Italy is a country that lives up to its reputation, meaning you are never far from something beautiful – a relic, a ruin, a romance. However the principal cities do suffer from an over saturation of tourists during peak season, with the more famous ones of Venice, Rome and Florence busy year round. I’ve spent many trips exploring this beautiful country and here’s my list of Italy’s most underrated beauty spots which will hopefully provide a bit of inspiration to take the path less travelled and explore some of the country’s more obscure treasures!
According to legend the name Altamura is derived from ‘Altilia’, meaning ‘the other Troy’ and there are many fascinating tales told regarding the founding of this beautiful city. Set high on a hilltop south west of the province of Bari in the heel of the boot and close to the Amalfi coast, Altamura is ancient Italy at it’s finest. The city sits within medieval walls which in turn sit atop the original walls from the Megalithic period of approximately 6th century BC. The cobblestone streets and old-world traditions make it seem like time has paused as you wonder round peaceful cloisters in one of the 4 palatine churches or visit the spectacular Romanesque cathedral from the 13th century. History lovers can also visit the city’s archaeological museum whilst foodies must sample its famous artisan bread which is considered one of the oldest and finest in the country.
Set on the Tiber River and bordered by the Tyrrhenian Sea the wider southern region of Lazio is often overshadowed by it’s most famous province- Rome. However for those of you who enjoy getting off the tourist track it’s verdant countryside and less spruced up hill villages are just the ticket! The medieval city of Viterbo, set on the picturesque shores of lakes Vico and Bolsena, has a wonderfully preserved historical centre and contains the splendid gardens of Villa Lante in Bagnaia. Sea lovers can enjoy the coastal village of Sperlonga with its beautiful beach resorts and warren-like stairways wending between white washed houses and opening up to breathtaking panoramic views. History buffs can soak up the crumbling charm and faded grandeur of Villa Adriena and The Gardens of Tivoli, with amazing views over Rome, or visit The Necropolis at Cerveteri, a haunting and atmospheric excavation site encompassing a surprising number of ancient stone tombs. Adventure lovers will find excellent ski resorts at Livata and Terminillo and lake Bracciano with it’s ruined castle is well worth a visit! Perhaps the best thing is that tourism in Lazio is slow meaning the landscape is unspoiled and the locals friendly and accommodating to visitors!
Like a 3D Neapolitan Ice Cream this pastel coloured Island off the Bay of Naples is one of Italy’s hidden gems. A soulful blend of sun-bleached streets and shady lemon groves Procida is the ideal place to soak up some real Italian spirit… and I don’t just mean Limoncello! Here you can enjoy delicious seafood at one of the many port side trattorias or sample the local dish ‘Insalata al Limone’. You can eavesdrop on old seaman swapping yarns in the picturesque harbour or just wander the little streets and absorb the authentic atmosphere. The island has featured in several prominent films including ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ and ‘Il Postino’ and inspired the novel ‘Arturo’s Island’ by Elsa Morante. The sweeping bays and rocky shorelines of Procida are an easy ferry trip from both The Bay of Naples and Ischia and will undoubtedly provide welcome respite from the chaos and crowds of the city!
The Pontine Islands are an archipelago off the west coast of Italy easily reached by ferry. With transparent waters and quaint little ports, here you can experience the real Mediterranean dream. The largest Island of Ponza will charm you with it’s romantic coves, sandy beaches and natural rocky arches. Nestled amidst lush hillsides you will find artisan workshops, traditional restaurants and rambling streets. Connecting Ponza to Zannone is an intriguing underwater isthmus along which diving and snorkelling enthusiasts can explore relics such as ancient Roman ships and remnants of a WW1 steamship that now lie quietly on the seabed. The Islands of Venetotene and Palmorola are both Marine Protected areas and nature reserves where you can see a melange of wild herbs and flowers as well as traditional homes built in to the rock face. At the southern most tip of the islands you will find Zannone an unspoilt part of The National Park of Circeo, now uninhabited it was formerly the seat of a Cistercian monastery who’s ruins are still visible. The smallest of the Islands is Gavi, with it’s coastline of giant boulders jutting out around it’s rocky perimeter. There is an impressive Grotto here and a handful of local eateries where you can enjoy a scrumptious mix of Roman cooking and seaside cuisine, it’s advisable to book your table if you decide to visit as space is sometimes limited.
Instead of Lakes Garda, Maggiore and Como, consider visiting the smaller Lake Iseo, which is also in the north of Italy, with its head towards the mountains and dramatic scenery it is much less touristy and a lovely place to stay. The countryside around the lake is smattered with idyllic vineyards, medieval castles and ancient monasteries. If this doesn’t satisfy your soul you can take a short ferry ride from Iseo or Sale Marasino to Monte Isola, the largest inhabited island in southern Europe. The quiet calm of this remote, traffic free haven will soothe even the most restless of minds and offer views back across the lake to the terracotta rooftops of the villages that nestle there. Find some peace by the shores of this hidden treasure before the whole world catches on!
