Travel Guide for Siena, Italy

With its cobblestone streets, charming shops and striking Gothic architecture, visiting Siena is like stepping back in time. Vehicles are restricted within the ancient city center, allowing pedestrians to freely wander through the maze of narrow, twisting lanes and experience this captivating hill town much as it was centuries ago.

History of Siena

Siena’s origins are lost in the distant past. It is thought that the site was originally settled by the Saina, an Etruscan tribe, sometime between 900 and 400 BC. By the 1st century AD, the Romans had founded a military colony there called Saena Julia.

According to legend, Siena’s founders were Aschius and Senius, the sons of Remus. This was the same Remus who was raised by a she-wolf along with his twin brother Romulus, who later founded Rome. Since Aschius rode a black horse and Senius a white one, these colors came to symbolize Siena and appear on its black and white coat of arms.

Siena, Piazza del Campo

Siena, Piazza del Campo

Located far from major trade routes, Siena remained somewhat of a backwater until the Lombards (Longobards), a Germanic people from northern Europe, invaded in AD 568. The town expanded its borders and significance under the rule of the Lombard kings.

The next conqueror to appear on the scene was Charlemagne, who took control of the city in 774, drawing Siena under the rule of France. The noble Lombard and French families intermarried, giving rise to the Sienese aristocracy.

Siena enjoyed a blossoming of wealth and power beginning in the 12th century. The city grew substantially and became a vibrant trade and banking center.

As Siena flourished and expanded, it developed a fierce rivalry with its larger neighbor to the north, Florence. Siena was predominately Ghibelline, aligned with the Emperor, while Florence was Guelph, in solidarity with the Pope. The rivalry between the two cities exploded in several battles, culminating in 1260 with a Sienese victory at the battle of Montaperti. This triumph was brief, however. In 1270, the Ghibellines were defeated and Siena, along with Florence, became part of the Tuscan Guelph League, which lasted for over a century.

Siena old town square

Siena old town square

The political authority of Siena passed from the aristocracy to an administration of governors known as the Council of Nine. During this period of prosperity, many of the magnificent Gothic buildings were constructed that are still in use today. The Sienese school of art also developed at this time, and influential artists including Duccio di Buoninsegna, Simone Martini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti rose to prominence.

An outbreak of plague in 1348 killed an estimated 60 to 80 percent of Siena’s 100,000 inhabitants, plunging the once-thriving city into decline. The next several centuries were marked with political strife, and Siena fell under the control of various rulers until it became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Some Sights to Enjoy in Siena

The heart of Siena’s historic city center is the enormous, sloping Piazza del Campo. Since the 1200s, it has been the town’s focal point for markets, fairs, tournaments and races. Il Campo is still the place where locals and tourists alike gather to chat, relax and enjoy a drink or a refreshing gelato.

The Piazza del Campo is surrounded by several important buildings including the Palazzo Comunale, also known as the Palazzo Publico (Town Hall), with its majestic bell tower, Torre del Mangia, built in 1297. Occupying the lower level of the Palazzo Publico is the Museo Civico, which houses a superb collection of Sienese paintings and frescoes.

A stroll through the streets will reveal many more remarkable buildings and churches dating back to the 13th century. Noteworthy Gothic and Renaissance palaces include Palazzo Tolomei, Palazzo Spannochi, and Palazzo Piccolomini.

Siena’s stunning Cathedral, with its profusion of carvings and ornamentation, is one of Italy’s finest examples of Gothic architecture. Its initial construction was completed in 1215, but it continued to be enlarged and embellished for another 200 years. Adjacent to the cathedral is the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, whose collection includes paintings as well as tapestries and sculptures.

The National Art Gallery, Pinacoteca Nazionale, located within the Palazzo Buonsignori, features an outstanding collection of art by the Sienese masters.

The Palio

The Palio, Siena’s most celebrated cultural event, is a horse race that takes place around the Piazza del Campo twice a year. The tradition of the Palio, named for the painted silk flag that is awarded to the winner, dates back to the Middle Ages. Riders representing ten out of the seventeen Contrade, or districts of the city, compete in each race. Thousands of spectators throng to the center of the Piazza and hang from every window and balcony of the surrounding buildings to watch the horses and riders as they dash madly around the course. Following the race, there are widespread festivities and feasting. For Siena vacation rental we advise to look through the latest deals on the best vacation rental websites.