Do you want to visit Siena like a local? Then check out 7 things to get the best out of the city.
The best term to define Siena is "unique".
Unique for its beauty enclosed in a small historic center. Unique because the colour of its ancient buildings has a name: "terra di Siena" ("Siena's soil"). Unique for the passion that the Sienese give to the symbolic event of the city, the Palio.
The Golden Age of Siena is in the heart of the Middle Ages, when it rivalled with Florence in beauty and prosperity and when it alone challenged the armies of the Empire.
All this wealth has left its mark on the palaces and folklore of the locals.
But apart from the world-renowned landmarks like Piazza del Campo, the Duomo and the Baptistery there is a small microcosm to discover.
The following is therefore the list with our suggestions to make you experience the city like a genuine Sienese, to discover those little gems that make a visit special.
Here are the 5 things to do in Siena to experience the city like a local: let's discover together the traditional dishes not to be missed, the panoramic point for a bird-eye view and how to watch the horse race warming the hearth of the locals.Visit Siena and its historic centre❯
7. Do a tasting session of local wines
Siena is surrounded by rolling green hills, famous all over the world.
The city is bordered to the north by the Chianti hills, while the Val D'orcia and the Crete Senesi close the circle to the south: these hilly areas are perfect for growing vines and have been producing world-class wines for years.
So if you love wine you are in the right place.
Red wines such as Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti, or whites such as the Vernaccia di San Gimignano are just some of the most popular ones.
To taste local wines within the city walls, just choose one of the many wine bars (“enoteca”) in Siena: we recommend the Emporio Mediterraneo (also excellent for local products such as honey) and the Cantina del Brunello di Montalcino, almost a town landmark.
You can also book a wine tasting right in front of the Siena Cathedral, the perfect setting if you stay in the city.
On the other hand, if you prefer to get out of the city and visit a winery to taste local award-winning wines, you can join a half-day tour in the Brunello di Montalcino area.
Whatever you chose, we are sure that Siena won’t disappoint you.
6. Relax at the local garden
There is a green and relaxing spot to enjoy a moment of peace in the heart of Siena: it is the Orto de' Pecci, a few hundred meters from the Torre del Mangia.
The "orto" in Italian is half way between a garden and a vegetable garden.
Behind the calm of this place there is a dramatic story: in the Middle Ages the road that crossed the area was used by those sentenced to death to reach the place of executions.
Here were built a few houses and a mill while planning for the city expansion. Unfortunately, the plague that struck Siena in 1348 halted the growth of the city, making these houses useless. They were razed to the ground to create vegetable gardens. After the 16th century, these gardens were used by the inmates of the local mental hospital to support themselves and for occupational therapy.
This area of the city is a mute witness of what Siena could have become without the severe blow inflicted by the plague epidemic.
Today the Orto de' Pecci is a tiny urban oasis where you can breathe in the scents of plants and herbs, walk among the animals as if you were in the countryside and eat the excellent local dishes in the local restaurant. The garden is is managed by a cooperative that helps people with disabilities.
This chilled garden is highly recommended if you want your children to play or rest, but also if you want to let them know the secrets of agriculture and nature thanks to the educational events organised by the cooperative.
5. What to do in Siena like a local: climbing the city tower
The stunning view from the Torre del Mangia.
The journey through Siena like a local starts from the top.
The view above Siena from the Torre del Mangia will leave you breathless.
This civic tower is the symbol of Siena and stands out over Piazza del Campo and the picturesque red roofs of the city.
From the top of the Torre del Mangia you can clearly appreciate Siena’s ancient buildings, the green surrounding countryside and - on clear days - you can also spot Monte Amiata in the distance.
Opened in 1348, the tower is about 88 metres high and reaches almost the same height as the bell tower of the local Cathedral, as if to signify a balanced truce between temporal and spiritual power.
The name of the tower comes from the nickname given to the old bell ringer, called "Mangiaguadagni" (in English “earnings-eater”) for his ability to squander money. Although the role of the bell ringer has been replaced by a clock, the Sienese are fond of the nickname and have kept it for the tower.
It takes about 10 minutes to get to the top, climbing over 300 steps (some of them are slippery and uneven) and passing through several bottlenecks. The climb is not difficult as long as you are careful where you put your feet, but it will test your cardio.
Tickets cost around €10 but there are discounts for children and families. We recommend combining a visit to the tower with a visit to the splendid Palazzo Pubblico.
If you are a university student, be aware of a local legend that says that whoever climbs the tower will fail to graduate: maybe it's just folklore, but it's good to know this before planning a visit…
4. Eat in a traditional restaurant
Delicious pici with cheese and pepper sauce.
Eating in Siena is an unforgettable culinary experience.
The best way to experience the city like a local starts right at the dinner table.
The city centre of Siena offers top-notch restaurants, osterie (“inns”) and taverns, where you can eat traditional dishes and enjoy the lively atmosphere. But Siena also boasts eateries serving Sienese street food - above all the focaccia called "ciaccina" and the typical sandwiches with cold cuts and Tuscan cheese.
There is so much to try in the tavern, from fine cuts of meat to richly flavoured soups, ending with the famous Sienese desserts.
The best-known first courses are certainly the pici (large spaghetti made with soft wheat flour and seasoned with cheese and pepper sauce, meat sauce or with aglione, a local garlic sauce) and pappardelle with wild boar or hare ragù.
Winter is the perfect time to enjoy ribollita. The ribollita is a hearty soup made with stale Tuscan bread, black cabbage, potatoes and beans: after exploring the city in the cold winter, a plate of ribollita will bring you back to life!
