Looking for the best underrated places in Italy? Italy is filled with so much history, beauty, romance, and, well, great food that many of its towns, cities, and coastlines have been stamped boldly on the tourist map.
However, some areas of the country, like Rome, Cinque Terre, and Lake Garda have become so favored that we have forgotten to look beyond them at the other incredible destinations it has to offer.
In this article, we bring those places into the limelight. We explore Matera, the world’s third oldest city built on an ancient cave system; Trieste, an autonomous city in Italy that doesn’t believe itself to be Italian at all; Bologna, the country’s foodie capital, and much more.
Read on to uncover more of Italy’s ‘hidden gems’, and see what you might be missing out on.
Incredible Underrated Places In Italy
A mere 35 kilometers east of Rome, the prosperous small town of Tivoli impresses with its grand architecture and stunning gardens from ancient Rome to the Renaissance and beyond. Villa Adriana is a 120 hectare Roman complex brimming with ancient yet magnificently preserved structures that give incredible insight into the life of its owner, Roman Emperor Hadrien.
Meanwhile, the 16th century Villa d’Este Palace & Gardens offers an incomparable example of the romanticism of Italy’s traditional architecture and landscaping. Walking through the hilltop town, you’ll happen upon many other delights such as the Rocca Pia fortress and Temple of Vesta, but the best surprise is Villa Gregoriana, a whimsical garden complex with winding paths and hidden grottos.
Each of Alberobello’s streets is lined with round sugar lump-like white cottages topped with grey cone-shaped roofs, otherwise known as trulli, and whether you’re visiting the local grocery store or a luxury boutique hotel, each trulli looks equally unassuming from the outside.
There’s over 1,500 trulli altogether, creating a unique landscape from above that seems like a more fitting home for fairies and elves than for humans upon first glance, yet a handful of Italians actually do call Alberobello their home.
Although there’s nowhere else in the world like Alberobello, it hasn’t long been on Italy’s tourist trail because it’s located on the heel of Italy, far from the usual spots in the north and west, making it an even more enjoyable place to visit.
Said to be the world’s third oldest city, Matera is crumbling, well-worn, and has certainly had its fair share of famine, disease and poverty. Yet while its ancient district, Sassi, was abandoned in the 1950’s for its diabolical living conditions, by the 80’s (once the disease had been eradicated) it became a point of interest for those same reasons.
The Sassi district was carved out of the rock upon which the rest of the city is now built, and still today its underground houses are kept just as they were when abandoned now over 70 years ago. Across the Gravina River, the Park of the Rock Churches, a cluster of ancient religious cave dwellings featuring original alters and frescoes, looks like an untouched rockface by day, but by night over 150 caves are lit by candlelight, allowing the hill to glow brightly.
Italy’s Amalfi Coast is dominated by the pretty yet pricey spots like Sorrento, Positano, and Amalfi, but there’s much more to this sunshine spot than that. Amalfi’s resort town, Ravello, often flies under the radar because it sits back from the coast, 365 meters above sea level, which may seem like a disadvantage at first, until you realize it offers the best sea views on the coast.
Ravello also has excellent shops, restaurants, hotels, and road access, along with the benefit of a sense of quietude that can’t be found in neighboring towns. Perhaps the most alluring thing about Ravello, however, is the 13th century Villa Rufolo and its magnificent landscaped gardens that offer a stunning extension to the already breathtaking views over the ocean.
On the Adriatic Coast in the far northeastern corner of Italy, surrounded almost entirely by the Slovenian border, Trieste is a port city that has often described itself as a world of its own, independent of Italy. Perhaps this is why it became a magnet for some of the most notable names in modern literature, including James Joyce and Italo Svevo, who wanted to escape from the distractions of the outside world and write thoughtfully.
From quotations written on walls to statues in piazzas, Trieste’s literary residents are honored throughout the Habsburg-era city defined by its palace-like facades. Yet there’s a rustic side to the city, where quaint streets like Via Torino and Canal Grande are populated with local seafood restaurants, quiet Austrian-style cafes, and market stalls.
Part of the Italian Lakes Region, Lake Iseo is the little sister of the more visited Lake Como, yet despite its size, it offers equal servings of northern Italian charm come summer or winter. Verdant mountains rise steeply from the lake, offering that rare alone-in-the-world feeling that we all sometimes crave.
