Italy is, without doubt, one of the most complete and fulfilling travel destinations in the world, but as a result many of its “must-see” destinations suffer from over-tourism. Yes, cities like Rome, Florence and Venice by all means deserve a visit for their uniqueness and wealth of cultural heritage. Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre are indeed pretty. But in a country brimming with so many cultural and natural gems you are spoilt for choice of pristine regions and places far from the tour bus itinerary that boast just as much to see as everywhere else. So I want to share 8 of my best recommendations to consider for your Italy trip.

[Last updated October 2022]

Italy’s Hidden Gem Destinations

Hidden Gems of Northern Italy

Trento, Trentino

 

Trento Piazza del Duomo

The regional capital of Trentino Alto-Adige is much more than a gateway to the Italian Dolomites – Trento is a hidden gem city break destination of its own. The city was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which left a degree of Austrian influence on its culture and cuisine, giving it a different vibe to the rest of Italy. To this day Trento has a sizeable German-speaking minority. 

The city is a mixture of the old and the modern. The beautiful Old Town features fresco-decorated Renaissance architecture and an impressive Piazza del Duomo complete with an Alpine backdrop. The cafes and restaurants on the city square will entice you for an al fresco lunch or an Aperol spritz. Everything feels within easy reach and you’ll quickly start to feel at home in Trento. It’s no surprise that the city consistently features in the top cities for quality of life in Italy.

If you want to soak up the best views of Trento and the Adige valley, take a panoramic(if wobbly) cable car up to the sleepy village of Sardagna.

And yes, the other big draw of Trento is the great location from which to explore the surrounding region. Both the Dolomite mountains and the lush green valleys offer ample hiking, cycling and skiing opportunities. Lake Garda is within reach, as well as numerous pristine mountain lakes of green and blue hues. If you’re after peace & nature, the Adige valley is dotted with agritourism farms and numerous wineries.

How to get to Trento: While the city doesn’t have its own international airport, it’s still quite easy to reach from other cities. The closest airports with direct train connections are Verona, Milan, Venice or Innsbruck in Austria. My tip is to fly into Verona Airport as trains from there take just an hour and the airport is quite close to the train station.

 

Valsugana, Trentino

 

Valsugana Cycling Path

A lush green valley stretching along the river Brenta along the edge of the Dolomite Mountains, the Sugana Valley is an absolute hidden gem of Northern Italy. 

As with much of Italy, Valsugana offers both outstanding scenery and historic sights. Its plains are lined with a sea of verdant vineyards, apple orchards and raspberry plantations with a backdrop of steep hills and the distant Dolomite peaks. At its Western end near Trento, the Caldonazzo lake offers water activities and even an opportunity to enjoy a cooling swim in the hotter months.

Being a part of the ancient Via Claudia Augusta route, the valley is dotted with hilltop castles and ancient towns including the alluring towns of Borgo Valsugana and Levico.

Valsugana is perfectly set up to be explored by bicycle. Being a valley it’s pretty much entirely flat (slight descent going East) and features almost entirely traffic-free dedicated bike paths that reach places a car won’t. Best of all, you can rent a bike at multiple points along the valley and return them at the other end. Valsugana Rent Bike is the place to go for this service.

How to get to Valsugana: The valley is best accessed from Trento. The regional capital doesn’t have its own international airport but can be reached directly by train from Verona, Milan, Venice or Innsbruck in Austria. From there, you can use local buses or best, rent a bike to explore the valley.

 

Genoa, Liguria

 

Genoa Old Town, Italy

Why visit Genoa: Pesto. Oh, and a nice city to wander around with a big old town.

This sea-hugging port city in the country’s Northwest doesn’t seem to get anywhere as much tourist cred as the likes of Milan, Verona or Bologna. So take advantage of that. Genoa is far more than a landing point for the overwhelmed Cinque Terre and Portofino. It has Italy’s largest old town and plenty of sights including its ancient port that stretches through the centre of the city. 

And if you like pesto, you’ll not want to leave Genoa. It’s the very home of pesto which by the way is a different world from the stuff from the jar you’re probably used to. Of all the wonderful things I tried with pesto in Genoa (there are plenty!), the focaccia is probably the one I miss most.

Getting to Genoa: The city has its own airport with destinations right across Europe, just a short drive from the city proper.

