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Discover Italy off the beaten track and you can experience a whole new world of culinary, historic, cultural and scenic delights. There’s a well worn path to Rome, Florence, Venice and the Amalfi and Cinque Terre coasts but venture a little further and you’ll discover another side of Italy. From exploring the sunny southern coastal towns and dramatic alpine landscapes to uncovering the rich tapestry of Italian history or sampling local dishes, these hidden gems will ensure your trip to Italy is a memorable one.
The north of Italy offers fascinating landscapes and diverse culture. Explore Liguria’s glittering coastline, the shimmering lakes of Piedmont and Lombardy and the lofty hills and mountains dotted with vineyards in the Veneto. In this region, you can experience the Dolomites Alpine vistas as well as discover unique regional food and wine from the regions bordering Austria to the north and Croatia and Slovenia in the east.
Lago di Orta – or Lake Orta – lies close to the Swiss border, among the green forest and rocky foothills of the Alps in Piedmont. This is a great example of undiscovered Italy, as it is lesser known than other northern lakes like Como, Garda and Maggiore. Highlights include the historic town of Orta San Giulio – with Baroque and Medieval architecture, cobbled streets and Piazza Motta – as well as the shimmering waters of the lake itself. But the biggest surprise is the mysterious island in the lake’s center, a place for quiet contemplation for its resident nuns.
Treviso is one of Veneto’s least visited cities, yet it is full of genuine northern Italian charm. Think narrow cobbled lanes, canals, churches with frescoes and medieval city walls. You could easily spend a day or two in Treviso exploring its waterway, Venetian city walls and charming restaurants. Found at the edge of the Prosecco wine region, there’s always an excuse for aperitivo with a glass of Italy’s most famous sparkling wine in this pretty city.
The tiny mountainous region known as the Aosta Valley shares borders with Switzerland and France. Known for spectacular alpine scenery and castles perched on rocky outcrops, this area sees few visitors outside the ski season but is well worth a visit all year round. In the spring and summer months walking trails are popular and this is when you’ll also find festivals celebrating folk traditions dating back to Medieval times and of course the local cheese fontina.
Nestled among the vineyards of the Langhe Hills is one of Italy’s finest foodie destinations. Once decorated by 100 towers, it has a charming rural feel. Famed for its autumn truffle festival, Alba is also renowned for dark chocolate, hazelnut groves and white truffles as well as wineries. Barolo, one of Italy’s coveted red wines, comes from this region.
A typical and colorful Italian seaside village, Camogli lies on the Ligurian Riviera di Levante. Tall, brightly painted homes dominate the town, that is sought out by visitors from around the world seeking great beaches, Ligurian cuisine, the rustic fishing marina, Italian culture and its relaxing, natural setting. Camogli is famed for its fish and seafood – anchovies and tuna in particular – as well as pesto – a sauce made with basil and pine nuts.
Brescia is another example of hidden Italy that will delight history lovers. In Brescia there is a fascinating combination of buildings to see, including relics from Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Romantic eras all the way to the 20th century Art Deco. You can literally walk through history in this small city close to Lake Garda. Make sure to visit beguiling Piazza della Loggia framed by a stunning Venetian style palace at the center of it all.
Trieste is refreshingly different – an Italian city close to the Slovenian border with its own unique dialect – a combination of Austrian-German, Greek, Croatian and Italian. The neoclassical waterfront is stunning, featuring a marina packed with stylish, glimmering yachts. Clear blue skies, broad sandy beaches, city lidos and surrounding vineyards help to make Trieste an Italian city a must on any Northern Italian itinerary
Modena is most famous for its balsamic vinegar – as well as Pavarotti, the Romanesque cathedral and nearby Ferrari museum. The town is a favorite with those who want to discover Italy off the beaten path – as well as its impressive range of restaurants. Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana has been listed as one of the world’s 50 top eateries twice, and other local specialities include huge, stuffed tortellini and sparkling Lambrusco.
