Italy is one of those magical destinations that you could return to again and again and never get bored. Ancient history, charming small towns, world-class food and wine, beautiful architecture, great beaches, and welcoming people — this country has it all. Most first-time visitors naturally stick to popular (and crowded!) destinations like Rome, Venice, Florence, and the Cinque Terre. But you’ll have a much more rewarding trip if you go beyond the big cities and explore some hidden gems in Italy. So if you’re looking to get away from the selfie sticks and tour buses, here are seven great places to get off the beaten path in Italy.
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1. Perugia: A university town with a great music festival
The Umbrian town of Perugia is a great chance to get off the beaten path in Italy while experiencing some of the best the country has to offer: vineyards, food and churches.
Perugia sees few tourists, but it has a healthy foreign population due to several international universities in town. So it has all the traveler amenities you could possibly want (like good, free WiFi), but no giant tour buses following around a guide waving a flag.
The highlights in town are the magnificent cathedral, viewpoints across the Umbrian countryside, and the medieval architecture all over the city. Perugia also has one of Europe’s best music festivals — Umbria Jazz, usually in July. While the international superstar acts are (pricey) ticketed events, many of Europe and North America’s lesser-known best artists play free shows around town.
Perugia is also perfectly positioned for day trips. Assisi is the most popular, with its plethora of medieval churches. Torgiano is a popular wine-tasting destination. You could even do a trip to Orvieto, another popular place to get off the beaten path in Italy.
For a classy but affordable meal in Perugia, check out Ristorante Il Cantinone — they serve family-style meals at extremely reasonable prices, including wine. Right across the street is a wine cellar where you can bring a bottle and get it filled for €4. Pizzeria Mediterreana has the best pizza in town. For gelato, seek out the combined chocolate/gelato shops — Perugia is famous for its chocolate production.
2. Mantova: The best all-around place to get off the beaten path in Italy
Of all the cities on this list, Mantova (or Mantua in English) may be the most truly off the beaten path in Italy that you can get. I’m almost hesitant to write about it because it is so undiscovered and one of the few remaining Italy hidden gems. But it just might be my favorite city in the entire country.
Mantova is halfway between Milan and Florence, and an hour away from the Lake District. It has canals, a beautiful pedestrian downtown, great cafe culture, beautiful green spaces, and historic palaces. But best of all, it’s a great place to make local friends and get a taste for everyday Italian life.
To make the most of visiting Mantova, connect with the local CouchSurfing community. Unlike in most places, where CouchSurfing is primarily a way for tourists to score free accommodation, the Mantova community exists mostly to connect locals to each other. They have regular meetups where you’ll likely be the only tourist. During my three days in Mantova, my CouchSurfing friends took me to a music festival where we danced to classic southern Italian music all night, to a food festival, and to a picnic in the park.
If you’re after more headline attractions, you can easily take a day trip to Lake Garda from Mantova. It’s only an hour away by car (by train you’d have to double back through Verona — doable, but longer). Don’t miss a stop in the adorable lakeside village of Borghetto, one of the best small towns in Italy, on your way back.
3. Procida: One of the best kept secrets in Italy for beach holidays
Southern Italy is full of classic Mediterranean beaches. Perhaps none is more popular than Capri — the stunning island off the coast of Naples famous for limoncello, visiting fashion stars, and impossibly blue water. Unfortunately, expectations of seaside fun can be dashed when you have to share it with some of the more than 2 million tourists who visit each year.
Luckily, there is an alternative. The tiny island of Procida is near Capri off the coast of Naples, but sees a fraction of the tourists. You’re more likely to meet locals on its black-sand beaches with views of Mount Vesuvius. Prices are slightly inflated, but you can still get a good cup of coffee for under €1 and an aperitivo in a locally focused trattoria for €5. This island gets only 100,000 visitors per year. If you love off the beaten path travel, you can’t miss this island, which is also one of the must visit places in Italy.
