We had no intention of stopping here, but I was in desperate need of a toilet break that quickly turned into getting lost in the labyrinth of white streets and a delicious lunch in the church square.
With the statue of Christ looking down on Maratea, it’s no surprise this picturesque town along the coast is packed with churches. Enjoy marina-side dining down on the waterfront, or take a short stroll inland to enjoy the town itself before dipping into limestone caves to escape the summer sun.
From the beauty of Lake Tovel high in the mountains, which reflects a near-perfect image of the alpine landscape on a flat day, to the underground apple storage centres, it’s a beautiful spot to break away from the crowds and enjoy off the beaten path Italy.
1. Castelmezzano, Basilicata
The unexpected rains did not dampen our unplanned and last-minute visit to Acquafredda and Maratea, but surprisingly become one of the best nights of my recent Italian road trip.
When we arrived at Padula, the heavens had opened, and what was meant to be a breathtaking view of this Campania town climbing up a mountain was more of a hazy cloud and dodging newly created rivers running down the roads. The windy route up to the top provides you with tremendous views down on Certosa di Padula, a large monastery that dates back to the 1300s.
2. Locorotondo, Puglia
Just a short drive down the road, and you’ll arrive at Acquafreeda, a hidden gem in Italy that many just drive through as they explore the Basilicata coast. This small village has just a couple of restaurants, but we found a fantastic 4-bedroom house here for the night at a crazy price, where Gianni, the owner, welcomed us like long-lost friends by popping open Prosseco and sharing insider travel secrets of the region. With an outside bath overlooking the ocean and the colourful houses on either side of the green mountains, it felt like a magical experience without the need for a fancy hotel.
This too cute to believe Italy hidden gem was my first day trip in Emilia Romagna, and it stayed my favourite. The picturesque streets with little cafes and gelato shops sit under the three hills of the town; one clocktower, one castle and one church. You can enjoy a casual stroll between the three and visit them before noshing down on all the gelato below. We saw one little tourist group there, but other than that, on a blissfully sunny June day, it was devoid of tourists, making this a true off the beaten path Italy experience.
Home to the largest residential building in Europe after the Vatican, Mantua is packed with art and architectural gems.
3. Trento, Trentino
Meanwhile, the architecture provides a stunning example of Romanesque art, such as the Cathedral, which nearly didn’t get off the ground. While construction started in the 1100s, an earthquake came along and severely damaged the Cathedral shortly after. Eventually, some 60 years later, construction was completed, but with various extensions and additions, you’ll notice the array of styles both inside and outside the Cathedral.
Sirimione, the famed village on Lake Garda, thanks to the castle which seems to float in the lake, might top the list of things to do in Lombardy, but the rest of the lake has plenty to offer.
4. Matera, Basilicata (and Massafra, Puglia)
If the accommodation prices in Matera make you bulk, then staying at relatively nearby Massafra or Castellaneta, which are more off the beaten path, are good bets.
When you think of Italy from the movies, you know the ones, hair flying in convertible cars, verdant green hills of vines, castles towering above little red roof towns, you’re essentially thinking of Brisighella.
A relatively small commune, the main town itself is everything you would expect: still canals reflecting colourful buildings, streets lined with excellent restaurants and bars, and the joy of not being too crowded by tourists. It’s well worth hiring a bike to explore the local area and the Po Delta Nature Park (complete with Flamingos) after you’ve enjoyed a couple of chilled days and sampled the local fish speciality, Eel and Clams.
5. Mantua, Lombardy
We have to thank the Gonzaga rulers for most of the grand architecture in Mantua, whose Ducal Palace presents some 600 odd rooms. While only some are open to the public, they are an architectural feast with grand frescos and beautiful art.
Do you have any off the beaten path suggestions for my next visit to Italy? Some Italy hidden gems I should make a beeline for? If so, please leave them in the comments so I can keep adding more to this list of places to live la dolce vita.
