With its romantic rolling hills, an abundance of Roman ruins, soaring basilicas, and picture-perfect cliffside towns, it’s no wonder that Italy is a top travel destination. Unfortunately, in peak tourist season, even the smallest towns feel more like a theme park, with visitors waiting for hours to visit a place they’ve waited a lifetime to see. Luckily, there is good news for those who want to visit Italy without dealing with the hordes of tourists. In fact, part of the appeal of the country is the number of hidden gems in Italy sprinkled throughout the country. Before you dismiss a trip because it’s ‘too touristy’, take a look through our top places off the beaten path in Italy.
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The town of Spoleto is medieval Italy at its best, with a Roman theater, Christian basilicas, and narrow winding streets. The highlight of Spoleto is the Ponte Delle Torri, an impressive stone aqueduct spanning a deep gorge. Today, one of the best things to do in Spoleto is to take to the walking trails outside of town. You’ll traverse nearby forests, walk along a ravine, and end at a picture-perfect view of the magnificent aqueduct. From there, you can cross using a narrow walkway, visit the castles at both ends of the bridge, or hike up to the nearby Rocco fortress.
2. Agrigento and Selinunte, Sicily
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These columned temples in Agrigento and Selinunte give the Acropolis in Athens a run for its money. Since Sicily was originally the richest of the Grecian territory, they were built 100 years before the world-famous Acropolis. Because the Sicilian temples are off the beaten path in Italy, experience the wonders of Ancient Greece without any the notorious crowds. The ruins are well-preserved for visitors, and particularly special because of their beautiful setting right on the Sicilian coastline.
The Italian town of Herculaneum suffered the same misfortune as its more famous sister city, Pompeii, on the fateful day when Mount Vesuvius entombed the cities in ash. However, Herculaneum is arguably one of Italy’s best hidden gems because it is a bit unknown, less crowded, and perhaps even more well-preserved because it received less attention from historians and visitors. The ruins at Herculaneum cover a smaller area than those at Pompeii, but this makes it easier to grasp. The crucial layer of tufa rock (a form of solidified mud), which helped preserve Pompeii, was much thicker at Herculean, practically creating an airtight seal over the city until it was discovered in the 1700s. If you want to imagine what life was like in ancient Italy, you’re better off visiting Herculean than braving the crowds at Pompeii.
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Southern Italy itself is already off the beaten path, and while you’re there, we recommend spending some time in one of the greatest hidden gems in Italy, the town of Lecce. The city’s name comes from the lace-like Lecce Baroque motif, which decorates many of the building facades. Not only is the architecture impressive, but the city itself is perched on a tall cliff, where it seems to spring up from the sea. Save your energy for a night-time walk, when the town looks especially enchanting with the building facades lit up.
5. San Gimignano, Italy
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Built around the same time as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the towers in San Gimignano are the highlight of this well-preserved medieval town. While the word has gotten out in recent years about San Gimignano’s beauty, it’s still off the beaten path in Italy compared to nearby Pisa or Florence. Cars are banned in the city center, making it a perfect place to imagine what life was like in 12th century Italy. Today, you can climb the tallest remaining tower, The Torre Forssa, which is nearly as tall as the tower in Pisa. If you’re there in July, time your visit with the Feria delle Messi, a medieval festival complete with musicians, knights, and acrobats.
6. Paestum, Campagna, Italy
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The three temples in Paestum are some of the most well-preserved examples of Ancient Greek architecture south of Naples. The massive temples were built in the 5th and 6th century BC, and have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite this recognition, Paestum is still off the beaten path in Italy, meaning you might even be the only tourist around – almost unheard of in Italy. Don’t miss the Tomb of the Diver in this fantastic hidden gem of Italy, which is the only example before the 4th century BC of large-scale Greek painting.
A gorgeous hilltop town in the Tuscany region, Siena is the perfect destination for a day trip from bustling Florence if you want to get off the beaten path in Italy. The Piazza del Campo exemplifies the Tuscan lifestyle at its finest, and you’ll find picturesque sights around every corner in this small Italian hidden gem.