Chiusa / Klausen
On the banks of the Isarco River is one of Italy’s most beautiful villages – Chiusa (also known as Klausen). This South Tyrolean town close to the Austrian border is surrounded by chestnut groves, green fields, vineyards and farmsteads. In the village itself visitors are charmed by the narrow alleys, coats of arms, vast bay windows, crenellated facades and the two main squares.
Gastronomy, music, art, culture, history, beaches, wine and mosaics in particular are among Ravenna’s attractions. Here you can explore eight UNESCO listed sites, attend a music festival that lasts for two months, visit Dante Alighieri’s tomb, enjoy local food and wine, visit a nearby beach resort or ride through a pinewood forest. The mosaics the city is famous for date from the fifth and sixth centuries, and are dotted all over town.
You’ll find many of the best hidden gems in Italy in the country’s central region. Tuscany is well known to international visitor but there remain pockets of undiscovered beauty. Scenic, fertile Umbria, is rich in ancient history and architecture, sparkling lakes and hill towns. To the east, Le Marche is home to diverse landscapes, a stunning coastline and charming towns. Closer to Rome, the coastline and countryside of the Lazio region is well worth exploring
The region of Garfagnana is nestled in a picturesque Tuscan valley to the north of Lucca. It is traversed by the Serchio River, and the landscape is characterised by fertile greenery, rugged mountains and pretty villages. Outdoor pursuits such as walking, hiking and mountain biking are popular, while other highlights of the area include a ghost town, a wind cave and the Devil’s Bridge at Borgo a Mozzano.
On Tuscany’s Argentario Promontory lies Porto Ercole, a small seaside port that functions as both a resort and a fishing village. An impressive Spanish fortress dominates the settlement, and Etruscan, medieval, Byzantine, gothic and Roman relics can also be seen. The port here is of historic significance, and it is said that the painter Carravaggio passed away in the village during the early seventeenth century.
Nicknamed the ‘City of Travertine’, Ascoli Piceno occupies a position at the junction of the Castellano and Tronto rivers. Rising above the city are almost 50 Medieval towers, just one example of the architectural wonders that can be found here. In the evenings, the city’s squares come alive, as sociable Italians and visitors congregate to share wine, conversation and the famous stuffed olives – olive ascolana. Piazza Arringo and Piazza del Popolo are fine examples of Renaissance design, giving Ascoli Piceno a refined air.
Parco del Conero
Imagine azure Adraitic waters, limestone cliffs and white pebble beaches fringed with fragrant woodland, and you can picture the fertile, natural setting of Parco del Conero. Close to Ancona, this regional park occupies an unspoilt, tranquil site of 60 square kilometers. Walking the trails, sampling the local Rosso Connero red wine and gazing at Monte Connero and the vineyards below are popular pastimes here.
On the south side of Umbria’s Mount Subasio is Spello, a truly splendid Italian destination. It is characterised by medieval and Roman architecture, and is a place of artistic, cultural and environmental significance. The city gate, frescoed churches, twisting medieval streets, Roman villa and Villa Fidelia Park are highlights, as are the bars and restaurants around the Piazza della Repubblica.
Perugia in central Umbria, is a walled university town abundant in medieval, Etruscan and Roman buildings. The city has a lively food scene, and is famous as the birthplace of Baci chocolates. Whether you prefer to discover history, explore culture, sample great food or shop till you drop, Perugia offers a wealth of intriguing and enjoyable opportunities.
Civita di Bagnoregio
Civita di Bagnoregio is positioned just under 450 meters above sea level, which contributes to the stunning setting of this central Italian gem. Bordered on either side by the dramatic, striped Rio Chiaro and Rio Torbido ravines, you can only reach this village by pedestrian bridge. Inhabited since the Etruscan era, this beautiful village has been shaped by Gothic, Roman, Frankish, Lomardian and noble Italian influences.