The city is surrounded by three artificial lakes, one coated in lilypads which call out for a sunset boat cruise, but the real magic is hidden behind closed doors in the numerous grand rooms.
On the square, bordered by a few cafes, locals sit on benches and plastic chairs, drinking espressos or beers and catching up. Small restaurants serve up traditional Cucina Povera, the peasant food of Southern Italy; an unfortunate name for such delicious cuisine, which may be simple in ingredients but not taste.
I fell in love with Venice the second our eyes met, I’ve chowed down on the best pizza of my life in Naples, and I’ve marvelled at all the things to do in Rome before more than once. But it’s the hidden gems of Italy that genuinely have me hooked and returning time and time again, from quaint villages of colourful stacked houses to mirror-like lakes against alpine backdrops, going off the beaten path in Italy truly pays off.
The Lazio region is home to one of Italy’s most famous cities, Rome, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of Italian hidden gems to find here, too, especially given it’s such a hotbed of ancient architecture.
6. Tropea, Calabria
The Trulli houses that Puglia is known for are at their most dense in Puglia. Stone buildings with pointed cone-like roofs make for a perfect postcard photo, though now more and more people are discovering Alberobello, it won’t be a hidden Italian gem for long.
It took me a few visits to Emilia Romagna before I finally made it to Comacchio, but it was certainly worth the wait! Comacchio isn’t the most accessible place to get to in Emilia Romagna as it does not have a train station, but whether you hire a car or make it here by bus, it’s well worth taking a detour for.
7. Varenna, Lake Como, Lombardia
Along the windswept coast, you’ll find wild herbs in the national park before arriving at the Punta Palascia Lighthouse. Strong waves batter the unique rock formations and caves along the coastline.
Varenna is across the water from Bellagio and was my favourite of those I visited. During a crisp November day, with snow-capped mountains really showing off the bright colours of the houses here, I felt like I had all of Varenna to myself. It might not be off the beaten path Italy all year round, but out of season, it really feels that way. With spectacular castles and grand houses in the mountains above, and the little coffee shops with their lakeside views at water level, Lake Como is the perfect place for a long weekend of rejuvenation.
8. Alberobello, Puglia
Perched against the backdrop of the Dolomiti Lucane, visiting Castelmezzano was a total accident during my recent Southern Italy road trip. This stunning Italy hidden gem is well worth the detour from the main road cutting through Basilicata, and it comes paired up with another beauty on the opposite mountain, Pietrapertosa. Travelling between the two can be completed on the ‘Flight of the Angel‘ – a high-speed zip wire that connects these two off the beaten path Italian towns together.
While I’ve only explored 13 of the 20 regions that make up Italy, I’ve discovered plenty of Italian hidden gems on the way, especially over my countless visits to this loveable country in the past year. This list will no doubt keep expanding as I venture back to discover more hidden gems, but for now, here are some top suggestions for those wanting to get off the beaten path in Italy, something I promise you will be full of rewards.
9. Camogli, Liguria
What is obvious from the ground level, though, is how adorable, cute, and any other travel-cliche description you can throw in it was. This is a dreamy town where white-washed walls are brightened up by purple and pink flowers in pots, and little restaurants offer alfresco dining in the quaint streets.
As well as a Violin museum, you can also visit workshops to see how much effort goes into their production.
10. Martina Franca, Puglia
Valsugana offers up epic hikes, lakes perfect for watersports, and all against snow-capped mountains and an alpine tree-decorated backdrop. While Lake Garda might be the most famous lake around here, those in Valusgana, such as Lake Levico, still have those Europe hidden gem vibes about them.
Wow! What a city, and to be honest, I’m surprised this incredible place is somewhat off the beaten path in Italy still.
11. Orta San Giulio, Piedmont
This tiny republic is the 5th smallest country in the world and after sunset and the daytrippers depart, you have the most magical ancient experience walking its old city without any crowds, to get off the beaten path in Italy, you just have to cross a land border.
