Siena or Pisa? That’s a choice between two of the most alluring towns in the altogether alluring region of Tuscany. Both offer a gateway to the legendary winelands and rolling hills of this much-vaunted part of the Italian boot, but they are also downright amazing places in their own right. But which is the one that’s right for you?
That’s what this guide is all about. It will run through seven key aspects of travel to both Siena and Pisa to help you pick the place that suits your travel style the most this year. We’ll delve into how easy each is to get to, what you can expect to do in both, what day trips are on offer, and the general vibe that you can look forward to.
The good news is that we don’t think you’ll be disappointed whichever you plump for. Siena is a stunning hill town perched amid the peaks and troughs of central Tuscany, famed for its wild horse racing festival and eye-catching duomo. Pisa, meanwhile, has the bucket-list Leaning Tower of Pisa plus an enthralling historic core that positively oozes romance and charm. Let’s dig deeper…
Siena or Pisa for ease of travel?
Pisa Airport is now one of the prime gateways into the whole of central Italy and Tuscany, offering low-cost flights with carriers like Ryanair and Wizz from a host of European and UK cities. A lot of options still run seasonally between May and August, but there are also year-round connections. The other thing that Pisa has over Siena is a link to the high-speed rail network, which means you can be in from Rome in just a couple of hours.
Siena’s airport – the Siena–Ampugnano Airport – still doesn’t have any commercial traffic whatsoever. Most travelers who come here land at either Pisa itself or in nearby Florence. Rome is also an option. From those, you’ll have to do overland travel, which is best by car or by train. Pick the latter and you can ride hourly services from Florence for connections to the high-speed network. Choose the former and look to switch onto the main SR2 that cuts through Tuscany – it’s a rather pretty road!
Siena or Pisa for price?
Despite being the more famous of the two towns here, Pisa is actually a touch cheaper than its hill town compadre deeper down into the heart of Tuscany. Travel price collator Budget Your Trip estimates a daily budget of around €97 ($94) if you’re off to see the leaning tower. That adds up to just over €671 ($660) for a whole week’s vacation. We think you might find that hotels in Pisa are more affordable simply because there are more of them on offer – competition forces down rates. However, you will want to be sure to avoid the main Piazza Arcivescovado by the duomo if you’re watching the cents.
In Siena, a rough estimation for spending would be around the €106 ($104) per person, per day mark. That equates to €740 ($727) in all. Mainly, it’s the cost of accommodation that increases here, largely because there’s a limited amount in the old town area of the city where most folks want to stay. Absolutely be certain to avoid the days of the Palio di Siena in July and August if you want a bargain. The coming of that famous festival sees rates skyrocket across the board.
Siena or Pisa for sights and attractions?
The main sight of Pisa is well-documented. Cue the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s actually a campanile, or a belltower, that’s slowly sunken into the ground on one side over the centuries. You’ll find it rising on the wonderful Piazza del Duomo, a part of a major UNESCO site, next to two of the town’s other big draws: The Pisa Baptistry and the cathedral itself. There’s no doubt it’s a wonderful vision of exquisite Romanesque architecture but it does get busy. You’ll also want to check off the Piazza dei Cavalieri and the old town area, which is a true stunner.
The sightseeing begins in Siena the moment you enter the high-rise old town. That’s anchored on the magnificent Piazza del Campo, a vast plaza that’s fringed by imposing medieval relics like the Pubblico Palace and the Mangia Tower. Dive into the winding streets that creep up the hill to the north of that and there’s a never-ending string of palazzos, from the 14-century Palazzo Salimbeni to the Cinughi Dè Pazzi. The Duomo di Siena is also a must – the fine exterior gives way to an inside that’s adorned with works by Donatello and Pinturicchio.
Winner: Pisa probably, just for the tower!
Siena or Pisa for food?
Both Siena and Pisa are hotspots for Tuscan cooking and cuisine. But they also have their nuances. Pisa sits nearer the Mediterranean and the mountains on the northern side of the region. That brings earthy flavors to the table, like cinghiale – wild boar – and cecina – chickpeas. The first is usually made into a rich stew with great glugs of red wine. The latter are flattened into pancakes and stuffed into crispy bread. This also happens to be a better place to taste frutti di mar pastas and risottos, thanks to the port town of Livorno that’s right next door.
