Siena or Florence? Two of Italy’s Cultural Capitals Compared

Siena or Florence
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Both Siena and Florence are quintessentially Tuscan towns, caught between Italy’s central region and the mountainous north. Tuscany is known for its beautiful emerald countryside, punctuated by luscious olive groves, enchanting vineyards, and fragrant cypress trees. A tale of two cities as old as time, choosing whether to visit Siena or Florence can be a tricky task. They each offer a wealth of cultural attractions and jaw-dropping architecture.

Florence is the capital of Tuscany and is situated inland to the northeast of the region, closer to other popular cities and towns such as Lucca and Pisa, with excellent transport links. Siena is technically more central to the region, yet surrounded by countryside. This offers easy access to some of Tuscany’s most beautiful scenery and vineyards, as well as hopelessly charming rural towns and villages.

The cities’ proximity to one another (an hour’s drive) means there are lots of similarities in terms of food and prices, but significant differences when it comes to attractions, culture, and nightlife. Here, we will compare the two against important influencing factors to find out which is the ideal Tuscan town for you.

Siena or Florence: Getting there

A view of Florence's cathedral
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As Tuscany’s capital, Florence benefits from direct transport links to other major cities in Italy such as Rome and Milan. It also has its own international airport, although there are a limited number of flights. Many visitors to Florence find arriving in Pisa and then taking the bus or train to Florence is the easiest option.

On arrival at Florence airport, you can take the shuttle bus directly from the airport to the city center. It leaves every 30 minutes during the day and every hour in the evening, and costs €6 one-way. The journey takes around half an hour, and you can also hire a taxi or organized transfer to take you straight to your hotel.

Florence train station
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The nearest airports to Siena are in Florence, Pisa, and Rome (in that order), with Rome offering the most choice and flexibility in terms of flights. You can get the bus or train from all three cities to Siena, so there are lots of options.

If you fly into Florence, take the shuttle to Santa Maria Novella station, where you can get the ‘Rapida’ bus to Siena center, which takes around an hour and 15 minutes on line 131R. There are usually two buses every hour and a ticket costs around €10. There is also a direct train to Siena from Florence every hour which costs around €8 and takes an hour and 30 minutes.

From Pisa airport, you will need to first get to Florence using the train or bus, from where you can catch the Rapida to Siena. The whole journey will take around 2.5 hours. You can also get a train from Pisa to Empoli and from there on to Siena – this will take about two hours altogether.

From Rome airport, the best option is to hire a car or travel by bus. You will need to get to Roma Tiburtina by train from the airport which takes around 30 minutes and costs €11. From here you can catch the bus with SENA, which leaves every two hours, and takes two hours and 45 minutes.

Unless you plan to hire a car, getting to Florence is certainly quicker and easier than getting to Siena, and in some cases, you may even need to travel via Florence on your journey to Siena.

Winner: Florence

Siena or Florence: Getting around 

Main square in Siena
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Siena is a relatively small city with a compact medieval center, meaning all attractions can be easily reached on foot. If you have chosen to hire a car, you should leave it parked up while you explore the city as the narrow, historic winding streets are not well suited to foreign drivers.

The only bus you may need is from the train station, which is 2km from the city center (uphill). All buses from the station pass through the center at Piazza Gramsci and the journey takes just five minutes.

Florence is a larger city but designed in the Renaissance period when walking was still the primary mode of transportation. The charming cobbled streets are easy to navigate and most attractions are within walking distance of one another, but you can easily hop on an ATAF bus or hail a taxi if you get tired.

Again, driving is not recommended as the city center is off-limits to tourist drivers and you will need a special permit.

Winner: Siena

Siena or Florence: Accommodation 

A room in The Savoy Hotel, Florence
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Florence is a large city that sees a huge number of visitors per year, meaning there is a wealth of choice when it comes to accommodation. You’ll find everything from low-priced hostels to palatial and romantic five-star hotels and everything in between. The budget-conscious can also take advantage of the city’s many apartment rentals, which can be found on popular sites such as Booking.com and Airbnb.

There is less choice when it comes to accommodation in Siena. The majority of rooms are housed in smaller BnBs and three-star hotels, with only one five-star hotel and very few hostels. There are, however, plenty of apartment rentals to suit all tastes and budgets.

Winner: Florence

Siena or Florence: Food

A gelato shop in Florence.
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With both cities being located in Italy, it’s hard to go wrong when it comes to food. The cuisine in both cities draws on provincial fare from the Tuscan hinterland, from juicy tomatoes and olives to aromatic basil and hearty meat dishes. On the menu in both cities, you will find traditional regional specialties such as crostini neri (chicken liver pâté on toast) and pappardelle alla lepre (Tuscan rabbit ragu). 

Florence is famed for being the original home of garlic bread (fettunta) as well as Italy’s revered answer to ice cream: gelato. Meanwhile, Siena offers ricciarelli, a soft, sumptuous almond cookie that melts in your mouth, and panforte, an iconic dessert made with dried fruit, candied citrus peel, nuts, and honey. 

