Siena, A Visit to the Heart of Tuscany

Siena is located in the heart of Tuscany. Having seen the wonderful Lucca I could not wait to see this city.  Its unique medieval brick buildings make the city distinguished among other Tuscany cities. The Gothic town hall, the shell-shaped central square Piazza del Campo, Torre del Mangia and many other buildings are very impressive. They are enclosed by the city walls and gates which form a medieval old town centre.

Siena was important in history as a commercial and banking city until surpassed by Florence in the 13th–14th century. Later there were many modern buildings being built outside the city walls. However as Siena has kept its original character, it remains essentially a medieval town.

Capella della Madonna del Rosario

If you park car at west side of Siena (Parking Lot “siena parcheggi – parcheggio II Duomo”) and walk along Via S. Marco street, you will pass the first site Capella della Madonna del Rosario Originally built by the Chiocciola family between 1655 and 1656, it was restored and extended between 1722 and 1725 using the money deriving from the winning of a Palio.  The formerly catholic chapel was later deconsecrated in 1820.  Then it was abandoned by Chiocciola family.  In recent years locals use it to shelter the horses during the period of the Palio, the annual horse race event.

Capella della Madonna del Rosario, Siena in Tuscany
Capella della Madonna del Rosario, Siena in Tuscany

Palazzo del Capitano

Keep walking towards the centre along Via del Capitano you will pass a 13th-century Gothic style urban palace built in bricks and stones. The Palazzo is just next to Duomo Complex.  Currently it is the property of the Monte dei Paschi di Siena Foundation.

Palazzo del Capitano, Siena in Tuscany
Palazzo del Capitano, Siena in Tuscany

Siena Duomo Complex

The Duomo Complex. is in the centre of Siena. It is one of the most beautiful sites in Siena and is impossible to miss when you are in the town. The Duomo Complex includes many sites such as the Duomo di Siena, the Crypt, the Piccolomini Library, the Baptistery of San Giovanni etc.  It contains many treasures  including the art works by Bernini and the young Michelangelo. The Duomo Complex makes this cathedral an extraordinary museum of Italian sculpture.  You can join a 2-Hour Walking Tour to discover these sites including this UNESCO sites, the Duomo Complex.

The exterior of the Duomo Complex

Before entering the complex, you should take some time to admire its elegant façade. The façade is mainly made in white. Part of it is striped in dark green (or black, I cannot remember exactly what the colour is) and white marbles. The Duomo is so light when the Tuscany sun shines on it.

The beautiful façade of Siena Cathedral, Tuscany
The beautiful façade of Siena Cathedral, Tuscany
The interior of the Duomo di Siena

When you enter the Duomo, it turns to be very dark. the interior of the Duomo is made of various colours of marbles.  The walls look impressive with black and white marbles stripes.  At the right side there is an information board telling you each place of interest inside the Duomo. It is better to follow the arrows on the ground to visit each place.

The most attractive part is the floor decorated with the marble mosaics. They represent the sibyls, scenes from the Old Testament, allegories and virtues. Most are well-maintained in their original status. Various techniques were applied in the earlier and later stages resulting in a vigorous contrast of light and dark. The scenes have a modern and impressionistic composition.

The Piccolomini Library

This library is to honour the memory of Pinturicchio maternal uncle Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II). The paintings in the vault are ten stories illustrating the life of the Pope Pius II.  The frescoes showing scenes from the Life of Pope Pius II on three Library’s walls. There are also a rich collection of books and manuscripts from the Pope. Make sure to locate this library on the information board inside the Duomo because it is easily to be missed out.

The vault with ten stories illustrating the life of the Pope Pius II in Piccolomini Library, Siena
The vault with ten stories illustrating the life of the Pope Pius II in Piccolomini Library, Siena

The showcases around the walls contain a magnificent collection of illuminated manuscript codices. they offer nearly a complete overview of the history of Italian illumination in the 15th century.

The Piccolomini altar

The Piccolomini altar is remarkable because of the four sculptures in the lower niches were made by the young Michelangelo. On top of the altar is the Madonna and Child.

The Piccolomini altar in Duomo, Siena
The Piccolomini altar in Duomo, Siena

Siena Baptistery of San Giovanni

The Battistero di San Giovanni is near the final spans of the choir of the Duomo di Siena. It is built between the 1310s and the 1320s. The monumental staircase rising to Piazza Jacopo della Quercia next to it was built in the same period.

Siena Baptistery of San Giovanni
Siena Baptistery of San Giovanni

Museo dell’Opera

The museum is actually part of the Siena Cathedral. Some of  art pieces from the Duomo are now exhibited in Museo dell’Opera.  It hosts an outstanding collection of artefact including religious art, sculptures and stained glass.  You can also enjoy panorama views of the cathedral and the city of Siena.