A number of quaint towns and villages are stacked against the hill, all of which are laden with elegant hotels and restaurants, romantic 20th century villas, and quaint harbors which offer water taxis from one town to another, but Sulzano and San Malasino are amongst the best.
You can even stay on Monte Isola, a tall mountain island in the center of the lake with quiet lanes, pastel-colored homes, and of course, excellent views of the surrounding mountains.
As the food capital of Italy, Bologna is a city not to be missed by those on a pasta pilgrimage. Many of the country’s most-loved foods, like lasagna and tortellini, were invented in Bologna’s kitchens, and nowhere do they taste better.
Unsurprisingly, the surrounding area is sprinkled with a generous pinch of Michelin-star restaurants, including Osteria Francescana, voted first place in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The city also has a youthful reputation, despite its historical façade, as it’s home to thousands of students who attend the local university (the oldest university in Europe), giving it that cool, creative edge that you don’t get in Italy’s more touristic cities like Rome or Florence.
Sicily’s coast is studded with traditional fishing towns and villages offering a quiet respite from the tourist hubs, but Cefalù is one of the prettiest of them all. Within an hours’ reach from Palermo, Cefalù is a great spot from which to explore the city, without having to compromise on the option of peace and tranquility — and with Parco delle Madonie on its doorstep too, you can easily get lost in the natural beauty of Sicily’s unique landscape.
From the Piazza Duomo to Piazza Garibaldi and the Old Harbour, every bit of this medieval beach town oozes the kind of southern Italian charm that stole our hearts in The Godfather trilogy.
Marche is one of the most underrated regions of Italy, defined by its turquoise Adriatic coastline, the valleys of Monti Sibillini National Park, and the beautiful towns and villages steeped in medieval and Roman history. Ascoli Piceno is one of such towns, perfectly positioned between the coast and the national park, offering the best of both worlds for those who want to make the most of what Marche has to offer.
Many Roman ruins remain dotted throughout the town, including a beautiful amphitheater and temple, but most of the town’s structures today nod to its medieval past, something that can’t be disputed when you see its striking tower-filled skyline, dubbing Ascoli the ‘city of a hundred towers’.
Verona is the setting where the tragically romantic love affair between Romeo and Juliet took place, and you can even visit the famous balcony of Juliet’s house, which is now a small Renaissance costume museum. However, there’s so much more to this hopelessly romantic city than its association with a Shakespeare play.
Although Rome’s amphitheater is the biggest in the world, Verona’s isn’t far behind at number three, and whilst almost 2000 years ago it would have held gladiator fights, today it hosts Italy’s current favorite pastime — the Arena Opera Festival. Verona also has its own Roman theatre, as well as a medieval fortified castle, and charming piazzas serving up historical beauty and good food in equal measure.
Italy enjoys a favorable selection of ski towns and resorts thanks to the Dolomites which dominate its northern border, but there’s a few select towns and resorts that seem to steal all the limelight from other, equally worthwhile destinations.
Bormio is one of Italy’s most underrated ski resorts as, not only does it have excellent trails for both beginners and intermediates, it is home to Italy’s biggest summit-to-base run, which involves a finger-tingling 1,787 meter vertical drop.
But that’s not the only trump card Bormio holds; the town also sits on one of the country’s few natural hot springs, and there are three spas featuring outdoor thermal pools that allow you to ease your sore post-ski muscles surrounded by the magic of the snow-peaked mountains.
Overshadowed by the flashy architectural delights in neighboring Florence and Pisa, Siena doesn’t often get the props it deserves. The modest-looking medieval city may not have the ornate palaces and cathedrals that its rivals boast, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have the charm. Besides, Siena offers something neither of its rivals can; a sense of place and community.
While it’s somewhat popular with tourists, Siena still feels very much like you’ve entered a locals-only place that has no connection in the outside world.
Perhaps it’s to do with the fact you enter the city through a gate in the 14th century surrounding wall, or that you walk amongst narrow cobbled streets and down secret alleys marked with coats of arms, or that you’re high up on a hilltop overlooking the rambling Tuscan hills.
Whatever it is, Siena is a special place that you’ll wish you’d spent more time in.
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.