Ferries to Procida leave throughout the day from Naples and Ischia. The harbor town is lovely to wander around when you arrive. Then, walk up the road into the hills for amazing sea views. Look out for signs pointing to stairways down steep cliffsides to find a beach. The closest one is about a 20 minute walk from town, but the best one is on the far end of the island — Spiaggia del Ciracciello. You’ll walk through lemon groves on the way there.
If you want to get off the beaten path in Italy without missing out on the beach experience, or while visiting touristy Naples, Procida is the perfect place to do it.
4. Trieste: Venice’s smaller cousin
Venice is unquestionably one of the most touristic cities in the world. But despite the hordes descending on the Venetian canals, few visitors to Italy explore the surrounding area, near the border with Slovenia. But don’t overlook the region’s most charming city — Trieste. If you want to see Italy off the beaten path, it’s an easy trip from Venice.
Trieste in many ways feels more Central European than Italian. It was long tied to Austria, and is now almost completely surrounded by Slovenia. Its largest castle was even occupied by the Hapsburgs. But the local coffee bars, trattorias, and canals running through the city center will remind you that you’re still in a Venetian satellite city.
Don’t miss the expansive central plaza, which comes to life in the evenings and around the holidays. Pretty architecture, forts and museums, and even a former Nazi concentration camp provide a window into the history and culture of this forgotten corner of Italy. And you’ll have them all to yourself — no tour groups here.
One of the best parts of visiting Trieste is the local food scene. Hostaria Malcanton is a good place to start. This tiny restaurant serves great seafood and pasta dishes for reasonable prices in a super-cozy, could-not-be-more-Italian-if-it-tried type of atmosphere. The wine is good and cheap too. DiNapoli Masters is the best pizzeria in the downtown area. Adoro Cafe is a good coffee/pastry choice.
5. Siena: One of the most beautiful towns in Italy with a long history
Siena is more touristic than the other places on this list of destinations to get off the beaten path in Italy. But considering its proximity to Florence, it’s still pretty quiet. It’s a great option to see more of Tuscany.
Siena’s biggest event is the Palio di Siena. This medieval-style bareback horse race that pits each neighborhood, or contrada, of the city against each other occurs on July 2nd and August 16th each year. It’s worth timing your visit to see the race. Arrive a day beforehand to see the ceremonies in each neighborhood — the horses must each be blessed in their neighborhood church before the huge street parties start in the evening. Then, follow the morning parade to the central square and grab a seat in the middle of the racetrack, on the ground, to see the spectacle. The whole thing is over in about 90 seconds — blink and you’ll miss it.
Despite drawing increasing tourist numbers, the Palio is still a local tradition, with deep roots in spirituality and culture. The neighborhoods are fiercely competitive and take the race outcome very seriously — when I was there, the woman next to me collapsed in sobs when her contrada didn’t win. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an Italy that’s barely recognizable today.
Beyond the Palio, Siena is one of the best small towns in Italy to visit. The central cathedral and downtown area feature typical Gothic architecture. You can find nice viewpoints over the city and nearby countryside. Good coffee, gelato, pizza, and restaurants abound. Add a couple of interesting museums (particularly the Museo Civico) and you can easily spend a few days here without getting bored.
6. Genova: The pesto capital
Okay, I’ll admit it — Genova (or Genoa in English) does not make the best first impression. It rarely makes lists of must visit places in Italy. It’s a port town with a busy urban vibe; street salesman hawking fake sunglasses, industrial pollution, cat-calling men and all. But head to the Old Town, away from the port, and you’ll discover one of the country’s most charming historic areas.
Ligurian architecture is quite distinctive from the rest of Italy. You’ll quickly notice the distinctive black and white blocks that form many buildings and churches here. Wander around the narrow streets and get lost in the alleyways and you’ll discover local artists, vegetable markets, and cafes that make it feel like time is standing still.
Genova was also the original home of Christopher Columbus. You can visit his birthplace or just keep your eye open for the numerous statues devoted to him all over town.
