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While it may seem as if there are no undiscovered places left in Italy, there are still some fabulous and mostly untouched destinations in this beautiful country that have managed to retain their old-world charm by staying under the radar. If you’d like to go where the herd doesn’t follow, these quieter destinations are ideal – just don’t tell anyone where you’re going.
Bologna is a relatively unexplored town that is not only a foodie’s paradise but a city with such rich history and charm that most visitors immediately fall in love with it. It’s the origin of many favorite Italian dishes, prepared with tasty Bolognese sauce where you can enjoy never-ending deliciousness from mortadella and tortellini to lasagna and everything in between. You’ll also be immersed in gorgeous medieval towers, renaissance, and baroque artistic monuments. Piazza Maggiore, located in the heart of the city, is a picture-perfect postcard. Bologna is covered by ancient and elegant arcades for nearly 25 miles, which represent the essence of the city – they have very ancient origins, dating back to the Middle Ages when the city became a popular destination for men of letters and people coming from the countryside.
If you visit this true Italian village, you may want to brush up on your Italian first as there isn’t much English spoken here, but there is no shortage of spectacular views – and even if communication is a problem, the locals are likely to welcome you with open arms. The quiet medieval village that spans just 1.2 miles in length is home to a number of important monuments, including the Manfrediana Fortress, a Venetian example of the excellent medieval military art; the Clock Tower, the defense rampart built in 1290, and the sanctuary of Monticino. As you walk through, look up to see a castle perched on one hilltop, a lovely church on another and the iconic clock tower sits upon yet another one of the hills. Take a stroll up any of the hills from more impressive views of the surrounding area and the town below.
Varenna is a picturesque village that sits on the eastern shores of Lake Como, just 37 miles north of Milan. It looks over the central part of the lake toward Bellagio and boasts charming lanes and old fishermen’s houses that are unpretentiously appealing. More beautiful and carefully preserved than its famous neighbor, it also tends to have a more authentic air than the other lakeside resorts. You’ll have your pick of authentic eateries too – complete with breathtaking views and pasta that’s to-die-for. With a number of old villas transformed into B&Bs, there are also some fantastic places to stay, and as the Tirano-Lecco train offers daily service from Milan, it serves as a great home base too. When it comes to things to do, Varenna is ideal for relaxation, lounging by the lake and taking in the views, as well as visiting the gardens of Villa Monastero and Villa Cipressi.
Bolzano is not only the gateway to the Dolomites, it’s home to the 5,000-year-old Iceman, Europe’s oldest mummy. You can see the incredibly preserved body at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. This city has a unique atmosphere with lively streets and squares as well as footpaths and cable cars for taking in panoramic views of the jagged mountain peaks that surround the town. Vineyards and medieval castles also add to its beautiful allure. Bolzano is popular with foodies, with its cuisine characterized by a variety of flavors, including Mediterranean gastronomic traditions as well as genuine country cooking. Throughout the year you’ll find plenty of things to do with many cultural events, fairs and shows held here, including the Flower Festival, Spring Market and the Christmas Market.
Lecce, sometimes referred to as “The Florence of the South,” is known for its exuberant Baroque architecture with its churches lavishly decorated with gargoyles, griffins and cherubs as well as delicately carved columns and cornices. Many were designed out of “Lecce stone,” a type of limestone that’s ideal for sculptures due to its soft, impressionable texture. Although Lecce is one of Puglia’s larger cities, it’s still quite walkable, and somehow both lively and relaxed. Most of the major sights, like the Church of the Holy Cross (Chiesa di Santa Croce) and the Government Palace, are within walking distance.
One of Italy’s most splendidly preserved hilltop towns, Perugia has a spectacular medieval look and feel. It’s also renowned for food, jazz and chocolate. Specialties here include wild boar and truffle, while jazz music adds excitement to the town for 10 days every summer. There are a number of chocolate producers here, like Perugina, which makes world-renowned Baci (Italian for “kisses”) chocolates that are heavenly for chocolate lovers. The city’s underground galleries offer a fascinating journey through the ruins of the Etruscan and the Roman people – start at the Pozzo Etrusco, an eerie Etruscan well that’s believed to date back to the 3rd century BC, before wandering over to the remains of the Rocca Paolina fortress, a well-preserved warren of medieval streets and squares that are spread out like a second city underneath the modern day streets above.
Calabria, located at the “toe” of Italy’s boot in the extreme south is lapped by the dazzling crystal blue waters of the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas. Surprisingly still untouched by foreign visitors, its warm climate, rocky coasts and wild, mysterious nature make it a special place for visitors in every season. About 20 miles from the city of Crotone, enter the ancient fishing village of Le Castella where you’ll immediately see one of the seven fortresses on the horizon, which once stood along the gulf. As you get near the castle, the view becomes even more stunning. The castle actually sits on a small isthmus anchored to the shore by a strip of land. Tropea is another must-visit spot in Calabria, with sun-kissed beaches, spectacular cliffs and a timeless feel.
