Italy’s Best Kept Secrets

Chris Watts runs down five underrated Italian locales, from Abruzzo National Park to the ruins at Paestum

By / November 2014

First things first. Before you get lost in unrealistic illusions of solitude and seclusion, know this: Italy has been a popular destination for over two thousand years. As a result, there are literally no “undiscovered” patches of ground down the entire length of this sun-drenched peninsula. No unspoiled beaches. No forgotten villages. There will always, always be other travelers around. So go ahead and wrap your brain around that indelible fact.

That said, there do remain a number of underappreciated gems. Places that, for whatever reason, have not developed the overblown reputations of some of their neighbors. They have, therefore, been granted a reprieve from the monstrous tourist machine that has gobbled up otherwise lovely locales like Venice and Capri, and have become a bastion of authentic charm and refreshingly small crowds. Where can you find these off-the-beaten-track treasures? Read on to find out.

Photograph by Wildlife Wanderer

1. Abruzzo National Park
Barely an hour and a half from Rome, Naples and Pompeii lies one of the greatest stretches of undisturbed wilderness anywhere in southern Europe. Abruzzo National Park is folded into the mountains of central Italy and offers a cool, green respite after days of photographing broken columns and hot rocks in the aforementioned cities. Like many other places featured on this list, the park can only be considered “undiscovered” by international standards. Italians have known and loved this natural oasis for decades, flocking here in droves come August. Outside those four or five weeks of peak season, though, you are likely to have plenty of room to stretch your legs and expand your lungs. With some utterly charming villages, perfectly swimmable mountain lakes, and 250 km of hiking trails, you could easily pass three or four delightful days exploring the park. You might even spot the endangered Italian wolf or Marsican brown bear. For the most dramatic entry possible, approach the park from the southeast, entering at the infuriatingly beautiful town of Barrea. Have a cheap and delicious home-cooked meal in the cobbled old quarter and then head on in, making for the main town of Pescasseroli, the perfect base from which to poke around this amazing park.


Photograph by Pug Girl

2. Bolzano
Snow-blanketed alpine peaks? Check. Ridiculously picturesque Italian villages? Check. Green, pastoral meadows, brimming with bell-ringing cows? Check. Check. Check. Bolzano is a gorgeous and charming little city, surrounded by some of Italy’s most breathtaking countryside, all of it dominated by the massive, saw-toothed, Dolomite Alps. Located just two easy hours north of the main Verona-Venice track, it’s amazing that more foreigners don’t make time for Bolzano. Whether it’s skiing in the winter, backpacking in the summer, or simply strolling the atmospheric cobbled streets, this beautiful alpine hamlet deserves a place of priority on your Italian must-see list.


Photograph by Angel de los Rios

3. Paestum
Virtually every foreign tourist who ventures into the southern reaches of Italy flocks to Pompeii. Let them go. Let them fork over a hefty admission price and fight the sweating crowds in the sun. You? You just keep on rolling down the A3 highway for Paestum. You will not begrudge the extra hour and a half once you arrive. Paestum is spectacular. The extensive ruins here are actually Greek, constructed around 550 BC, and pre-dating the Roman empire. There are three massive colonnaded temples, all of them amazingly well-preserved, alongside an array of other structured and ruined houses. Best of all, you’ll have the place virtually to yourself, with the freedom to climb and clamber over the entirety of the site at your leisure, and at 6.50 euros ($8.50), it’s one of the cheapest day trips on the entire peninsula.


Photograph by Barney Moss

4. Lucca
This little hideaway has been on the backpacker radar for several years now, though it has eluded the attention of the average traveler. What a shame. Lucca is a charming provincial city, tucked into the hills of northern Tuscany. It is a great alternative to the wildly overblown Pisa. Lucca’s famous old city walls are completely intact and one of the most popular ways to circumnavigate the ancient town center. And if you’ve got your heart set on seeing a tower, try the Torre Guinigi, a 125 foot tall brick turret with several large oak trees growing on top. Once you tire of climbing steps and snapping photos of Roman ruins, hop into your swimsuit. You’re less than 10 miles from some great, uncrowded Mediterranean beaches. Lucca could easily devour three or four relaxing days of any Italian itinerary. But be careful, this town, like it’s famous Tuscan wine, is intoxicating.


Photograph by Renzo Ferrante

5. Ischia
Any Italian reading this entry will surely guffaw at my classification of Ischia as “underrated.” The whole island is dotted with little hotels and sidewalk cafes, which can become absolutely choked with tourists in the summer high season. However, the visitors here are almost exclusively local, hailing from all over central and southern Italy. Very few foreign travelers ever make it all the way across the Bay of Naples to this sunny little island, opting instead for the more famous, more expensive, and more crowded Isle of Capri. As a result, if you make time for Ischia, particularly in May or September, you’ll find yourself lounging on the sandy white beaches and traipsing along the stunning seaside cliffs in relative solitude. Ischia is amazingly affordable and addictively beautiful. It’s no wonder so many Italians come here year after year, and it’s certainly understandable that they would prefer it remain their little secret.


Chris Watts is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler. He has written extensively about India, Burma, and Italy.