Destinations

10 Under-the-Radar Italian Towns to Add to Your Bucket List

From Abruzzo to Umbria, here are the picturesque places the guidebooks forgot.
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One of the best aspects of living in Italy for over a decade as a travel writer has been discovering towns I didn’t have on my radar before moving here. From Tuscany to Calabria, the Dolomites to Basilicata, this country is crammed with villages full of art, food, and natural beauty—places that many travelers miss out on while focusing on the tried-and-true. Here are ten treasures to put on your next Italian itinerary.

1. Populonia, Tuscany


You might not have heard of this tiny town on the Tuscan Coast, but it was once the site of one of the region’s most important Etruscan settlements. They were attracted to it for strategic reasons, as it could spot enemy ships miles away on the sea, but now visitors come for much more peaceful pursuits: to lie on the broad beach at the postcard-perfect Baratti Bay down below, to eat gelato while taking in the epic 360-degree views of the Mediterranean, to wander the ramparts of the castle, and to eat at the seriously good seafood restaurants.

2. Santo Stefano, Abruzzo


This remote mountaintop village has been given new life as the site for Sextanio Santo Stefano, a hotel set between the formerly deserted houses, and a location that preserves the original architecture of the hamlet while making it even more romantic, with open fireplaces, candlelit rooms, and a restaurant that concentrates on local and sustainable ingredients. The remaining residents continue to live in the village, keeping it from feeling like a living museum, and the town is the jumping-off point to the Gran Sasso, one of Italy’s most beautiful, and little-known, national parks.

3. Maratea, Basilicata


Not to be confused with Matera (the UNESCO city that is also a jewel of this southern region of Italy) this refined city—filled with pastel-painted churches, cobblestoned streets, and barely a foreign visitor in sight—sits above the sea. Book a room at the former nunnery of La Locanda delle Donne Monache (few nuns have had digs as picturesque as these) and head down to the city’s port, where small fishing boats can take you on coastal expeditions. With the same terrain as its Amalfi neighbors, here the vibe feels way more authentic, and costs a fraction of the price, as a counterpart like Positano.

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4. San Cassiano, Dolomiti


This little Alpine village was put on the hospitality map for its fabulous, still family-owned hotel, and Michelin-starred restaurant, the Rosa Alpina, but in fact, the town is well worth a visit outside the destination resort. It's the launchpad to the Dolomiti Ski network, more than 850 miles of trails that can be hiked outside the snowy months. You'll also find an evocative church that's often covered with snow, giving one the impression of being inside a snow globe from the 1880s. Don’t miss a meal at one of the local rifugi (mountain huts) which serve some of the most delicious regional fares in all of Italy.

5. Tropea, Calabria


Few spots are as jaw-dropping as Calabria’s Tropea, a UNESCO-protected village built into the cliff, before it drops sharply down to a sliver of white sand, and dazzling aqua sea. The maze of streets remains full of shops that sell the sweet red onion the town is known for, seemingly countless varieties of chili (the food here is notoriously spicy), and local, well-priced wines. Once you head down to the seafront, you will understand why Calabria is considered to have some of the most beautiful beaches in all of Italy. The well-preserved monastery Santa Maria dell Isola hovers on a promontory just offshore, making for the perfect photo op.

6. Castel Rigione, Umbria


Many visitors to this region of Italy concentrate on the famous hill towns like Todi and Spoleto, and bigger cities like Perugia, but the small villages that border Lago Trasimeno are also incredibly picturesque, seldom visited, and a model for the architecture that once dominated this part of Italy. This little Medieval gem is, in fact, one of the prettiest, with its windy and tiny streets perfect for feeling away from the crowd, and spectacular views over the huge Trasimeno lake, dotted with islets. A sunset aperitivo is a must while watching the small boats slowly head over the red-gold mirror like surface on their way home, and come December, the Christmas market is one of the area’s most atmospheric.

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7. Camogli, Liguria


As much as we adore the Cinque Terre, the secret is out and hordes of day trippers have somewhat ruined the romantic vibe of many of the five towns. Not so in Camogli, with its faded pink, yellow, red, and orange-hued buildings, its charming cobblestoned thoroughfare that runs along the seafront, and the lovely main square where you can linger at an outdoor table over an espresso or Aperol Spritz while watching the locals going about their daily routines. Don’t miss a hike into the hills up to La Cucina di Nonna Nina, a shrine to Ligurian dishes like marinated anchovies, fritto misto, and the unforgettable pesto that originated in this region of the country.

8. Serralunga d’Alba, Piedmont


Home to some of the most interesting and small producers in all of Italy, this small town surrounded by vineyards and wine estates won’t just appeal to those who like their Barolo, but it helps. After exploring its impeccably well-preserved castle dating back from the 12th century, come back to the wine bar Vinoteca and join local oenophiles who try new vintages while snacking on artisanal meats and cheeses.

9. Martina Franca, Puglia


One of Puglia’s main draws is the mixture of architecture it showcases. In the case of Martina Franca, it’s baroque meets Moorish, a fascinating and idyllic combination of design detail with white washed lanes leading to over-the-top 18th-century grandeur at spots like Basilicata di San Martino. On Wednesdays, make a beeline to the market, with olives, peaches, capocollo (a local pork salami), plums, and cacio ricotta among the ingredients to make a countryside picnic in the surrounding olive groves—these 100-plus-year-old trees are architectural in their own right.

10. Cefalu, Sicily


About an hour train ride from Palermo, this seaside town has some of Sicily’s main attractions—sea, excellent seafood, and grand architecture—all in one spot, without the overdevelopment that mars some of the rest of the island’s coastline. Attractions include the town’s two-towered Norman-Arabic Duomo, the beautiful ruins of the temple of Diana, and the pretty port where one can take a boat trip to get the full view of the town from the sea. Movie buffs will appreciate that this was the setting for part of the beloved Italian classic, Cinema Paradiso.

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This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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Ondine Cohane
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