Most tourists who head to Naples also hop aboard a ferry to the islands of Capri or Ischi, but few tend to stop at Procida, making it a fantastic place for travelers who do. This tiny pastel-colored fishing village is absolutely jaw-dropping and invites visitors to come in, relax and enjoy the art of doing nothing where life is slow and incredibly peaceful. As you walk the colorful, narrow streets, passersby will greet you with a smile – and you’ll probably see at least a few locals smiling down at you from their balconies. Procida’s charm has led to it being featured in a number of films, including “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” It’s also been used as a literary setting, most notably in L’Isola di Arturo (Arturo’s Island). If you’re after the sun and the sand, head to Chiaiolella where you’ll find the best beach on the island, a long and sandy stretch with beautiful views of Ischia and Vivara.
Civita is a tiny “dying city” that is home to just six permanent residents – and dozens of free-roaming cats. Located 75 miles north of Rome, this stunning gem has escaped the modern age, mostly due to topography. It teeters atop a pinnacle towering high above a vast canyon. And, while it takes a bit of effort to get to this medieval hilltop town, it’s more than worth it for the chance to enjoy an ancient city all to yourself. You’ll get to Civita via a long, enchanting walkway from the town below, Bagnoregio, and the magical beauty that awaits is sure to leave you breathless. While the once important Etruscan city is mostly empty, there are still a number of small eateries, inns and other attractions. Wander down the alleys and you’ll find a different, magnificent view from every path.
This small town on Italy’s heel in the province of Bari in the Puglia region is famous for its unique and beautiful Trulli architecture. The stone cone-shaped cottages are spread throughout the village and became widely popular in the 15th century for those that hoped to avoid taxes. They are only located here in this region and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. As you’re walking through you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into the pages of a real-life fairytale. Alberobello also has a number of small museums as well as lots of opportunities for purchasing souvenirs and tasting local products. Be sure to stop in for lunch at one of the family-owned eateries that serve up traditional Southern Italy fare specific to Puglia.
Nestled along the cliffs of the Basilicata region is the village of Matera. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for its unique cave-like homes and structures that were carved out of the limestone rocks. Aside from Petra, Jordan, it is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in history. There are two neighborhoods, referred to as “Sassi,” that is made up of these stone dwellings, dating back to 15,000 BC. Because of the village’s unearthly, ancient beauty, it was chosen as the setting for 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
A warning for those who don’t like stairs: you may not want to stay long as you’ll need to climb them to get around anywhere here – and you’re likely to work up quite a sweat.
This charmingly medieval walled village is becoming increasingly popular but has yet to be spoiled by tourism. San Gimignano is renowned for its 14 towers that soar above the skyline offering impressive views of the countryside. At its peak, the town’s patrician families had built 72 tower houses as a symbol of their wealth and power, and although just 14 have survived, San Gimignano still retains its feudal atmosphere and appearance. Be sure to climb the tallest, Torre Gross, which dates back to 1298 and stands at 177 feet. It’s also the only tower open to the public. The vineyards in this region produce the white wine grape Vernaccia, crisp white wine with citrus fruit flavors – you can even get it in a plastic cup to sip on the go. Enjoy it while gazing over the stone Tuscan farmhouses and rolling green hills.
The Aeolian Islands in the northeast of Sicily make the ideal escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life. The crystal clear waters that surround the islands are perfect for snorkeling and diving, while visitors to the island of Salina will find an ideal place to relax with stone beaches that are clean and almost never crowded. Lipari, the largest island, boasts a magnificent cliff-top castle. Stromboli is home to an active volcano where you can watch molten lava carving its path through the dramatic landscape and dropping into the sea, though Vulcano is known for the very best volcano viewing in the Aeolians. Panarea is famous as the “party island,” where people go to see and be seen. Filicudi and Alicudi are quite remote, and of the two, Filicudi is better served by restaurants and accommodation options, and you might just have one of its beautiful beaches all to yourself.
San Fruttuoso is a tiny hamlet with a 10th-century Benedictine abbey, its church and 16th-century watchtower, and three somewhat ramshackle houses. It sits on the stunning Liguria coast at the edge of crystal clear waters. The shimmering beach that can be walked from end-to-end in about two minutes, is a well-kept secret, mostly because it can only be reached by ferry from Portofino. Step through the small tunnel walkway and up the narrow stairs to reach the town’s few main streets and enjoy chatting with the locals at one of the beach cafes. Aside from exploring the abbey, you can take seasonal boat trips to see the statue of Christ of the Abyss – an astounding bronze creature with arms outstretched in a gesture of peace that sits about 50 feet deep in the Mediterranean.
This Italian mountain village is located near the French border. In the winter, locals from the Piedmont region escape to this beautiful Maritime Alps hideaway for some outstanding alpine skiing, although it’s just as inviting in the summer with the opportunity for scenic hikes and picnics. The village is part of the Natural Park of the Maritime Alps, an area filled with rivers, waterfalls and lakes. You’ll find a number of accommodation options in town, including hotels, villas, and vacation homes, some with impressive mountain views.