 

Nesso, Lombardia

 

Nesso, Lake Como

The little-known sleepy town on the shores of Lake Como lacks the glamour and buzz of the popular towns down the shore such as Bellagio. Instead, it’s a place of peace and tranquillity. The pace of things in Nesso is slow, leaving you to admire the stunning lake views and enjoy authentic local culture. As you meander from the town square down to Nesso Gorge (Orrido di Nesso), you’ll find a waterfall and an ancient stone bridge Ponte della Civera where the stream meets Lake Como. For me it’s one of the most picturesque corners of the lake. Just be ready to tackle a lot of steps on your way back up!

I can also recommend a nice and affordable place to stay and eat too – the Hotel Tre Rose – with excellent views of the lake from your balcony.

How to get to Nesso: The town is located on the main coastal road between Como and Bellagio, and if you don’t have a car or desire to splash out on a taxi you can reach the town from either one with the hourly C30 buses. Como is easily reached by train from Milan and its 2 international airports. 

 

Boite Valley, Veneto

 

Boite Valley, Cadore, Dolomites

Why visit Boite Valley: The views, and an abandoned railway turned cycling path

The Dolomite region of Italy offers far more than skiing and is possibly even more stunning in the summer months. One of its lesser-known yet prettiest parts is the Boite Valley, following the river by the same name and framed on either side by some of the tallest of the dramatic Dolomite peaks.

One of the ultimate highlights is the old railway track converted to a dedicated (and mostly paved) cycling path that stretches from the touristy but charming town of Cortina d’Ampezzo through quaint villages down to Calalzo di Cadore. Heading west to east makes it a very subtle but relaxing descent, yet you’ll find yourself wanting to slow down to take in the views. At one point you pass through a railway tunnel now given over to bicycle use and imagine how it might have been back in the days of steam trains.

Down near Calalzo is Lake Cadore with its remarkably green hues and another perfect spot for getting the most out of nature. 

How to get to Boite Valley: Venice Airport, Verona Airport or the low-cost hub of Treviso are closest to fly into, with Austria’s Innsbruck another rail-connected option. If you want an incredible cycling route with a slight descent throughout, start at Dobbiaco (Toblach) near the Austrian border then make your way down to the valley to Calalzo di Cadore on the marked cycling route.

 

Hidden Gems of Central Italy

Castelluccio Plateau, Umbria

 

Castelluccio Plain Poppies, Italy's Hidden Gem Wonder

Why visit Castelluccio Plateau: phenomenal flowering spectacle on a plain surrounded by mountains

In the heart of Italy’s Apennine mountain range lies one of its most spectacular natural views in the world – if you visit at the right time of the year.

The twisty road up through Umbria’s Sibillini Mountains all of a sudden opens up to a large plateau – visually impressive in its own right. But what really makes this a spectacle is La Fioritura (literally – “The Flowering”), an annual flowering that transforms the plateau into an extraordinary display of colours from yellows to reds and violets. The exact flowering time of the lentils, daisies, poppies and cornflowers that make this spectacle varies year by year, but usually takes place from late May to mid-July which is the best time to visit.

 

Castelluccio Plateau, Umbria

The lone hilltop village of Castelluccio di Norcia overlooks all this beauty and provides impressive views of the plateau from a different perspective. Unfortunately Castelluccio experienced a number of serious earthquakes, the latest of which as recent as 2016 left much of it in ruins.

Getting to Castellucio Plateau: Car is your friend, unless you want to join a day tour. Perugia, 2 hours’ drive, serves as a perfect base to visit the area, and has an airport served by a handful of international flights including London. Rome is a longer 3 hours away.

 

Perugia, Umbria

Perugia Old Town, Italy

An enchanting medieval city in the centre of Italy, Perugia is the Italian capital of chocolate, jazz and truffles. The Umbrian capital is home to the famous Baci chocolates which means the Perugina Chocolate House is a must-visit for any chocolate lover. Fans of jazz, meanwhile, will want to plan their trip in July for the annual Umbria Jazz Festival, one of the most famous in the jazz world.

The rustic Old Town situated on top of a hill offers stunning views of the region and a fine selection of fantastic restaurants (if you like truffles you’re in luck!). While the Old Town is easy to explore by foot, it’s connected to the lower part of the city by Minimetro, a cute rollercoaster-like funicular thing that just seems quite fun compared to the usual buses.

It’s also a great base to explore the Etruscan region, whether it’s a day trip to the historic Assisi, the wildflower spectacle of Castelluccio Plateau or perhaps a truffle hunting trip in the countryside.

How to get to Perugia

The city has its own small international airport, served by Ryanair. Otherwise it’s a reasonable ~2 hours from Rome and Florence by train or car.

