So you’re going to Italy! Yaaay you! Italy is one of my favorite destinations and I’m pretty sure it will be yours too. I mean what’s not to like? It’s the land of Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Dante; the birthplace of the Renaissance; the home of pizza, pasta, and gelato! Of course a trip to Italy, specially if it’s your first, will include the must see cities of Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. All definitely worth seeing; and unfortunately all very crowded and pretty overpriced. So if you have an extra day or so here are 5 must see Italian towns that are a bit off the beaten path, but all well worth the time!
There are many small towns that are worth visiting specially if you’re looking to avoid major crowds. In this post I’m listing 5 Italian towns that aren’t way off the beaten path and are still on the tourist radar, but don’t attract the massive crowds that fill the streets of Italy’s major cities. These Italian towns aren’t in any particular order and to keep it simple I listed towns that are easily accessible by train from one of the major cities.
Located in central Italy in the Umbria area Orvieto is a delightful Italian town. It sits high up on a hill made of volcanic tufo stone offering an extraordinary view of the Umbrian countryside. It is rich in religious artwork boasting one of the prettiest cathedral facades in my opinion.
Orvieto has 2 distinct areas, the centro storico (old historic town) on the hill top, and the new area below. The area below is nothing special. But the historic town above has lots to offer.
One of the town’s highlights is the Duomo or the cathedral. Construction began in 1290 using a mixture of Gothic and Romanesque styles. The Duomo is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It features a stained glass rose window, beautiful mosaics, bas reliefs, and pillars on its facade. Inside are chapels featuring beautiful artwork and statues made by a variety of Italian masters.
Behind the Duomo are some medieval palaces called the Palazzi Papali. These museums house much of the artwork, furnishings, and papers from the Duomo.
Orvieto also has a rich underground world that features a network of Etruscan era caves, tunnels, and wells. Guided tours of the underground caverns give an insight of how ancient Italians lived. Tour tickets can be purchased from the office in the square across the cathedral.
Another underground feature is St. Patrick’s well. Built at the behest of Pope Clement VII between 1527 and 1537 the well features a double helix design that effectively allowed people and donkeys to go up and down to get water. This ensured the hilltop town always had access to water during times of siege.
The town is a bit busy during the day with day trippers from Rome milling about, but mostly they’re concentrated in the Duomo square and the city center which is about a 5 minute walk from there. But busy in this Italian town is nowhere near what busy is like in Rome!
You can easily get a great table at any of it’s restaurants, something you must do because one of the things the area is famous for is its Classico wine. Don’t leave town without trying it!
My favorite place for awesome views, peace and quite, and a great place if you got kids who need to work off some energy is the park at the edge of town by the funicular station.
The views of the town below and the Umbrian countryside are spectacular! The park is almost empty, the few times we’ve been there we had the whole park to ourselves!
And there’s playground equipment for the young ones! Like I said it’s a great place to stop and rest, enjoy the views, and let the kids run around!
Getting to Orvieto is easy. It’s less than a 90 minute train ride from Rome’s main station Roma Termini. It is serviced by the slower trains and tickets are super cheap, about 10 Euro each way at most. You get off at the Orvieto train station which is across the street from the entrance to the hilltop town.
You can walk or take the elevator up to the top or take my favorite mode of transportation there, the funicular. The funicular takes you up to the edge of town by the park I mentioned. You can connect to the minibus, the stop is right outside the station, and get dropped off at the Duomo or you can walk up, it’s about a 10 minute uphill walk to the town center. Buy your tickets at the booth in front of the funicular station below, the ticket is good for the funicular and bus ride. You can buy round trip tickets and just hop on the bus and funicular for the ride down.
If you drive to Orvieto you can park your car for free at the train station and walk, take the elevator or funicular to the top.
Tivoli is an historic hilltop town in the Lazio region of Italy. It sits on the Aniene River in the Monti Tiburtini hills. It is located 19 miles from Rome and can be easily reached by public transportation making it an ideal day trip from that city.
