Sometimes you should ignore your friends’ travel advice. Before going to Italy for the first time, I polled my Facebook connections on their favourites things to do and eat in Tuscany. And I received many helpful replies. One though, from a good pal who had visited Siena and thought it wasn’t worth more than an afternoon, I chose to ignore.
Siena seemed like the kind of place I would like to hang out in. It’s a medieval walled city about 50km from Florence, one of those UNESCO Heritage sites. It has quirky claims-to-fame, like hosting the world’s longest-running horse race and possibly, maybe being the real site of Juliet’s balcony. And it has a gorgeous cathedral, a secret opulent library, and St. Catharine’s mummified head on display.
So even though most tourists pop in and out of Siena on an organized day trip from Florence, my travel companion and I decided to overnight there. And I’m so glad we did.
Just want my list of best things to do in Siena in a day? Here it is!
Sample typical foods like pici and panforte
Siena is a lovely place to spend 24 hours, especially if you would like medieval Tuscany vibes with less crowds than Florence. It’s compact and very walkable. Its attractions are worth extra time and attention. The food is unique to the area, and a lively bar scene makes it a fun place to be at night. Mostly, watching life pass from the Piazza del Campo at sunset is as marvellous an example of la dolce vita as anything else we found on our trip.
Can you drive in Siena though?
First thing to know if you’re considering staying overnight in Siena is the driving and parking situation. As mentioned, it’s a walled city. Within those walls, the streets are narrow and winding and for the most part car-free.
You are permitted to drive to your hotel and unload, but if you want to park anywhere nearby, you’ll need that hotel to register you for a spot in a lot. Don’t let that scare you into staying further afield. If you’re only coming for one day you want to be walking distance to the heart of the city for early morning and late night. Just ask the hotel to help you with the car, they do this a lot and will sort you out. Or come by train and taxi, that’s easy too.
Where to stay for one night in Siena?
Once you’ve decided to stay within the walled city, there are plenty of good hotel options. We chose our hotel in Siena based on a single photo: an oversized bathtub beside a huge window with a view of a duomo. A dream!
Hotel Palazzetto Rosso (aka The Red Palace) gave us the best of all worlds: a historic building, modern furniture and amenities, that incredible bathtub view and less than 10 minutes walking to everywhere we wanted to go.
This boutique hotel is located so close to Siena’s top attractions, that alone would make it an excellent choice. We also loved the former palace’s red brick and wrought iron exterior (built in the Middle Ages!), the vaulted ceilings, winding brick staircase to our room (don’t worry, they have an elevator), statues of Italy’s mythical wolves Remus and Romulus in the lobby. The front desk offered 5-star service and the included breakfast buffet was exceptional.
We picked the suite with that bathroom view, of course. It was huge (by European standards), with high ceilings, massive windows and heavy drapes. As two friends travelling together we loved that it had two beds, since so many beautiful suites in Italy are designed only for couples. In the middle of it all, that bathroom, a glass box with a view of a baroque church. It really did feel like we were staying in a Medieval city.
If you’re into atmospheric, artistic, boutique hotels and can afford a splurge, I highly recommend it.
The best things to do in Siena in one day
So what did we do with our one day in Siena? It was tempting to just hang out in our hotel suite but we set out to explore and eat!
The main reason we wanted to stay overnight in Siena was to have plenty of time for its Gothic cathedral, so that’s where we started.
Siena Cathedral: Extraordinary from floor to ceiling
I’ll say it: Siena’s Cathedral is just as impressive as the one in Florence. And the line-up to enter is way shorter.
Built in the 1200’s, this Gothic cathedral stands out first off for its unique facade: white with stripes of dark green marble. I called it the Beetlejuice church. Inside, more stripes (black and white marble columns) plus works of arts from masters like Donatello, Bernini and Michelangelo. The Donatello piece is a huge bronze relief depicting the beheading of John the Baptist. It’s in the baptistry. Like, where babies get baptized. Oh, Italy!
There are opulent tombs of bishops, statues of popes…. And if that sounds like every other fabulous church in this country, there’s nothing else like its famous floor. Covered in 54 inlaid mosaic panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament, the Siena Cathedral’s ornate floor is only revealed a few weeks each year though. (Check before you go; 2022 dates are August 18 to October 18.)
Tickets to the Siena Cathedral include admission to other museums that are part of the complex: Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Baptistry and Crypt — which was one of the only cool places to take refuge from the hot summer sun. You could easily spend half a day on these sites alone; but your ticket is good for three days so you can come/go as you wish.
Buy tickets online: 13 Euro, 2 Euro for kids, under 6/disabled are free
It’s no surprise every visitor to Siena comes here. But you can get away from the crowds and score a magnificent view of the Cathedral and the city – if you can climb stairs.
Climb the Gates of Heaven
A special tour called the Gates of Heaven allows you to climb up to a private walkway circuit near the ceiling. What a ceiling! Blue and golden stars, so many stars. The stained glass is superb and we got to see it up close.
I will not say it was an easy climb – in the summer heat, in our Covid masks, we struggled — but it was well worth it to admire the cathedral from our VIP perch above. We “oooed” and “ahhhhhed” a lot.
You can also see out over the city, one of the best views of Siena.