Santa Severa is located on the Tyrrhenian coast, and is a small, peaceful resort by the sea. It makes a great destination for those seeking relaxation in the sun as well as those in search of culture and history. An original, well-preserved medieval castle overlooks the swaying palms and golden sands at the water’s edge.
One of the best Italian lakes for lovers of wildlife, Trasimeno can be found at the heart of Umbria. Resident birdlife includes kingfishers, cormorants, kites and wild ducks, which can be spotted flitting around the reed beds and white water lilies. Around the lake are vineyards, olive groves, sunflower fields and woodland, with gently rolling hills forming the backdrop. Local food, wine and crafts are popular in the area, and there are several picturesque towns by or near to the lake.
Remains of the pre-Roman Etruscan era make Tarquinia an important UNESCO world heritage site. The original burial mounds found within the necropolis contain frescoes depicting the day-to-day life of this vanished urban civilization. Some of the most famous frescoes date back to as early as the fourth century AD, including the Hunter’s Tomb and the Tombs of Hunting and Fishing or Lionesses.
Italy’s sun-drenched south has a charm all of its own. Whether you want to discover Greek temples, experience an authentic Italian town, delve into history or relax on a glorious beach, this part of Italy is as colorful as it is cultural.
If you’d like to experience an southern Italian fishing town, then the Pugilan town of Monopoli should be top of your list. With fishermen sorting the catch of the day, and locals gathering in bars and restaurants and doing their weekly market shop, a stay in Monopoli offers a genuine, Southern Italian experience. There’s the colorful old town, charming piazzas, old churches, the Lungomare promenade, sandy coves and a promontory castle to discover.
Paestum and the Cilento Coast
Not one but three ancient Greek temples can be found in Paestum – and they are some of the best-preserved to boot. Established by the Greeks and once ruled by the Romans, Paestum’s UNESCO world heritage site includes ancient artefacts, tombs and frescoes, the best of which can be seen at the museum.
Close to Paestum is the Cilento Coast, home to some fine Italian beach resorts, charming seaside villages and a fabulous food scene. Don’t miss the delicious, locally produced buffalo mozzarella – it’s life changing!
Palace of Caserta
North of Naples is the extraordinary Royal Palace of Caserta, an eighteenth century creation of tremendous importance. At twice the size of the more famous Versailles site in France, this is surely one of the best Italy hidden gems. Built to rival Madrid’s Royal Palace as well as that at Versailles, the Palace of Caserta is a breathtaking example of the Enlightenment tradition of harmonising a structure with its natural surroundings.
The city of Maratea in the Basilicata region occupies a lofty position, with panoramic views over the Tyrrhennian Sea and Gulf of Policastro. Maratea’s own 72 foot high Christ the Redeemer statue dominates the landscape from a mount that is over 2,000 feet high, rivalling the more famous version found in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Other highlights of Maratea include clear waters fringed by fine sandy beaches and the city’s 44 historic churches.
Tratturi of Molise
The network of tratturi that traverse the Molise region are grassy, mountain paths formerly used by shepherds. They were used bi-annually for ‘transhumance’ at the start of spring and the end of summer, when flocks were moved between mountains and plains. The routes were used for transporting cows and donkeys as well as sheep, and the landscape traversed by the tratturi is dotted with woodland, villages, plains and archeological sites including Roman, religious and artistic relics.
The Trabocchi Coast of the Abruzzo region is named for unique wooden fishermen’s dwellings, built on stilts that stand directly over the sea. These trabocchi are connected to land via wooden boardwalks, and allowed those who could not sail to suspend a fishing net from the antennae which extend over the ocean. Many are now converted into restaurants with spectacular views. As well as these fascinating structures, visitors to the area can experience sandy coves, fruit orchards and olive groves as well as an elevated, ancient abbey, winding coastal paths and superb seafood.
Santa Severina is positioned between the Ionian Sea and the mountainous Sila region in Calabria southern Italy. This ancient, medieval Italian village has an archeological museum within its castle, where visitors can see evidence of Byzantine, Norman and Swabian rule. Key sites of historic interest in this hilltop village include a necropolis, caves and a Byzantine church.
