3 minutes’ walk from Siena Cathedral – arranges crash courses in Tuscan wine, with the option to savor local foods too.
It’s host to some of the most iconic Italian artworks
While art-lovers will instinctively be drawn to Florence, Siena is worth visiting for its impressive collection of renaissance and medieval art, too. The Museo Civico houses some of Italy’s most iconic artworks. Covering three walls is the fresco cycle of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
This truly magnificent painting, representing an allegory for justice, dates back to 1338. In the Siena Cathedral, you’ll find artworks from the medieval painter, Duccio, who is considered one of the fathers of Western art. Another one of the city’s galleries, The Pinacoteca Nazionale, walks visitors through the chronology of Sienese art. And if you’re into modern art, visit Siena in the winter months to catch the seasonal exhibition at Museum d’Inverno.
It’s a brilliant base for exploring the rest of Tuscany
Once you’ve explored Siena, the city makes a brilliant base for adventures into the rest of Tuscany – one of Italy’s most beautiful and celebrated regions. Whether you’re interested in visiting wineries, exploring nearby medieval towns, or immersing yourself in Renaissance art and architecture, there are so many brilliant destinations to discover just a short journey from Siena.
A 70-minute drive will get you to Florence, the leaning tower of Pisa is just 90-minutes away, and you can get to the beautiful medieval city of Cortona in under an hour. If you’re traveling by car, some of the hotels just outside of the city offer free parking – we recommend Hotel Athena or Hotel Santa Caterina.
What is Siena, Italy most famous for?
Siena, Italy is most famous for the Palio di Siena, a biannual horse race that takes place on July 2 and August 16 every year. Originating in the 16th century, this is one of the city’s longest prevailing cultural traditions. Each of the city’s districts, or contrades, is represented by a horse and jockey. The race takes place in Palazzo del Campo, Siena’s central square. While the actual race is over in less than a minute – the time it takes for the fastest horse to do three laps around the central square – the festivities last for 4 days.
Is Siena, Italy safe?
Siena, Italy is a very safe destination. Crime rates are remarkably low, while well-lit streets and frequent police patrols keep the streets safe. The largest risk usually occurs from fighting among drunken revelers, while petty crimes such as vandalism do occasionally happen here. That being said, no destination is without its safety risks. Usual common-sense safety rules – such as avoiding unlit streets at night and carrying large amounts of cash – still apply.
How many days in Siena, Italy is enough?
You can probably do a whistlestop tour of Siena’s main attractions in just one day, but we’d recommend staying between 2 and 4 days to truly do the city justice.
Siena may be small but there’s plenty to see and do here: from touring the city’s many art galleries, to sampling fine Italian cuisine, and ascending the Torre del Mangia for panoramic views. If you’re coming for the Palio di Siena, you’ll want to stay for the full 4 days to soak up the atmosphere. Siena is also a great base for exploring the rest of Tuscany, making a long weekend the perfect length to fully explore Siena and fit in a trip to a local town or winery, if you fancy it.
Is Siena worth visiting for a day trip?
Siena is definitely worth a day trip. This small, Tuscan city is home to Piazza del Campo, regarded as one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. The Duomo di Siena, the magnificent gothic-style cathedral that sits in this square, is decorated with medieval artworks from the founding fathers of modern art.
In addition to magnificent art and architecture, Siena is renowned for its culinary delights, winemaking tradition, and rural positioning in the midst of the rolling Tuscan hills. As just over an hour’s drive from Florence, it’s well worth combining trips to these two stunning Tuscan cities.