It’s a truly fascinating place being one of the oldest republics in the world. Italy surrounds it but is not part of the EU (although it has no borders). They use the Euro and have individual San Marino coins. They have two presidents at any time who serve six months each. They have their own calendar. You get the point, it’s a pretty unique place, and as such, you should certainly make the time to ‘pop over the border’ to this still fairly undiscovered gem.
12. Valsugana, Trentino
Cinque Terre is by no means a hidden gem in Italy anymore, but if you visit in the off-season as I did, you’ll feel like you have gone off the beaten path in Italy,
A traditional fisherman’s town with colourful houses, a long history, impressive hotels, small bakeries and a laid-back vibe is one of my favourite places in Italy and given what a fantastic country it is, that is no mean feat! If you do visit Camogli, then be sure to check out the historical and impressive Cenobio Dei Dogi hotel, which has been lovingly restored and, although a bit pricey, provides a slice of history and elegance to go with your catch of the day and amazing views from the pool terrace.
13. Acquafredda and Maratea, Basilicata
Behind closed doors of which young and passionate archaeological staff hold the keys, old watermills and ancient underground wine cellars hide. This is a true Italian hidden gem, and the drive through the countryside winding up the mountains will make sure you feel truly off the beaten path.
With incredibly warm and clear waters around it, and the chance to swim with turtles, dolphins and countless other marine wildlife, the island is indeed a different way to experience Italy, from the food influences to the culture is entirely different to the mainland. Epic sunsets, amazing beach days and a real adventure await those who venture off the beaten path in Italy and head to any of the three Palagie Islands.
Towns such as Sant’Agata di Puglia aren’t the kind of places you come to tick off a long list of must-visit attractions, but rather to relax into an authentic pace of life.
14. Lugana and Manerba del Garda, Lombardy
Also outside the city centre is the Laghetto Cave di Bauxite, where bright red soil surrounding a disused quarry, now turned lake, is home to turtles and birds.
I was also amazed to find out that numerous lakes had been awarded the blue flag award for beach and water quality, something I had assumed was just reserved for beautiful beaches. Once you see the bright cleanliness of the lakes and the families relaxing on the beachside shores, though, you’ll quickly see why this region deserves these accolades. I stayed in the Valsugana region for my lake-side escape, and it was the perfect off the beaten path Italian experience.
Cremona is a city in the Lombardy region, but being so close to the Emilia Romagna border, you can see similarities such as the Porticos.
Sperlonga is one of those places and worth going off the beaten path in Italy to visit. A coastal town that lies around mid-way between Rome and Naples, the sea grotto here, which dates back to Roman times, is the main draw. The Villa of Tiberius is home to plenty of ancient sculptures and a well-put-together museum while the beach and port overlooked by the Torre Truglia come equipped with plenty of small restaurants to get your pizza and pasta fix.
Otranto has quite a few surprises to enjoy, including the most easterly point of mainland Italy, a short drive from Otranto centre.
15. Comacchio and the Po Delta, Emilia Romagna
I can not wait to visit Lampedusa, especially after my good friend Nicole headed there just before we joined up for our South Italy hidden gems road trip.
Martina Franca is a short drive from Alberobello but had very few tourists, at least on the day I visited, which places it firmly on the Italy hidden gems list. In summer, it hosts an opera festival which sees its visitor numbers grow. The town used to be completely walled off, and the large squares, little restaurants and spotless setting make this an ideal lunch stop if nothing else.
Padula itself is a relatively hidden gem in Italy, with most people speeding past it on the motorway, but it’s an excellent pit-stop if nothing else to explore the monastery and plentiful churches and squares in the commune. And, if you make it on a sunny day, unlike me, the views looking at the town which rises up the mountain will be epic.
