When booking a trip to Italy, Rome, Florence and Venice are usually the likely trio of locations that come to mind, or a visit down to the Amalfi Coast. The thing about this country is that it has something for everyone whether you want coastal towns, charming countryside jaunts or picturesque mountain villages. Each spot has its own history and character and allows visitors to be immersed in the culture from meeting the people to tasting the delicacies of each region.
I have been lucky enough to see much of it from north to south in my 30 or so trips (I’ve lost count!), and I’m continually in awe of every destination. There is still so much to check out, which I intend to do on future stays, but for now, here are nine places worth going to if you want to avoid the touristy thing. Just note that for many – if not all these places – you need to rent a car in order to capture the true essence of each, otherwise you will be spending a boatload on taxis or drivers (ride share doesn’t exist for the most part). The beauty in these trips really is checking out the neighboring areas from one base point.
The Arena Media Brands, LLC and respective content providers may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.
For me, this beach town on the Adriatic Sea in Abruzzo is my home-away-from-home and one of the most underrated areas of Italy. My father was born in a hilltop town, Mosciano Sant’Angelo, just 12 minutes up from here, and I have been visiting my family since I was 13. Situated two and a half hours directly east of Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, it is an easy place to reach via car or bus. It is a special spot where on one side you see the Gran Sasso, the highest peak of the Apennine Mountains, and on the other the sea. The beaches are powdery white sand and covered with umbrellas and chairs from all the different chalets, and the water is like a bath. Stay at the YOUMAMI Lifestyle Suite Hotel just a couple blocks from the beach promenade, travel into the nearby countryside for the Spaghetti alla Chitarra (an Abruzzese dish) at Villa Clesia or eat Arrosticini (another regional specialty) from Tagliato, grab an after-dinner gelato or yogurt back in Giulianova at Cichetti and a nightcap from Carmelo Licata at Seta Garden Bar. For further exploring, visit the quaint town of Montepagano and then go to Roseto degli Abruzzi for a waterfront dinner at Bolla Mare followed by drinks at Latteria. Vineyards Emidio Pepe, Marramiero and Illuminati are three of the region’s finest wine producers that offer tastings and are worth booking. From the latter, Idea 18 was born and is a great place to stay and dine if you want to be more in the country.
More from SwimLife
About a two-hour drive inland from the Abruzzo coast in Castel di Sangro, you will find Casadonna. The brainchild from three-star Michelin chef Niko Romito, this former 16th century monastery has been transformed into a food lover’s dream. If you are driving all that way, the 14-course tasting menu at Reale, the restaurant on property, is a must and includes seasonal favorites with Romito’s interpretive flair. The setting is a room with the focal point being one large window overlooking the surrounding countryside of Abruzzo National Park. To really feel at peace and not a bad way to digest and indulge in the wine pairing, book one of the nine bedrooms and then enjoy a next day hike into the lush surroundings.
Puglia is a region filled with towns straight out of the history pages. It’s not the easiest place to get to, but you can reach any of them by flying into either Brindisi in the southern part or Bari, which is further north, or by taking the train from Rome or any other major city. It is hard to visit all these places unless you have days on end to drive and town-hop, so to get the most of this region, pick an area and stick to the surrounding places. Beach it by day and then go to the town of your choice a couple hours before dinner to walk around and get acquainted. One that was mesmerizing was Polignano a Mare. Between two sides of the town a beach is carved out of the landscape and bordered by a Roman bridge. Monopoli, a nearby village, is home to the Don Ferrante, a boutique hotel that is as charming as it is convenient. To cool off like the locals, jump into the Adriatic from big cement blocks or go to Sabbiadoro beach club. For a place that will make you never want to leave, check into the Borgo Egnazia, which is where Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel were married. Located in Savelletri, it’s a great midway point for other remarkable towns Ostuni and Alberobello (the town made of smurf houses or trulli!).
In the more southern area of Puglia, Lecce, Gallipoli and Otranto are additional cities that are all so different and worth visiting. Close to Otranto is Baia dei Turchi with turquoise water and nature preserves all around. If you don’t want to go so far into Puglia, a great stepping-stone is Isola di Tremiti, which is about an hour-and-a-half ferry ride from Termoli. Go for the day or stay overnight to get a taste of Puglia without going so far south.
If you are in the area, visits to Positano and Capri are necessary, but the Amalfi Coast has so many other towns to explore like Nerano, a small fishing village that sits on the Sorrento coast. A 25-minute water taxi from overly visited Positano, Nerano is a quaint choice if you are looking for something a bit more rustic. You can rent a villa or opt to stay at Hotel Lo Scoglio. The name may sound familiar as Stanley Tucci showcased the restaurant and made their Spaghetti alle Zucchine on his CNN show Searching for Italy. Around a rock by boat is also Conca del Sogno, a beach club and restaurant with the most exquisite lobster pasta. Further up the coast from Nerano is Praiano, where Casa Angelina is worth checking out for aperitivo on the terrace.
