“Nestled in the heart of Tuscany and built on three hills, Siena is protected by well preserved walls and prohibits driving within most of the city. If you’ve ever been around Italian drivers, then you will be thankful for the opportunity to walk without fear.”
If you’re anything like me, you’ve wanted to travel to Italy since you’ve been able to say the word pizza. I envisioned wandering around the Colosseum, riding in gondolas, and admiring the statue of David while slurping down a cappuccino.
So as a sophomore in college, I leapt at the opportunity to study abroad in Italy. Only, I wasn’t studying in Rome, or Florence, or Venice, but in a little town I’d never heard of called Siena.
While I highly recommend hitting the major cities as you travel through Italy, Siena ended up having the quaintness, charm, and Italianesque vibe I’d been looking for. I felt truly at home there, and if I ever scrape together the cash, I’m going to move to Siena and live off spaghetti and gelato for the rest of my life.
Learning Italian and studying art history had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my major; a semester in Italy was just a really expensive life-experience.
When I first moved to Italy, the only word I could say correctly was “ciao,” and other than being able to greet people, it didn’t get me very far. But I enrolled at the Universita di Stranieri (University for Foreigners) and took three hours of Italian classes every morning with the beautiful Elisabetta.
This was an Italian immersion course, and so no English was spoken. By the end of the course, I could hold a conversation with just about anyone. I’m not saying I could discuss in-depth politics or analyze the stock exchange in Italian, but I could make myself understood and talk about more than just the weather. It also didn’t hurt that I had a, well, let’s just call him a tutor, who didn’t speak any English.
Learning Italian was one of the highlights of my trip; it’s just such a romantic language that just kind of melts in your mouth. The chance to study the language, coupled with the gelato, is reason enough to live in Italy.
“Everything’s much slower paced in Italy, but at night, everything comes alive – you will see people of all ages, from newborns to senior citizens hanging out in the piazza at all hours of the day and night.”
But if language learning isn’t your thing, or you need more of an incentive to come to Siena, I’m prepared to sway you. This red-roofed city doesn’t boast quite as many historical/sight seeing attractions as some of its neighboring cities like Florence or Rome, but it has plenty of its own to offer.
Nestled in the heart of Tuscany and built on three hills, Siena is protected by well preserved walls and prohibits driving within most of the city. If you’ve ever been around Italian drivers, then you will be thankful for the opportunity to walk without fear.
The streets and alleys are cobbled just like a scene out of a classic film, and they are lined scads of stores selling Italian leather, pastries, and purses. You can spend hours walking along, soaking up the scenery, and watching the Italians who are far better dressed than most of the foreigners. Other than the classic Italian atmosphere, there are quite a few sights worth seeing.
The uniquely shaped Piazza del Campo is the perfect spot to sit and people watch, read a book, or at night crack open a bottle of wine and talk with friends. Everything’s much slower paced in Italy, but at night, everything comes alive – you will see people of all ages, from newborns to senior citizens hanging out in the piazza at all hours of the day and night.
If you’re itching for a great view, climb to the top of the tower, Torre del Mangia, and soak up the red roofs that spread out as far as you can see. The Duomo, a gothic style Cathedral is also pretty mesmerizing.
Can’t miss the church
When I lived in Siena, I happened to be there during Easter time; now I haven’t been to church on Easter since, um, never. But to see a service in this building was just plain overpowering. You may get a little tired of seeing church after church in Italy, but this next one is soooooo worth it!
The church of San Domenico is dedicated to Saint Catherine, the patron saint of Siena, Italy, and all of Europe. She’s kind of a big deal. Well this church, not only beautiful from the outside and inside, has her head and finger on display. If that doesn’t entice you to visit, then I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Go see it; you wont’ be sorry.
Siena has some of the attractions, art, and architecture to make you feel like you’ve captured the essence of Italy, but without all the tourists. Siena is still a highly untapped resource, so go quick before it becomes a world wide hot spot. There is one exception to that, and it’s the Palio, Siena’s annual horse race, which will pack the town from wall to wall.
The town is divided up into 17 contradas, or regions, and there is a horse and rider representative from each contrada. On the days leading up to the Palio, the streets and doors are covered with each contrada’s colors, and intense rivalries commence. An Italian friend of mine once told me, “My brother lives on the other side of town in a different contrada. On Palio day, he’s not my brother.”
The race takes place in Piazza del Campo twice annually, and the entire town participates. After the race, people will be partying looooong after the sun goes down; it’s like the Super Bowl multiplied by fifty.
Gelato among other things
If you’re looking for other perks to visiting Siena, you should know that it’s so supremely situated that it’s the perfect starting point for day trips. You’re only an hour from Florence, three hours from Rome, and not far at all from smaller towns and vineyards such as San Gimignano or Pienza. You really can’t go wrong no matter where you go.
The semester I spent in Siena is one of the best and most carefree in my life thus far. (Not as though life as a substitute teacher is particularly stressful, but I hope you catch my drift). Every morning I woke up about 8:30 and walked to school, studied Italian, and then directly after a class ordered a sandwich or slice of pizza and ate that and some gelato in the piazza.
Some evenings I would go to cooking class, and some I would go shopping or wine tasting, or just meander around the city. On weekends I took train trips to different cities and explored the country side, and since I was in college, I was highly interested in the night life, of which Siena has plenty to offer.
Now that I’m at the ripe old age of 27, the night life picks up right when I’m going to sleep.
So if you want days and days worth of sight seeing, large crowds, and a big city atmosphere, go to Rome and just make Siena a day trip. But if you really want to experience Italy, soak up some culture, and live life at a slightly slower pace, I’d say make Siena your home base.
Take a cooking class, eat gelato, read a book in the piazza, stroll through the alleyways, try some Italian wine, and let life come to you. Siena is like Disneyland and Christmas all wrapped up in one neat little town, and it’s not just a destination, it’s an experience. And the gelato isn’t bad either.