Reggio Calabria is the biggest city in the region of Calabria, yet is bypassed by many who are traveling towards Sicily. Yet it is well worth a visit, and located just ten miles from the main route. Straddling the Strait of Messina, Mount Etna can be seen across the sea from Reggio. The waterfront is a very special spot, decorated with fig and palm trees, curvaceous street lamps and elegant buildings with Neoclassical and art nouveau features.
The Puglian hilltop town of Oria is nestled among the fertile vineyards and olive groves of the region. It is characterised by gleaming white houses with colorful window boxes, cobbled medieval lanes and convivial piazzas. According to local lore, the town was established by shipwrecked Cretans before falling under Roman rule. The distinctive triangular castle, Rococo style cathedral and Jewish quarter are among the most intriguing sights.
The Gargano area occupies a spur-shaped promontory in Apulia. Forming part of a national park, the Gargano coast offers visitors opportunities to enjoy culture, nature, history and a seaside lifestyle. Inland, the Umbra Forest offers rich biodiversity, with many native species of animals and birds. Historic monuments and churches, two coastal lakes and various settlements and resorts ensure this region has lots to offer.
Islands – Sicily and Sardinia
Often overlooked in times gone by, Sicily and Sardinia have become popular with those in search of sunshine, history and great Italian cuisine. Sicily has beautiful, absorbing villages and towns as well as other nearby islands to explore, while beautiful La Caprera is a scenic Sardinian wildlife sanctuary with shipwrecks and Garibaldi’s former home.
Ortigia is a small island and the old town of the city of Siracusa, joined to the mainland by a bridge that connects the two. It is home to some of the most historic sites in Sicily, as well as twisting, narrow lanes and one of the grandest Italian piazzas. The Baroque cathedral with Greek columns, Jewish ritual baths and catacombs are highlights. The nearby archeological park has the remains of a Roman theater – and also a Greek one where plays are performed during spring. Ortigia’s fresh food market and restaurant scene are also must sees.
This UNESCO listed Baroque town is small, but packed with interesting sights. Detective Montalbano hails from here, the police station being something of a mecca for fans. Other highlights include the ornamental Palazzo Beneventano, the Nativity scene model at Chiesa San Bartolomeo and Gli Aromi, a herb farm offering olfactory tours as well as a chef-prepared gourmet lunch.
Another of Italy’s 55 UNESCO world heritage sites, the volcanic Aeolian Islands comprises a collection of seven islands off the Sicilian coast. They were formed by the Vulcano and Stromboli volcanoes, both of which are still active. From the largest, Lipari, with a Greek acropolis and Norman cathedral to the smallest, Panarea, which is known for lively nightlife, these islands have volcanic phenomena such as underwater vents, craters and eruptions plus sulphuric mud, vapor spouts and steam clouds.
The setting of Bosa could hardly be more spectacular, with a golden hilltop castle and pastel-colored homes, tumbling down to palm trees and fishing boats on the Temo river. Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and Tuscans have all had a hand in creating this stunning Sardinian town. Bosa Marina is just a mile and a half away, with its broad beach and Aragonese tower dating from the 1500s
Caprera is linked to north-eastern Sardinia via a bridge, or can be accessed by boat from La Maddalena. As a wildlife sanctuary, the number of visitors is strictly controlled. Garibaldi’s home, boats and other belongings can be seen at the museum. From pink granite rocks to fjord-like Cala Cotticio and shipwreck remains, there are some stunning sights to savor on this Sardinian beauty spot.
Which hidden gems in Italy will you seek out?
Which of these hidden gems in Italy will you explore first? Discovering Italy off the beaten track opens up a smorgasbord of culinary, historic, natural and cultural delights. Do make sure to include some of these hidden highlights in your itinerary if you really want to live la dolce vita on your next Italian vacation.