It’s hard to imagine that such a small country could have such a wealth of heritage towns, history and hilltops. Italy may be small, but its unique geography means that in one peninsula you can find mountains, hills, plains, lakes, rivers and a ton of coastline. I definitely have more to explore of Italy’s mezzogiorno, but I’m not alone. The south of Italy remains its least-explored area, and though that’s changing it’s still an area that falls largely unknown to international visitors.
The south feels like Italy in all its Italianness.
The sun burns brighter, the food tastes better and the family ties run deeper.
It’s authentic Italy at its best and doesn’t care whether you explore it or not.
I, for one, can’t wait to do so.
The south is generally considered to be those regions that were once a part of the Kingdom of Naples: Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria. Though culturally Sicily and Sardinia are different than the rest of the south, they’re often considered a part of the south for economical reasons.
For the purposes of this post we’ll consider the regions of Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria, with a bonus island: Sardinia.
Southern Italy’s opposite coastlines get the most love with visitors. On the Mediterranean there is obviously Naples, the biggest city in the south, with a rough and tumbling attitude and the grand spaccanapoli road running like a scar across the center of the city. Further down there’s Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, most visitors’ first taste of the south and one of the most visited areas of all of Italy. Made up of multiple little towns that sit close together, it’s easy to tour the coast from Sorrento to Salerno. On the Adriatic there’s ancient Lecce, the “Florence of the South” and the port city of Bari in Puglia, named in the New York Times 52 Places to Go 2019 list.
This is Magna Grecia, the oldest zone in all of Italy and the area’s characteristic villages still show it. Visit Matera in Basilicata, the 2019 European Capital of Culture and one of the oldest cities in the world, and Reggio Calabria in Calabria, between the mainland and Sicily. The largest and oldest city of the region, it’s known for its gorgeous seaside botanical gardens, Aragonese Castle and art nouveau buildings. After tour Herculaneum or the destroyed city of Pompeii, taste the lemons in the luxurious town of Sorrento or see where kings once lived in Caserta, all located in the region of Campania.
The South of Italy has more coastline than the center or north, with its Calabria and Basilicata running along the sea as well. Of course you have the Amalfi Coastline, but the beaches and sea don’t compare to the area’s gorgeous towns and atmosphere. To really enjoy the coastline, visit Scilla in Calabria or Tropea, the region’s most famous coastal town on the Tyrrhenian coast with a dramatic seaside beach and the pungent smell of the local red onions adding flavor to any seafood dish. Heading east to Basilicata there’s Maratea, the pearl of the Tyrrhenian Sea with nearby grottoes and coves to explore.
By far the best region to enjoy the coast is Puglia. With roughly 500 miles of coastline, there are hundreds of beaches to choose from and some of the most beautiful beaches in all of Italy. First up is the gorgeous Polignano al Mare, a coastal town with a small but characteristic beach and the perfect introduction to Puglia’s coastline. Tour the whitewashed city of Otranto then visit the nearby beaches of Porto Badisco and the infamous Baia dei Turchi, long considered the most beautiful in all of Italy. Santa Maria di Leuca is the most southern point of Italy’s heel, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The list of wonderful seaside towns to explore goes on and on, but to not make it too long, we’ll end with Gallipolli, a city with all the characteristics of a great coastal town: great beaches, ancient history of invasions and conquests, and an iconic lighthouse.
Read: The Best Beaches in Puglia at Ciao Andiamo
There’s no shortage of countryside in Southern Italy. There is plenty of land and multiple national parks where visitors can enjoy the peace and spectacular views of southern Italy’s natural spaces.
Those looking for real wilderness or adventure can head to Calabria to go mushroom hunting in the wilds or white-water rafting and canoeing down the River Lao in the Parco Nazionale del Pollino, the biggest national park in all of Italy. Many use Terranova di Pollino as a base camp to spend a weekend hiking through the woods and wilds and ancient villages.
Those looking for something a bit calmer can dive or kayak the seacaves in Puglia’s Parco Nazionale del Gargano, the small promontory that juts out of the region like a spur on Italy’s boot heel. Or else rent bikes and pedal across Puglia’s countryside, perhaps in the sun-kissed Val d’Itria.
Finally, even the super-crowded Amalfi Coast has some country escapes, like a hike above the coast along Path of Gods.
I know, I know, it’s almost offensive to include Sardinia as a bonus, but the truth is the island is really an entity unto itself. Often lumped in with the South, its culture, language and geography are entirely unique. With Iron Age buildings that still survive today like the UNESCO World Heritage Site Nuraghe Su Nuraxi, exotic festivals and ancient agricultural techniques producing pungent goat cheeses and unique meals, there’s a lot to explore in Sardinia even beyond the sea.
Check out the historic city centers of Alghero and Cagliari. Though both are port towns on opposite sides of the island where planes and ferries land they’re still worth a visit. Or the Roman cities of Nora and Tharros. Experience the countryside right in the center of the island in Gesturi where you can find the Giara, a massive plateau as well as a species of wild horse native to Sardinia. Or, watch the pink flamingoes nest in the Parco Naturale Molentargius.
Finally, end on the coast with pure white sands and crystalline water – the best that the Mediterranean has to offer. The island’s Costa Smeralda attracts celebrities and supermodels but it’s Orosei that attracts me the most. Located in a national park, there the tall Gennargentu mountains abruptly hit the sea forming multiple coves, inlets and tiny beaches that I’m just dying to explore. Or else the infamous Maddalena Archipelago sitting like a crown atop the island. Honestly, Sardinia is absolutely covered in gorgeous beaches, coves and tiny islands. A sunbather or sea swimmer only has to choose!
It’s difficult to choose just a handful of destinations in such a massive area of Italy, but the point is to get your toes wet. Many people head south to the Amalfi Coast and then drive across the south of Italy to get to Matera, maybe ending their trip along the Adriatic coastline in Puglia. Find an area that piques your interest then deep dive into the research and itinerary planning. Italy is a land of a million destinations and the south is no different. City, coast or countryside – why choose when you can explore all three?