Plus, Genova’s biggest selling point: It’s the capital of pesto. Seriously, once you’ve eaten Pesto Genovese in its native town, you’ll never go for the mediocre versions elsewhere again. La Botega Del Gusto is a wildly authentic place to try it, both for the food and the atmosphere. It’s one of the top Italy hidden gems for foodies.
When the urban grit gets you down, take a day trip out to one of the beaches near Genova. Boccadeasse is a popular option — just 20 minutes by bus from downtown, this charming little village is classic off the beaten path in Italy. The beaches are clean and sandy, and the local-to-tourist ratio skews heavily toward locals.
7. The Emilia-Romagna countryside: The alternative to Tuscan road trips
Most visitors to the Emilia-Romagna region visit Bologna and…that’s it. But the truth is, this province is a fantastic alternative to road tripping through Tuscany — especially if you’re more of a foodie than a wine connoisseur.
Bologna is the gateway, and it’s worth a few days of exploration. But don’t miss out on Ravenna, Parma, and Modena — all easily reached on day trips. Parma is even one of the UNESCO Creative Cities of Gastronomy — you really can’t miss out on the food here. In between, you’ll drive through lovely rolling hills providing countless photo opportunities. This is all off the beaten path travel, as most visitors simply head straight for Milan.
The best way to explore Emilia-Romagna is with your own wheels. Many travelers rent cars, but I explored on the back of my CouchSurfing host’s motorbike — which I have to say, was far better than driving around. Bologna is the best place to rent a vehicle.
Food is the name of the game in this part of Italy. From Parma ham to tortellini, lasagna, spaghetti bolognese and more, most of what we typically think of as “Italian” food originates here. Whether you check out the local osterias or buy ingredients to cook at your hostel or guesthouse, you won’t be disappointed.
I hope these seven destinations have given you some ideas about how to get off the beaten path in Italy. You won’t regret going beyond the big cities. In Italy, even the less touristic sites are some of the best places to visit on the planet.
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[…] I spent most of my five weeks in Italy CouchSurfing. I made some lifelong friends this way — like Antonio, who took me on a midnight walk around old Naples. Or Andrea, who brought me to a dance party in Circo Massimo in Rome. But my single most memorable CouchSurfing experience was with Diana in the tiny city of Mantova. […]
[…] Cinque Terre is roughly halfway between Pisa, in Tuscany, and Genova (Genoa in English) in Liguria. It’s most easily reached by train, via La […]
This is awesome! Lovely photos!
[…] in Italy, the historical sites, the ruined cities, and the palaces, you can still find a few hidden gems. And one of the best is the volcanic island of Procida, off the coast of […]
I loved this post! I was hoping to travel to Italy over the summer but was unable to with the pandemic…so now this will help me plan an even better trip when I can! 🙂 thanks for sharing!
Ugh I’m sorry your trip got canceled due to the pandemic. I hope you can go sometime soon!
Love Siena! There’s so many little towns I’ve never heard of here! I can’t wait to get back to Italy. When I visit I’ll pull up your guide again to plan a future trip!
Siena is one of my favorites!
I love Italy so much! All of these towns are high on my bucket list. They are all so pretty. 🙂
I think you could get off the train at any random stop in Italy and find a beautiful town 🙂
Can I just say that Italy has my heart! I’ve only been there once, in Rome for a few days, but it immediately felt like “home” to me. Thank you so much for sharing these other options. I am definitely saving it to refer to when I am able to go back.
Right? Italy really has that magic.
Although I have been multiple times in Italy, I haven’t visited most of the places in this list. Siena and Trieste look so beautiful!
Siena is so great, especially if you can visit during the Palio!
I love coming across hidden gems, and I’ve only heard of a couple of these places before so I’ll be adding the rest to my Italy bucket list!
It’s great to spend some time in the less touristy spots in Italy 🙂
[…] is one of the best destionations off the beaten path in Italy. Marina Grande is the main harbor of the island where you can find ferry services to many places […]
one day At A Time cast
Off the beaten path in Italy: 7 Italy hidden gems not to miss