How To Spend One Day In Siena Italy, a Rose-Toned Medieval Gem
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Just to be clear, under no circumstances do I recommend spending only one day in beautiful rose-hued Siena Italy. Absolutely, positively, not recommended. Siena is one of the best cities to visit in Tuscany for its rustic beauty, tasty food, and luscious chianti. I guarantee you'll fall in love.
With literally every cultural activity imaginable, stroll-able medieval Siena deserves more than a day to soak up its rose-hued charms. But if you're blitzing through Tuscany, one day may be all you have. If so, Siena is compact and can be managed in 24 hours, if you're efficient.
This guide takes you to Siena's must see architectural sites, museums, and piazzas. You'll stroll through the pedestrianized historic center, which is a well-preserved burnt orange dream littered with cute cafes and shops. If you want to bask in medieval times, there's no better place than Siena.
A Short History of Siena
But first a touch of history. Like other cities in Tuscany, Siena was first settled by Etruscan tribes during the reign of Rome's first emperor, Augustus. At that time, Siena wasn't near any main roads and wasn't prosperous.
But that changed in the 1300s. Siena became a powerful city state. It was a main pilgrimage stop on the way to Rome. It raked in money from manufacturing and banking.
Although Florence gets most of the glory, Siena was a co-equal of Florence in the 14th century, with a flourishing culture of humanism and a progressive democratic government.
But in 1348, the Black Death wiped out most of Siena's population. Everyone was too busy dying to carry on with daily activities. Siena was permanently weakened and conquered by its rival city states. It became a backwater for six centuries.
On the upside, Siena's loss became our sightseeing gain. Its obsolescence preserved its medieval architecture and setting.
Siena is known for a crazy horse race, the Palio. It's a twice a year celebration held on July 2 and August 16. Siena's gorgeous medieval piazza, Il Campo, is transformed into a medieval race track. Bleachers are set up. For days, there are processions, medieval rituals, and Palio bands.
Then, it's race time. 10 of the 17 neighborhoods of Siena, the Contrade, are represented by a horse and rider. The race is a frantic 3 laps, lasting 90 seconds.
There are no rules. It's standing room only.
50,000 people usually attend the races, with bated breath and much screaming. It's important to keep the race dates in mind when planning a visit to Siena. Either you'll want to join the frenzy or, if you're crowd phobic, visit in a different month.
Must See Sites and Things To Do in Siena In One Day
If you only have one precious day in Siena, here's the itinerary you should follow. In an efficient fashion, it takes you through all of Siena's must see sites. I also give you tips for one of the most important things -- were to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
9:00 AM: Breakfast and a Stroll
Siena has some wonderful cafes. Start your day off with a strong espresso and pastry at either Caffe Fiorella on Via de Citta or Bar Pasticceria Nannini on Via Banchi di Sopra. If you want to buy some traditional Sienese sweets to bring home, stop in at Pasticceria Buti on Viale Vittorio Emanuele II.
Now, fueled up, you're ready to explore Siena's Duomo complex, which doesn't open until 10:30. But you can start with the museum, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, which opens slightly earlier at 10:00 am.
10:00 AM: The Duomo Complex
To visit the Siena Duomo complex properly, you need to pre-purchase the Opa Si Pass. I explain more about the pass below. The Duomo complex isn't just Siena Cathedral. It also includes the Baptistry, the Crypt, the Piccolomini Library, the Facciatone viewing terrace, and the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo Museum.
To see them all -- and you should definitely see them all -- you need the Opa Si Pass. Otherwise, you'll be turned away when you want to explore beyond the cathedral nave and altars.
Siena Cathedral is one of Europe's most beautiful churches, especially for lovers of all things Gothic. It's the symbol of Siena, clad all over in Siena's trademark white and dark green marble. Consistent with the Gothic ethos that "more is always better," every inch is decorated with marble, mosaics, sculptures, and frescos.
When you enter, peering down from above are the busts of 172 popes who reigned from the time of Peter until the 12th century. The exquisite marble floor is paved with bible scenes, allegories, and intricate patterns. The greatest artists of the day contributed master works to Siena Cathedral, including Donatello, Pinturicchio, Ghiberti, Pisano, Michelangelo, and Bernini.
The highlight may be the Piccolomini Library. The fresco-studded library is akin to visiting the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums. The frescos were created by Pinturicchio, who also created the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican.
If you opt to visit the museum, you'll see sculptures by Pisano, Donatello, and Bernini, along with a gorgeous rose window. Plus, the museum is where you'll find the Facciatone viewing platform. I think it provides an even better view than the Tower of Mangia in Il Campo.
I've written an extensive guide to the Siena Cathedral complex. Click here to get all the details about these amazing sites. I tell you exactly which masterpieces you can't miss and describe them in detail.
1:00 PM: Lunch in Il Campo
The Piazza del Campo, nicknamed Il Campo, is one of Europe's great medieval squares. It's the heart and soul of Siena. Il Campo is a large open square surrounded by brick buildings, including Siena's pride and joy the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) and the Tower of Mangia.
Il Campo fans out from the city hall, like an amphitheater. The square and its buildings are the color of its soil, burnt siena. The square is a perfect place to linger and people watch. Il Campo is like a people friendly stage set.
Opposite the Palazzo Pubblico, you'll also find the Fonte Gaia, a monumental marble fountain with carved figures. It was crafted by sculptor Jacopo della Quercia in 1419 and is considered a landmark of the city. The original has been moved inside and there's a copy in the square.
The restaurants are rather touristy in Il Campo, as you might guess. But because your next port of call is the Palazzo Pubblico, sit down and enjoy the atmosphere and activity in the fine piazza. The specialties of Siena are wild boar sauce, ribollita, porchetta, and chianti.
If you don't want to eat right on the main square, the restaurant Te Ke Voi is good, and just steps from Il Campo. For dessert, consider trying Siena's delicacy, the local fruit cake called panforte.