Latest update: 12 August 2021
An ocher-colored streetscape with shades of red and touches of orange, the active neighborhood life, and the centuries-old horse races right in the center: welcome to Siena! The beautiful walled medieval city is one of Italy’s most beautiful cities. Find out why – I am happy to show you what you can do in Siena and which sights you should not miss.
What to do in Siena (on a day trip)?
Siena is located in Tuscany and, like any self-respecting city in Italy, has a laundry list of churches to visit. Add a handful of museums, dozens of historic buildings, and hundreds of shops, cafes, and restaurants, and you have enough entertainment for a few days in Siena. So yes, it’s definitely a good pick for a city trip.
I visit Siena during my road trip through Italy. Just for a day. My advice? Join a walking tour and then decide how to spend the rest of your day. That way, you know precisely what you want to do in Siena, and you can confidently pick the best sights for you.
Tip 1 – Walking tour in Siena
I book a walking tour in Siena through GetYourGuide. I’m in doubt about the cheap (€ 15) and the ‘expensive’ (€ 35) option. But, the reviews of the ‘expensive’ one are so good that I want to go on a tour with guide Claudia for sure. This is truly one of the best walking tours I’ve ever done. Claudia is fun, enthusiastic, and has A LOT to talk about. We start at the Basilica of San Domenico and walk to Piazza del Campo, with a few stops along the way. Claudia tells all about Saint Catherine, the horse racing, the Duomo, and the rivalry between the different neighborhoods. In between, she gives some tips for nice restaurants. This gives me a good idea of directions and what I want to do for the rest of the day. A skip-the-line entrance ticket to the Duomo (€6) is included in the price.
Tip 2 – The 17 neighborhoods of Siena
In the walking tour mentioned above, you will hear all about the 17 neighborhoods of Siena. It is not surprising that a city is divided into different neighborhoods. But, for the people who live there, the neighborhood boundaries are very important. The 17 neighborhoods (contradas) each have their own social organizations, such as the women’s club and their own church. Each neighborhood has its own coat of arms. There is an owl, a turtle, a shell, a ram, and more. The signs symbolize ‘virtues’. The dragon stands for passion, the unicorn for knowledge, and the ram for perseverance. If you walk through the city and look around you, you will recognize the coats of arms everywhere: on walls, on fences, and on doors.
If you are born a goose, you will always be a goose. Preferably, you should find your spouse within the neighborhood boundaries. Parents choose a partner for their children based on the parents of the other party. If a couple from different neighborhoods has a boy, that boy becomes a ‘member’ of the same neighborhood as his father. The rules are now a lot less strict but certainly still active among the older generation. Especially during Il Palio (the horse races), there is healthy neighborhood rivalry.
Tip 3 – Breakfast the Italian way
Start your day like a true Italian with a coffee and a cornetto (croissant). If you walk towards the city from the train station, you will most likely pass Bar Caracas. Get a cheap croissant with pistachio filling. Extremely sweet, so be prepared for a sugar rush. Note that you have to pay extra at many Italian coffee shops if you sit down. If you stand at the bar, it will save you some money.
Bar Caracas on Google Maps
Tip 4 – Local lunch at Osteria Trombicche
Have lunch at Osteria Trombicche. A friendly priced restaurant with a few tables outside. The restaurant serves local specialties. If you want to book a table, it’s a good idea to check TripAdvisor to see if they have a lunch deal. Outside of the high season, they often offer discounts.
Tip 5 – Admire the central square Piazza del Campo
The Piazza del Campo, or Il Campo, is the square where the annual Il Palio horse race occurs. On ordinary days it is like any other Italian square: a meeting place. On the square is the 102-meter high Torre del Mangia. For ten euros you can enter the tower, and you have a beautiful view over Il Capo.
Tip 6 – Il Palio: the horse races of Siena
Il Palio traditionally takes place in the summer months. Since 1287 there has been a race on July 2 (Palio die Provenzano); later, one was added on August 16 (Palio dell’Assunta). It has been a horse race since 1650; before that, people also raced with donkeys and held bullfights. The event attracts about 30,000 visitors annually.
