At the heart of Siena is a serious contender for the most beautiful square in Italy—the sloping, scallop-shell-shaped Piazza del Campo (Il Campo). Laid out in the 1100s on the site of the Roman forum, the welcoming expanse is a testament to the city’s civic achievements; it’s anchored by a crenellated town hall, the Palazzo Pubblico (1297–1310), and the herringbone brick pavement is divided by white marble lines into nine sections representing the city’s medieval ruling body, the Council of Nine. A 19th-century replica of Jacopo della Quercia’s 14th-century fountain, the Fonte Gaia, is on one side of the square (some of the restored, but badly eroded, original panels are in Santa Maria della Scala. The dominant public monument is the slender 100m-tall (328-ft.) brick Torre del Mangia (1338–48), named for a slothful bell ringer nicknamed Mangiaguadagni, or “profit eater.” (There’s an armless statue of him in the courtyard.) From the platform atop the tower’s 503 steps, the undulating Tuscan hills seem to rise and fall to the ends of the earth (admission to tower 10€, mid-Oct to Feb 10am–4pm, Mar to mid-Oct 10am–7pm).
Overlooking the Campo, the crenellated town hall, Palazzo Pubblico (built 1297–1310), is the city’s finest Gothic palace (many would say Tuscany’s finest), and the Museo Civico inside (tel. 0577/292-615) is home to Siena’s best artworks. Frescoed on the wall of the Sala del Mappamondo, Simone Martini’s 1315 “Maestà” honors the Virgin Mary, Siena’s saintly protector. Next door, in the Sala della Pace, Ambrogio Lorenzetti covered the walls in his “Allegories of Good and Bad Government” (1338), full of detail of medieval Sienese life; it was painted to provide encouragement to the city’s governing body, which met inside the room. The museum is open daily from 10am to 7pm (Nov to mid-Mar until 6pm). Admission costs 9€, 8€ for students and seniors, free for ages 10 and under.
Siena’s main streets run toward the Campo from seven gates in the old city walls. Enter through Porta Camollia, where the phrase COR MAGIS TIBI SENA PANDIT (“Siena opens her heart to you”) is carved over the arch. Medieval pilgrims stopped in Siena while walking the Via Francigena holy road between Canterbury and Rome; as you walk down narrow Via Camollia, note the simple-fronted church of San Pietro alla Magione, once a pilgrim’s hospice. Farther down the street (now called Via Montanini) you’ll pass the imposing Gothic Palazzo Salimbeni, the fortress-home of a wealthy banker-merchant clan and, since 1472, headquarters of the Monte die Paschi, one of the oldest banks in the world. Just up the street (now known as Banca di Sopra) is Palazzo Tolomei, home of the Salimbenis’ bitterest banking rivals—the competition took a bloody turn when the Salimbenis stabbed 18 Tolomeis to death with roasting spits. Via di Citta flows to the right off Banca di Sopra and skirts the Campo, then rises toward the Duomo, passing the elegant arcaded Palazzo Chigi Saracini (Via di Citta 89). In September 1260, during the Battle of Montaperti—the bloodiest European skirmish of the Middle Ages—as the Sienese successfully fought Florentine forces on a ridge outside the city walls, a drummer in the palace tower tapped out ongoing reports to citizens inside the walls.
Having seen Siena’s civic heart, visit its religious monuments on Piazza del Duomo (tel. 0577/283-048) on a single ticket, the Opa Si Pass (15€ high season, 13€ spring and holiday periods, 8€ winter; sold at the Museo dell’Opera). Siena’s Duomo is stuffed with art treasures, including Bernini’s Cappella Chigi (1659) and the Libreria Piccolomini, frescoed in 1507 with scenes from the life of Sienese Pope Pius II, by Pinturicchio. If you are visiting between mid-August and October, you will find the cathedral’s floor uncovered; its 59 etched and inlaid marble panels were created between 1372 and 1547 by Siena’s top artists, including Domenico di Bartolo, Matteo di Giovanni, Pinturicchio, and especially Domenico Beccafumi. The Battistero (Baptistery) has a baptismal font (1417–30) with gilded brass panels cast by the foremost Sienese and Florentine sculptors of the early Renaissance, including Jacopo della Quercia, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Donatello. Inside the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is Siena’s most precious work of art, Duccio di Buoninsegna’s 1311 “Maestà." It shows the Virgin and Child in majesty, adored by a litany of saints including St. Paul (holding the sword) and St. John the Baptist (pointing at Jesus and wearing animal skins). From the museum, climb to the top of the Facciatone for the best view in Siena, over the rooftops and down into the Campo. Opening hours for most of the Duomo sights are 10:30am to 5:30pm, although it stretches to 6 or 7pm in summer. The cathedral is closed to visitors on Sunday mornings. Mosaic floors inside Siena Cathedral can only be viewed from mid-August to October.