If you opt for just getting the second course, you have a wide choice: we recommend the unmissable beef T-bone steak and all the succulent meat cuts of Cinta Senese, a local breed of pig reared in the wild.
To end the meal with a dessert, play it safe and order the typical cantuccini biscuits with vin santo (“holy wine”), or try the Ricciarelli biscuits. At Christmas, you must try the Sienese panforte, a local specialty known since the Middle Ages and prepared with almonds, candied citrus peel, honey and lots of spices.
Panforte and Ricciarelli are the perfect souvenir to take home after a visit to Siena: the pastry shops and bakeries of the city have plenty on display, especially around Christmas time.
3. Spend a day at the spa
Siena is a stone's throw from different popular spas.
The two most popular spas villages near Siena are Rapolano Terme and Bagno Vignoni.
Loved by both locals and tourists alike, they guarantee a day of relaxation in the splendid Sienese countryside, and a panacea for body and spirit.
The village of Rapolano Terme stands in the middle of the rolling Clay Hills of Siena and was known in the past for two reasons: its rich travertine quarries and its sulphurous waters.
Here the thermal waters flow at a temperature of about 39° and are a blessing for those suffering from rheumatism, arthritis and respiratory tract disorders.
Visitors looking for a wellness holiday can choose from two well-established thermal baths: the Terme San Giovanni (fantastic for a night at the spa and with a beautiful panoramic view) and the Terme Antica Querciolaia (with indoor and outdoors pools and a wide range of wellness services).
On the other hand, the tiny village of Bagno Vignoni has been on the map for "thermal tourism" since Roman times, thanks to the fame of its curative waters.
This spa is close to the Via Francigena (connecting Canterbury to Rome) and was therefore a resting place for pilgrims en route to Rome.
The uniqueness of Bagno Vignoni is the sixteenth-century pool in the main square of the town, built right above the original source of thermal water. Surrounded by mediaeval buildings, the 49-metres long pool is filled with hot spring water. You cannot bathe in it, but fear not, Bagno Vignoni offers a valid alternative to bathe for free.
Head to the Parco dei Mulini, consisting of several free pools. The water here is channelled directly from the hot pool in the square and it's slightly colder (but still enjoyable). There are no changing rooms or bathrooms, so keep this in mind when visiting the free thermal baths.
2. Go for an aperitivo in the city centre
Aperitivo is an integral part of Italian culture.
Siena certainly does not hold back when it comes to a classic pre-dinner drink.
You'll discover excellent wines from local cellars (such as Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti, Vernaccia), chicken liver croutons, tasty cheese platters (with multiple types of pecorino) and traditional cured meats, such as the famous Cinta Senese or finocchiona salami.
There are several areas in Siena where to head for an aperitivo after 5pm.
Via S. Pietro, for instance, takes you south from Piazza del Duomo: here you’ll find some nice spots for a drink, such as the Vineria Tirabuscio’ with its welcoming atmosphere and a large selection of local wines (including organic ones).
One of the most popular street among the Sienese is the narrow and charming Via Camollia. Here there are many bars and restaurants offering various types of aperitifs. We recommend Il Cantiere del Gusto, with craft beers and tasty platters.
Finally, the touristy area around Piazza del Campo is full of wine bars where you can explore the alcoholic aspect of the local gastronomy: the quality is always very high, so if you don't know which one to choose, ask the locals and trust their taste.
1. Siena like a local: partecipate at the most famous Palio in Italy
A tense moment of the Palio race.
Tense, ferocious, spectacular.
The Palio di Siena is much more than a simple horse race: it’s the pinnacle of the rivalries between the districts of Siena (called "contrade").
Everything in the city revolves around this horse race, an adrenaline-packed carousel born in the Middle Ages and whose appeal never fades.
The Sienese participate in the event with passionate cheering: tourists and visitors must show respect and neutrality. For foreigners it’s difficult to understand the importance given by the Sienese to this competition, and the only way to grasp it is to spend a few days in the city during the event.
The contrade of the city go to battle in this horse race twice a year (July 2nd and August 16th). 10 districts out of a total of 17 participate in the competition and rotate every year, with their heraldic coats of arms and ancient names (such as Aquila, Drago, Chiocciola, aka “Eagle”, “Dragon” or “Snail”).
The horse that crosses the finish line first after 3 laps wins the coveted “Drappellone” (“the big banner”), called “cencio” by the Sienese. The 1000-metre track is specially set up in Piazza del Campo, with dangerous and breath-taking turns.
Each of the two Palio lasts 4 days - many test races are held before the highly anticipated final race. But in Siena the Palio lasts all year round, due to the rivalries between the districts and the parties organised by the locals on many occasions.
Attending the Palio from Piazza del Campo is free but you have to arrive 3-4 hours in advance to get some space. The square is made in the shape of a shell and guarantees a decent visibility.
The paid seats are those on the boxes or on the terraces of the apartments overlooking the square. Ask the locals to buy tickets as there is no official ticket office. It is important to remember that Piazza del Campo is crammed to capacity for the race, so the experience could be stressful if you are not fond of crowds.
If you are interested in these privileged seats, you must book in advance for the competition and also for the district dinners, where you can get a glimpse of the enthusiasm of the local people and understand the importance of the event.
We also recommend bringing water and snacks with you, as well as a hat, due to the high summer temperatures.
Staying in Siena during the weeks of the Palio is the ideal way to appreciate the event but remember that accommodation prices are higher than normal and demand is very high.