Updated: Oct 31
Spending a few days in Siena, Italy, is a must for anyone who loves history, culture, and breathtaking scenery. This medieval city is located in the heart of Tuscany and is renowned for its beautiful architecture, stunning piazzas, and its famous horse race, the Palio. If you are a budget traveller, Siena has much to offer, and you can make the most of your trip by taking advantage of the city's many free and low-cost attractions, along with its delicious food and drink. ATB#1 is a sucker for medieval anything, so on one of our first shared trips to Italy, Siena was put on the itinerary early. Although both of us had been to Italy previously (especially Italian-born Mady who visited family annually), neither of us had been to Siena previously. We enjoyed the city so much that it earned a place on a subsequent trip.
Getting to Siena Old City from the Train Station
The first step in exploring Siena is to get to the old city from the train station. The Siena Train Station is located just outside the city walls, and the old city can be reached on foot in about 20 minutes. From the train station, simply follow the signs for the historic center, and you will soon find yourself on Via di Città, the main road leading into the old city.
If you have a lot of luggage, you can take a taxi from the train station to the old city, which will take about 5 minutes and cost around €10. Not all the streets in the old city are accessible to vehicles, so it may be impossible to be dropped right in front of the door to your digs.
History and Culture
Siena has a rich and fascinating history, dating back to the Middle Ages. The city was once a powerful rival of Florence and played a major role in the economic, political, and cultural life of Tuscany. Today, Siena is one of Italy's most beautiful cities, and its old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors can explore its narrow streets, beautiful squares, and magnificent churches, as well as its museums, which showcase the city's rich history and culture.
The Old City of Siena
The old city of Siena is a stunning and well-preserved medieval city rich in history, culture, and architectural beauty. Its unique design characterized by narrow streets, steep hills, and beautifully-crafted buildings has earned Siena a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Visitors to the old city can experience the city's rich history and culture through its many historical sites, monuments, and museums.
One of the most notable features of the old city of Siena is its unique design. This design was intentional, and it was created to provide protection from invaders and to help regulate the flow of people and goods through the city. The result is a beautiful and intricate network of streets and alleys that lead visitors through the city's many neighbourhoods and landmarks.
One of the most unique events in Siena is the Palio, a horse race that takes place in the city's main square, the Piazza del Campo, twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th. The Palio is a deeply traditional event that dates back to the Middle Ages and is incredibly popular. Reservations are taken more than a year in advance and prices are at their highest. Siena is divided into ten wards called Contrades. Each contrade is represented by a different animal that was the original symbol of the various battalions which protected the city. The symbolism of each ward is very easy to spot. See if you can spot all ten!
The race is run by ten horses and riders, representing the city's ten contrades. The Campo, or main square is a huge bowl. The annual Palio horse race begins and ends in this square with paying guests on bleachers and massive crowds of people jammed into the center.
Each contrade cheers fiercely for their rider. The winner is awarded a treasured silk banner, known as the Palio, depicting the Virgin Mary. The event is a celebration of Sienese culture and history, and the atmosphere in the Piazza del Campo is electric on race day.
Things to Do in Siena
The Piazza del Campo
This beautiful square is one of Siena's most famous landmarks, and it is the site of the Palio. The square is surrounded by beautiful palaces and is a must-visit for anyone exploring Siena. Take a stroll around the square, enjoy a coffee at one of its many cafes, and take in the beautiful views of the city's skyline.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
This stunning Gothic-style Santa Maria Cathedral is one of the city's most important landmarks, and it is known for its magnificent stained glass windows, elegant inlaid marble floor, and breathtaking views from the top of the bell tower. Admission is €7, and the cathedral is open from 10:30 am to 7:30 pm daily.
The Palazzo Pubblico
The Palazzo Pubblico is a grand and imposing palace located in the heart of the old city of Siena. Built in the 13th century, this palace served as the center of political power in Siena for many centuries, and it is now a popular tourist destination, offering visitors a glimpse into the city's rich history and culture. The Palazzo Pubblico is considered one of the finest examples of medieval architecture in Italy.
Visitors to the Palazzo Pubblico will be able to see several interesting and historic sights, including the Sala dei Nove, the room where the city's governing council once met, and the Sala del Mappamondo, which is home to a stunning globe that dates back to the 16th century. Additionally, visitors can admire the palace's beautiful frescoes and artwork, and they can explore the city's rich history through its many museums and exhibitions.
The Palazzo is open to visitors from Monday to Saturday, from 9:30 AM to 7:00 PM. Admission is €8 for adults, €4 for students and seniors, and free for children under 18. Visitors can purchase tickets at the palace, and guided tours are available for an additional fee.
The Torre del Mangia
The Torre del Mangia is an 87-metre tall tower built in the 12th century that provides breathtaking views of the city and the surrounding countryside. You will need to climb 300 steps to get to the top. The cost of admission is €10.
La Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena
The Pinacoteca Museum is located in the Palazzo Squarcialupi and houses a collection of masterpieces by Sienese artists, including works by Simone Martini, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and Bartolo di Fredi. Admission is €5, and the museum is open from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm daily.
Scuola di Musica di Siena
The Music School in Siena, also known as the Scuola di Musica di Siena, is a unique and fascinating attraction that offers visitors a glimpse into the city's musical heritage. Established in the 13th century, the Music School is one of the oldest music institutions in the world, and it continues to offer lessons in music and dance to this day.
Visitors to the Music School in Siena can tour the historic building and learn about its fascinating history and traditions. The school's classrooms are adorned with beautiful frescoes and murals, and its halls are filled with musical instruments and other artifacts that tell the story of the school and its students. Admission to the school is relatively inexpensive, and guided tours are available in English for an additional fee.
As you move around the city, you will likely be treated to street performances of the students. This young woman was playing the Thymbala outside the Cathedral. The ethereal tones were echoed beautifully off the cathedral walls.
Siena is a small city, and it is easy to get around on foot. The old city is a maze of narrow streets and alleyways, and walking is the best way to explore its many sights and sounds.
If you prefer to take a break from walking, you can take a taxi, which is a convenient and affordable way to get around. Some buses connect the train station to the old city, and you can purchase tickets at the train station or on the bus.
When it comes to accommodation, there are many options in Siena to suit every budget. On both of our visits, we chose a small bed & breakfast in the heart of the old city, close to the Campo. Be aware that, as a UNESCO city, many modern conveniences such as elevators and spacious bathrooms are not available in most apartment rentals.
Food and Drink Specialties
Siena is renowned for its delicious food and drink, and there are many local specialties that you must try while you are in the city. Some of the most popular dishes include Ribollita, a hearty soup made with bread, beans, and vegetables, and Pappardelle alla lepre, a pasta dish made with wild hare.
If you have a sweet tooth, be sure to try Siena's famous panforte, a dense cake made with almonds, candied fruit, and spices.
And, of course, no trip to Siena is complete without trying a glass of the local wine, Chianti Classico, which is made from the Sangiovese grape and is known for its rich, full-bodied flavour.
When it comes to dining in Siena, there are many options to choose from, ranging from casual cafes to fine-dining restaurants. Dinner service is earlier in Siena compared to Florence and Rome. It will be difficult to find meals after 21;00, so plan accordingly. We enjoyed a fabulous day trip that returned to Siena at 22;00 and were lucky to make the final order of the night.
Our absolute favourite restaurant of all the restaurants that we have visited throughout our travels is, without a doubt, Babazuf. Babzuf is a cozy, family-run restaurant located in the heart of the old city that was first recommended to us by Laura, our hostess. Babazuf is known for its delicious food, friendly service, and affordable prices, and it is a must-visit for anyone exploring Siena's culinary scene.
We had such a spectacular meal that first visit that we made a bee-line there on our second visit several years later. It was just as memorable the second time. I'm sure that we will be visiting it again.
Shopping in Siena
Siena is a shopper's paradise, offering a wide variety of shopping experiences, from high-end boutiques to quaint local shops selling traditional Tuscan products. Whether you're looking for souvenirs to bring back home, local crafts and specialties, or just a unique shopping experience, Siena has something to offer. The city's historic center is filled with charming shops and markets, offering a glimpse into the traditional Tuscan way of life.
If you're looking for traditional Tuscan products, including traditional Tuscan cheeses, salamis, and wines, be sure to visit the weekly Wednesday market in Piazza del Mercato. This market offers a wide variety of local products. Visitors can also find handcrafted pottery, leather goods, and jewelry, as well as beautiful textiles and linens, all made in the traditional Tuscan style.
For unique and handcrafted items, try the artisan workshops in the city. There are several artisan workshops in the city, where visitors can watch craftsmen and women creating unique and beautiful items that are sold in local shops. For high-end shopping, check out the boutiques along Via Banchi di Sopra and Via di Città.
Don't forget the many small, family-run shops in the historic center of Siena, where you can find a wide variety of products, from clothing and accessories to artisanal foods and souvenirs.
Other Useful Information for Budget Travellers
Siena is a popular tourist destination, and it can get crowded, especially in the summer months. To avoid the crowds, plan your trip for the shoulder season, either in the spring or fall when the weather is mild and the crowds are smaller.
If you plan to visit many of Siena's tourist sites, consider purchasing a Museum Pass, which provides discounted admission to many of the city's most popular attractions.
Siena is a cash-based city, and many of its shops, restaurants, and attractions do not accept credit cards. Be sure to have some euros in your wallet before you start exploring the city.
Siena is a beautiful city that offers something for everyone, from its rich history and culture to its delicious food and drink. As a budget traveller, you can make the most of your trip by taking advantage of the city's many free and low-cost attractions, along with its affordable accommodation and dining options. So, pack your bags, and head to Siena for a budget-friendly adventure in one of Italy's most beautiful cities!
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