Because of the name of my company, I get regular requests for itineraries that are at least partly off the beaten track. The definition of off the beaten path in Italy differs depending on how well you know the country. For some, the beaten track includes just Rome, Florence, and Venice, while for others it would certainly include the Amalfi Coast, the Cinque Terre, Pisa, Milan, Siena, and Lake Como.
There are entire regions of Italy that are off the radar of foreign tourists (yet full of Italians exploring their own country), but in my experience most travelers want balance. They want to see the Colosseum in Rome but then escape the tourists for awhile. They want to see the main sights in Florence and then head into the countryside for some independent exploration. With that in mind, the places I recommend below are both easily accessible from Italy’s main sights, yet have fewer foreign travelers.
After fighting the crowds in Venice, rent a car and explore the Veneto countryside to the north. Start with some Prosecco tasting near Conegliano or visit Palladian villas. Explore gorgeous rural towns like Asolo and Bassano del Grappa. Visit a great Canova museum and extend the road trip north a couple hours into the incredible Dolomites mountains.
The most well known and hence most touristy places in Tuscany include Lucca and Pisa and San Gimignano, the Chianti region, and the Val D’Orcia area south of Siena. You can certainly get off the beaten track in Tuscany within those areas, say by hiring a guide to take you mountain biking through the vineyards and olive groves in Chianti, or by renting a car and visiting small towns like Panzano in Chianti, Monteriggioni, Certaldo, Montepulciano, Pienza, or Bagno Vignoni. The Garfagnana region near Lucca is also a wonderful off the beaten track destination, but my pick for this category is Tuscany’s southwest corner, called the Maremma. (To locate it on a map, find the town of Grosseto.) The Maremma has beautiful coastal scenery, vineyards, small medieval towns, and that beautiful Tuscan countryside. Travelers interested in Etruscan history should visit nearby Pitigliano and Sorano. In chillier weather, soak in the natural hot springs of Saturnia (one of the most repinned images on my Italy Pinterest Board). Go horseback riding or biking or visit the lovely seaside town of Castiglione della Pescaia.
It’s easy to get off the beaten path without ever leaving the city of Rome, because there’s so much to see. But when you’ve had enough of the chaos, the nearby Castelli Romani provide a great respite. It’s an area with medieval hill towns, lush green scenery, and volcanic lakes, where wealthy Romans from centuries ago built summer homes with beautiful gardens – now open for visits. The Pope’s summer residence is there, in Castel Gandolfo, and when he’s in town he does a weekly Wednesday audience and Sunday blessing. Visit a winery or two to taste some Frascati wine. For travelers with no car, or who just have time for a day trip from Rome, take the train to Frascati for lunch to get a taste of the scenery, towns, and villas of the Castelli Romani area.
If you want to get off the beaten path in Italy and your itinerary includes Florence, drive or take the train northwest to visit the very pretty town of Pistoia. Explore this lovely town, go for a hike, take a historic train, or go to the city’s Palio in July called the Giostra dell’Orso.
In high season, the iconic towns of the Amalfi Coast are packed with travelers, so it’s tough to avoid the crowds in Sorrento, Positano, Ravello, and Capri. You may not want to skip these towns altogether, so consider visiting them from a base in one of the other coastal towns such as Praiano, Amalfi, Atrani, or Cetara, or stay on the island of Ischia rather than Capri. Then leave the majority of tourists behind, and just an hour or so south along the coast are the amazingly well-preserved Greek temples at Paestum. It’s not a huge site that requires as much time as, say, Pompeii, so visit a mozzarella farm or relax on gorgeous sandy beaches for a few days after your visit.
Before I started my travel business, I didn’t realize that Lake Como was more internationally famous than its next-door neighbor, Lake Maggiore, because my Italian friends visit them equally. But I get regular requests from clients about Lake Como and very few about Lake Maggiore (though I’ve suggested it to many people who want to get off the beaten path and consequently include it itineraries on a regular basis). When people ask about Lake Como, it’s because they’ve heard about pretty lakeside towns with promenades, villas with gardens, picturesque hikes, and mountain and lake scenery They want to relax while enjoying excellent food or a glass of wine with a view. All of those things can be done on Lake Maggiore, with fewer tourists. Not only that, the two lakes are close to each other, so it’s easy to base yourself on one and visit both. Or, base yourself on Lake Lugano, in between the two lakes, and visit all three.
Under an hour up the coast from the iconic Cinque Terre villages is another pretty set of towns on the Portofino peninsula: Santa Margherita Ligure, Portofino, Rapallo, and Camogli are wonderful fishing villages with colorful houses, excellent food, picturesque scenery, and many fewer tourists compared to the Cinque Terre (maybe with the exception of Portofino). Boats, hiking trails, trains, and of course roads (but parking is not fun) connect the towns, and luxury travelers will find better hotel options in this area compared to the Cinque Terre. It’s not far down the coast to visit the iconic five villages, so visit for a day trip, but then come home at the end of the day to a place with fewer foreign tourists.
I’m not sure that Bologna is considered to be on the beaten path, but I send enough travelers to that area for cheese tours (Parma), balsamic vinegar tours (Modena), Ferrari test drives, and other foodie experiences, that I seem to book quite a few hotel nights in Bologna. Bologna is a university town and it doesn’t have nearly as many North American travelers as the other places on this list. However, for anyone who wants to get even further off the beaten path, there is a gorgeous little town not far from Bologna called Brisighella, a perfect medieval Italian hilltown. I spent a summer there as a nanny one year, and enjoyed hikes up to the rocca, views over the countryside, the small streets and the amazing food. While I was there, the town’s yearly summer Medieval festival was on and we all dressed up like witches and danced in the streets.
A basic Sicily itinerary usually includes Taormina, the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento, Siracusa, and maybe Palermo. Taormina is jam-packed with tourists in high season, especially when the cruise ships come in, but it’s probably worth visiting. But tack on another 3 or so days to your Sicily itinerary and head south from Siracusa to visit the towns of Ragusa, Scicli, Modica, and the old town of Ragusa Ibla [update: and Noto, of course!] in the area known as the Baroque south. It’s possible, but not easy, to get around Sicily by public transport so I’d recommend renting a car (and a GPS!). Explore the beautiful Sicilian countryside or spend a few days on the coast or visit a winery for a tour (don’t just show up, though). If you’re visiting both Siracusa and the Agrigento, the Baroque South is sort of on the way.
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