Lucca, Tuscany

 

Lucca Round Piazza, Tuscany

Why visit Lucca: an easy-to-reach medieval walled city + a perfect base

The walled city of Lucca is within an hour’s drive from the tourist Meccas of Florence and Pisa, perhaps it’s because of this that it sees a fraction of the tourists. 

You’ll struggle not getting lost in the narrow, medieval streets only to pop out eventually in one of the round piazzas. Once you’ve had enough getting lost, rent a bike for an easy loop right on top of the ancient city walls. Or climb the Guinigi Tower for an even better view, with an oak tree growing on top.

Lucca makes for an outstanding base for exploring the region. Lucca enjoys easy access to Pisa Airport, Mediterranean Sea a short drive to the West, the hilly green Garfagnana region to the North and the rest of Tuscany all well-connected.

If you’re out on a car or a bicycle, make your way North to the unusually shaped Ponte della Maddalena, beyond to Bagni di Lucca and perhaps one of the harder-to-reach hilltop villages if your car is small enough to squeeze through the steep narrow streets.

Getting to Lucca: Very easy, with the nearby Pisa Airport often offering great-value flights from across Europe. From there it’s a short 30-minute train or car journey.

Urbino, Marche

 

Urbino, Italy

Why visit Urbino: a lively renaissance city far off the beaten path

Far off the tourist itineraries, the charming walled hill town of Urbino is a home to a university which doubles its population during term-time and hence enjoys a strong studenty feel similar to that of Bath or Durham in UK. This makes for a fun atmosphere on the central piazza by the evenings and a very decent nightlife for an otherwise small town. Besides the whole of Urbino also carries UNESCO status, and deservedly so. Once a major cultural hotspot, the town has retained its Rennaisance feel and medieval cobbled streets.

Food-wise, some of the local delicacies like the wild boar papardelle are to die for.

Getting to Urbino: The closest airport is Rimini – 69km away, alternatively there is Ancona Airport a little further out. As trains don’t go to Urbino, a car is recommended – but the nearest train station on the Trenitalia mainline is Pesaro on the Adriatic coast.

San Leo, Emilia-Romagna

 

San Leo Sunset, Emilia Romagna

Why visit San Leo: Just a very charming little village with a clifftop fortress 

Pretty hilltop villages aren’t exactly rare in Italy, but there is something particularly special about the village of San Leo nestled on a rock a short drive away from the dwarf country of San Marino. There isn’t much to do other than wander around, walk up to the hilltop castle to sit down and simply enjoy the feeling of peace. Bonus tip: go up to the castle during golden hour, i.e. around an hour before sunset.

Getting to San Leo: Rimini is the nearest city, while the micro-country of San Marino is a short drive.

Hidden Gems of Southern Italy

Procida Island, Campania

 

Procida Island at Sunset

The small charming island of Procida is just a short ferry hop from Naples and offers the authentic and laidback Southern Italian atmosphere that has gradually been lost in the popular Amalfi Coast destinations.

Procida is so compact that you can walk from one end to the other by foot in 45 minutes, yet you’d be wise to hire an e-bike or a moped on which to explore the hidden gem island.

Unlike its more famous neighbour Ischia, there isn’t one particular ‘must-see’ sight on Procida. It’s a destination to marvel at its picturesque colourful harbours, explore its different nooks and crannies, bask in the black-sand beaches and eat your way through every bit of seafood on the local menus. While remaining an under-the-radar destination for decades, the island was picked as the Italian Capital of Culture in 2022 so visit before it gets too much mass tourism limelight.

How to get to Procida: It’s a very simple ferry or hydrofoil boat journey from Naples that takes roughly an hour depending on the service. Once there, there are free buses taking you around the island and you can hire mopeds or e-bikes to get around its narrow streets.

Matera, Basilicata

 

Matera, Basilicata, Italy

Why visit Matera: an ancient stone city of rock caves and canyons

Italy’s city of stone, Matera is like no other in the world. Its borders are carved by deep canyons and the oldest parts of the city are cut into the rock that have long served as cave dwellings for its citizens. While other cave systems around the world are ancient relics of life many centuries ago, in Matera people lived in cave homes known as Sassi as late as the 1950’s. In fact what is now a growing tourist attraction was less than a century ago considered the embarrassment of Italy with its severe poverty and outbreaks of malaria. Many of the cave homes can be visited, and in fact you can even stay in one of the boutique cave hotels.