This Italian town was on the major trade route between Rome and Abruzzi and has been an important settlement since then. Because of it’s high altitude the air is cooler and fresher than in Rome making it a popular summer retreat for the moneyed classes of ancient Rome who built elaborate villas in and around the town and bathed in the natural thermal springs located in the plains below the town center. Today that area is called Bagni di Tivoli and one can still bathe in the thermal springs.
Tivoli as I mentioned is home to several ancient villas the two most famous are Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana which is not located in the town proper but in the plains below.
Villa d’Este is a Renaissance villa built in the 1550’s for Cardinal Ippolito D’Este, the son of Lucretia Borgia. The villa was mainly built for entertaining and its interior has lavish frescoes adorning the reception rooms. But the main attraction of this villa are its spectacular gardens filled with amazing water features. The gardens were designed to dazzle guests with all sorts of fountains including the Fountain of the Dragons and the enormous Water Organ Fountain which cascades down a huge drop into quiet shady pools below.
The gardens also offer wonderful views of the valley or plains below. It is one of the most visited villas in the area because it is located near the main bus stop where day trippers from Rome get off.
Villa Adriana is a huge complex envisioned by Emperor Hadrian. Its grounds are so vast it can be considered a town by most standards and navigating it even with a map can prove daunting. The villa features lakes, fountains, baths, temples, gardens, and libraries. For those interested in antiquities the villa is definitely worth a visit.
As I mentioned Villa Adriana is not located in the town proper, instead it is a bus ride away in the plains below. It is a stop on the regular Rome – Tivoli route. Just ask the driver where to get off and be prepared to walk the rest of the way. Or you can take the local bus from the town center which will take you to the villa entrance.
There are other villas and sites in Tivoli that are worth seeing including Villa Gregoriana which is an impressive park set in a gorge that features a 100 meter waterfall; the round temple of Vesta and the ruins of the temple of Sybil both located above the Villa Gregoriana; Ponte Gregoriano which offer views over the gorge, the waterfall, and the temples; Rocca Pia fortress; the ruins of a Roman Ampitheater; the Cathedral of San Lorenzo; and the Church of San Sylvester.
There are several piazzas and quaint alleys to enjoy around town. You can even see some turret-houses around. These medieval homes were defensive dwellings built by the residents. They featured roofed terraces and no front doors, they were accessed on the second floor which could only be reached by climbing a ladder. There are about 100 of these houses left and many can be seen in Via del Duomo, Via Platone Tiburtino and Via del Colle.
Getting to Tivoli from Rome is fairly easy and very inexpensive, it’s the cost of a metro/bus ticket! Take the blue metro line Linea B to Ponte Mammalo and transfer onto a Cortel bus to Tivoli. The ride takes about 40 minutes depending on the traffic. To return just take the bus back to Ponte Mammalo and the metro back to Roma Termini where you can either continue on the blue line or transfer to the red line to reach your destination.
Siena is one of the Italian towns in the Tuscany region. It is arguably the best preserved medieval town in the country.
Siena is not exactly off the beaten path, it has become a major tourist destination. You’ll find everyone gathered in the famous piazza called Il Campo which is the heart of Siena and was the site of the ancient Roman forum. You’ll find most of the major sites in and around this piazza including the Duomo Siena’s Gothic Cathedral and the Palazzo Publico and its tower the Torre del Mangia which dominates Il Campo.
Il Campo was rebuilt by the Council of Nine, a quasi-democratic group from 1287 to 1355, the nine sections of the fan-like brick pavement of the piazza represent the council and symbolizes the Madonna’s cloak which is said to shelter Siena.
Siena was said to have been founded by Senius son of Remus one of the two legendary founders of Rome. Because of this you will find statues of the she-wolf who suckled Remus and Romulus all over Siena. This wolf is the emblem of this city.
Siena’s historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the home to the world famous Palio the horse race run around the piazza twice every summer.
