The more I travel in Italy, the more I’m convinced that Italy’s biggest charm comes from its smallest towns and villages.
Rome is a must-see. Its historical importance alone can bring you there. Venice, the sinking city in the lagoon, has attracted explorers since its foundation. Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance where artists from throughout the world flocked to study, work and share ideas. Naples had kings, Sicily trade.
But what these big cities (or in the case of Sicily, island) offer in sights and excitement, they tend to lack in peace and atmosphere. Often, cities like Monza, Montalcino or Monteriggioni don’t have a specific sight to see per se, but damn do their ancient stone streets pack a whole-lot-of charm.
After fighting the crowds and touring enormous cathedrals, sometimes all a visitor wants is an unvisited little church, a lived-in neighborhood and a local, one-of-a-kind coffeeshop. That’s where the small towns come in.
If you want to experience real-life Italy, there’s no better place than its small towns.
There are hundreds of gorgeous little towns in Italy that are completely unknown or overlooked.
So how to find such towns? Easy. Choose your major destination, for example Florence, Venice or Rome, pinpoint two or three towns nearby: Go there. You might like what you find.
After all, some of the best travel experiences come from touring a random town, taking a new route and giving an unknown locale a try.
The hill towns of Tuscany have grown wildly popular over the years, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth a visit. Siena, Lucca and Pisa are big hitters, but they’re also not all that small. Really soak in the essence of each by staying overnight to get a taste of the area without the crowds, or go even smaller with a visit to Pienza. Nearby you’ll find the even lesser known Colle Val d’Elsa, a gem in the Tuscan countryside. Of course you can choose your small gems from other cities in the region, not just Florence. For example, outside of Siena there’s the walled fortress of Monteriggioni. Just three main streets, it’s definitely not on the popular tourist track.
Get out of Rome and visit quirky Calcata. Get off the coast and visit the Pontine Islands. Take a day trip to Bomarzo to visit the Park of Monsters.
Instead of Cinque Terre try romantic Portovenere, or head further north to Camogli or Bogliasco.
A trip to Umbria inherently means visiting small towns. Perugia, the region’s capital city, is popular, but its city center remains walkable, friendly and lived-in. Assisi is a staple for tourists and pilgrims to the area and can get wildly crowded – even expensive – but the town itself isn’t all that big. Try Gubbio, tiny Orvieto on a cliff or ditch the “towns” and visit the village of Spello.
From Milan take a train to explore the many towns dotting the Lake District (beyond even Como or Bellagio), explore the university town of Pavia or, if you’re looking for beauty, go to Monza for the day! Get dinner in Bergamo Alta.
Lively Padova is about 10 miles outside of Venice. There’s Ravenna, a world of mosaics; Palmanova, a star-shaped town in Friuli with a name like a ’90s Disney movie. Go even smaller and get some wine in Soave.
You get the idea.
None of these examples suggest anything more than a “day trip from…” Internet search or simple map can’t show you. The best part is that many of these towns are small enough to not fall into the tourist schemes. Films and novels paint pretty pictures about travelers meeting locals, making friends, having a one-of-a-kind experience. With 47 million visitors to the country every year and most of those in the same five big cities, that seems hardly possible for anyone, let alone a tourist.
If you want to find that magic, go small.
Without a particular sight to see, you won’t have the need to rush to and fro. You don’t have to stress about how little research you’ve done or what you don’t know. All you need to do is show up, wander and enjoy!