Off-the-Beaten-Path Destinations in Italy

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Off-the-Beaten-Path Destinations in Italy

There’s no denying it: Italy is one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. A wealth of culture, historic sites and fantastic Italian food, dreamy hill towns, gorgeous coastline – what’s not to love? However, if you’d like to experience all that makes Italy so beloved, but would like to steer clear of heavily touristed areas, you may be wondering just where to go. Here’s an inside guide to areas of Italy you may not have heard of, and a hidden gem for every interest.

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Camogli
For the postcard-perfect vision you have of the Italian coastline, visit Camogli in northern Italy – true Italy off the beaten path. Vibrantly painted houses stack up beside the sea, making for a divine setting. You’ll be enchanted by the warm sea, the relaxed culture and the amazing food. Colloquially known as the “City of the Thousand White Sailing Boats,” this fishing village on Ligurian coast overlooks the aptly named Gulf of Paradise. Its characteristic colorful buildings have been added to over the centuries, created the haphazard, yet effortlessly appealing, architectural style of the old town.

 

While you’re in Camogli, tear yourself away from the beach to visit the interesting local sights (although, we admit, this is a fantastic place to do nothing at all!). Wander along the town’s narrow, colorful alleyways, being sure to look up at the Middle Age-era buildings, including the Roman street fountains and the trompe l’oeil paintings, made to look like real shuttered windows. Visit the ruins of the Dragon’s Castle, or Castello della Dragone, dating back to the 13th century when it was built to protect against pirates. At the end of the beach, look for the yellow Church of Santa Maria Assunta – it’s a perfect frame for your photo of the beachfront. Learn more about Camogli’s Italian fishing heritage at the Marine Museum.

 

If you’re a diver, you’ve come to the right place. The Marine Reserve of Portofino runs from Camogli to Portofino. You’ll have the chance to see the underwater Christ of the Abyss at the bottom of San Fruttuoso Bay, a statue honoring one of the Italy’s first scuba divers. On land, there are plenty of hiking options in Portofino Natural Park.

 

As for dining – come hungry. Seafood lovers will want to indulge in the region’s famous anchovies, skipjack, bonita and great amberjacks. Don’t miss the above-average focaccia, infused with gooey cheese and in such enticing flavors as onion and sage. And for pasta, try the pesto – particularly at Ristorante La Piazetta or Michelin-starred Da Paolo.

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Lecce
For Italy off the beaten path destinations, you can’t get much more special than the hidden gem of Lecce. This mid-sized university town is the Salento region of Puglia (the heel of Italy’s boot). Come for a day, for two, or for a week, taking the time to hide away and live the authentic southern Italy lifestyle. Spend your days walking the golden sandstone streets and across hidden piazzas, then indulge in local rose wine, puff pastry rustico, generous plates of antipasti and pasta and countless dishes of gelato.

 

Start your Lecce sightseeing in the main square of Piazza Sant’Oronzo, with its large Roman amphitheater and huge bronze clock, the Orologio Delle Meraviglie. From here, move on to the Cathedral on Piazza del Duomo – the church is particularly beautiful lit up at night. Originating from 1144, the church was rebuilt in the 17th century in its current Baroque style. Pop into the extravagant Baroque church of Santa Croce, then walk through the adjacent courtyard of Palazzo dei Celestini, seat of the local government. Can’t get enough ancient churches? There are plenty more to see throughout Lecce, including Santa Chiara, San Matteo, Santa Irene and San Giovanni Battista. Walk through the three remaining gates of the previously walled old town – Porta Napoli, Porta Rudiae and Porta San Biagio.

 

At the Museo Faggiano archaeological museum, take a self-guided tour of an ancient home dating back to pre-Roman times, underground cisterns, tombs, escape holes and secret passageways. The Palazzo Taurino pays homage to the Middle Ages Jewish community that thrived here until its expulsion around 1540.

 

From Lecce, it’s easy to continue your off the beaten track Italy tour with visits to villages of the Valle d’Itria to the north. Use Lecce as your base for exploring the Salento region in Puglia.

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Basilicata
If you’re not one to seek out off the beaten track destinations, you may never have known Basilicata existed. But for those curious travelers, this is as sweet a reward as you could ever expect from your adventurous spirit. Tucked between Calabria and Apulia in southern Italy, Basilicata takes you far away from modern life and catapults you into a small, charming region where your senses will come alive. Some of the villages here still more than 3,000 feet high, giving the air a heady and invigorating quality. From here, you can explore the Monticchio Lakes, two seas (the Ioanian and the Tyrrhenian) and two famous seaside resort towns, Metaponto and Policoro. Witin Basilicata, you’ll focus your sightseeing efforts on Potenza and Matera.

 

Starting in Matera, don’t miss the “Sassi,” Paleolithic settlements that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walk through Divita, the old town, and see an ancient agriculture area full of caves that were used by shepherds for family and livestock shelter. (You may recognize the area as the set for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion.”) Explore the Civita neighborhood, known for its Romanesque cathedral in the heart of old town. Together with Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso Hollows, as well as Matera’s numerous stone rupestrian churches, this fascinating “rock city” was formed. There are many more such rock churches – more than 150 – throughout the region, within the Communes of Matera and Montescagilioso, as well as housing areas that date back to the Paleolithic era. The Grotta dei Pipistrelli (Cave of Bats) makes for an interesting visit.

 

If you’re seeking beach time, head to the 20-mile Tyrrhenian coastline, known for the richness of its seabeds. If you’re not a diver or snorkeler, there are countless hidden beaches for relaxing. Boat tours to the coastal caves are particularly fun.
If possible, visit the massive Christ the Redeemer Status that rises from Mount San Biagio on the Gulf of Policastro. And in nearby Maratea, you can spend hours shopping in old town, dining in typical port-side restaurant and indulging in sweet treats on the piazza at night.