The museum housed in the Palazzo Publico features some of the best Sienese paintings and frescoes. The Duomo is full of treasures including the Piccolomini library frescoes.
The piazza itself is rimmed with restaurants and bars and the alleys radiating from the main square are alive with shops. If you go on a weekend you’ll find this area alive with both tourists and locals. It may seem crowded but it is a far cry from Florence’s humongous crowds which gather in ever piazza and fill every street.
Siena is an easy day trip from Florence and can be reached by trains departing from the main station Firenze Santa Maria Novella. Get off in Siena’s main train station and hop a bus to the city center. From the bus stop it’s about a 5 -10 minute walk to Il Campo. If you don’t mind long train rides (we don’t) Siena can even be a day trip from Rome, just transfer trains in Florence.
Most folks who find themselves in Florence usually head over to Pisa, it seems to be a staple on everyone’s bucket list. I have no idea why! Why on earth would one find it enjoyable to jostle the crowds just to peer up at a tower that leans to one side? The tower which is actually the church’s bell tower, the church, and the baptisary are all located in a small out of the way field in the town of Pisa. Clearly the town’s claim to fame is the leaning tower and tourists (and pickpockets) flock to it.
Seriously if your only reason to visit Pisa is to see the tower, skip it and buy a postcard, unless of course you have the desire to climb it. (I don’t know why you would, the only views you’ll see are the surrounding streets filled with residential units.) Instead head over to Lucca, it’s one of my favorite little Italian towns.
Lucca is a quaint walled town in Tuscany. It is famous because of its intact medieval wall that surrounds the town. It’s a charming little town with lovely piazzas, streets made for wandering, and almost 100 churches (that’s a lot for such a small town!). You can relax at one of the bars and restaurants and sip on a glass of Lucchesi wine and nibble on rustic dishes prepared with fresh vegetables from nearby Garfagnana. You can spend the day wandering the alleyways lined with churches and boutiques, or you can walk the walls which in medieval times kept the town safe.
Lucca is a train ride away from Florence which makes it an ideal place for a day trip. It’s very close to Pisa so if you really must you can take the train to Pisa, pop in to the Campo dei Miracoli to take a selfie with the leaning tower, then double back on the train to Lucca. At Lucca get off at the main train station and cross the street to the entrance to the walled city.
Literally the “5 Lands” Cinque Terre is on the coast of Italy’s Liguria region. Its coast line, 5 towns (Vernazza, Manarola, Monterossa Al Mare, Riomaggiore, and Corniglia) and the surrounding hills are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Italian towns date back to the 11th. Century. Over centuries residents have built terraces up the steep rugged cliffs that overlook the cliffs. The towns are connected by trains, boats, and paths; except Corniglia which is not accessible by boat.
The 5 villages were connected by a path called Sentiero Azzuro but the section between Riomaggiore and Manarola (the path in the picture) called Via Dell’Amore closed in 2012 and is being renovated. It is slated to reopen in 2019. You can still walk to the villages on a different path but it is not on the water front and is steeper and longer than the original one.
Cinque Terre has become a very popular tourist destination and can get rather crowded specially in the summer. But it’s worth the trip specially by ferry just to see the towns built on the sides of the cliff. Depending on your time you can choose to visit one or all villages. There are day passes for both trains and ferries that will take you to all the towns you can hop on and off as you please.
Each town has pretty streets to wander thru, not many streets in each town so it’s really hard to get lost. There are also many restaurants, bars, and shops in the main tourist areas. And of course you can enjoy the scenery and the water front.
Cinque Terre is a day trip from Genoa or possibly even Florence if you don’t mind the longer train ride. You can catch the ferries from Genoa’s Old Harbor, La Spezia, Lerici, and Porto Venere.
These are just 5 of my favorite Italian towns, they aren’t so far off the beaten path. They are all easily accessible by train from one of Italy’s major cities. But they’re far enough away from the hustle and bustle of Rome, Genoa, or Florence; a visit to any one of them will definitely make your trip more memorable!
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