Even well-traveled Italophiles often overlook Calabria, the “toe” of boot-shaped Italy and home to spectacular coastline and rough-edged inland mountains dotted with time-forgotten villages—many semi-abandoned. These villages were the fodder for waves of emigration to the north of Italy and even abroad over the past century; many Italian-American families can trace their roots back to Calabria and ancestral tours are one of the top reasons visitors from North American venture back today.
Calabria is about as off the beaten path as you can get in Italy. A popular summer destination among Italians, the region is virtually unknown outside of the country and much of it is relatively undeveloped as far as public transportation, restaurants and hotels, and other basic services that a visitor might need. For this reason, it’s probably not an area we would recommend for a first trip to the country. But if you’ve checked off the bucket-list cities and are looking for an authentic (albeit somewhat challenging) area to explore, Calabria may fit the bill.
Here is our Calabria guide with some basics for a first visit!
Set at the farthest southwest corner of Italy just across the strait from Sicily, Calabria has 500 miles of coastline; the Tyrrhenian Sea laps the western coast and the Ionian the eastern coast. It is divided into five provinces—Catanzaro, Cosenza, Crotone, Reggio Calabria, and Vibo Valentia—and the landscape ranges from almost Caribbean-like sandy beaches to the rugged Apennine peaks inland.
Calabria has a long history that dates as far back as its time as a colony of ancient Greece (Magna Graecia) from the 8th to the 5th centuries B.C. and its culture, language, and cuisine have been influenced by successive waves of Greek, Spanish, Arabic, and Norman invaders. The region is peppered with excellent ancient ruins, art, and artifacts that will delight any history buff. Begin at the National Archaeological Museum of Crotone and Park and Archaeological Museum of Capo Colonna; the first highlights the founding of the ancient city of Kroton in the eighth century BC, and the second chronicles the area’s transition from Greek to Roman dominance three centuries later.
Then stop in Reggio Calabria to marvel at the Riace Bronzes in the National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria, two towering bronze statues discovered by a diver off the coast of Riace Marina on the Ionian coast in 1972 and considered among the most important ancient works in bronze in the world.
You can also visit the Scolacium Archaeological Park in Borgia near Catanzaro to wander through what remains of the Greek colony Skylletion (later renamed Scolacium by the Romans).
The coastline is what draws most Italians (and a smattering of foreigners) to Calabria, and no Calabria guide would be complete without mentioning the most famous: Tropea and the surrounding coastline known as the Coast degli Dei, or Coast of the Gods, which stretches to Capo Vaticano. The locals aren’t overselling this breathtaking stretch of coastline, with its sugar-sand beaches, bright turquoise waters, and clifftop town of Tropea, said to have been founded by Hercules himself. While there, be sure to visit the Sanctuary of Maria dell’ Isola perched above, which has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries. Explore the complex and take in the sea views from the lush gardens; on a clear day, you can spot Stromboli’s volcano rising from the sea.
Other great beach destinations in Calabria include the Gulf of Policastro, from Dino Island to Palinuro (the best base for this area is the panoramic town of San Nicola Arcella) and the Capo Rizzuto Marine Reserve, with its protected waters and Aragonese fortress of Le Castella near Isola di Capo Rizzuto. This stronghold, connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand, is the only surviving castle of what was once a defensive network along the coast.
Lovers of charming fishing villages should head straight to Scilla. With its clifftop castle, postcard-perfect jumble of narrow lanes and colorful houses in the Chianalea neighborhood, and traditional swordfish fishing boats lining the waterfront, this is one of the most picturesque spots along the Tyrrhenian coast.
Home to a number of parks and nature reserves, Calabria’s most famous is La Sila National Park, also known as “The Forest of Giants”. This vast protected area is blanketed by a thick 17th-century forest thick with indigenous animals and plants from eagles to soaring Calabrian pines. There are well-marked trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, plus tiny villages like Acri, the gateway to the park and known for its castle ruins and a historic Capuchin convent.
The Monte Pollino National Park is another beautiful corner of the region, and highlights include the Gole del Raganello gorge and the Lao and Argentino river valleys. This is a popular area for rafting, mountain biking, hiking, and caving.
Calabrian cuisine is known for its spice, and peperoncino (hot chili pepper) brings a bit of fire to many local dishes from pasta to seafood. If you like extra heat, you can add more from the selection of dry flakes, fresh chunks, and chili-laced oil that rest on most tables.
While in the region, be sure to search out the famed cipolle di Tropea, the sweet red onions found only here. Their flavor is so mild that you can even find gelato or jam made from these heirloom onions.
Other local specialties include swordfish and shellfish (especially mussels and clams) plucked directly from the sea, wood-oven-fired pizza, DOP olive oils, and the local bitter digestivo called Vecchio Amaro del Capo, laced with mint, orange, and anice and served ice cold.
Calabria does not have a robust public transport system, though there are a few main rail lines that will get you between the main cities and Rome and a coastal line that runs between Tropea and Lamezia Terme. The best way to get around the region is by rental car (there are car rental offices at the Lamezia Terme and Reggio Calabria airports), but be sure to bring a detailed map of the region as you may have limited internet in some areas so cannot always rely on your GPS or Google Maps.
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