Italy’s most popular destinations—Rome, Venice, Florence, the Cinque Terre—are endlessly alluring, but in peak summer months they can be crowded and expensive as well. The country’s classic attractions—great art, architecture, food, wine, medieval villages and beautiful country landscapes—can be found outside its famous spots, but where are the best places to go that are affordable and fabulous too?
We turned to Domenic Petrino, director of business development for Select Italy, a boutique travel company specializing in custom itineraries, for some answers. He recommends seven areas where the experiences will be authentic and the cost of hotels, restaurants and real estate (should you be in the market for a vacation home) less—often far less–than in Italy’s best known cities and resorts.
While you won’t find as many five-star properties or villas to rent in these areas, there are many small B&Bs and boutique hotels to choose from. Petrino recommends June, September and October as ideal months for traveling to the destinations detailed below—the weather is good and the tourist crowds have yet to reach their max.
“Puglia is one of the best deals in Italy now,” says Petrino. “Particularly for its beaches. There’s so much here—beautiful coastlines and towns, and great food and wine.The masserias (Puglia’s stone farmhouses) have been converted into hotels and gorgeous spas.”
For seaside holidays Petrino also suggests Puglia’s Gargano Peninsula. “Resorts on Italy’s west coast are better known, but many of the beaches are rocky. In the Gargano you’ll find spectacular sand beaches. Vieste is a wonderful coastal town to visit,” he says. Also worth checking out are the idyllic Tremiti islands off Gargano’s northern coast, with pristine shorelines and clear green and blue waters. “Mostly Italians go here,” says Petrino. “It’s a snorkeling paradise.”
How to get to Puglia: Fly into Bari or Brindisi, or take an Alta Velocità (AV) high-speed train to Bari, then rent a car.
A sizable region bordering Puglia, Calabria and Campania, Basilicata is an under-the-radar destination for most travelers. Petrino is enthusiastic about Matera, one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities, parts of which are a protected UNESCO site; it will be Italy’s capital of culture for 2019. Known for its sassi, or areas of cave dwellings inhabited since the Paleolithic era, Mattera’s ancient vibe has drawn a number of movie directors to film scenes here that depict old Jerusalem.”Matera is like going back 2000 years in time,” says Petrino, “There are small, wonderful inns and boutique hotels built into the mountains, many with no more than 15 rooms. And the area wines and olive oils are good.” Basilicata is easy to access by car from many parts of Puglia, he says, particularly from the town of Alberobello.
How to get to Basilicata: Fly or take the high-speed train to Bari. Matera is roughly one hour away by car.
CALABRIA“This is virgin territory for most travelers,” says Petrino, who highlights the seaside resort of Tropea in the region. Among the attractions are a long sandy beach on the Tyrrhenian Sea set beneath imposingly steep cliffs, and a charming old town that provides dramatic views overlooking the water.
How to get to Tropea: Fly to the Lamezia Terme airport, then drive to Tropea, about an hour (57 kilometers) away.
SOUTHERN AND WESTERN SICILY“You have to travel away from Palermo and Taormina to the southern and western parts of the island for the best prices,” says Petrino. “Head to the baroque towns like Noto, Modica, Marsala and Trapani, or Siracusa with its Greek ruins.” In addition to taking in the baroque architecture and art, visitors wanting to learn more about the exceptionally locavore cuisine can try their hand at local cooking classes. Beach lovers should check out the town of Sciacca, says Petrino, with sandy stretches of coastline and a main piazza overlooking the sea; or Favignana, one of the Egadi islands off the coast of Trapani.
How to get to Sicily: For towns like Marsala, Sciacca, Trapani, and the island of Favignana, fly to Palermo. For Noto, Modica, and Siracusa, fly to Catania. Then rent a car.
MOLISE“Not may people go here. It’s a hidden gem,” says Petrino of this central-south and mountainous region of Italy. “This is an area for people who’ve been to Italy a number of times and are looking for something different.” Among Molise’s attractions: medieval villages (among them ghost towns), castles, churches with abundant frescoes, splendid beaches and artisan crafts.
How to get to Molise: Drive from Rome or Naples, or take trains from these cities where there are a number of daily departures to Campobasso, Molise’s capital.
LE MARCHE“Le Marche is much more affordable than its neighbor, Tuscany, and not many people know about it,” says Petrino. But the region offers a lot of things travelers seek out in better known areas, like amazing country vistas, medieval hill towns, Renaissance art and architecture (notably in Urbino, the birthplace of Raphael), a Slow Food-style cuisine, and many Blue Flag (an international designation for water quality and sustainable practices) beaches.
How to get to Le Marche: Fly to Ancona, or travel by train (3 1/2 to 4 hours) from Rome.
PIEDMONT“This is a phenomenal wine region, famous for Barolo, Barbaresco and Dolcetto, as well as white truffles,” says Petrino who recommends Piedmont’s three As—the towns of Alba, Asti and Alessandria. Alba, located in Le Langhe, the area’s famous wine region, is often described as Piedmont’s gourmet central, where you can indulge in those famous white truffles at Michelin-starred restaurants; Alessandria, where the writer Umberto Eco was born, has a countryside dotted with historic castles and palaces along with many cycleways for bikers and hiking paths; and Asti, famous for its sparkling wine. There are great cooking classes in Piedmont, notes Petrino, not surprising when you consider all the fine wines, cheeses and chocolates the region produces.