Sometimes it seems like hiking has never been more popular than it is now. With the 100th anniversary of the US National Parks System, bloggers seeking out nature abroad and influencers posting their tents and fireplace coffees and beanie pics, the great outdoors has perhaps never felt more accessible.
It wasn’t Instagram that propelled me to get outside though, but my move to Italy.
I arrived the 2nd of February into a heap of snow. Overwhelmed, unemployed and bored, I started walking thirty minutes to the neighborhood park to then go for a run among the massive oak trees and along the Lambro River. I got a bike and took it over whatever cobblestone road I could turn down, exploring the area and getting groceries at the same time. And, of course, I married in to a hiking family.
Marco grew up going hiking with his family and a large group of friends every Sunday. Whether wake up time was at 5 o’clock or 9 o’clock, the whole family would pack into the car and drive somewhere across the north of the peninsula. Over 30 years, they’ve toured nearly every major trail that span the Alps, and certainly those in Lombardy. Julys were spent at their mountain cabin and Augusts were often in a rented cabin in the Dolomites. When I joined the family, I had to learn how to hike.
Now, after nearly 7 years in the country and countless trails, I can’t help but thinking what a great way this is to see the country. Of course travelers come to Italy to see the Colosseum, but more and more are coming for a different experience, for a break, to see something new. And this, this is truly off-the-beaten-path.
Italy is awash in well-organized, easy to navigate trails with plenty of towns and rifugi, or mountain huts, along the way.
Travelers should absolutely hike in Italy, and here’s why:
It’s a beautiful and unique way to see a place
Obviously, a traveler to Italy has come to, ahem, see Italy. But hiking doesn’t have to take you away from that. Ditch the train in Cinque Terre and hit the trails, they’re the real connection there anyway. Take a day to tackle the Path of Gods in the Amalfi Coast for real views of the coastline, without the crowds. Walking routes such as the via Francigena run past some of the most beautiful towns in all of Tuscany. Don’t be overwhelmed by the full path, just choose a specific track and go!
It’s slow travel at its best
In a world that is trying to reckon with its footprint, hiking leaves the smallest of all. Slow travel is an old concept that’s become new again, but even though it’s en vogue, that doesn’t make it necessarily easy. If you travel across the ocean, you want to see as much as possible – I get it. But it’s easier to accept seeing less if you’re seeing it better. Or, that is, in with breathtaking views.
In Italy il dolce far niente, or the sweetness of doing nothing is a mindset and life philosophy. It’s a way to calm down, take it easy and enjoy every minute of life. Of course the way you do this is by, well, not doing anything at all. But since that can be difficult for our monkey minds to handle, hiking, step by step by step, is a wonderful way to enter into that mentality.
It has options for all levels – even kids!
Marco recently picked up a slim, locally produced book on hiking in the mountains with children, ages 3 and up. With varying levels of difficulty, elevation change and length, we have big plans for next summer with Adeline in the mountains. Hiking can be intimidating for those who don’t do it often (ahem, me) but it doesn’t have to be. Though I’m particularly focused on the Alps because of our home base, there are walks throughout all of Italy that are flat or short or particularly well-developed that nearly anyone can do. Last weekend Adeline’s 3-year-old boyfriend gained nearly 350 feet of elevation in a 30 minute walk all on his own!
Italy is expensive and though there are budget friendly ways to travel, it’s difficult to find a way to truly travel low cost. Hiking is one of them. If you take public transportation to the trail head and stay primarily in rifugi, you can expect to spend roughly 30 euro a night for your accommodation, some even include dinner! In general, however, expect to add another 20-30 euro total for a light breakfast, picnic lunch and simple dinner. Still, look ahead. Some rifugi in the popular Dolomites are more like 4-star hotels than mountain huts and in places like Tuscany where they are few and far between the price may be higher. Still, compared to Rome, Florence and Venice, there’s no better deal.
It’s doable year-round
Hiking in Italy isn’t just a summer activity. For one, you can snowshoe (as seen above), but even for those intimidated by the snowshoes, there are plenty of year-round hiking opportunities available throughout Italy. Obviously, the higher you go the more snow you’ll find, but the plains and coastlines are still prime spots. (Honestly, I’d prefer to hike the Path of Gods in the Amalfi Coast in winter than in the blazing sun of summer!) and fall and spring can be great options with mild temperatures and beautiful nature as well. Just check weather conditions ahead of time and pack accordingly!
It’s the best way to get – quite literally – off the beaten path (and away from the crowds!)
Italy in summer is flooded with people. There are crowds in every city and the small towns on the coastline are even worse. Most of those people will absolutely not be hiking. Instead, you could be one of those people. One year we walked from Portofino to San Fruttuoso, rising over the crowds up the mountain where then followed a completely flat trail all the way to San Fruttuoso, where we once again encountered the crowds. Even in the ever-popular Dolomites, the idea of “crowds” is incomparable to the throngs in the Vatican or Piazza del Duomo, Florence. Find a new path and take it!
You can choose your landscape: coastal, alpine or countryside
Italy has 24 national parks as well as regional and marine parks, all of which have some sort of hiking trails you can enjoy. Italy is beautiful because it has everything: gorgeous crystalline seas, undulating green countryside and jagged pink peaks. Hell, you can even hike on a volcano! Plan a trip that moves between these different landscapes or choose the region that most inspires you and enjoy the view. I’ve hiked around Lake Como with the mountains in the distance, in the Dolomites with an Austrian air, and along the coast with the Mediterranean sun. Each has its own beauty. You can’t go wrong.
It’s remarkably safe
Italy’s trails are well-marked and maintained. They’re connected by towns or mountain huts at reasonable intervals making point-to-point hiking super easy to plan and execute. Not only that, but Italy has a near total lack of dangerous wild animals and most can be planned with rural bus or train connections. Here, the most dangerous thing about a hike would be your own lack of preparation – particularly in the Alps or high mountains where the weather can change suddenly. Still, even when caught in a thunderstorm there’s often a warm rifugio or baracca (lean-to) close enough.
It’s healthy, satisfying and fun!
Hiking can be hard. I’ve had many a hike where halfway through I’ve threatened mutiny. But it’s also true that I’ve never regretted getting to the top once, no matter how sore my legs are or aching my feet. The views are breathtaking, the company has always been great and the endorphins are running. Plus, after a long day of hiking nothing tastes better than an enormous plate of Italian pasta, mountain polenta, sausage, gelato or wine. You’ve got your exercise in – now it’s time to indulge.
Hiking in Italy Resources:
Recreational hiking is managed by Italy’s Club Alpino Italiano (CAI). Though it’s all in Italian, you can find a complete list of the country’s rifugi, including where to find them and how to make reservations (recommended).
Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Italy guidebook is an extensive and well-researched resource. (and I don’t have affiliate links…)
Italy’s seven best hikes from Lonely Planet
The Italian Parks organization lists walking trails through each of Italy’s 24 national parks.