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When we think of Italy, we often think of the Roman Colosseum, Venetian Canals and Milanese fashion boutiques. In fact, thanks to its far-reaching, yet ever-present history, the country has more famed cities than any other in Europe.
But Italy’s quintessential beauty spills out of its cities, over its rolling hills and across its vast lakes into every corner of land, meaning even its smaller, lesser-known towns are equally worth visiting. The cities may have the most famous historical landmarks, but the towns will give you insight into the real Italy.
From the Italian Riviera, to the Tuscan heartlands, and the Sicilian mountains to the waterfront of Lake Guarda, we bring you the Italian towns you didn’t know you needed to see.
San Gimignano, Siena
San Gimignano is a stony medieval hilltop town located halfway between Florence and Siena, Tuscany. The Tuscan countryside itself is a sight to behold with romantic rolling green hills as far as the eye can see, but San Gimignano is like the cherry on top of the cake, as it sits high above the hills with around 14 handsome towers commanding the skyline.
Although the town is small, you can spend all day meandering around its cobbled streets uncovering the secrets of its well-preserved Gothic and Romanesque art and architecture. Or stop at Piazza del Duomo to grab a slice of pizza and taste the best Tuscan white wines.
Malcesine is one of the many tiny picturesque towns overlooking Lake Garda. Its steep and narrow streets are often so quiet you wonder if you have the town to yourself, but they open out to lively piazzas filled with delectable restaurants and historical gems like Scaligero Castle.
The harbour is also an exciting place to hang out, and with regular boats touring other parts of the lake, you’re never too far from adventure. Yet the best adventure awaits behind Malcesine, as it actually sits in the foothills of Mount Baldo. Take the rotating cable car ride to the top to see unbeatable views of Lake Garda and the surrounding mountains.
Surrounded by water on three sides, Sirmione is the best of Lake Garda’s Lombardian towns. It is famed for its colourful streets, which bloom with an array of flowers year round. Wandering the streets, you will find yourself at the foot of Scaliger Castle, a well-preserved 13th century fortification which guards the town proudly with walls that plunge directly into transparent green waters.
You can climb its towers to enjoy stunning lake views, or just enjoy them from the comfort of a sunbed on the quiet beaches. For further relaxation, head to one of the town’s many spas to soak in their natural sulphuric thermal springs.
Sorrento is one of the most famed towns on the dramatic Amalfi coastline. Perhaps because much of it, thankfully, sits on a terrace, making it easier on the thighs than surrounding coastal towns, without compromising views of the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius.
Or perhaps the town is favoured for its notable rustic Italian seaside charm, which runs along Corso Italia, lined with quaint boutiques, gelateries and lemon stalls, down to the large, bustling fishing harbour. While you can drink up Sorrento’s oozing charm from a waterfront cafe, the town is best appreciated sea-side from the comfort of a luxury boat tour.
Taormina is a historic southern Italian town propped over 200 metres above sea level on the magical island of Sicily. In fact, Taormina is so highly elevated that you can easily reach the summit of the famous Mount Etna via the trails that connect it to the town.
However, the sea views from the seats of the nearby Greco Teatro, a third century BC amphitheatre, are perhaps even more potent, than from the heights of Etna. Below you will find Corso Umberto, the high street lined with quaint restaurants and boutiques, and a number of hearty musicians, but if you prefer quietude, why not enjoy the island’s nature at the breathtaking Alcantara Gorge?
Alberobello, a 1500s Unesco World Heritage Site, looks as if it was dreamed up by gnomes. The town, unlike any other in Italy, is distinguished by 1500 white-washed dwarfed limestone houses known as ‘trulli’, topped with grey conical roofs with white sugared tips that somewhat resemble a gnome’s hat.
Most of the town’s residents no longer live in the trulli, instead the houses have been converted to restaurants, boutique shops, and rather intriguing accommodation. The best of these can be found at the Rione Monti quarter, but if you want a glimpse of local life in this dreamland, head to the Rione Aia Piccola district.
Backed by the finger-tingling cliff faces of the Dolomites, and fronted by the sleepy Piave River, Belluno is certainly one of Italy’s most picturesque towns to visit. The town itself is brimming with piazzas and palazzos fashioning a romantical Renaissance artistry. Head to Piazza del Duomo to see its most notable palazzos and the San Martino Cathedral, which dominates the town’s skyline from afar.
Belluno may be a little less accessible than most Italian towns, but for that reason it boasts its own selection of traditional dishes and local cheeses, like the must-try Piave.
Although it was once just another small unassuming Italian fishing village, Portofino now shines brighter than any other town on the Italian coastline with glistening superyachts lining its harbour. Since the 1950s, Portofino has been the summer backdrop for a number of Hollywood’s most glamorous names, including Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart and even Elizabeth Taylor.
Today, while Portofino may still charm you with its somewhat well-worn yet colourful facade, its Piazzetta is lined with high-end boutiques and seafood restaurants. It may be a little pricey, but who doesn’t want to summer like a Hollywood star?
Palmanova is a small town with a big draw card. If viewed from above, the fortification is like an elaborate crop circle, distinguished by its nine-point star shape. While its symmetry is pleasing to the eye, its purpose is not aesthetic; it was founded by the Venetian Republic in the late 16th century for strategic advantage.
Bordering the Habsburg Empire, who were keen to expand their kingdom, and within reach of the Ottoman Empire too, Palmanova’s nine pointed ravelins made it easy to defend itself from all angles. The town was idealised by the Venetians as an example of ‘utopia’, but you should decide for yourself.
Manarola, Cinque Terre
Although it’s one of Cinque Terre’s smallest towns, Manarola oozes the most appeal. A cluster of brightly coloured buildings, stacked on top of one another, seem to sink haphazardly into the cliff face, rather than standing tall, giving it an ethereal charm.
With only 300-odd inhabitants in this town, you’ll feel like you’ve found your own little corner of Italy. You can eat traditional seafood dishes at its small restaurants, get to know the locals, and perhaps even pick up their own local dialect. If you fancy an adventure, you can stroll along Via dell’Amore, a narrow path along the cliffside, to Cinque Terre’s Riomaggiore.
About the Author: Emily Draper
Originally from the UK, Emily Draper has lived in Chile,with an Amazonian tribe in Peru, in a Wisconsin trailer park, and on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Considering herself, and the rest of us, as global citizens, Emily’s mission as a writer and journalist is to expand global consciousness of the fundamental importance of travel, culture, and diversity.