The cultural, architectural and gastronomic delights of Italy’s most famous cities have long since ensured them a place amongst the world’s top must-see destinations. But beyond the much-vaunted realms of Florence, Rome, Venice and Amalfi lies a plethora of lesser-known, but equally rewarding, destinations. Here’s a taster of these hidden gems:
Puglia: The region of Puglia lies on the “heel” of Italy’s boot. Less expensive and far less touristy than Italy’s more famous coastal stretches, it offers many stunning unspoiled beaches on both the Adriatic and Mediterranean coastlines; whitewashed towns, vineyards and olive groves reminiscent of the Greek islands; ancient castles, ornate churches and baroque architecture, and of course, some fantastically tasty regional dishes. Look out for the hobbit-like “trulli”, the cone-shaped houses unique to the region.
Perugia: Any town that holds an annual chocolate festival is a winner with the Travelzoo team. Set deep in the heart of the Umbrian countryside, this beautifully preserved hilltop town dates back before Roman times and boasts incredible views of the Tiber valley. If that weren’t enough, it also offers a wealth of spectacular churches spanning the past 700 years, an outstanding art collection at the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria and an internationally renowned jazz festival each summer.
Verona: Venture into the backstreets of this charming city and find the very same balcony where Shakespeare’s Juliet sighed for her Romeo (according to local legend). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Verona offers an abundance of medieval and Roman architecture alongside its attractive contemporary bars, restaurants and shops. However, it is to be recommended perhaps above all for its awe-inspiring Roman amphitheatre, which plays host to internationally-acclaimed operatic performances under the stars each summer.
Cefalu & Taormina: We couldn’t choose between these two Sicilian gems, so we’ve cheated and included both. Along the north Mediterranean coast of the island and nestled at the foot of a dramatic rocky outcrop, into which is carved the arresting silhouette of a 12th-century cathedral, lies Cefalu. Rich in history, this little town’s quaint, cobbled streets, picturesque piazzas and delightful sandy beach make it a firm favourite with those in the know. Over on the east coast is Taormina, whose breathtaking views of Mount Etna, perfectly preserved Greek amphitheatre and architecture from throughout the millennium have been attracting tourists for over 100 years. Larger and less rustic in feel than Cefalu, the town also offers a wide choice of smart restaurants, shops, superb beach and some very pretty municipal gardens.
Le Marche: Bordering Italy’s mountainous central region on one side and plunging into the Adriatic Sea on the other is this peaceful and pretty corner of Italy. Its rolling hills and attractive medieval towns have led to descriptions as the “new Tuscany”, whilst its sandy beach towns come alive during the summer, providing a great value alternative to the better-known seaside resorts. Highlights include the small but perfectly formed Renaissance capital of Urbino, with its stunning Ducal palace, the popular (with Italians) seaside resort of Pesaro and the annual opera festival held each summer at Macerata’s impressive outdoor amphitheatre.