Scenic Day Trip to Siena from Florence, Italy
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Florence is amazing, but to truly experience Tuscany – get out of the big city. Siena is a medieval city in the heart of Tuscany, just an hour bus ride away from Florence. It is most famous for a horse race, Palio, which is hosted twice a year (July 2nd and August 16th). I'd recommend skipping this experience and instead visit for the food, gorgeous views, museums, and architecture. Even if you are short on time while in Florence, a day break to Siena is a must do!
How to get there
The best way to get to Siena is ... wait for it ... by bus. Yes, I love trains and would choose a train over any form of transportation, especially in Italy. However, the bus is the best choice. It took me a great deal of researching before I was sufficiently convinced. While there is a train to Siena, the station is miles outside of the city center. The bus takes you from center of town Florence to the center of Siena. The bus is cheaper, more convienent, and quicker. The only advantage of the train is slightly better views of the countryside.
Okay, now you have decided on taking the bus (just do it). Here is the schedule for the bus from Florence to Siena and from Siena to Florence. The tickets are 7.80 euros each way and you can buy them at the bus station in Florence (including your return ticket). The tickets are not for a set time, so you can be flexible on when you return to Florence. You want to get on the 131R bus (instead of 131O), which is the rapid line and takes you directly to Siena. The 131R buses run every hour most days and takes an hour and 15 minutes. The bus station in Florence is called Busitalia Autostazione, Address: Via Santa Caterina da Siena, 15/17, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy. The bus in Siena drops you off at station Tozzi, which is shown on the map below. Depending on the time of day, there might be some traffic either way that may lengthen the trip. It also might be a good idea to not get the last bus back to Florence, as having a ticket does not guarantee you a spot on the bus. There may be more people wanting to get on the bus than there are spots at the particular time you want to leave.
There are also several tours that will take you to Siena.
What to do
One of my favorite things about Siena is that most of the historic town is pedistrian only and extremely walkable. It is a 6 minute walk from the bus station to the main square of Piazza del Campo. Piazza del Campo is the perfect place to start your visit to Siena, as it dominates the city center. The square has an interesting shell-shape and is where the famous horse races take place. It is one of the largest medieval squares in the world. The square is surrounded by many places to eat and the town hall, Palazzo Pubblico. This town hall is the most imposing building facing into the square.
To the left of the town hall is the tall Torre del Mangia. If you know a little bit of Italian, you probably know that it translated to Tower of the Eater. It was named after it's first bellringer who was known to be a squanderer (profit eater) and a glutton. You can climb up the tower for impressive views of the city and surrounding Tuscan countryside. Admission is 10 euros a person. Reaching the top takes about 400+ steps. With two-way traffic, the staircase can get a bit narrow at times. It is a bit of a climb.
Next stop is the Siena Cathedral or the Duomo di Siena. The cathedral was constructed in the 11th century and is absolutely gorgeous. While the cathedral in Florence has my favorite exterior, this cathedral has one of my favorite interiors. Inside, it has beautiful frescos and black and white striped marble. Just behind the cathedral is the Bapistry. There are multiple different ticket options for which parts of the cathedral complex you want to visit. We chose the Gate of Heaven (Porta del Cielo) ticket, which gives you access to the roofs of the cathedral.
If you choose to skip out on the Torre del Mangia, the Gate of Heaven experience is very impressive. They only let a small group of people go up on the roofs at a time, which you schedule when you buy your tickets at the ticket office. You get stunning views of the city and Tuscan landscape and you get to see the inside of the cathedral from above. There is a narrow spiral staircase and a few narrow pathways, but it is nowhere near as daunting as Florence's Duomo.
After visiting the Duomo, we spent a bit walking around the streets of Siena. We stopped at the Siena Botanical Garden, which is really just a free park, for more views.
After a bit more of just exploring the old cobblestone streets, we headed back to the bus station. We had just missed a bus and had another 40 minutes till the next one, so we went to Fortezza Medicea, which is just a 2 minute walk from the bus station. It was free to enter and had significantly less people than the city center. Inside this old fortress there are nice paths, trees, benches and even workout equipment. You can get some fair views of the city as well.
Where to eat
First things first, gelato! Of course, we cannot go to any place in Italy without scouting out the best spots for gelato. Our favorite places were Il Masgalano Gelateria and GROM Siena (on the map above).
Unfortunately, you cannot survive on just gelato. For an actual meal, I'd recommend either La Piccola Ciaccineria or Osteria Permalico. Both are very affordable and full of locals. Some classic Tuscan dishes include Panzanella, Pappa al pomodoro soup, Ribollita soup, Castagnaccio, or anything with white truffles or olive oil. We are vegetarian, but they are also well known for Bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-bone steak), Cacciucco, Chicken liver pâté, and Lampredotto.