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Blessed with an incredibly diverse topography, a rich artistic and cultural heritage and 20 regions each boasting a unique identity, Italy is one of the world’s most beloved holiday destinations and offers something for every type of traveler. Why not veer off the beaten path this summer and visit 11 cities that are brimming with charm but lie under the radar? You’re sure to be rewarded with gorgeous vistas, fewer crowds and a greater sense of discovery.
With a prominent position on the Italian riviera, the Ligurian port city of Genoa is often overlooked as a travel destination in favor of the charming Cinque Terre hilltop villages further south, though this ancient maritime republic deserves a visit in its own right. Genoa has historically important for its role in maritime trade over the centuries and remains the second busiest port in Italy (after Gioia Tauro in Calabria). It is the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and one of Italy’s most famous pasta sauces: pesto. Don’t miss the magnificent Palazzi dei Rolli complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is considered to be the earliest example of an urban planning project in Europe.
Located south of Naples and just a stone’s throw from the Amalfi Coast, Salerno is an important cultural city in Campania with a lovely historic center and seafront promenade. It’s a busy port city that unfortunately suffered much destruction during World War II but urban renewal projects have given it new life – the late Zaha Hadid even designed the newly unveiled Salerno Maritime Terminal. Salerno is strategically located to visit nearby towns on the Amalfi Coast, such as Vietri sul Mare (famous for its ceramics) and Cetara (well-known for its anchovies), as well as the Cilento National Park to the south.
Parma is a little gem in Italy’s verdant Emilia-Romagna region that is famous for two of Italy’s most prized foods: Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. The city is a must visit for culinary enthusiasts who can try excellent pastas, cheeses and prepared foods at Parma’s plethora of gourmet delicatessens and traditional restaurants. It is an elegant city with many notable sites, including the 12th-century Romanesque-Gothic Baptistery with a painted dome ceiling and the wooden Teatro Farnese.
Sardinia boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in all of Italy so it’s a natural choice for a summer holiday. Instead of heading to the posh resort town of Porto Cervo, why not fly into the southern city of Cagliari and experience a more authentic flavor of island life? Cagliari overlooks the picturesque Golfo degli Angeli (Golf of the Angels bay) which includes an eight kilometre stretch of beach and is a perfect launchpad to discover the surrounding region, such as nearby town Villasimius which has crystalline water. An ancient city with a strategic position on the water, Cagliari was ruled by a number of civilizations over the centuries and was the capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia for nearly 500 years.
Sicily’s western coast attracts less tourists than cities on the east such as Taormina and Catania, though the island’s west coast has its own noteworthy jewels. Trapani, with its curve-shaped harbor, is one of these. The city juts out into the sea and is a jumping-off point for visiting the stunning Egadi Islands which include Favignana and Levanzo. It is well known for its traditional processions, including festivities to celebrate Ferragosto on August 15, and contains several beaches that run along its coast. During your stay you take a cable car ride up to Erice, a hilltop town above Trapani that provides beautiful views of the Sicilian coastline.
Another gem worth visiting in Sicily is Cefalù, a coastal town located near Palermo in the northwestern part of the island. With an enviable location on the water, it is one of the more photogenic beaches in Italy: while swimming in the crystal clear Mediterranean you can soak in views of the Arab-Norman Cathedral in the center of town. The city is a great place to relax while soaking in some culture and enjoying the atmosphere of Italy in the summer. In the evenings you can enjoy strolling along the seafront promenade and drinking an aperitivo as the sun goes down and bathes the town in a golden hue.
The capital of Italy’s southern Puglia region, Bari is a hidden gem with refreshing atmosphere and plenty of charm. Bari is the second largest Italian city in the south after Naples but it is often overlooked by tourists. They’re missing out: the city has a lovely historic harbor, a bustling city life and plenty of attractions (and delicious foods to eat), while further along the coast are magnificent beaches, such as Polignano a Mare. Be sure to stroll in the historic center to see women making orecchiete pasta by hand and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Further south still of Bari lies Lecce, a magnificent Baroque city with incredible architecture and seriously balmy Mediterranean vibes. Lecce is the capital of the Salento region, technically part of Puglia but culturally distinct, thanks in part to its strong Greek influence. The city’s buildings are largely built with ‘Lecce stone’, a soft yellow limestone that is soft enough to create ornate designs and sculptural elements, visible throughout Lecce. The city gets hot so cool down with a Caffè Leccese, a cold coffee with almond milk, and don’t miss nibbling on some rustici – filo dough pastries filled with tomato, mozzarella and creamy béchamel sauce.
Perched on a cliff overlooking an aquamarine sea, the incredible vantage point of Tropea is sure to take your breath away. Its prominent position meant Tropea played an important role throughout its history and remnants of its past, such as a Franciscan monastery and a Norman cathedral, are still visible in the historic center. The city is well-known for its fragrant red onions which are used in Calabria’s regional cuisine and prized throughout the country.
This elegant northern city is only a 30 minute train ride from Venice but doesn’t attract the crowds of its well-trodden neighbor. Like Venice, Padua is an attractive locale with many bridges that cross branches of the Bacchiglione rive that flows through northern Italy, though it has a significantly higher percentage of land than La Serenissima. One of the oldest cities in northern Italy, Padua is known for its 13th-century university (which hosted Galileo Galilei as a professor) and for its 16th-century botanical garden, the oldest in the world and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The impressive Prato della Valle piazza, with its statues and moat, is not to be missed.
Another city overshadowed by Venice is nearby Ravenna, well-known for its Byzantine mosaics and early Christian monuments, eight of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century before becoming a major center of the Byzantine government in Italy in the 6th-8th centuries, and remains the best example of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in Europe. Some of the most magnificent mosaics lie within the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (which features ornate cobalt blue scenes) and the octagonal Basilica di San Vitale.