16. Lampedusa, Pelagie Islands
Both are much quieter and relaxing but offer plenty of lesser discovered attractions. Whether you explore the castle of Massafra and marvel at its old Viaduct or visit the beaches or perched town of Castellaneta, this triangle of close-by spots provides plenty of fascinating history to discover.
If you have heard of Lampedusa before, it likely isn’t as an off the beaten path Italy tourist destination but is more likely linked to news reports about refugees. Located in the Mediterranean ocean, Lampedusa sits halfway between Tunisia and Malta.
To avoid any doubt, San Marino is an entirely different country to Italy, but given Italy surrounds it, I thought it warranted a place and inclusion on my Italy hidden gem list, especially as it is one of the least visited countries in Europe.
Calabria, much like Puglia on the other side, is a region of azure waters, sandy beach days, great value and off-the-beaten-path Italian experiences. As a lot of international visitors to Italy stick to the north, the south, in general, provides a more affordable beach destination.
17. Val di Non, Trentino
Matera has become more well known in recent years thanks to being awarded the Capital of Culture 2019, but this fascinating spot, one of the longest inhabited human settlements in the world, is a must-visit. The selection of caves that make up the Sassi, the old part of the city which is now surrounded by the new section, is incredible to explore. The inhabitants all left these cave-like homes when diseases were rife, but they are now open to discover and visit, with the history of poverty levels of the past left behind.
That’s not to say it’s without the crowds, though, especially in the peak summer months when locals head south for their vacations. One of the most impressive features of Tropea is the Santa dell’Islo church which is perched on a large rock overlooking the beach. The 12th-century cathedral and fortified old town add to the splendour, and it’s a great base to explore more of the Calabria region.
Literally translated as the Valley of Nothing, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
On a crisp November day, with blue skies and beautiful waters, I arrived at the five lands, or towns, that makeup Cinque Terre. It was basically empty, with just a few tourists to share the experience with, and I was reminded just how much the crowds in summer can completely change the vibe of European destinations.
18. Brisighella, Emila Romagna
The more touristy side of the Truli was reasonably busy on the public holiday I visited, but if you visit the opposite side, you’ll find much emptier streets with homes open to stroll through and discover the history of these iconic buildings. One thing that did surprise me here was the town has built up and around these houses, which mixes the traditional with modern, and I hadn’t realised it wasn’t just a remote collection of Truli from the photos I had previously seen.
Lake Como is a real gem in the Lombardia region, most famous for its capital city of Milan. While Bellagio and George Clooney’s home may be its most famous draw, there are countless villages and towns around the lake with lesser crowds that are equally, if not more beautiful.
If you are looking for a beautiful hidden gem in Italy, then Locorotondo is the town for you!
19. Sant Agata’di Puglia, Puglia
This land of apple orchards is littered with castles amongst epic landscapes but also holds many natural wonders.
If you like Lambrusco, then you are also in luck, as the wine is produced both here and in nearby Emilia Romagna.
Often billed as ‘Little Venice’ due to it being close to the Veneto border, complete with canals and relatively devoid of tourists, it’s an ideal base to explore the local nature and also soak up the quaint canals.
Nestled alongside Lake Orta, this pastel-coloured town is a real gem in Piedmont and boasts lovely views of the inhabited island of San Giulio, which sits in the lake itself.
20. Cremona, Lombardy
Be sure to also check out my list of unique and unforgettable experiences to have in Italy!
The capital city of the Trentino region, Trento, is a perfectly sized city break. It won’t exhaust you like a weekend in Rome, but it still provides ample opportunity to experience the best of Italy; culture, art, food, more food and that relaxed vibe that makes Italy so unique, making it a firm favourite on my Italy hidden gem list.
Also impressive and worth a visit is the Te Palace (which has nothing to do with the drink), which also boasts some grand halls, and perhaps my favourite spot, the Teatro Bibiena, a true Italy hidden gem if ever there was one!
There are two hidden gems I recommend you to visit on the Lombardy side, though the whole lake is beautiful.