Santa Maria della Scala (tel. 0577/534-504), opposite the cathedral, is always much less busy than other sites in the city—and we have no idea why. An “old hospital” might not sound too enticing, but this huge building has treasures hidden away in its eerie corridors. The Pellegrinaio was frescoed in the 1440s with sometimes grisly scenes of life in this medieval hospital; the Old Sacristy has an even more gruesome “Massacre of the Innocents,” painted in 1482 by Matteo di Giovanni. Also here is the spooky oratory where St. Catherine of Siena used to pray during the night; the city’s National Archaeological Museum occupies the labyrinthine lower floor; in Bambimus, art is displayed at child’s-eye height. Admission costs 9€, or 7€ for students 12 to 19 and seniors 65 and over. It’s open 10am to 7pm (Thurs 'til 10pm), closing at 5pm Monday, Wednesday and Thursday November through March (also closed Tues Nov–Mar).
Siena’s Saintly Scholar
Catherine Benincasa (1347–1380), one of 25 children of a wealthy Sienese cloth dyer, had her first vision of Christ when she was 5 or 6 and vowed to devote her life to God. She took a nun’s veil but not the vows when a teenager, was wed “mystically” to Christ when she was 21, and became known for helping the poor and infirm. She founded a woman’s monastery outside Siena, and traveled throughout central Italy promoting “the total love for God” and a stronger church. Frequent fasting eventually took such a toll on her health that she died at age 33. She was canonized as St. Catherine of Siena in 1461 by Pope Pius II—himself a native of Siena.
The stark, cavernous church of San Domenico in Piazza San Domenico (free admission; 9am–6:30pm daily) houses Catherine’s venerated head, preserved in a gold reliquary, and her thumb. Her family home, the Casa di Santa Caterina, Costa di Sant’Antonio (tel. 0577/44177; free admission; 9am–6pm daily), has been preserved as a religious sanctuary; the former kitchen is now an oratory with a spectacular 16th-century majolica-tiled floor.
Which Cumulative Tickets to Buy?
Siena has not one but two sightseeing passes available for visitors—and unfortunately, you’ll probably need both. The Biglietti Cumulativi pass (13€) covers two of Siena’s three must-see sights, Museo Civico and Santa Maria della Scala, which would otherwise cost 18€ for both. The third must-see sight, the Duomo, is covered by the other option, the Opa Si pass, which includes all of the Duomo’s connected sights (the Libreria Piccolomini, Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana, Baptistery, and Cripta). Without the pass, you’d pay 25€ for all this; the pass costs 15€ in high season (for pricing details). If you have limited time in Siena, you can just pop into the Duomo for 4€, but you’ll be missing all of its art treasures. And just to confuse matters further, each pass also has an enhanced 20€ version that adds access to a high-up view (Opa Si’s Porta del Cielo pass includes access to the cathedral roof, while the extra-priced Biglietti Cumulativi gets you to the top of the Torre del Mangia on the Piazza del Campo). Our advice? Skip the 20€ views; you can get nearly the same view from the top of the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana, which is already included in the basic Opa Si. The Opa Si ticket office is at Piazza Duomo 8 (http://operaduomo.siena.it, tel. 577/283-048, open the same hours as the Duomo); tickets are also available online. You can buy the Biglietti Cumulativi at either the Museo Civico or Santa Maria della Scala.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.