Italy is a very popular destination no matter what time of year. I seriously doubt they have an off season like other vacation spots. I’ve only seen 2 seasons, busy and busier. It’s said to be empty in August during the dog days of summer when the Italians leave the cities to head for the shores. Yes it’s less busy in August mostly because the natives are on holiday so you may find shops and restaurants closed for the month, this is true in the smaller towns and cities, not so much in the major ones. But although the locals have fled the heat the tourists still flock to the big cities like Rome, Florence, and Venice. That’s why we like to leave the big crowded cities and head over to these 5 Italian towns off the beaten path.
Mind you though we head for the less crowded Italian towns off the beaten path it doesn’t necessarily mean we stay there for days on end, some of them don’t have the accommodations we prefer, like large hotels with air conditioning! We usually use one of the cities as a hub and take day trips from there when possible. For us this works out better, but if you’re ok with small hotels, B&Bs, and other types of accommodations then go for it!
Today I’m sharing my 5 favorite Italian towns off the beaten path. They are by no means the only Italian towns off the beaten path that are worth a visit; in fact in my opinion all Italian towns are worth the visit!
Though many of them don’t boast the large museums and famous art work you’ll find in the larger cities, you’ll be surprised at what you’ll find in many of them. From quiet piazzas, little trattorias serving awesome regional specialties, quaint wineries where you can participate in the harvest, and interesting festivals and events that some towns are known for.
Matera is a city in the Basilicata region in Southern Italy. The modern city of Matera is pretty much a typical town and there’s not a whole lot to do there. It does however boast a very nice pedestrian free zone that connects the two Sasso Districts, Sassi Barisano and Sassi Caveoso. This zone is lined with shops, restaurants, and churches including the cathedral. But the main attraction in this city are the Sasso Districts.
Matera or more specifically the Sassi di Matera (meaning stones of Matera) in my opinion is one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets. Probably because during the years between the late 1950’s to the early 1990’s Italy would have liked to hide the town from the map.
Matera is definitely off the beaten path. It’s not so easily accessible and is not on every tourist’s bucket list, although that is changing! Thanks to Hollywood Matera is getting noticed! Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ and the most recent Wonder Woman film were both filmed there.
The couple of times we visited Matera it was basically empty, we went in the fall and spring, a great time to go weather wise, specially if you want to walk down to the Sassi. We didn’t see a lot of tourists in the modern and old sections of the city. There were a handful of tour groups milling around, but finding a seat at one of the restaurants wasn’t difficult at all!
Matera is said to be the third oldest continuously inhabited place on earth. Proof of its habitation dates back to the Paleolithic age, yes that’s caveman days, when ancient man found shelter in the caves that dot the walls of the gorge.
Over the years inhabitants built homes, shops, wells, and churches in the caves. By digging in the soft tufa rock they were able create new spaces and enlarge existing ones. The cave dwellings and churches don’t look like caves from the outside, everyone one of them has an intricate facade and many are grouped into little “neighborhoods” where several homes share a courtyard.
This worked out well for many years until the town became over populated and living conditions became very unsanitary. People were living stacked in the caves with no running water, electricity, and poor ventilation; and raw sewage was literally running through the streets. Diseases were rampant and the infant mortality rate was very high. It became the shame of Italy and so in the late 1950’s residents, many forcibly, were moved to the modern city above.
The Sasso district was left abandoned for years until some enterprising folks along with help from the government began transforming the caves into luxury hotels, shops, and restaurants. This pretty much started after the Sasso and the Rupestrian (stone) churches within all became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So slowly the tourists are beginning to trickle in. But the tourists that do go are very determined ones because as I said it is quite off the beaten path.
Getting to Matera isn’t difficult if you’re staying in Bari and the surrounding area. It is connected by light rail the FAL line to Bari. You can take this very slow train from the FAL tracks located in Bari’s main train station to Matera, that’s the end of the line. Depending on the train you might have to transfer in Altamura but no worries, the trains are marked and there are only 2 tracks in Altamura.
For more information on Matera check out my article here!
Another one of my favorite Italian towns off the beaten path is Bolzano. Again it’s not on every tourist bucket list and those that do make it up to Bolzano are pretty determined tourists.
Bolzano is in the South Tryol region of Northern Italy. It’s not easily accessible, but can be reached by public transportation for those with a mind to do so.