 

One of the best things about traveling off the beaten track is the opportunity to entirely disconnect and engage in local activities. Spend your summer days in Basilicata like the locals do, riding on horseback, mountain biking, rafting, sport fishing, hiking, canoeing, canyoning – even driving a devalkart (go-kart) across the lush grass.

 

Basilicata, like much of Italy, is revered for its cuisine, so be sure to sample the local flavors while you’re here. Durum wheat homemade pasta is an obvious choice, as is the panella (bread made with flour and boiled potatoes), pancotto (a soup with toasted bread and eggs), lamb dishes and lucanica, a lean pork sausage served in a variety of ways. Vegetarians will be treated to vegetable calzones, ciammotta (fried potatoes with peppers and eggplant in a tomato sauce), cialledda (with broad beans, potatoes and artichokes) and a Basilicata-style vegetable dish with onions, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, basil and parsley.

Milan
You might not think of Milan as off-the-beaten-path Italy, but with the right suggestions, you can avoid crowds and make the city feel smaller and more accessible. Give these ideas a try:

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Palazzo Berri-Meregalli: For lovers of architecture, this place is a trip, a mashup of Gothic, Renaissance and Liberty styles. Look for animal sculptures and other eclectic touches by architect Guilio Ulisse Arata.

 

Tromp l’Oeil at Santa Maria Presso San Satiro: Check out this ornately decorated church designed by Renaissance architect Bramante. Enter from Via Torino for the best view of the fresco, which creates the illusion of nearly 32 feet of space in just 3 feet.

 

Vigna di Leonardo: Did you know Leonardo da Vinci was also a winemaker? Check out his private vineyard in Milan, not far from the Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie. Da Vinci great Malvasia di Candia grapes in 1498 and while the vineyard was lost to the ages, it was resurrected with the same grape variety in 2015.

 

Contemporary Art at Hangar Bicocca: Art aficionados in the know head to the massive Hangar Bicocca to see revolving and permanent contemporary art exhibits. This is a great activity if you have kids along as there are usually free workshops going on just for them.

Tuscany
Go beyond Florence and venture into the dreamy landscapes of Tuscany and its addictive hill towns. Once you’re there, go farther still, beyond Siena’s Palio, Pisa’s leaning tower and the village of San Gimignano. Here’s where to avoid the crowds:

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Volterra: This Etruscan-era hill town is known for its terracotta-roofed houses, ramparts and ruins. Stroll along cobbled alleyways to Piazza dei Priori, then marvel at its 13th-century Palazzo dei Priori and its clock tower. Go back in time at the Etruscan acropolis, the Roman amphitheater or the Museo Etrusco Guarnacci.

 

Maremma: Within this regional nature park, you’ll find southern Tuscany at its best – pine and olive groves, juniper- and strawberry-scented Mediterranean macchia bushes and quiet, wild beaches. Look for driftwood treasures along the four-mile Marina di Alberese or take a guided walk to the 10th-century Benedictine San Rabano monastery.

 

Lucca: Move over, Siena and Florence; enter, Lucca. With an old town replete with churches, art galleries and Roman ruins, and the wonderful Piazza Anfiteatro, built above a Roman amphitheater and lined with pretty yellow houses, this is everything you hoped Tuscany to be. For the best views of Lucca and beyond, climb to the top of the red-brick Torre Guinigi.

 

Monte Argentario: Longing for Capri or the Amalfi Coast? Consider Monte Argentario in Tusday instead. Between Rome and Pisa, this region gives you all those Mediterranean views, but also a decidedly insider feel. There are incredible beaches and coves to discover, including the charming white-pebble Cala del Gesso and family-friendly Cala Piccola.
 
Amalfi Coast
Known for rainbow-hued villages clinging to cliffs above the azure Mediterranean, soft breezes and lemon scents, the Amalfi Coast of Southern Italy is as romantic as it gets – and a far cry from the frenetic streets of Rome. Here’s where to hide away from the paparazzi:

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Vietri sul Mare: Stop here as much to shop for handmade pottery as to admire its majolica-decorated fountains, public spaces and shopfronts. It’s as Insta-worthy as Amalfi villages come.

 

Cetara: This characterful fishing village is just down the road from Vietri and was the outpost for Saracen prates during the middles ages. Take the chance to dine at Al Convento, in the cloisters of an ancient Franciscan monastery.

 

Praiano: Stop for the sunset – then stay another night for a second one. It’s the ultimate romantic getaway, with no crowds in sight.

 

Raito: in this little hamlet, you can visit the Ceramics Museum and the 17th-century Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, as well as gaze for hours over the entire Gulf of Salerno.

 

Albori: Overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, Albori and its pastel houses seem like they’ve leapt out of a far-ago age. Enjoy your little slice of paradise, far from modern-day worries and cares.

 
Venice
This perennially appealing floating city will surely call your name if you have an Italy trip planned. But how can you avoid the crowds? Put these off-the-beaten path Venice attractions at the top of your list:

 

The Arsenale: A naval shipyard and Renaissance gate (Porta Magna) dating to the 15th century

 

Ponte de Chiodo: The bridge with no parapet and a Venice hidden gem – and it’s perfectly safe to cross.

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Burano Island: Visit little Burano Island by vaporetto and check out its colorful houses and lace-making museum.

 

Cannaregio Canal: Set in one of the city’s largest residential areas, this quiet canal takes you to several good neighborhood restaurants.

 

Santa Croce: Love museums? Head to the Santa Croce area to visit the Ca’Pesara, the International Gallery of Modern Art, the Museum of Natural History in Fondacio dei Turchi and the impressive Palazzo Mocenigo, the Museum of Textiles and Costumes.

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