What’s most surprising is the city remained under-the-radar for so long despite being Italy’s oldest and despite its one-of-a-kind location. That is until 2019 until it jumped into the limelight as European Capital of Culture. But there is still some time before it turns into a tour-bus destination so visit sooner than later!

How to get to Matera: Matera combines perfectly as part of a road trip to the neighbouring and stunning Puglia. You can fly into Bari (closest airport and large city at around an hour by car) or Brindisi and travel around from there.

» Read More: Where to Visit in Puglia – Italy’s Hidden Gem

 

Alberobello, Puglia

 

Alberobello Street Trulli, Puglia

 

Why visit Alberobello: trulli – the cone-roofed houses of course! And Puglia’s food.

With its surreal white-coned houses – “trulli”, Alberobello and the surrounding Itria Valley are like no other in the world. There are a load of unproven theories as to why they were built this way. One I liked most is for avoiding house taxes: as locals heard the taxman is coming they’d destroy the roof until after he’s gone, after which it could then be quite easily rebuilt.

OK, Alberobello itself is starting to get touristy but for something as unique as this, it’s still 100% worth it especially outside of the peak summer months. For somewhere more tranquil, trulli houses are dotted around the rest of Puglia’s Itria Valley. Even better, you can find one on Airbnb to enjoy your very own trullo experience. In fact with the high sealings, it’s very spacious. 

Enjoy as part of an unforgettable road trip in Puglia.

Getting to Alberobello: Bari and Brindisi are the closest airports, both serving destinations across Europe. A car is recommended to get around the area.

» Read More: Where to Visit in Puglia – Italy’s Hidden Gem

 

Scala, Campania

 

Scala Town, Amalfi Coast

Perched high above the Amalfi coastline, the village of Scala is one of the last few spots on the Amalfi Coast that’s kept its simple, tranquil existence. Despite being next to the popular Ravello (and offering the best views of the town) as well as above the bustling town of Amalfi, most day tourists don’t make it this far. On a picturesque walk up its hilly alleys and paths you might come across transport mules, still used today to carry goods in the parts otherwise unreachable by mechanised transport. Mind, the horses seem happy not to have to lug around generously-sized cruise ship tourists.

The village that’s one of the oldest in the whole region is split into little hamlets that include Minuta and its hillside villa as well as Pontone down below with a very cute tiny piazza to observe local life on. Just be prepared for a good workout to tackle all of the steps. 

With outstanding views in every direction, better-value accommodation and dining options as well as easy access to explore the rest of the coast, Scala makes for a sound hidden gem destination for an Amalfi Coast trip. It’s also just a 30-minute walk to Ravello and to Amalfi below (you can get the bus back up!).

How to get to Scala: Fly into Naples (or Rome + 1hr train), get the Alibus to Naples Centrale train station then hop onto one of the regular 40-minute trains to Salerno. From there, get the local SITA bus to Amalfi, and change to another bus up to Scala. Or get a taxi directly from Naples which (ideally arranged ahead of time) should cost €100-120 and take an hour instead of 3.

Altamura, Puglia

 

Altamura's famous bread

If you like your dough you won’t want to give this less-known inland Puglian town a miss. Altamura is especially famed for what many call the best bread in the world. The walled town is home to Pane di Altamura, so special that it’s the only bread to have been classified DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) in Europe. Made from durum wheat from ancient recipes, the wonderfully soft, aromatic loaves taste heavenly simply with some quality olive oil and salt. No stop in Altamura is complete without a visit to one of its traditional bakeries offering some of the finest Pugliese focaccia, taralli, biscotti and much more. I recommend Panificio del Duomo (near Altamura Cathedral) for the ridiculous variety of freshly baked bread products, the likes of some you’ve probably never seen.

Once you’re stuffed with dough, the town itself has an interesting city centre to walk it off, including an impressive Romanesque cathedral and the medieval walls. I also found it a great place to watch local life in a city not so familiar with tourists. 

How to get to Altamura: Bari has the closest airport, Brindisi Airport being another option a little further. A car is the best option in Puglia, a scenic 1-hour route from Bari will take you past more olive trees than you’d have seen in your life.


So there you are! Hopefully you’ve been inspired to visit some of the lesser-known parts of this incredible country. What do you think of this list of Italy’s hidden gems?

1 Comment

  • Anisha
    Posted August 24, 2022

    Love Italy but its been too long. You’ve inspired me to return, Pulgia and Matera look incredible!

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