Lately my travels in Italy have been small.
I mean really small.
Not only are the trips brief, maybe a day, at most a weekend, but we tend to hit villages, towns, at most a very compact city. Marco and I have seen most of the big sights in central and northern Italy. What really charms us is the atmosphere of the characteristic Italian borghi. We want tiny restaurants with homemade food. We want a nice stroll. We want the possibility to do next-to-nothing.
The more I travel in Italy, the more I’m convinced that Italy’s biggest charm comes from its smallest towns and villages.
There’s nothing to do in a small town. In Varenna, my favorite village on Lake Como, you can walk along the lake and…that’s about it. Soave is a small town surrounded by medieval walls with a curious castle, beautiful surroundings and plenty of world-class wine. You visit Pienza and Volterra for the ancient stone streets, the Etruscan history, the paradisiacal views.
And for me, that’s reason enough!
This blog constantly advocates for small towns, but only recently have I realized that there is a certain pattern to follow when touring a small Italian town. For travelers used to hitting all the stops in a city, a small town can be slightly disorienting, but I’m here to help.
Each Italian town has a couple of things in common.
Here’s where to start:
1) Start at the Duomo
No matter how big or small, an Italian town has a church. Most of those you’ll visit will have a cathedral, or Duomo, as well. This is an excellent starting point. Usually in the center of town, head straight for the Duomo – it’s the main sight!
2) Find the main drag
After visiting the duomo and admiring the piazza, take a stroll down the main street. Depending on the size of the town you’ll either have shops lining either side or ancient-looking houses. Eventually, you’ll likely stumble upon the civic piazza, a town square surrounded by the town’s public buildings rather than religious ones.
3) And the town’s second piazza
And here you are! Beyond the cathedral’s piazza, there is likely at least one other dedicated to the town’s civic duties. Whether you have more beyond that will depend on just how big or small this small town is and it’s layout. Padova’s centro storico is quite big and it has four or five piazze because of it, the little ones named after different types of markets. In tiny Spello I barely remember even one piazza.
4) Then, visit the one other notable site
After the two piazzas and the main drag, search for the one other thing that makes the town notable. It could be a specific fresco, possible found in the Duomo, a small museum, the house or tomb of a famous person. It’s likely you won’t even know what it is, but nearly every town or village in Italy has something. Spello, with 8,579 inhabitants, is known throughout Italy for its elaborately decorated balconies and porches, but it’s one other notable site is the Chapel of St. Andrew with the Madonna in trono e santi, an oil painting by Pinturicchio. I didn’t know who that was when I visited the borgo, but I certainly didn’t want to go all that way without having seen it!
5) Finally, focus on the food
No matter how small, each town will have something special to offer. Remember, all Italian food is regional, so focus on the local food. Find a tiny bar and have breakfast. Get lunch in a three-person restaurant. Enjoy hometown cooking for dinner. It’s here that you’re most likely to start a conversation, to meet a local, to slow down and start to truly understand the atmosphere of a small town.
Any tour of a small town should follow these four points, BUT they don’t cover all a small town has to offer. Because let’s be honest, you don’t usually visit a small town for its tourist sights, but for its beauty, charm, people, atmosphere.
Here’s how to find the true charm of a small town:
Delight in the details…
…and the pace
…and take in the view
Find the beauty…
…and the romance
Soak in the atmosphere…
Nothing says slow travel, ethical travel or getting off the beaten path like a stint in a small town. You can tour it in half a day, or even during a lunch stop with how little there is to check off a list. But that’s not the point of a small town. The point is to soak in the atmosphere, the speed. It’s to get in touch with actual Italians and not just throngs of tourists. It’s to see another side of life.
Because they’re just damn charming.
And that’s enough for me.