Siena is perhaps the most beautiful medieval city in Italy, with stunning Gothic architecture. In the heart of Tuscany, Siena lures travelers from all over the world every year with its fascinating culture and history. Preserving its medieval character, Siena is a treasure that must be explored.
Back to the Middle Ages
Siena is a medieval city that makes you feel as if you have traveled through time straight back to the Middle Ages. Walk around with a cell phone to your ear and you may be accused of sorcery!
The main town square, the Piazza del Campo, is a breathtaking open urban square in the center of the city. It is also the site of the Palio, an aggressive horse race akin to our Kentucky Derby. Riders are often thrown in the course of the brutal race. The biggest feature architecturally is the bell-and-clock tower called the Torre del Mangia that was built in 1338 over the main square. The are many exalted works of Renaissance art in Siena, and for sports fans, there is even a professional basketball team.
Other must-see architecture in the main town square includes the Duomo, the Cathedral of Siena, a 13th century cathedral and the main focal point in the piazza. What makes this cathedral unique among European churches is its black and white marble on the interior. It is a gleaming jewel and a sacred destination for millions.Apart from these focal points we recommend you simply wander the city because the many medieval palazzos, small townhouses and the feudal setting makes you feel as if you’re still in Renaissance Italy, with the glory of its creativity bursting all around you.
Senius and the Founding of Siena
Legends fascinate us, and the city of Siena holds its own. According to legend, Siena was founded by two people named Senius and Aschius. They were the sons of Remus, an uncle to the man after whom Rome was named, Romulus.
Legend has it that after Remus was murdered by Romulus, his two sons, Senius and Aschius, fled from Rome to Siena, taking with them a statue of she-wolf suckling infants. Supposedly, the name of the city, Siena, is derived from the two sons fleeing their murderous uncle.
Originally settled by the ancient Etruscans, who devised irrigation, the locale had some success in agriculture. The city did not prosper under the Romans, and Christianity arrived a little later, not until the 500s. The city has had quite a long and sometimes tortured history. It was once seen as an important crossing point for pilgrims traveling from France to Rome, therefore, it became a prosperous city as something of a trading post.
It was also once a successful and thriving republic, for nearly four centuries, from the mid-1200s the mid-1500s, In 1555, the Republic waged an unsuccessful war with the Duchy of Florence, which it lost and was under by Spanish occupation for a time.
The city also suffered heavily during the plague outbreak, the Black Death, which raged through Europe in the 1300s. To stop the spread of the plague, several local rulers imposed restrictions on the city’s commerce and travel, which curtailed a lot of Siena’s power and influence at that time.
It became unified with the rest of Italy in the 19th century under Garibaldi.
Renaissance Influences and Modern-Day Horse Racing
The art and culture of the Renaissance played a big role in Siena’s history. Throughout the city and its various galleries, you can see vestiges of Renaissance influence and art. The city preserves its medieval character and is largely unspoiled by modern commerce. The Sienese School of Art has produced some of the finest artists in the country and some of the best known pieces of Renaissance artwork are in the city’s galleries. It takes several days to take in all the treasures and gems. Masterpieces abound in the cathedral and the Palazzo.
Perhaps the most well-known cultural event in Siena is a medieval horse race still held, called the Palio di Siena. It’s the Italian version of Pamplona Spain’s “Running of the Bulls” and the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. It occurs on both July and August 16th of each year.
Ten horses and riders race bareback in bright colors, each representing a different neighborhood or “contrada” in the city. They circle the Piazza Del Campo three times. The race is very brief and very intense. It is common for riders to be thrown from their horses. There are treacherous turns. So don't be surprised at the finish line if you are confronted with a rider-less horse.
This is an incredibly popular televised event each year so if you are in Siena this time of year make sure you take the time to see it. Just make sure to stay out of the way of any horses or flying riders!
Must See Attractions
Piazza del Campo
The main town square in Siena surrounded by resplendent buildings inspired by Gothic architecture. This is where the pulse of the city resides and it’s definitely its most popular point in public life. Take a walk down and you’ll find street performers, students relaxing with a picnic, musical performances and plenty of cafes and bistros to sit and soak up the atmosphere of this buzzing center of the city. This is the stuff of dreams.
Duomo is Siena’s magnificent cathedral, one of the most angelic in all of Italy. It is also one of the oldest churches in Italy, with construction beginning in 1215 and contributions by some of the most renowned artists in the world. To stand in front of the greatest examples of art ever created is both humbling and uplifting. This stunning piece of Romansque-Gothic architecture is an imperative for all who love timeless art.
This bell-and-clock tower is impossible to miss with its imposing and transcendent presence over the Piazza del Campo. This impressive tower was built between 1338 and1348 and is today one of the tallest medieval towers in Italy. Gazing down at the city from the top of the tower is overwhelming. You will not be in a hurry to descend but instead allow your imagination to drift over the city environs.
Battistero di San Giovanni
This baptistry is a sight to behold. The exterior is sublime but the real joy lies in its stunning interior with its richly decorated tiled panels that represent different significant moments in the history of Christianity. Notice the shrine in the center of the baptistry made from gleaming marble and the bronze statues.
Tuscany is a world-famous region of Italy and the medieval setting of Siena is its heart and soul. So make sure to include Siena if you're planning a visit to Tuscany. It's a magical city that will remain with you forever.