Beyond the Colosseum: 5 Small Cities to Consider for Study Abroad in Italy

by Danielle DeSimone

Italy is often ranked the second-most popular country for study abroad, which means finding a “road-less-traveled” can be challenging. However, if you are willing to venture beyond the stereotypical cities for study abroad in Italy, you’ll not only avoid the hordes of tourists, you’ll also have the chance to experience life in the “true Italy.” It is in the small cities that you’ll begin to form a very personal connection to the local people and the land around you, which makes for a much more rewarding international experience.









Sunny day in Taormina, Italy

Sunny days in Taormina keep locals busy exploring

Photo credits to Danielle DeSimone

Check out this list of five small cities that are worth considering for your study abroad program in Italy:

1. Viterbo, Lazio

When you first think of Italy, what immediately comes to mind? The Colosseum and, inevitably, the entire city of Rome. But just north of the famous capital is a town called Viterbo, which clings to one of the many hills that the region of Lazio is known for. If you are looking to study abroad in Italy in a city entrenched in history, Viterbo is the place for you. Viterbo is Lazio’s most well preserved medieval city, and was once the home of multiple 13th Century Catholic popes.

Today, the city has gained a reputation for education in Italy. It is home to the University of Tuscia, an Academy of Fine Arts, and Italy’s Air Force headquarters and training center. Although the city is bursting with young students, those who choose to study abroad in Viterbo will feel truly immersed by their day to day experiences with the locals. Very few locals speak (or are willing to speak) English, which makes Viterbo an excellent location for those looking to improve their language skills. Worried about craving tourist hotspots? Don’t worry, Rome is just about an hour away. 









Alleyway in Taormina, Italy

Taormina is never short of foliage lined streets

Photo credits to Danielle DeSimone

2. Taormina, Sicily

Although admittedly a popular tourist destination in the summer, Taormina offers students an experience off the beaten path when it comes to study abroad in Italy. Taormina is a quaint, medieval town, hugging a coastline overlooking turquoise waters and the infamous Mt. Etna. Known equally for its incredible amount of sunshine, cannoli, and beaches, it is also home to a handful of study abroad programs as well as a few language schools, making it a very valuable study abroad location.

Most study abroad opportunities in Taormina specialize in immersive language instruction, or archeology and history, due to the town’s expansive Roman and Greek ruins. Those who study abroad in Taormina will be able to go beyond the boot and see what Italy’s Sicilian cousins have to offer. Students may find that the local culture is incredibly distinct and yet easy to assimilate to, once they get used to eating dinner at ten o’clock at night.

3. Siena, Tuscany 

Siena is the closest you will ever get to time travel. Each year, the city’s rivals, divided between its seventeen neighborhoods (or contrade), come together at the annual Palio race, a nail-biting, heart-pounding minute of medieval horse-racing that happens in the middle of the city center. During the rest of the year, Siena welcomes many international students into its medieval walls. Aside from its numerous study abroad programs, Siena is also home to l’Università di Siena, one of the oldest universities in the world.

The arts, history, and the culinary arts are three very common subjects of study in Siena, as students are constantly surrounded by impeccably-preserved medieval monuments, art, and incredible regional food on a daily basis. If you really want to be a part of the local culture, get involved with the contrada where you live; each neighborhood forms its own community and holds events throughout the year. This is the city for students looking to combine exposure to the nation’s history with a slightly urban feel mixed with the familiarity of a small-town. 









Clocktower in Siena, Italy

You’ll never forget the time with Siena’s iconic clocktower!

Photo credits to Danielle DeSimone

4. Urbino, Marche

Since the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, students who study abroad in Urbino will find that learning happens both inside and outside of the classroom. Urbino, in the often-overlooked region of Marche, on the east side of the country and just a little over halfway up “the boot”. It is well-known for its Baroque architecture and for being the hiding spot of over 10,000 priceless works of art, smuggled away from the Nazi’s. Once the “hip” place for artists in the 1500’s, today Urbino is a thriving university city with one of Italy’s best universities and a range of study abroad opportunities. 

The city is slightly more remote than other common study abroad destinations, which becomes an advantage for those looking to blend in, bond with the locals, and truly become a part of Italian culture. For those looking for a small, hillside city with a reputation for historical grandeur that is paired with a laidback university lifestyle, Urbino is the place for you.

5. Bergamo, Lombardia

Blink and you’ll miss it! When researching the Lombardy (or Lombardia) region of Italy, most students’ eyes are immediately drawn to Milan. However, the charming town of Bergamo, which is less than an hour away from the fashion mecca of Milan and shrouded by fog on top of its towering hill, is another great option for study abroad. Especially known for its business programs, Bergamo is home to a number of study abroad programs as well as l’Università di Bergamo, which is located in the “Upper city” (also known as the historical center).

Bergamo’s more modern half lies at the base of the city’s hill and is connected to the medieval walls by a funicular train. Locals are fiercely proud of their little town, and their enthusiasm is contagious (as is a love for risotto alla Milanese). Bergamo is an excellent study abroad option for students who want to experience the small-town lifestyle in northern Italy, but still be within easy traveling distance to one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.









View of the mountains and city of Bergamo in Italy

Soak in the city views in Bergamo!

Photo credits to Danielle DeSimone

The Small Town Difference

The beauty of Italy is that each town, city, and region is entirely distinct, with its own culture, traditions, and, of course, cuisine. A difference of a few miles can give you an entirely different study abroad experience in Italy, and the decision to study in a smaller Italian city will certainly be unlike any program based in Italy’s largest metropolises. 

The chance to become a part of the local Italian lifestyle means that your neighbors will become your family, the streets your home, the language your own. 

Studying abroad in Italy comes with its own set of challenges, and the culture shock may be greater if you select a program in a smaller city. However, if you’re looking for a study abroad program that will bring you out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself and consider studying in one of Italy’s smaller cities. It’s here that you’ll find the real Italy, and a truly rewarding experience abroad.