During Il Palio, the neighborhoods of Siena compete for the palio (a banner), eternal fame, and bragging rights. It is truly a local affair where the neighborhood rivalry becomes tangible and visible. Everything is fair in battle, from thwarting each other during the race to bribing riders.
Every year, ten neighborhoods get to race. The seven neighborhoods that didn’t participate the year before will join, and the other three will be drawn by lot. The neighborhoods hire a rider and are assigned one of ten racehorses.
A few days before the race, each neighborhood brings its horse to the neighborhood stable. To prevent other neighborhoods from sabotaging the horse, people monitor the horse almost continuously. The riders are also monitored 24 hours a day. Bribing riders is therefore openly done at the start. If you have a good horse and a good starting position, you try to bribe other riders. If you don’t think you have a good chance, you’ll take a bribe. Even the neighborhoods that don’t race participate in the fix, only to prevent their arch-rival from winning.
On the day of the race, all horses and riders get a blessing in the neighborhood church. Then, around five o’clock, there is a parade with delegates from each neighborhood, fully dressed in historical costumes. The whole city is decorated with banners of the different neighborhoods, and most people wear their neighborhood’s colors.
Il Palio takes place in Piazza del Campo. This sloping, shell-shaped square is covered with a good layer of sand during the racing period and has tribunes around it. There are quite a few sharp turns in the course, so the riders often fall. They ride three laps on bareback around the square. Funnily, it is also okay if a horse finishes without a rider. In total, the racing lasts 70 to 90 seconds. So it’s over in a flash. After the victory, people head to their neighborhood to celebrate for days.
Would you like to see it yourself? Make sure to be on time to reserve a spot and be prepared for a hefty price tag. And booking is not easy either. You can try it directly with the people who live in the square or with the tourist office of Siena. If you succeed, let me know and send me some pictures!
Tip 7 – The Duomo of Siena
I am a huge fan of the beautiful facades of Italian churches. White, green, and pink marble make the Duomo of Siena a beautiful sight. Inside the cathedral, there is even more marble: no expense is spared. The 56 panels of historical and biblical images on the floor are also all marble. They are neatly fenced so that everyone can admire them. The church is already huge but should have been much bigger. Unfortunately, in 1348 the plague broke out, killing about two-thirds of the population. This put the construction of the church at risk.
In the summer, you pay a €6 entrance fee for the Cathedral of Siena. In winter, admission is free.
Tip 8 – Complesso Museale Santa Maria della Scala
Opposite the Duomo is the Complesso Museale Santa Maria della Scala. I visited this museum with the wrong expectations: I thought it would give me an impression of how the building functioned as a hospital until the 90s. Unfortunately, only a tiny part of the museum is devoted to this. Otherwise, it is mainly frescoes and altarpieces. For me, that was a disappointment; I would have liked to see how it served as a hospice for pilgrims walking the Via Francigena pilgrimage route. As far as I’m concerned, I threw away my €9, but maybe you’d like to take a look now that you know what to expect?
Tip 9 – The San Domenico Basilica and Saint Catherine
The San Domenico Basilica is located in Piazza San Domenico. Although several works can be found here, the most special is the mummified head of Saint Catherine. Catherine has devoted her life to faith since she was seven. She had visions and ecstasies in this basilica in Siena and did a lot of charitable work. With her iron will and persuasion, Catherine convinced the Pope to return to Rome while he was in Avignon. In her short life (she died at 33), she managed to achieve a lot.
Cheap parking in Siena
Are you coming to Siena by car? At the station, you can park all day for 2 euros. The parking garage is called Parcheggio La Stazione (Google Maps location). From the station, it is about a 20-minute walk to the city center. You can buy a train ticket at Omio.
Staying in Siena
Would you rather spend a night or longer in Siena so you can see all the sights? Then, check out the deals at Booking.com.
More travel inspiration for Italy
Do you want even more inspiration for your Italy trip? You might like to purchase a travel guide. I recommend the Lonely Planet because it contains a lot of practical information and is also available in separate PDFs or in an e-book version. You can buy it at Amazon or Book Depository, for example. The latter is usually the cheapest.
Some of the links on this site are affiliate links. If you buy something through these links, I might receive a small commission – at no extra costs to you of course!
First published: December 2019. The article has been updated since.