How To Spend An Afternoon in Siena

View of the dome of Siena Duomo at golden hour.

I think the highlight of the trip to Tuscany we took at the end of the summer was the part that was totally unplanned: the afternoon we spent in Siena. A beautiful, historic city built around a stunning cathedral atop a hill that looks out over the Italian countryside, I’d highly recommend it as a destination if you want to soak up plenty of Tuscan art, history and food without having to battle as many tourists as you would in Florence or even Pisa.

One afternoon was not enough to even scratch the surface of Siena, but if, like us you’re in Tuscany to dip in and out of a few different towns and cities, here is how to spend the afternoon in Siena to get a real taste of the city.

Historic church facade in Siena.
Medieval street in Siena.
The main square in Siena.
Pecorino fritters in a steel basket.
A pecorino fritter cut in half to show the melted cheese filling.
A metal dish of pici pasta with wild boar ragu.

Where To Have Lunch

Our lunch spot came to us through the recommendation of local food writer Giulia Scarpaleggia, and because it was so good I’m passing it on to you: Osteria La Sosta di Violante. A fantastic spot for good, simple, well prepared Tuscan classics start with the Pecorino fritters with pear sauce. Crisp, oozy and rich I’d recommend sharing a serving: the pear sauce adds sweetness and tartness taking the usual cheese plate paring to the next level.

Afterwards, J got a good lasagna, though we both suggest you order what I had for lunch: the local speciality of Wild Boar Ragu with fresh pici pasta. We had so many different versions of this dish in Tuscany and whilst my favourite was in Empoli, this one came in a close second with fall-apart chunks of boar still present in the otherwise rich ragu clinging to a super generous portion of toothsome pasta. Simple, rustic, and glorious.

The facade of Siena cathedral.

Duomo di Siena

If, like us you do only have a single afternoon to spend in Siena, you want to go to the Cathedral, because whilst I can’t speak to the other museums and sites on offer, as someone who has toured some of the most beautiful churches in the world, this has to be one of the most glorious I’ve ever seen.

There are a couple of different tickets you can buy, one that just takes you into the Cathedral and the Piccolomini Library that’s inside it, but get the ‘OPA Si Pass’ which also gets you into Opera Museum (which includes the city panorama that can’t be missed), the Crypt and the Baptistry (which is inside the Cathedral, Siena being unusual to other local Cathedrals which tend to locate it in a separate building). These are 15€ each for adults.

The striped black and white marble tower of Siena Cathedral.
Close up of the facade of Siena cathedral.
Painted ceiling of Siena cathedral.
Inside the dome of Siena cathedral.
Wooden carved pews in Siena cathedral.
Alter frescos in Siena cathedral.
Roman-style floor mosaic in Siena cathdral.

Built with the characteristic black and white marble stripes of great Tuscan houses of worship of the era the inside is a riot of frescos, carvings and inlay. However, a somewhat unique feature of the Cathedral that is worth visiting for are the mosaic floors: these however are not uncovered for viewing for about 10 weeks every year (usually during Septemver), so do check online before planning your visit to make sure that you’ll be able to see them!

Created between the 14th and 16th centuries they’re supposed to be some of the most impressive floor mosaics on display in Italy, created by various artists of note during those periods, some glorifying the city of Siena, others depicting saints or scenes from the bible. Each one has such a unique character, it is like there is an extra museum on the floor of the great cathedral you’re exploring.

Tomb-style mosaic on the floor of Siena cathdral.
View of the vaulted ceiling of Siena cathdral.
Blue and gold painted ceilings in Siena Cathedral.
Piccolomini Library fescos and ceiling in Siena cathdral.

Piccolomini Library

Yes, you might be standing inside one of the most beautiful Cathedrals in Europe, but attached to it is something – at least if you have a strong appreciation for art and architecture – even better. With it’s intricate, vaulted ceiling, lush mythological frescos, collection of impossibly skilled illuminated manuscripts and it’s pretty blue and white moon tiled floor the Piccolomini Library took my breath away. It is quite something to think it was all created by human hands. Honestly, these pictures are only a mere echo of what it is like to stand inside it. You realise that it was commissioned in 1492, and get the feeling that possibly, as a species somewhere along the line we started going backwards as we don’t create things like that anymore.

Medieval illuminated music manuscript in a glass display case.
Blue and white diamond mosaic floor decorated with crescent moons on each tile.
Unfinished parts of Siena Cadhedral among neighbouring houses.
Restored frescos in the crypt of Siena cathdral.

Next, take a little time to explore the Crypt for some interesting pieces of art and some stunning (but restored) frescos (the entrance is hidden around the back), and take a turn around the Opera Museum (located on the right as you face the Cathedral’s main facade) but don’t dally too long as the other highlight of a Siena Cathedral ticket is hidden near the top of the museum, and prepare to spend at least half an hour standing in a queue.

View of the dome of Siena Duomo at golden hour.

Opera delle Metropolitana Panorama

We were stressing about running out of car parking and getting a ticket (it was a close shave!) and I started to feel quite unwell as we stood in said queue (at the time of writing I’ve still got lingering notes of the cough that came with that particular bout of illness two months later!) but if you’re seeing these pictures, you know it is worth waiting to see the view (on two levels) out over Siena, it’s cathedral and the surrounding hills. It was pure luck we were there as the end-of-September light started turning golden, settling on all the buildings, the public squares and the distant countryside, but regardless, the view is something magical (and I’ve got video of it on Instagram!)

View over the Tuscany countryside from Siena.
View of Siena from above.

It is not even a question if we’d like to go back to Siena one day (the Synagogue is also supposed to be quite beautiful), and I’m so glad we got this little taste.

If you’re looking for more Tuscany recommendations I’ve written about how to spend a day in Pisa with all our recommendations, I’ve reviewed Palazzo Feroci, the beautiful boutique hotel we stayed in in the heart of Pisa’s Old Town, and I’ve also written a guide to literally everything excellent we at in Tuscany which also includes Florence, Empoli, and San Miniato.