8. Giardino dei Tarocchi, Garavicchio, Italy
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This sculpture garden in Garavicchio is one of Italy’s hidden gems that is not to be missed. The larger than life sculptures represent the different cards in a Tarot deck. The French artist Niki de Saint Phalle spent the last 20 years of her life assembling the garden out of ceramics, mosaics, and glass. Spend a fanciful day off the beaten path in Italy, exploring the eclectic cartoon-like figures.
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Umbria has much of the same charm as its neighbor, Tuscany: gorgeous countryside, charming towns, and dreamy weather. However, it’s succeeded in remaining off the beaten path of Italy, which means you’ll encounter far fewer crowds. The hilltop towns of Trevi, Narni, and Montefalco are still relatively free from crowds of tourists. Not only is the countryside and architecture top-notch, but even Italians acknowledge that Umbria has some of the best food in the country.
10. Guggenheim Foundation and San Pietro in Volta Venice
If it’s your first trip to Italy, there’s no getting around the fact that you’ll have to visit Venice. Sadly, mass tourism has severely impacted the city, which can be a big disappointment for many first time visitors. To avoid the disillusionment, spend some of your time getting off the beaten path in Italy’s most crowded city. One of our favorite escapes is the Guggenheim Foundation Museum, it’s a bit more unknown but equally impressive as the Doge museum in Venice. Our other insider’s time is to visit the island of San Pietro in Volta. It’s one of many in the lagoon islands surrounding Venice, and you’ll be able to take a quick breather before braving the crowded narrow alleyways of larger Venice.
Another hidden gem in Italy is the medieval city of Bologna. Rivaling Prague in its beauty, Bologna impresses visitors from the outset, due to its red-hued buildings. An eclectic mix of Renaissance, medieval, and Baroque buildings, the city is also well-known among Italians for its food scene. While you’re there, pay a visit to Università di Bologna, the world’s oldest university founded in 1088.
12. Ostia Antica
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Any trip to Italy isn’t complete without a visit to Rome. But just like Venice and Florence, your experience can be marred by the crowds of tourists. Ostia Antica, the old port, is one of Rome’s hidden gems. To get there, you can either take the Rome metro or a short cruise. The highlight in Ostia Antica is the Forum of the Corporations, a collection of ruins where original mosaics are still visible. You can also see examples of Roman warehouses, baths, an old pub, latrines, and countless temples, including a 2nd-century Synagogue. The best time to visit is late afternoon so that you can watch the sunset over the ocean, casting a gorgeous warm light on the ruins.
13. Ivrea’s Battle of Oranges
If you travel to Ivrea on Shrove Tuesday, you’ll encounter the Battle of Oranges, Italy’s version of the Spanish Tomatina festival. For four days, costumed people take to the normally-quiet streets of Ivrea to throw sweet oranges at each other. The festival commemorates a 12-century conflict between the townspeople and a local tyrant. Some townsfolk dress up as the oppressed villagers; some others play the part of the aristocracy. It’s impossible not to smile and join in at the absurdity of it all!
14. Puglia Region
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The ‘heel’ region of the country’s famous boot shape, the Puglia region is still relatively off the beaten path in Italy. Here, you’ll find stunning villages overlooking the Adriatic Sea like Trani, Molfetta, and Bari. Still, our favorite site is Alberobello, full of trulli – unique prehistoric dwellings with conical stone roofs. Within Puglia, visit the breathtaking city of Lecce, itself a hidden gem of Italy.
15. Via Francigena
This ancient road to Rome is Italy’s version of Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Officially, the ancient road stretches from Canterbury to Rome and has been a pilgrim’s route since AD 500. If you start north of the Italian border, the trek takes you through the Alps past the monastery that still breeds Saint Bernard rescue dogs. Walk the Roman basalt-paved roads and pass through medieval-era towns just like the pilgrims who have walked the path for centuries. When you finally arrive in Rome, you will have the quiet satisfaction of knowing that you reached this tourist mecca with your own two feet.
Are you thinking of taking a trip to Italy? Read our guide to backpacking Italy for tips on staying on budget, how to travel around, entry visas, and a handy Italian phrasebook.