Then comes Siena. For many, the culinary side of this town is quintessential Tuscany. It sits smack dab in the heart of that region, where it’s all about rustic flavors straight off the farm or from the forests. Cue pici pastas doused in boar ragu, colossal Fiorentina steak cuts sizzled on open coals, and sweet cantucci biscuits packed with almonds. The other upside for foodies here? The wine. Siena is right on the doorstep of the Chianti valley, the Val d’Orcia, and the winelands of Montepulciano. They host some of Italy’s very best cellar doors.
Siena or Pisa for day trips?
Pisa is now the established gateway to northern Tuscany. Hourly trains link it with the majestic capital of the region, which is just down the tracks at the foot the Apennine mountains. Welcome to Florence, where you can come to witness priceless artworks like David by Michelangelo and tour the acclaimed exhibits of the Uffizi Gallery. In the other direction, Lucca is worthy of a day’s outing. It’s considered one of the best-preserved fortified medieval towns in the country. The old walls are now lovely parklands that you can walk around.
If you have your own car (which we’d recommend) then you can go visit Florence and Pisa alike from Siena. But there are more tempting things dotting the Tuscan countryside if you ask us. Head south to Radicofani to see a muscular castle that hides tales of the “Robin Hood of Italy”. The same way can take you via Bagni San Filippo, where you can swim under natural travertine terraces in bubbling hot springs. Up north is Greve in Chianti, a major wine town. To the northwest is San Gimignano, which some say is the most handsome village in all Italia.
Winner: Probably Siena, because it’s a ticket to exploring the less-trodden heart of Tuscany
Siena or Pisa for nature?
Pisa offers access to the rising peaks of the wonderful Apuan Alps, a segment of the Appenines that flows through northern Italy. You’ll need a car to get to them – the drive is about 1.5-2 hours in all. What awaits are jagged summits like the Foce di Pianza and Monte Sagro, which are whittled away by ancient marble quarries and dotted with soaring rifugios for hikers. They’re a world away from Tuscany and more like the actual Alps in the north. On top of all that, the beaches of Marina di Pisa and Livorno are also within striking distance.
Siena is sandwiched between two of the most famous places in Tuscany. You’ve got Chianti to the north, a land of sweeping vineyards and undulating farm fields. Then there’s the Val d’Orcia to the south, which is a seriously amazing corner of the country, where slinky Mediterranean cypress trees dot winding roadways amid ridges tinged sepia and yellow. Hot springs abound there and there’s lots of hill walking to be done.
Winner: Probably Pisa because you get the mountains and the sea.
Siena or Pisa for general vibe?
Pisa is a city. Quite a big city, in fact. Home to just shy of 100,000 people, its core buzzes with life and tooting cars, clicking bicycles and clinking coffee cups. During the summer, the whole place swells many times over thanks to the influx of tourists, something that’s actually on the increase because of the ever-improving flight links to the town’s airport. The feel here is generally pretty relaxed and fun, but it’s undeniably naff around the Piazza del Duomo, where crowds gather to take selfies with the Leaning Tower of Pisa from morning until night.
Siena oozes charm from every chink in every brick in every one of its grand Renaissance palazzos. It’s really hard not be taken in by this beautiful place, where you’ll spend just as much time trying to find your bearings amid the weaving, winding web of lanes as you do munching on gelato and Fiorentina steaks. There’s one exception to the rule here: The Palio. This iconic festival takes place twice in the midsummer in Siena and sees the whole town go into overdrive. Come then if you want to feel the pulse of Tuscan culture. Avoid if you don’t like huge crowds and huge prices to match.
Winner: Siena. It has to be one of the most charming cities in Italy.
Siena or Pisa? A conclusion
Both Siena and Pisa offer a truly amazing vacation option if you ask us. They each have medieval and Renaissance architecture, gorgeous duomos, and food that’s to die for. Overall, Pisa is the more accessible of the two but also the busiest, though it does offer better access to the Tuscan mountains and beaches. Siena is harder to reach but generally prettier thanks to its hilltop location. It’s also quieter and more pleasant to walk around, while also giving access to the heart of Tuscany.