The unique city of Bergamo, situated in the Lombardy region within easy reach of Milan and lakes Como and Iseo is perhaps overlooked due to it’s wet climate but is well worth a visit. The city is split into Citta Alta (upper town) and Citta Bassa (lower town) and San Viglilio, these three areas are linked by a funicular railway. The historic Citta Alta is a tangle of medieval streets surrounded by Venetian walls and here you can discover many beautiful examples of renaissance art and architecture. The soaring skyline of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore with it’s octagonal Dome is an impressive sight and the neighbouring Cappella Colleoni is an ornate masterpiece of Lombard art. Museo Storico within the ramparts of the Rocca is an excellent place to pass some time and the quiet Cloister of Convento di San Francesco still has the remains of frescoes dating from the 15th Century. High above is the hilltop settlement of San Viglilio with it’s breathtaking panoramic views. At the foot of the hill is the contemporary Citta Bassa with it’s wide boulevards and interconnected squares and some stunning examples of Art Deco and Fascist architecture. Just outside the city is the Accademia Carrara, a 200 year old art gallery containing works by Botticelli and many other Italian masters. Take your raincoat and good pair of walking shoes and you won’t be disappointed!
Often mentioned by Shakespeare the city of Padua in the Veneto region has enough fine art, architecture and atmosphere to entertain you for the weekend, without being submerged by tourism. Dominated by the enormous Byzantine Basilica San Antonio and the Cappella degni Scrovegni which houses famous frescoes by Giotto, the centro storico has plenty more to offer. The city is home to one of the oldest university’s in the world established in 1222, Galileo himself used to lecture there and many famous academics have passed through it’s walls. Antique shops line its arcaded streets and the laid back stylish cafes of the old town are still frequented by students and hip scholarly types. Here you can find Roman ruins, Renaissance squares and lavish city buildings as well as artworks by some of the great masters such as Donatello and Titian. Overlooked in favour of the tourist heavy Venice, Padua is the perfect city break for those seeking a more authentic Italian experience.
Trani is a historic fishing port in southern Italy. The picturesque seaside town sits on the Adriatic coast of Puglia like a 1950’s film set, with fading charm and boats bobbing on the harbour as dogs laze in the midday sun. Rather than having specific tourist attractions it is a place where you can meander and soak up the laid back pace and peaceful atmosphere of its winding lanes and piazzas. Allow yourself time to wend your way through Villa Communale, the leafy public gardens that run along the sea shore and enjoy fresh seafood in one of the timeless harbour-side cafes.
Grado, Friuli -Venezia Giulia
The historic seaside town of Grado is situated on a lagoon island along the north east Adriatic coast. You approach the town from a long dramatic causeway across the lagoon and in the distance you can see the shimmering white tower of the church island of Barbara. Often compared to Venice because of it’s rich history Grado used to be the more important of the two, and was an early centre of Christianity with some of its churches dating back as far as the 4th century. The town is now a fully working fishing port with a pretty historic centre and miles of white sandy beaches with views across the Adriatic to the mountains of Slovenia. In it’s winding alleys you will stumble across ancient mosaics, clusters of old fisherman’s houses, attractive squares and tempting bars and restaurants. Grado offers an interesting alternative to a standard beach holiday with plenty of historical points of interest to explore when you get tired of sand and sea!
The magnificent fortified city of Lucca is a real Tuscan gem! It’s 16th and 17th century ramparts are completely intact and are now traversed by the Passeggiata delle Mura Urbane, a park lined street atop the walls which links the city’s many bastions and provides an excellent route for cycling and walking or just relaxing with a gelato. The city is characterised by the layers of history that are visible in many of it’s landmarks; The archaeological remains beneath the church of San Giovanni and Reparta or the traces of the original Roman amphitheatre which are apparent in the shape of Piazza dell Anfiteatro. Hints of ancient relics can also be found as you wander through the cobbled streets and tree lined pathways of the old city. When you have had your fill of the sights you can relax in one of the historic cafes and sample delicious rustic dishes prepared with fresh local produce and dressed with the the region’s famously high quality olive oil. A perfect antidote to the overcrowded city’s of Florence and Sienna, Lucca should definitely be included in any Tuscan tour.
Where to Stay
From rustic guest houses to beach resort all inclusive’s, Italy offers a huge range of accommodation options. If you’re looking for something both exclusive and unique the upscale travel company Luxury Retreats offers a collection of the world’s best, most private and most luxurious holiday villas across the world. They have a superb collection of Italy vacation rentals from immaculately presented sprawling villas to beautiful Tuscan farmhouses which aim to represent the very best in holiday villa rental standards and quality. They also pride themselves on excellent customer service and customized experiences – every holiday is crafted according to the visitor’s individual tastes.