These spectacular and unexpected Italian gems offer an escape away from the crowds as Italy continues to offer quarantine-free travel
It’s been a hard year for travel, but one silver lining of the restrictions has been the opportunity to see Italy in a way we have not enjoyed in decades, with a fraction of its usual visitors. In Florence at the Uffizi, I saw the beautifully restored Botticellis almost alone, and marvelled at the painstakingly frescoed Sistine Chapel without dozens of other eyes viewing it. This has given those lucky enough to visit a sense of rediscovery and immense gratitude. Hill towns are even more alluring in their relative solitude.
For now at least, you can meander through beautiful cinematic countryside with hardly another hiker in sight. Booking into a popular restaurant where it’s hard to get a table for months can now be a last-minute decision rather than an epic wrangling. Locals have time to pause and chat about their favourite nearby secrets. Decisions are spontaneous rather than scripted.
Though bittersweet, of course, 2020 may well be Italy’s banner year for a more solitary and tranquil type of discovery – provided current Covid arrangements hold.
Italians are rediscovering their homeland rather than heading abroad, and savvy locals are avoiding the much more crowded coastlines to get space and perspective in tiny country hamlets following the lockdown in the bigger cities. With a growing sense of what the country has endured pandemic-wise, especially in the north, supporting its considerable assets has never seemed more important to both locals and lucky visitors.
Here are 15 of the most spectacular and unexpected towns to put on your radar, whether you are an art buff, a gourmand or a nature lover. Each is its own special kind of paradise.
Most travellers zoom up to Cortona, made famous in Under the Tuscan Sun, and leave this tiny village to the lucky insiders. But it’s more than worth a stop: the settlement is an ode to medieval planning, with a perfect elliptical shape and streets arranged in neat concentric circles. Centrally located, the town has always had an unbeatable strategic position and was long a pawn in the rivalry between Siena and Florence.
Don’t miss the 13th-century church of San Francesco, a beautiful little chapel with a limestone and travertine facade, and the ruins of a Medici castle located near the Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Querce, designed by heavyweight art historian Giorgio Vasari.
But Lucignano is not just for architecture and church buffs: Il Goccino is an underrated treasure of a restaurant – handmade pasta of nonna quality and steak from the local Chianina breed. Sweet tooths will love the gelato at C’era Una Volta (Via Rosini 20). Flavours such as raspberry and an unforgettable bitter chocolate will give you the new benchmark for ice cream.
Stay: Book a room at Villa Fontelunga. Set in a 16th-century villa with glorious gardens and surrounded by olive trees, the property will add the country chic town houses of Borgo 69 to its assets on March 20 2021.
Civita di Bagnoregio, Lazio
Even in a country known for its picturesque hill towns, this medieval masterpiece takes it up a notch. Accessible only by a footbridge perched over the cliffs (those with a fear of heights might not want to look down), this postcard-perfect village is known as the “dying city” both for the fact that its limestone base is slowly eroding over time, and because residents tend to leave for bigger metropolises. All the better for lucky visitors who can still wander the tiny streets and alleyways in peace, stopping into sleepy delights such as the Chiesa di San Donato.
Stay: We love the intimate Corte della Maesta, a five-suite getaway that perfectly epitomises Bagnoregio’s lost-in-time vibe.
Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo
Driving to this fortified hamlet, 4,000ft up in the mountains, gives a new sense of remote, plus a huge feeling of admiration for the hearty souls who decided to set up home here despite the stark isolation. Like many towns far from “civilisation”, the village has become quite depopulated. But from here it’s an easy trip to one of the most beautiful national parks in Italy – Gran Sasso, with its green meadows, towering massifs, and more than 100 miles of paths for walking and horse riding.
Stay: Thanks to the efforts of Daniele Kihlgren, Sextantio Albergo Diffuso has been reinvented as a hotel – think original walls and open fireplaces mixed with stand-alone tubs and rustic dishes. Or try Le Siepi Country Farm with its exemplary equine programme and farm-to-table hospitality.
San Vito di Cadore, Veneto
VIP types and alpine lovers will undoubtedly have heard of nearby Cortina d’Ampezzo, where the Winter Olympics took place in 1956 and are planned for 2026 too. It also featured in James Bond’s For Your Eyes Only. San Vito Di Cadore itself has less of an international vibe. The simple Alpine town makes a good launch point to the Dolomiti Superski network and the rifugi (refuge restaurants) of the mountains, such as Rifugio Scotoni and Rifugio Scoiattoli.