A special Gate of Heaven ticket is required for the 30-minutes of roof access, costing 22 Euro, and they limit numbers to small groups. I’m not going to lie — they make it a bit confusing for advance tickets. We bought something called an OpaSi Pass, which included this access, so look for that. You can also get Cathedral tickets from many, many tourism sites. Definitely book in advance to avoid those queues on site.
Behold The Piccolomini library
Inside the Cathedral is a “secret” library. I say this because it doesn’t look like any library I’ve ever been inside.
The Piccolomini library was commissioned in 1492 as a place for the collection of books of Pope Pius II. A select few of those illuminated manuscripts are on display here today. But what’s special about this room is the artwork. Colourful, detailed frescos depict the life of said Pope, covering all the walls and ceiling. You don’t need to be a fan of Catholic Popes to appreciate the splendour.
The library is free to enter with your admission to the Cathedral. Security keeps the crowds moving so you’re only able to spend a few minutes in here. If you want to really examine the books on display come when it’s not busy.
Relax in the Piazza del Campo
The heart of Siena is the Piazza del Campo – a public square like no other in Italy, or even Europe. Because it’s not actually a square. It’s shaped more like a seashell, and sloped like an amphitheatre. The city’s important buildings are laid out around it, just as they were in the Middle Ages. There’s a beautiful fountain (Fonte Gaie) fed by underground tunnels that have been bringing water to the residents of Siena for thousands of years.
During the day, you can pay to enter the Mangia Tower. It’s the third largest historical tower in Italy, and offers sweeping views of Siena and surrounding countryside. We did not climb it’s 300 steps because we were still recovering from the Gates of Heaven stairs! Tickets are 10Euro for adults and can only be purchased at the onsite box office. Check hours here.
We found the best time to visit was early evening. We flopped our weary sightseeing selves down on the red brick to watch the golden hour glow on the Gothic architecture, and children come out to play. A wedding party could be heard celebrating on a nearby balcony. Wandering musicians plied their trade amongst the restaurant patios. Because we weren’t rushing in and out of Siena in a day, we felt no pressure to do anything more than watch the world go by and eat gelato.
Speaking of eating….
Sample typical foods of Siena
Being part of Tuscany, Sienese cuisine is made from simple ingredients prepared well. When you stay overnight, you can sample several local dishes.
I started with a typical Siena pasta for lunch. Pici is a thicker, rougher spaghetti made with just water, flour and oil, and traditionally hand rolled. I had it paired with cacio e pepe, a thick cream and pepper sauce. Hearty and delicious, and fun to try a kind of pasta dish I’ve never even heard of before.
Panforte is a popular desert sold in many confectionary shops. If you like traditional Christmas fruit cake, you’ll love their version with candied citrus, nuts, honey and cinnamon. I grabbed a bunch as gifts from Drogheria Manganelli, in business since 1879.
The best thing I ate in Siena though was an egg. On one hand, a very simple egg. But as prepared by the chefs at Ristorante Gallo Nero, also a deliciously complex egg. The AntiPasti dish is described as “Crispy egg with pecorino cheese foam, shiitake mushrooms, bitter cocoa, truffle.” It sounds fancy, because it is. And I loved it.
Gallo Nero is a romantic restaurant tucked away down a side street, a few minutes’ walk from the Campo. The small a la carte menu offers inventive gluten-free and vegan options and is well worth seeking out.
Sainte Catherine’s Head
You might think after spending a day exploring the Siena Cathedral you don’t need to visit other churches here. What if I told you that the Basilica of San Domingo has the severed, mummified head of St. Catherine on display?
If you’re like me and seek out macabre and unusual sights while travelling, this is a stand-out attraction. The basilica itself is very modest, but St. Catherine’s head is held in an opulent reliquary display (her thumb is in another case nearby.)
Admission is free. No photos permitted.
What about the Horse Race?
If you have been to Siena or researched Siena you might be wondering why I have not mentioned the Palio yet. The world-famous horse race is the biggest draw to this city, with good reason. Riders representing Siena’s different neighbourhoods (or contradas) race bareback around the Piazza del Campo for pride. Thousands crowd the area to watch and wave the banners of their fave contradas. The race lasts about 90 seconds.
If you’re lucky enough to be around Siena during Palio days (July 2 and August 16), definitely go. Hotels sell out months in advance though so this is the one time you’d be excused for just coming in for the day.
How to Get to and From Siena
ItaliaRail trains run multiple times daily to and from Siena. Florence is between 1 hour 15 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the train, and costs about $11-$13 USD. (We did this route without incident.) From Rome, it’s about 3 to 4 hours, and between $40 and $90 USD depending on departure, with stops at plenty of the other lovely Tuscan towns you might be visiting too. Check here for schedule and advance tickets
If you prefer a bus, Omio runs several for around 10Euro. Check schedules.
We drove in from Montepulciano and, as mentioned above, had to quickly drop off baggage then park in an authorized lot arranged by the hotel. The walled city is still keeping out enemies centuries after being built!
I loved our short visit to Sienna and would put in on my Must See list to any visitor to Tuscany.
Travelling to Tuscany? The best guide to the area, with tips for Siena, is Fodor’s Florence & Tuscany with detailed maps, accommodation picks and great background for more historical context.