Winner: Florence, unless you have a sweet tooth!

Siena or Florence: Prices 

A sunset view over Florence.
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While perhaps more affordable than Venice or Rome, Florence is one of Italy’s great art and architecture masterpieces and has been popular with tourists for decades. This means prices are relatively high. An average budget traveler staying in a hostel is likely to spend around €65 per day including accommodation in a shared dorm, while those opting for a bit more luxury or staying in a hotel should anticipate spending €100+ per day.

If you are traveling with others, splitting the cost of an apartment is a good middle ground, with a kitchen that can help you save costs on food too.

While still popular and famous for culture, Siena is significantly smaller and lesser-visited than Florence. This means that while certain things, such as food and drink, may be marginally cheaper, you’ll find there is less choice when it comes to budget accommodation and very few hostels. Therefore, the average tourist ends up spending around €110 per day in Siena.

Winner: Florence. But only just!

Siena or Florence: Attractions  

The painted ceiling of the cathedral in Florence.
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While both Siena and Florence are known for their art and historic architecture, Florence is a renaissance town at its core while Siena is medieval. Florence is home to the world-famous terracotta-domed cathedral, which you can climb to the top of for sprawling views of the city. The attached Opera Duomo Museum provides visitors a glimpse of priceless works of art from the likes of Donatello, Verrocchio, and Michelangelo, while the Uffizi Gallery is where you’ll find Botticelli’s 15th-century masterpiece, The Birth of Venus. 

Of course, art-enthusiasts cannot visit Florence without making the pilgrimage to the Galleria dell’Accademia to visit Michelangelo’s Statue of David. Foodies should head straight for the Mercato Centrale, where delectably fresh Tuscan fare is waiting to entice tourists and locals alike.

Taking a wander around the city’s cobbled streets to admire the sensational architecture can be punctuated with a stop for espresso in one of the many beautiful squares. Try Piazza Santo Spirito for a pre-dinner aperitivo or Piazzale Michelangelo for show-stopping sunset views.

A view of Siena Duomo.
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Visitors to Siena will find yet more history to uncover, with its center having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to preserved gothic architecture and fortified city walls. The sprawling Piazza del Campo is where you’ll find the domineering Palazzo Pubblico, a medieval palace with some stunning interior frescoes. Visitors can climb to the top of the 102m Torre del Mangia for unrivaled views over the city and the rolling hills of Tuscany beyond.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Italian city without an imposing cathedral, but this particular duomo is particularly notable for its dazzling Piccolomini Library, where the walls and ceiling are adorned with detailed and colorful artwork.

Speaking of artwork, the Siena National Gallery provides access to classic works from predominately local artists, including Guido da Siena and Lorenzetti. Meanwhile, Parco Sculture del Chianti not far from the city offers contemporary sculptures and installations in an incredible forest setting.

If you are willing to venture outside of the city, you’ll also be able to get a taste of the region’s incredible viticulture, with wine tours and tastings on offer at a range of different vineyards.

Winner: Siena. It’s very close, but Siena offers a more diverse range of attractions.

Siena or Florence: Nightlife 

Overlooking the river in Florence at twilight.
Photo by Xavier Mejorada via Unsplash.

Known as the capital of renaissance culture, Florence is equally as vibrant when the sun goes down. From sophisticated cocktail bars and buzzing aperitivo spots to live music venues and clubs pulsating to the early hours, there is plenty to offer even the hardiest of night owls.

The Santa Croce district is the place to head for drinks and dancing, with an incredible array of restaurants and pubs, alongside Via Fiesolana, which is full of excellent wine bars. To quench your thirst with a typically Tuscan tipple, head to the Santo Spirito district, where you’ll find the Florence-born Negroni being shaken up in every bar and speakeasy-style venue around.  

Siena’s nightlife is significantly more subdued, although there is the odd low-key party to be had for those that seek it. The liveliest bar is probably Al Cambio, which is popular with university students and stays open until 2 am.

Evenings here are much more likely to be spent enjoying mellow live music in a low-lit bar or strolling around town to partake in the Italian tradition of passeggiata. More refined evening events such as theatre performances, concerts, and poetry readings regularly take place, and information for these can be found in the tourist office. 

Winner: Florence 

Siena or Florence: Conclusion

A view of Siena's Medieval historic center.
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It is clear that both of these historic Tuscan towns have a lot to offer, and which you pick will depend on your priorities. Florence is ideal for those who want to be charmed from day to night, and are looking for the ease of arrival, range of accommodation options, and amenities offered by a larger city.

On the other hand, Siena is a quieter, less crowded alternative that is still packed to the rafters with cultural attractions. If you also want to spend some time exploring the famous Tuscan countryside and don’t mind missing out on heavy-hitting nightlife, then Siena is certainly the way to go.

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Amabel is a freelance travel writer with by-lines in multiple leading publications. Having written for the likes of Wired for Adventure and Luxury Travel Guide, she knows how to spin a tale of exotic intrigue, along with informative guides and how-tos for travelers.