Forget the overcrowded big-name attractions. Italy is chock-full of fascinating places to go and things to see. The country is rich with culinary, artistic and intellectual culture, with stunning natural landscapes to boot. On this list, we’ve chosen 12 of the most unusual, which will show you unexpected aspects of the country’s long and manifold history and give you a look at how old and new are being recombined into beautiful cultural experiences.
Slow Food Cheese Festival
The Slow Food Movement is now international, but it started in Italy as a grassroots effort to resist fast-food culture and the industrial production of food by keeping alive local food traditions. Hosted in the town of Bra, the biannual Cheese Festival brings together producers, food advocates and eaters for a savory celebration of timeless traditions. With a roster of events that include workshops, dinners and tastings, you’ll be sure to eat deliciously while learning a great deal about good food.
In the gorgeous mountains of the Veneto you’ll find this open-air museum where works by local artists blend in to the beauty of the natural landscape. Everything is made with materials found in the area, such as logs, twigs and stones, and the work is sometimes interwoven with living plants and and trees.
Farm Cultural Park
Many places in Sicily are ridden with unemployment and lack of resources, but since the opening of the Farm, the abandoned town of Favara has seen a change of tide. The brainchild of Andrea Bertoli, this turns the entire historic center into a contemporary art center. With street art and installations by local artists — and even a permanent collection of work by U.S. photographer Terry Richardson, it’s a slice of cosmopolitanism residing between old walls.
House Museum of Antonio Gramsci
Jailed by the Fascist government for his revolutionary ideas, Gramsci was a 20th century political theorist and founder of the Italian Communist Party. From prison, he gathered his visionary thinking into a brilliant study of Italian history and society, influencing generations of luminaries like Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler and David Harvey. This museum in Sardinia is his childhood home, and it traces his early life as well as his working years, followed by his imprisonment and premature death.
Pietra Di Bismantova
In beautiful landscape of the Apennines, you’ll find an enormous stone plateau rising out of a mountaintop. This unearthly natural scene is what inspired Dante centuries ago as he wrote about the Mount of Purgatory.
Il Vecio Piave
This seafood restaurant between Venice and Jesolo is situated next door to a shooting range, and its interior is lined with an exhaustive range of taxidermied creatures big and small. Don’t be shocked to find some paraphernalia from the days of Fascist Italy not-so-subtly decorating the walls. And yes, the waiters do wear black shirts — take that as you will. But the food they serve up is so insanely delicious that you may find yourself, well, putting aside your politics for just a few fresh oysters more.
Museum of Prosciutto di Parma
Italian pride in food traditions finds a lovely expression here in the historic home of prosciutto. In this museum you’ll learn more than you ever thought was possible about those little slivers of cured meat — their origins, history and the unique micro-climate of certain Italian regions that makes them so delicious.
Noventa di Piave
This shopping mall takes the strange form of a little Northern Italian village, complete with little buildings, flower pots, church towers and town squares. While the brands inside are powerhouses with an international reach, the aesthetic is almost comically local. It definitely says something about the interaction of tradition and postmodern consumerism in Italy, but we’ll leave you to figure out what.
In the South Tyrol region, the Ladin people have their own language and unique mountain culture. The myth surrounding this lake has all the hallmarks of a lovely fairy tale: A beautiful nymph, an unrequited love affair and a magic spell involving a rainbow. The upshot of it is that the Carezza Lake at the foot of the Dolomites glows with many beautiful colors.
Botteghe Libera Terra
This food association fights to liberate the land from mafia control, and its products are sold in specialty stores, or botteghe, all over the country. Check out “La Pecora Nera” in Bolzano or “I Sapori e i Saperi della Legalita” in Pisa. You’ll be able to buy classic products like dried pasta, tomato sauce and biscuits, but with the added value of knowing that everything was made ethically and responsibly.
The Palatine Chapel
This church takes not only from the Romanesque tradition, but also a great deal from Byzantine and Arab architecture. It makes for a truly incredible interior, glimmering with golden mosaics, with the muqarnas typical of Muslim architecture used to form the Christian cross. The next time someone tries to tell you about the diametrically opposed traditions of East and West, you can point them to this architectural marvel.
Like an 18th century Cabinet of Wonders, this little shop in Modena contains all kinds of beautiful oddities. From perfectly preserved animal skeletons to antique medical anatomy guides, everything and anything is for sale here, but the owners are just as interested in collecting as well. A step back in time to Enlightenment Europe.
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