21. Sperlonga, Lazio
Inside Otranto, beyond the city-beach bathing opportunities and the massive castle complex, the Otranto Cathedral is well worth a visit, even if you are feeling a bit over Cathedrals. The floor is laid out with incredible mosaics depicting heaven and hell, and in the back Chapel sit the bones of Christian martyrs who passed away here. A fascinating place and a worthy hidden gem in Italy!
Each of the five villages built into the rocks along the ocean offers different experiences, from hiking and vineyards to sandy beaches, but if you visit in the middle of summer, expect plenty of other tourists, including group tours from the nearby cruise terminal. For an off the beaten path experience of Cinque Terre, brave the colder winter months, the views are still just as stunning.
22. San Marino
Now, this is a place that stole my heart. While Cinque Terre and Portofino steal the show along this coast, quieter and charming Camogli retains much more of its traditional fishing village feel, making it a somewhat hidden gem in Italy.
Lugana is closer to Sirimione and, although small, is a well-known wine-producing region. Here I visited one of the small wineries and also indulged in a cooking class and family-style dinner. The perfect off the beaten path Italy experience, yet so close to some of the country’s most famous attractions!
Locorotondo became one of my favourite places in Puglia, and I absolutely fell in love with it. The coffee gave more of a kick here, the gelato felt sweeter here, and every time I turned a corner, my camera would start working overtime again. The name of the town comes from the circular shape it was built in, although this isn’t obvious from ground level.
23. Padula, Campania
Be sure to check out the surroundings, including the old quarry caves, which now host live music performances underground, the excavation site of the old castle, which offers terrific panoramic views and head to the mountains for some fantastic fresh food and fresh air at the Parco Carnè visitor centre.
Read more on my friend Nicole’s Lampedusa Travel Guide.
24. Otranto, Puglia
The cobbled streets of the city were spotless, a far cry from some of the filthier areas of the larger Italian cities, while the impressive Buonconsiglio Castle, galleries and outside frescos provide enough culture without being overwhelming. Over a weekend, I could walk the streets with no rush to be anywhere, turning down little alleyways, grabbing drinks in the main square under the impressive cathedral and enjoying being in a city where the locals seemed as excited to be there as I did. While the region of Trentino is popular with neighbouring countries to visit by car, it’s still a relatively off the beaten path destination in Italy.
Manerba del Gara provides some of the most stunning views across the lake, including beaches and some private islands home to costly and grand homes. Take a short and easy hike here to enjoy the views, and then climb down onto the rocky or sandy beaches along the lakeside for the perfect temperature dip in summer.
Lake Garda is actually in three different regions of Italy; Trentino, Veneto and Lombardy, and each part offers different attractions.
One of those towns which just takes you back in time, Sant’Agata di Puglia is a few hour’s drive from Bari in Puglia, but you’ll feel transported not to just a different setting but a different time.
25. Cinque Terre, Liguria (in winter)
While the town itself is mesmerising, especially when viewed from a distance to admire its unique location, the surrounding area is full of epic hikes, forests and national parks. Dating back to the 10th century and with an age-old charm, an overnight stay in Castelmezzaono is undoubtedly on my hit list when I return to Basilicata.
As with most lakeside towns and villages in Italy, expect colourful hues of homes, family-run restaurants, and being the north of the country, Aperitivo hour with fixed-priced cocktails served up with plenty of snacks. The vibe here is laidback, with coffee culture going strong at the various piazzas and gardens in the town. A boat trip across to the island is a must, and staying overnight is a treat as the lights from the island flicker in the reflections of the lake.
While Violins are the name of the game here, thanks to its long and successful history of producing premium versions of the stringed instruments, it’s also an ideal day trip from Milan or Venice.The lakes look more like Canada than Europe, and the valley full of winding rivers and apple trees lined up in their thousands like a vineyard is truly breathtaking!