Year after year, Italy has been one of the most popular international destinations for American travelers. But you don’t want to see only the most popular spots there, right? That’s why we turned to travel journalist Stephen Brewer, who has been writing about Italy—and hunting for the greatest places most people haven’t seen—for decades. Here’s what he told us…
As a professional travel writer, I’ll never tire of Rome and the other big Italian stops on the popular tour circuit such as Florence, Venice and Naples. But it’s the places in between that really capture my imagination. By veering off the well-beaten path, you can enjoy a slice of typical Italian life while digging into treasure troves of art and architecture—and you’ll pay a lot less for food and lodging to boot. With a little planning, you can knock $1,000 or more off the cost of a two-weeklong trip to Italy.
Here are six of my favorite less well-known Italian towns…
Bologna. Travelers often rush past this prosperous capital of the Emilia-Romagna region on their way to Florence or Venice, each only an hour away by train. For those who do stop, Bologna reveals big rewards such as one of the world’s largest swaths of medieval architecture, Europe’s oldest university and—reason itself to spend time here—some of Italy’s best food. Le Due Torri, two towers from the Middle Ages, soar above little lanes where shop counters are piled high with prosciutto, huge wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano and other foodstuffs that have earned the city the nickname la Grassa, or “the Fat One.” Take your selections over to 450-year-old Osteria del Sole (OsteriaDelSole.it), where the concept is bring your own food—cheese, crackers, etc. It supplies wine by the glass or bottle.
Follow more than 25 miles of covered sidewalks through the city to little-known art treasures that include one of my favorites—Lamentation Over the Dead Christ by Niccolò dell’Arca, in which grief-racked life-size terra-cotta figures take Christ down from the cross. It’s tucked away in a back chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Vita. At Alberta D B&B, atmospheric rooms surround courtyards in a former convent, and host Alberta serves a breakfast that does justice to her city’s gastronomic reputation (AlbertaDBedAndBreakfast.com, from $105).*
Ferrara. Lucrezia Borgia, femme fatale of the Renaissance, lived in style at the 15th-century court of this small, elegant city about an hour south of Venice. While this daughter of a pope is best known for alleged poisonings and amorous intrigues, she also was a cultivated patron of the arts and helped lay out the quarters of palaces and pleasure pavilions that seem untouched by the past 500 years. The most lavishly decorated façade is that of Palazzo dei Diamanti, covered with 8,500 diamond-shape blocks of marble that shimmer in the sunlight.
The massive, moated Castello Estense takes up much of the center of town. Below the airy salons and hanging gardens are dank dungeons where the half-brother of Lucrezia’s husband was imprisoned for more than half a century. Local lore has it that upon his release, the old boy headed right over to Enoteca al Brindisi for a quaff. The world’s oldest wine bar still serves local vintages along with zucca (butternut squash) ravioli and other Ferrarese specialties. Just around the corner, Locanda Borgonuovo provides homey accommodations in a town house with a garden (Borgonuovo.com, from $92).
Lucca. Giacomo Puccini, who wrote La Bohème and other wildly romantic operas, was from this charming little city only a half-hour from Pisa. It’s easy to see where he got his inspiration when you walk through its lively lanes and squares. A complete circuit of town walls, topped with a promenade shaded by plane trees, seems like a stage set, and your first sighting of the church of San Michele in Foro might have you humming strains of “O mio babbino caro.” Tiered like a fancy wedding cake, the glittering assemblage of carvings and mosaics is capped with a bronze-winged St. Michael the Archangel, who appears to float over the city.
Even many shop fronts are works of art etched in early-20th-century Art Nouveau designs. Lucca’s earliest history makes itself known in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, built in an elliptical shape like the Roman amphitheater and entered through marble archways that once accommodated crowds pouring in to see gladiators battle. Take a moment to enjoy a local favorite, buccellato, a ring-shape sweet bread flavored with raisins and fennel seeds, from nearby Buccellato Taddeucci, a 19th-century pastry shop (BuccellatoTaddeucci.com). The rooms at the B&B Arena di Lucca overlook the piazza (BBArenaLucca.com, from $123).
Matera. Even in a country so liberally endowed with ancient ruins, Matera is considered old. This warren of cave dwellings cut into the flanks of the Gravina River, near the Adriatic coast about three hours east of Naples, was settled at least 7,000 years ago. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth. From the relatively “modern” 13th-century cathedral at the cliffs, staircases and stepped lanes plunge down through a jumble of rock-hewn churches and houses. Every twist and turn reveals another view over the ancient townscape and the countryside beyond.
The local cuisine is cucina povera (“poor man’s cooking”)—and Le Botteghe (LeBottegheMatera.it) serves deliciously simple pastas in rustic surroundings. You can stay close by at Fra i Sassi Residence, where stylish guest quarters have been fashioned out of caves (FraISassiResidence.com, from $130).
Orvieto. Perched on top of a volcanic outcropping one hour north of Rome, this lively and appealing town floats about 1,000 feet above the rolling countryside and can seem closer to heaven than to anywhere else on Earth. The Duomo is on the highest point in town, and even Italians from other towns consider the marble-striped monument to be one of their country’s most beautiful churches. The façade is a glittering mix of spires, columns, statues and mosaics, while frescoes inside depict a terrifying vision known as The Damned Cast into Hell. A more uplifting outlook is one from the view-filled ramparts at the edge of town.
You can’t come to Orvieto without tasting the town’s famous white wines. The friendly Cantina Foresi (CantinaForesi.it), across from The Duomo, serves local vintages by the glass. The proprietors like to show off their cellars cut into the volcanic tufa below town. B&B Orvieto Sant’Angelo 42 has attractive guest rooms upstairs from a beamed parlor (BBOrvieto.com, from $117). Tip: For more insider picks, check out the online blog OrvietoOrBust.com to get an ex-pat’s warmhearted insights and practical advice for enjoying her adopted country.
Siena. The council chamber of Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico is decorated with a colorful 14th-century fresco cycle, the Allegory of Good and Bad Government. These scenes of city life are remarkable for the time because they’re secular rather than religious, but almost nothing has changed outside the palace windows. The Black Death decimated the population in 1348, and while neighbor and rival Florence flourished as the center of the Renaissance, Siena never really recovered. Medieval palaces and market porticoes line the lanes and piazzas surrounding the Campo, the scallop-shape main square, and the massive Gothic-style Duomo tops a nearby rise. For the adjacent hospice of Santa Maria della Scala, which was founded around 1090 and served as the city hospital until the 1990s, the 15th-century master Domenico di Bartolo painted scenes of beneficent surgeons performing kindly, if primitive, doctoring. To me, their smiling faces reach across the centuries.
Sienese fare, relying on rich meat sauces and truffles, hasn’t changed much over the centuries either. Savor a meal at La Taverna di San Giuseppe (TavernaSanGiuseppe.it) in a brick-vaulted 11th-century foundry. You won’t break the time-traveler spell if you stay at Il Battistero, a chic redo of a medieval house (BattisteroSiena.com, from $160).
*The rates in this article are based on double occupancy, have been translated into US dollars and were accurate as of March 31, 2018.