Museo dell'Opera, part of the Siena Cathedral
Museo dell’Opera, part of the Siena Cathedral

Piazza del Campo

Follow the Via del Pellegrini until you reach the ring road Il Campo, you will arrive at the famous Piazza del Campo.  The shell-shaped square is the focus of Sienas civic life. In the history the places was used for fairs and markets. It manged to gather the entire population of Siena to attend events there. Among those events the most famous one is Palio. The shell-shape took place at the end of 1200s. The paving was made of red bricks arranged in fish bone style and divided into a sunburst pattern.

Piazza del Campo, the Europe's biggest square in Siena
Piazza del Campo, the Europe’s biggest square in Siena

If you have limited time but want to get more from your trip, you can take the Siena Guided Walking tour. The tour will guide you through beautiful Siena’s squares and streets. Besides, you can Learn about the city’s history while admiring its cathedrals, museums and libraries as well  the famous Piazza del Campo.

When we were there it was just two days after the Palio.  The square was still covered with soils.  This was done to protect the brick ground during the horse race. Around the square there are many restaurants and bars just like in many other Italian squares. Other than Torre del Mangia, the Palazzo Comunale (town hall) and the Fonte Gaia are worth a visit.

Fonte Gaia, the engineering miracle of Siena

“Gaia” means joyful, and represents the happiness when the citizens witnessed the arrival of water for the first time in the square in 1346. It was the city’s most important public fountain. To make this happen, a massive hydraulic work had carried out in order to lead water via a long tunnel to the high point of the city.

Upon the completion of the this engineering work, Jacopo della Quercia, an important Sienese Renaissance master made the sculptures with themes from Old Testament reliefs and statues to decorate the fountain. But the original work was badly damaged throughout the years and is now conserved in the Santa Maria della Scala Museum. The current sculptures are copies of the original pieces.

Fonte Gaia, the engineering miracle of Siena
Fonte Gaia, the engineering miracle of Siena

Torre del Mangia

The Piazza del Campo is dominated by the red Palazzo Pubblico and its tower, Torre del Mangia. Do you still feel energetic? Then you can climb up over 500 steps and enjoy a wonderful view of Siena and its surroundings. In the other hand the Civic Museum offers some of the greatest of Sienese paintings. The red Palazzo Pubblico is a Gothc town hall building in which nearly every major room contains frescoes.

There is Private Tour of the Civic Museum in Siena.  With this guided tour of the Civic Museum, you will discover one of the major museums in Italy. Inside Palazzo Pubblico, an expert guide will explain you the frescoes, created by some of the most important 14th-century artists. The duration is about 90 minutes. Please click here to check the availibitliy.

Torre del Mangia in Siena, Tuscany
Torre del Mangia in Siena, Tuscany

Walk the city walls

It is possible to walk on the ancient city walls.  If you have limited time for the visit then just walk part of the walls.  You will be rewarded by a scenic view.

Palio, the Horse Race in Siena

One of the major events in Siena is the Palio. Being the most important event in Siena, Palio takes place on July 2 and August 16 every year since 6th century. We could still see some decorations on the wall, for example those colourful lamps in different shapes.  But we did not know this event when we planed our Tuscany trip. It’s a pity to miss that event. However, you should not expect to find a hotel during the event period.

Colourful lamp left from the Palio event in Siena, Tuscany
Colourful lamp left from the Palio event in Siena, Tuscany

Stroll around the back street behind the squares

The back streets behind the square are intriguing. You should take time to stroll around and visit the shops along the way. There are many Sienese specialties, gourmet pasta, vintage Chianti, boar prosciutto or extra virgin olive oil etc.  By all means Siena offers Italy’s best medieval city experience.

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Where to stay

Most people see Siena as a day trip destination from Florence which is just 35 miles away. We found out that a day was too short for us because we did not stay in Siena.  To travel there from other major cities take time, therefore I recommend to plan an overnight stay in Siena.

Hotel Duomo

This hotel is set within a 12th-century mansion, the hotel is situated in the historical centre of Siena, near the cathedral and Piazza del Campo, and boasts spectacular views over the surrounding Sienese Hills. Free WiFi is provided throughout, together with free parking for bikes.

Hotel Duomo in the centre of Siena's old town
Hotel Duomo in the centre of Siena’s old town

Four Points by Sheraton Siena

Surrounded by olive groves and the beautiful hills of Chianti, the hotel is a 10-minute drive from the historic city walls. It offers free parking, a gym and spacious rooms. And it offers a large international breakfast buffet.

Four Points by Sheraton Siena
Four Points by Sheraton Siena

How to get there

Form Florence to Siena

The bus station in Florence is right in from of the SMN train station. The address is: Via Santa Caterina da Siena. There are two different buses to Siena: Rapida (the fast bus, it takes around 1:15) and Ordinaria (ordinary or slower bus, it takes around 1:30).

However, if you travel with small children you might find the train more comfortable as there is more space for the stroller and for them to walk around. There are two trains per hour, one is direct and the other one requires a change at Empoli.

From Pisa to Siena

In case you take bus you have to change at Florence.  Trains leave approximately two times per hour from the central station to Siena. You will have to change in Empoli and the whole trip lasts about 1 hour and 50 minutes.

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