But there is another reason to make the pilgrimage here: Aga is one of the best restaurants in Italy right now, helmed by Oliver Piras, who trained at Noma. His zero mile food credentials are flawless – foraging and hunting close to home for dishes such as handmade spaghetti with venison, pumpkin chestnut soup, and porcini.
Stay: Rosapetra Spa Resort has an indoor spa and local treatments, perfect after strenuous mountain activities or gourmand pleasures.
Urbino, Le Marche
Visitors who make it to this beautiful renaissance gem will be justified in asking why it is relatively unknown. The answer is that its location demands some particularly Italian navigation, meaning its perfectly conceived architectural plan and art collection have remained insider secrets.
But make haste to this Unesco protected masterpiece and enjoy the blend of university vibe (it has one of the oldest in Italy) and unforgettable art. The Palazzo Ducale (also known as the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche) should be on any itinerary for its series of renaissance rooms conceived as an art museum, plus a visit to the childhood home of Raphael (yes, that Raphael).
Don’t miss a meal at the tiny La Trattoria del Leone for passatelli, Le Marche’s traditional pasta shape.
Stay: Just outside of Urbino, Ca Andreana has rustic rooms and authentic cuisine.
Monforte d’Alba, Piedmont
Wine, wine, wine! This town is smack in the middle of vineyard and truffle country – think Barolo and Barbaresco – in the heart of Le Langhe region. For non-oenophiles (or those who wait until after sunset), the nearby hills are famous for their biking network and epic hot air balloon rides. In the town, you can take a book and sit in one of the pastel-coloured cafés, or wander into the confetti-like topped churches.
At aperitif hour, join local producers and insiders at Le Case Della Saracca in a restored tower, or book a table at nearby La Morra’s Bovio, one of Piedmont’s best restaurants (the battuta, or veal tartar, is sublime).
Stay: Hotel Villa Beccaris has picture perfect views of the Langhe Valley and rooms that feel old-school but also updated.
San Daniele, Friuli Venezia Giulia
Oh prosciutto. How many lovers of Italian cuisine enjoy this wafer thin ham, whether alone or with figs? This tiny town in Friuli is home to the DOC delicacy, a national icon with strict rules to follow for its production, including a year-long process for ageing and a specific type of pork that can only come from local pigs. At Prosciuttificio Bagatto you can go on a tour and learn how this three-generation old family business put San Daniele on the gastronomic map, and afterwards enjoy a nibble of its famed product with a crisp glass of local wine.
But the town has other star attractions: the frescoes of the Church of Saint Antonio by Pellegrino da San Daniele have been coined the Sistine Chapel of Friuli, and it’s worth booking a private tour of the Biblioteca Guarneriana, a library from 1466, with priceless first editions of volumes including Dante’s “Inferno”.
Stay: Just a minute’s walk from the town’s Duomo, Hotel San Daniele offers great value for a perfectly central location.
Many travellers to this region concentrate on the must-see city of Venice, or Verona, a hub of opera and good wine. Stretch your horizons with a stint in Asolo (asolare means to breathe gently), a city of gentle streets and quiet spots to channel your inner artist – Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound are just two of the writers to have found solace here.
Head first to the town’s heart, the Caffe Centrale for an espresso or a glass of wine – the bar oozes art deco appeal, with one-of-a kind chandeliers and intimate corners. There you might want to read Asolando, the poem Robert Browning penned for the town he loved, or take a stroll through the gardens and villas that Freya Stark called home until she turned 100. If you are more a shopping type, the city offers an antiques market on the second Sunday of every month – the Osteria al Bacaro (Via Browning 165) where you can sample exquisite plates of local products in between checking out stalls.
Stay: The Hotel Villa Cipriani has hosted many an acclaimed writer and comes with an outdoor pool.
Citta Della Pieve, Umbria
The rivalry between Umbria and Tuscany is legendary – and when you visit Città della Pieve, you can’t help wondering how overrun it would be if it were on the Tuscan side of the border. The historic DNA of the village runs deep, with Etruscans and Romans among the residents who settled here. Famed Renaissance artist Pietro Vannucci hailed from here in its medieval heyday, and examples of his works are hung through small churches in town.
Interestingly, the village has also become a contemporary arts hub. Its Giardino dei Lauri, outside of town, is a showcase for younger as well as established artists such as Maurizio Cattelan and Martin Creed (admission is free).
Stay: Roberto Wirth, the legendary hotelier behind Rome’s Hassler, has taken over Hotel Vannucci and subsequently given it a luxury upgrade.
