10 Reasons to Study Abroad in Siena

by Miriam Ellis

Choosing where to study aboard for a semester is not an easy decision – especially with so many amazing programs and opportunities. In the end, the final verdict boils down to what you want to get out of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. For students that want access to a delicious bowl of pappa al pomodoro (a tomato and bread soup), a Florence weekend getaway, and casual strolls past historical treasures, like fountains and the Duomo, studying abroad in Siena is for you.

Gelato in Milan from Di Un Gelato, one of the best places to fill up on the delicious Italian treat.
Gelato in Milan from Di Un Gelato, one of the best places to fill up on the delicious Italian treat. Photo by Miriam Ellis

1. Trips for Every Budget

Depending on your budget and schedule, traveling is one of the best parts about studying abroad in Siena. Many cities are a bus drive away (Rome is only three hours away and Florence is about two hours away), which helps students easily decide where to go over the long weekend or for a simple day trip.

Nearby Cities: Pisa, Arezzo, Lucca, and San Gimignano, are just a few of the cities that you can catch a bus to in the morning and be back in Siena by nightfall. For students that are more adventurous, hopping on a train to Naples or Milan is quite easy as the train station is only a 15 to 20 minute walk from the city center. Those who are even more bold can always go to Pisa, Florence, or Rome and catch a flight to another European city too – remember it is much cheaper to travel around Europe when you are already there!

2. Explore the Contrada and Watch the Races

No matter what time of the year you study abroad in Siena you will notice how important the contrada, or neighborhood, is to the Sienese people. Your Italian friends or host family can explain its beauty best, but here is a quick crash course. There are 17 contrade within the city center that participate in the Palio di Siena, a horse race, and all of the neighborhoods get ready for the race around April by decorating their streets with flags and statues. Around this time you will see people practicing for the parade portion–especially the flag carriers. Don’t worry if the way the city is split into the contrade makes sense, what is important is the dedication people have towards the neighborhood they were born into.

The 17 contrade are represented by different animals/symbols: aquila (eagle), bruco (caterpillar), chiocciola (snail), civetta (little owl), drago (dragon), istrice (porcupine), leocorno (unicorn), lupa (she-wolf), nicchio (seashell), oca (goose), onda (wave), pantera (panther), selva (forest), tartuca (tortoise), torre (tower) and valdimontone (ram).

The best part is that each contrada has their own fountain and trying to find them all is an adventure all its own! For individuals studying abroad in Siena in the fall, expect to see the contrada competition in full swing.

3. Surrounded by History

For the history buffs, and even for those who aren’t that interested, Siena is a great city to explore. There are many museums that you can get lost in – seriously the Santa Maria della Scala museum has a crypt. The Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall building in the Plaza del Campo, also houses an art museum and original murals. It dates back to 1315 and the pieces were painted by artists from the Sienese school of painting, like Simone Martini, Taddeo di Bartolo, and Ambrogio Lorenzetti!

Remember. History is not only found in buildings like the Duomo, it is throughout the entire city from the walls that have surrounded the city center for hundreds of years, to the legend of how Siena was founded, to the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena – the world’s oldest surviving bank.

The Duomo in Siena is one of the most impressive buildings youll find.

The Duomo in Siena is one of the most impressive buildings you’ll find.

4. Palio, Carnivale...Oh My!

Depending on the time of year you study in Siena, make sure to take part in the festivals or major events of the season. Whether it is Carnivale or the Palio, festivals are a great way to really see another side of Italian life during your study abroad program in Italy.

The Carnivale is a month long celebration in the spring, and while Siena does not host a parade something even better comes to town, the wooden house in the Campo serves le frittelle di riso, fried rice balls covered in sugar! It may not sound appetizing, but frittelle is extremely addictive and you will be there more than once a week. For those studying in Siena in the fall, you will get to experience the parties for the first and second place Palio winners in September and October. Whatever time of year you study in Siena – make sure to enjoy every facet, especially the celebrations! 

5. Find Your Spot 

Even during the rainy spring season, Siena offers some amazing views and scenery for study abroad students. There are many places to see Siena at its finest – from the Duomo tower or the Fort, which also serves as a running track. One of the best places to have a picnic or study is between the Onda Fountain on Via di Fontanella and at the University of Siena Library. The picnic tables and breathtaking view of the fields outside of the wall will make you forget about that upcoming, stressful Economics or Italian Literature exam. With these incredible views, it is best not to publicize all of them because half of the fun is being able to find your own relaxing spot to study in Siena.

6. Relaxing in the Piazza

The Piazza del Campo can serve as a relaxing spot for some. On nice days you will find children running around, people having picnics, people taking a nap (even though fully lying down in the Campo is illegal, I have never seen someone get in trouble). It serves as a good people watching spot. With its central and easy to find location, the Campo is a great place to meet up before going out with friends or meet up to enjoy a nice lunch. 

7. Your Own Special Italy

Unlike many of the other cities in Tuscany, Siena is not that touristy. During the spring it is pretty calm until about the end of April, as the weather gets nicer, when more groups come in for day tours. While it can be an inconvenience when you are trying to make it to class on time and a group of 75 people are just standing in the middle of the street, remember you were once in their place, completely enamored by the beauty of Siena and maybe you should stop to appreciate the sights once again. Plus, tourists really make you feel like a part of Siena, specifically when they ask you for directions or suggestions for places to eat.

8. Living la vita in Siena

It is easy to culturally integrate into Siena. Before you know it, you will relish the days the Tea Room is open and have a go-to spot for everything – espresso, tea, pizza, gelato, and that one café with WiFi that you will begin to recommend to others. You’ll quickly learn several different ways to get back to your apartment, even if it adds five more minutes to go up the smaller hill. 

In the future, when you look back at your time studying abroad in Siena, you will shake your head and laugh because it was one of the best decisions you made as a student, to study in a country filled with endless possibilities. 

9. Gelato

This is the year-round answer to all study woes. Need a break from writing a paper about Italian art (which you can see on your lunch hour by the way)? Stop by Kopa Kabana on Via Rossi or one of the other gelateries Siena has to offer. Not only do you get to enjoy a budget-friendly treat, it is also part of the adventure  to find the “best” gelato in the city center. Of course, while traveling around Italy you are able to try the “famous” gelato in each town, like Di Un Gelato in Milan, too.

10. A New Dish A Day

You can’t always fill up on gelato and Siena has so many more food options to try! Start with a simple bruschetta and move on to the abundance of pasta dishes – only if your taste buds are ready for an unforgettable experience. Within the city center there are many restaurants with varying prices – from “I’ll try the Nutella pizza” to “a nice night out with friends”.

Insider Tip: To survive your first sit-down meal at an Italian restaurant when studying abroad, it’s good to know that bread and water is not free (like in the U.S.) and the service tip is usually included in the bill.