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Cefalù, Praiano, Tropea: Italy’s dreamy coastal villages you should visit this spring

Cefalù, Praiano, Tropea: Italy’s dreamy coastal villages you should visit this spring

Italy's coastline is synonymous with summer: a vision of Aperol Spritzes sipped under blue parasols before a glass-clear sea.

As an Italian who grew up in England, every summer brought the much-anticipated, post-exam ritual of spending the August holiday (called Ferragosto) at my grandparents' seaside village. I would spend long, lazy days in and out of the water in what seemed like unbeatable bliss.

But since moving back to my homeland in 2021 to pursue a PhD, I've had the chance to explore the peninsula's coastline in other months of the year. I discovered something I never expected to say - the Italian seaside is best enjoyed cold(er).

Some of the perks of visiting the coast in the off-season (November-April) are fairly self-evident: the absence of crowds, low - yet still comfortable - temperatures and even lower prices.

And as the country struggles with overtourism and its increasingly privatised beaches turning into a battleground between the multi-billion lido lobby and environmentalists, enjoying the Italian seaside in the cooler months can prove to be a slower, more eco-friendly experience.

To help you decide which destination to pick, here are five villages peppered along the Bel Paese's coastline that make for a dreamy off-season getaway.

A view of Varigotti’s Saracens' Bay and promontory, Punta Crena, from the Pilgrim’s Trail. 2020
A view of Varigotti’s Saracens' Bay and promontory, Punta Crena, from the Pilgrim’s Trail. 2020 - Andrea Carlo Martinez

1. Varigotti: Picture-perfect views, pasta and hiking paths

Driving down a sweeping coastal road towards Varigotti, you see a lion-shaped rock, behind which lies a promontory jutting out between two bays. It is a familiar welcome to what has long been called the perla del ponente, or "pearl" of the Italian Riviera.

The small village of Varigotti, lying roughly halfway between Portofino and the French border, is a pocket-sized beauty enclosed by steep cliffs. Its bougainvillea-filled, Moorish-style old town (a legacy of Middle-Age Saracen incursions) makes it seem like the cover of a One Thousand and One Nights picture book.

Varigotti's idiosyncratic charm even caught Disney-Pixar's eye, which used the village as inspiration for their 2021 animated film, Luca.

As a relatively secluded spot, it remains uncrowded even in the height of summer, and its residents have rejected too much commercialisation. It has become a retreat for the more hermitic among Italy's glitterati, who prefer Varigotti's laid-back demeanour to the gaudier luxury of Portofino or Porto Cervo.

The off-season brings with it the added benefit of being able to explore the village and its surroundings without the muggy climate and mosquitoes of summer.

A small square in the heart of Varigotti’s old town. 2021.
A small square in the heart of Varigotti’s old town. 2021. - Andrea Carlo Martinez

Hikers have a myriad of paths at their disposal. For the less adventurous, an olive grove-lined walk up to the 12th-century church of San Lorenzo is an undemanding trek which offers striking views of the Sarcacens' Bay (Baia dei Saraceni).

For the more intrepid, there's the Pilgrim's Trail (Sentiero del Pellegrino), a 6.3 km-long hike to the top of a tall ridge, from which you can see much of the Riviera (and even Corsica on the clearest of days), and visit a rumoured smugglers' cove: the Grotta dei Falsari.

And as a reward for the calories burnt, Varigotti's culinary offerings don't disappoint.

The Italian Riviera invented some of Italy's most beloved dishes. Among the local specialities found in Varigotti are fresh trofie pasta with pesto sauce and fluffy focaccia. For the ultimate experience, dip a slice of focaccia in your cappuccino - it won't make you look like a clumsy tourist, the locals swear by it.

If that's not enough natural beauty and gastronomic treats, you can also head to two quaint villages a stone's throw away - Finalborgo and Noli, the latter of which was once a maritime republic.

Varigotti is easy to reach by train or car from Genoa. The Italian Riviera's main city is a maze of pastel-hued alleyways interspersed with Baroque landmarks, and itself well worth a visit.

If you're lucky, you can time your sightseeing with one of Genoa's "Rolli Days", when the city's UNESCO-designated palaces are free to the public. The next is scheduled for 17-19 May.

A view of Sperlonga from the grotto of Roman Emperor Tiberius’s villa. 18 February 2023.
A view of Sperlonga from the grotto of Roman Emperor Tiberius’s villa. 18 February 2023. - Andrea Carlo Martinez

2. Sperlonga: Roman ruins and pirate watchtowers

Crowning a crag protruding into the Tyrrhenian Sea, the mediaeval town of Sperlonga towers over a long stretch of coastline halfway between Rome and Naples.

The cluster of white houses with azure window shutters and flower pots is reminiscent of the Aegean islands, while its cactus-strewn lawns - leftover from Spanish rule - give it an unmistakably southern Italian feel.

Sperlonga has long been a coveted coastal retreat, including for Roman emperors.

Here, you stumble upon 2,000-year-old ruins on your beach walk - the remains of Emperor Tiberius's villa are visible at the foot of a small cove. Once home to giant statues, they were discovered by locals just over 60 years ago, and can now be found in a museum open year-round.

A sunset view of Sperlonga’s 16th-century watchtower, Torre Truglia. 18 February 2024.
A sunset view of Sperlonga’s 16th-century watchtower, Torre Truglia. 18 February 2024. - Andrea Carlo Martinez

But while Sperlonga may have entertained the ancient Roman elite, not all visitors have come with the friendliest of intentions.