There are truly so many places to see within Sicily, but Sciacca, on the southwestern coast, is hugely rewarding. The Verdura Resort, a Rocco Forte Hotel is a five-star retreat where you can take in the sea and spa for some necessary downtime. Take a boat ride to the town of Sciacca where the sunsets are as memorable as the food at La Lampara–the busiate with red prawns and truffle is a must order! In addition to this type of pasta from Sicily, you need to try two other regional staples: cannoli and granita. Not far from the Verdura Resort is two-star Michelin chef Giancarlo Perbellini’s beach restaurant Locanda Perbellini al mare. This came recommended by Annette Sordoni of Protravel, and it was worth the visit. The rigatoni with eggplant is something everyone needs to taste. Either take a boat out for the day or drive to Scala dei Turchi, a rocky white cliff that makes an impression standing so tall out of the sea.
Because of Sciacca’s location, and Sicily being such a large island, it is best to fit in one or two other stops to really get a sense of the place. Taormina is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from there, but its landscape is so different. Situated on a hilltop, there are no bad views of the sea below or of Mount Etna. The newly opened San Domenico Palace from the Four Seasons Hotels is both a lavish place to sleep as well as a museum in its own right with paintings and original furniture in some rooms. To stay cool and enjoy the sea some more, Tao Beach Club offers a wonderful food menu and chairs to lounge. From Taormina, you can fly out of Catania airport.
If you prefer a larger city, visit Palermo, which has another airport on the island. The history and the blending of so many cultures make Sicily’s largest city so unique. Book a tour with Mauro from Palermo Wonders to learn every detail and visit the Cathedral of nearby Monreale. He may even take you to the best gelato in Palermo at Cappadonia Gelati. Stay at Villa Igiea and walk the promenade filled with stores and restaurants.
Sardinia is quite popular for European travelers, but coming from the U.S., it may not be on everyone’s list, but it should be with its Caribbean-blue water, no sharks and swanky island lifestyle. The south of the island is known for having more nature reserves whereas the north still has the beauty but also a vibrancy around it, which leads us to the Costa Smeralda. Porto Cervo is the island’s most illustrious town, with super yachts parked in the port. Staying in this area could get costly, but if lavishness is what you are after, hotels Cala di Volpe or Hotel Romazzino are perfect options. Porto Rotondo is another option by which you can reach many points during your visit. Rest your head at Hotel Abi d’Oru and wake up for an immediate dip in the sea. An hour drive south is the town of San Teodoro, which is more local and low-key. Hotel Bonsai is a nice alternative in the area. The resort town of Puntaldia offers condos or villas for extended stays and is near the gorgeous beach of Lu Impostu. With any island visit, booking a boat for a day or two is imperative. Blu Dream Services won’t steer you wrong. And be sure to take home some Sardinian ceramics and try spaghetti with bottarga (dried fish eggs).
People usually travel to Tuscany to visit vineyards in the rolling countryside, but the region extends to the coast for a sunbather’s paradise. Porto Ercole juts out into the Tyrrhenian Sea and is a fishing village where regulars usually travel from Rome or nearby cities more inland to beat the heat. Built into the cliffs, Hotel Il Pellicano is an oasis that complements the scenery with its design and style. Stay on property to dine at one of the three eateries or book a boat for an excursion to Giglio Island, the second largest of the Tuscan Archipelago islands. Lined with shops, seafood restaurants and bars, there will be something for everyone in your party. Nearby, visit The Tarot Garden, which is as whimsical as it sounds and close to medieval town Capalbio. And don’t think because you aren’t in the countryside that you can’t taste some of those Tuscan varietals because you most certainly can! Arrange a driver to take you to the famed Antinori family’s Le Mortelle and the Tenuta di Monteverro, which boasts an exceptional Vermentino.
Every November, people ascend upon this Piedmont town in the north of Italy to bid on white truffles. One year, Jay-Z even spent $15,000 on them. Truffle hunting is something everyone should make a point to do while visiting, but Alba has more to offer like its scenic views straight out of a painting. Chef Enrico Crippa has his three-star Michelin restaurant Piazza Duomo here as well. Relais San Maurizio is a bit outside Alba in Santo Stefano Belbo but it is worth the drive. The tranquility of the property is a great place to beat jet lag and chill. If a city is more appealing, Turin (Torino in Italian) is bustling like Milan or Rome but on a smaller scale. Stay at the NH Collection Torino Piazza Carlina and make time to dine at Ristorante del Cambio, a favorite of Italy’s first prime minister Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour that has been open since 1757. Don’t worry, the menu has changed since thanks to chef Matteo Baronetto, who combines classic French and Italian flavors. If it’s the right season, you’ll want to catch a Juventus match as well.
While Lake Como is a destination of choice for many like George Clooney, who has a residence there, Lake Garda is a two-hour drive east and just as gorgeous. The medieval town of Sirmione, known as the Pearl of Lake Garda, is a great stopping point to walk around and take in the scenery on the southern side. Immediately upon arrival, the Scaligero Castle greets visitors with its rich history and display. Climb the Grottoes of Catullus for a panoramic view of the lake. Don’t let the name confuse you, but Jamaica Beach is a perfect spot to swim in the crystal clear water or Lido delle Bionde, a beach chalet with olive trees and a restaurant. A middle point on the lake to stay is Gargnano, home to the luxurious Lefay Resort where you can unwind and take in the nature all around you. On the northern side of the lake is the town called Riva del Garda. A 40-minute drive from the hotel, here you have views of the Dolomites. For anyone who loves to windsurf, this is the place to do it.