The well-documented earthquakes of 2016 destroyed many of the principal buildings here, but it is quickly being restored to its former beauty. The centrepiece of the area is the national park of Sibillini, a complex biosphere perfect for long hikes through a former glacial plain filled with wild horses and falcons. In spring, La Fioritura (“The Flowering”) is one of the most beautiful wild flower displays I have ever seen, a tapestry of poppies, wild tulips and cornflowers.
In Norcia itself, food takes centre stage, with dried porcini and organic lentils (traditionally cooked for New Year’s Eve) among the best local produce. Black sausage, salami and other pork products are sold at butchers known as norcineria, a name used even in other parts of the country.
Stay: Palazzo Seneca, housed in a 16th-century landmark, serves as the perfect launch pad for the national park and has a Michelin-starred restaurant, making it a destination in its own right.
Ragusa Ibla, Sicily
Looking for a fairy-tale setting high in the mountains of Sicily? Ragusa Ibla fits the bill. This baroque masterpiece oozes charm, with its layered Duomo seemingly made of marzipan, and palaces straight out of a romantic novel.
Much of the Sicilian coastline has been marred by overconstruction, but towns such as Noto, Modica and Ragusa have retained their 19th-century atmosphere. Meanwhile, chef Ciccio Sultano has put Ragusa Ibla on the map for foodies; I would travel there just for a meal at his Duomo, an hours-long culinary experience that remains exciting rather than stuffy. Sultano’s lasagne with blue lobster, shrimp and calamari is unforgettable. Afterwards pick up a cone of cherry tomato and olive oil gelato at Gelati Divini – it’s the perfect palate cleanser.
After all the calories gained, book a walk with Italian Connection Tours; Anita Iaconangelo lovingly shows you around the area she knows so well in an intuitive and well researched way.
Stay: a.d. 1768 is a new boutique hotel in the heart of town, housed in a structure from 1768. Splurge on the suite with a view of the Duomo.
Local markets are a hit or miss affair in northern Italy – often a jumble sale of Chinese clothes and electronics, with the occasional far-from-home ingredient, rather than a true showcase of a region’s local produce.
In the south, however, Puglia’s markets have remained authentic and true to their culture. You can spend hours chatting about the cocomero (an unusual hybrid between a melon and cucumber) and the black-blue colour of the aubergines, or just listening to the traders crowing out their wares to operatic effect.
Even when it’s not market day, with its hidden away streets leading to Romanesque churches and sleepy cafés, Locorotondo has to be one of Puglia’s most romantic towns, .
Stay: Leonardo Trulli Resort is an updated take on the stone houses that have become a national treasure. The big swimming pool is another draw.
With a huge amount of press going to neighbouring Puglia, Basilicata has remained under the radar for most travellers. But Pietrapertosa, located in the mammoth mountains, is becoming an adventure sport must for rock climbing and zip lining fanatics. Don’t miss the “Angel’s Flight” route which careens between Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano, a cinematic option for true adrenalin junkies.
For less daredevil types, the town is worth a stop for its lost-in-time vibe, and not least its Saracen castle. Foodies will be impressed by authentic spots such as Le Rocce (Via Giuseppe Garibaldi 109).
Stay: Cuddle up at Il Palazzo del Barone.
It makes sense, in a country so jampacked with beauty, that tourism chiefs would come up with the designation I Borghi più belli d’Italia (the most beautiful villages of Italy) to encourage competition and help preserve and maintain them.
Stilo certainly deserves a shout-out. A stay in town should start with a visit to the Cattolica, an extraordinary temple from the ninth century with frescoes added in the Norman period, as well as the castle and the church of San Nicola da Tolentino, with its trullo-shaped dome and exquisite views of the sea.
Stay: Calabria is still working on its hospitality scene but Hotel Citta del Sole (0039 0964 734 843) is a friendly and well-priced option.
Pienza, Montepulciano and Montalcino deserve their hill town fame but there are other secrets jealously guarded in southern Tuscany. Montisi, a small town surrounded by succulent truffle forests and tracks of boar and deer, has become a second home option for both Italians and ex-pats looking for the Tuscany of decades past.
While in the area, also make a stop at San Giovanni d’Asso and Castelmuzio, which complete the sense of being lost in time.
Stay: Lupaia is the perfect mix of chic, crisp rooms and home-grown hospitality. Don’t miss a dinner at its restaurant; with its countryside kitchen and roaring fireplace. It’s a hard place to leave.