The city has been raided by both the Saracens and Ottomans throughout the centuries, leading to the creation of its most iconic landmark: a 16th-century watchtower at the edge of a cliff.

Nowadays, the only raids it experiences are from masses of both Italian and foreign holidaymakers descending in the warmer months.

As the town's vast beach quickly gets invaded by rows of beach club-owned deckchairs and the accompanying swarm of tourists, the off-season is the perfect occasion to stroll along the shore and soak up the sun (and history).

The sun sets on the Amalfi coast, seen from Praiano. 7 November 2022.
The sun sets on the Amalfi coast, seen from Praiano. 7 November 2022. - Andrea Carlo Martinez

3. Praiano: Lemon groves, seafood spaghetti and limoncello

Positano and Amalfi have long reigned as the Amalfi Coast's most popular seaside resorts. But tucked demurely between them is their forgotten sibling, which is by no means less alluring.

A hilltop village of a few thousand inhabitants, Praiano is a true microcosm of southern Italian life. While Positano and Amalfi have sadly lapsed into some of the kitschier trappings of mass tourism, Praiano has maintained much of its authenticity.

On a ceramic-tiled piazza outside its cathedral  - the sea sparkling and Capri's cliffs in the background - children play football as grandfathers watch on, reading the paper and sipping a coffee at the Caffè del Sole.

It's the perfect place to whip out an old journal, smell the scent of lemons wafting from the town's many orchards (which bloom in the early spring), and tuck into many of the Amalfi Coast's delicacies - from seafood spaghetti and pizza with fresh mozzarella di bufala to fried sardines, all washed down with a glass of limoncello at the end.

An orchard in Praiano. 7 November 2022.
An orchard in Praiano. 7 November 2022. - Andrea Carlo Martinez

For the architecture aficionados, even a humble town like Praiano will not leave you wanting. Its cathedral, peering above the rest of the town, conceals a Baroque interior filled with colourful tiles, part of a local tradition dating back thousands of years. Other examples of the distinctive ceramic artwork can be spotted throughout the village, on street corners and gates.

As with its neighbouring towns along the coast, reaching Praiano is a little complicated, requiring multiple bus and train rides from Naples. Not for much longer, however: the Amalfi Coast is getting its very own airport, which will open this July.

Tropea’s iconic sanctuary of Santa Maria dell’Isola.
Tropea’s iconic sanctuary of Santa Maria dell’Isola. - Linda71fer, Pixabay.

4. Tropea: A colourful town with a fiery cuisine

Tucked away in the deep southern tip of Italy, the Calabrian village of Tropea doesn't often make it onto travellers' itineraries. It doesn't help that Calabria takes many a beating in the press: it's the country's poorest region and one plagued by organised crime, specifically the powerful 'Ndrangheta syndicate.

But that should not deter tourists from visiting Tropea, which aside from having been named Italy's most beautiful village, is also a foodie paradise.

The town has become internationally renowned for its "red queen": the Tropea red onion (cipolla rossa). Its sweetness and lack of pungency are such that it's often enjoyed raw, and local legend says it can work wonders for your health.

It's not the only red item on the menu. Calabrian cuisine is the country's fieriest, with its chilli peppers, spicy sausage spread ('Nduja) and fileja pasta, all of which can be enjoyed in Tropea.

An ape van selling Tropea's specialities, including chilli peppers and onions.
An ape van selling Tropea's specialities, including chilli peppers and onions. - maudanros/Getty Images/iStockphoto

After recovering from the inevitable food coma, Tropea's old town is a joy to discover, a place to get lost in crooked alleyways, whose elegant porticoes and decaying buildings are brightened by colourful shops and restaurants.

Tropea is also home to the Sanctuary of Saint Mary of the Island (Santa Maria dell'Isola) sitting on a rocky outcrop where the sand meets the sea.

Cefalù’s seafront, 26 November 2015.
Cefalù’s seafront, 26 November 2015. - master2, iStock.

5. Cefalù: Mosaic-clad churches and ice-cold citrus granita

Cefalù is far from the world's best-kept secret. For decades, it's been one of Sicily's more popular resorts, famed for its Mediterranean flair, turquoise waters, and colourful fishing boats.

Nevertheless, while tourists flock to Cefalù for the coveted Sicilian summer experience, the town is far more than a picturesque backdrop to a beach holiday or a post-worthy Instagram shot.

The town is a melting pot of history and customs - and one that is best explored in the off-season's gentler sun.

The interior of Cefalù Cathedral, with its iconic Byzantine-style Christ Pantocrator. 1 February 2019.
The interior of Cefalù Cathedral, with its iconic Byzantine-style Christ Pantocrator. 1 February 2019. - e55evu/Getty Images

Cefalù showcases how the many different civilisations that set foot on the island left their mark on its architectural landscape. Arab-style archways lead to Baroque façades while the Gothic Cathedral house a Byzantine 'Christ Pantocrator' mosaic - a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This millennia-old fusion of traditions has also fed into Cefalù's cuisine, with moreish treats ranging from fried arancini balls to cassata dessert. But winter and spring are when much of the region's natural produce is in season, and the tangy blood orange is best enjoyed from November to April.

While most of coastal Italy rarely gets cold, Sicily's proximity to North Africa means Cefalù remains exceptionally mild in winter - with temperatures hovering above the mid-teens even in the depths of January.

Some may still vote for the quintessential summer beach vacation, but few pleasures are greater than digging into a citrus granita, overlooking Cefalù's quiet bay and basking - rather than baking - in the midday sun.