Located in the the Dolomites/ Italian Alps Bolzano can get fairly busy in the winter as there are ski lodges up in the mountain top. It’s also a popular place for hikers as there are many beautiful trails in the area. But having said that it’s still a pretty quiet town, specially in the early fall and late spring when the ski season is over.
Even if you’re not into winter sports or even hiking or trekking there are still plenty of things to do in Bolzano. You can visit Otzi the iceman, he resides in a freezer in the archaeological museum in town. His well preserved body was discovered in ice in the Italian Alps and the museum is pretty much dedicated to studying ice mummies. You can also visit the cathedral located across from the town’s main square, Piazza Walter, some castles in the area, ride the cable car up to Sopra Bolzano where there is a bee museum and other interesting sites, you can dine in the many restaurants, and of course shop in the mall and the open markets. Or you can stroll by the river and relax in the park along side it. It’s a wonderful spot for a picnic!
Bolzano is an Italian town with a German feel. The residents speak both languages, the buildings look more German than Italian, some folks do dress in lederhosen, and the cuisine features both Italian and German/Austrian dishes.
You can get to Bolzano by train from Italy, Germany, and Austrian. From Northern Italy there is a high speed train that leaves from Verona Porta Nuova station. The ride takes just under an hour and a half.
For more information on Bolzano check out my article here!
Padua is a town located in the Veneto region, a train ride away from Venice.
It’s a college town that’s a bit off the beaten path, at least the tourists don’t crowd there as they do in nearby Venice and Verona. It does get a bit busy when there are festivals and concerts in town, but other than that it’s pretty quiet.
There are several churches and chapels in town that are worth visiting, but to me the best feature is the Prato della Valle, the oval green space in the middle of town. It is a huge space said to be one of Europe’s oldest and largest squares, even though it’s oval shape it’s still considered a square. It is bordered by a moat and is accessible by crossing one of the 4 bridges. Positioned around the moat are statues of Padova’s important citizens. I love this place! It’s a great place to let kids run around!
The square has some restaurants and bars around it, but for more food choices and shopping you can wander the shaded streets that connect the square to the museums and university. Like I said it’s hardly ever crowded and is a relaxing place to spend half the day just wandering and sipping wine with a fine meal in one of its many restaurants.
For more information on Padua check out my article here!
Vicenza is a city in the Veneto region of Northern Italy. It’s about a 45 minute train ride away from Venice.
For those interested in architecture, particularly the designs of Palladio then Vicenza is on their bucket list. This little Italian town is home to most of Palladio’s work.
Here you’ll find his Basillica, Teatro Olipico, La Rotonda (the villa that inspired Thomas Jefferson when he designed Montecello), and a handful of other villas.
You can also make your way up to Monte Berico where you’ll find a church and a spectacular view of the town below. Other tourist sites in the area include a museum dedicated to all things Palladio, wineries, olive groves and presses, and a lively market in the main square on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
For more information on Vicenza read my article here!
Marostica is a town on the side of a hill in the Vicenza province in Northern Italy’s Veneto region. It’s claim to fame is its live chess game the town puts on ever 2 years – every even year to be exact.
Yes a live chess game right in the main town square in front of the castle. Very Alice in Wonderland! It is definitely an Italian town off the beaten path! It’s not the easiest place to get to unless you have a car. The closest train station is in Bassano del Grappa and from there you must take the bus to Marostica. But unless the chess festival is going on (September on even numbered years) you’ll more than likely have the town to yourself. There’s not much to do there, specially when there are no chess matches, but you can explore the 2 castles and the churches then relax at the town square. Very restful! A great place to get away from the maddening crowds!
Ready for an Italian adventure? Call Savvy Nana Travel, we’ll help you plan an adventure of a lifetime!
Last week I share 5 must see Italian towns that were not quite off the beaten path but were far enough down the bucket list to be less crowded. This week I’m share 5 more towns that are a bit more off the beaten path and will more than likely be even less crowded. These 5 must see Italian towns will surely be less crowded than any of the major cities that tourists flock to.
These 5 must see Italian towns may not be home to works by the Masters, boast huge cathedrals, or have major archaeological excavations, but each of them have a charm of their own. Many are home to some fine churches with beautiful works of art and some interesting ancient sites. And of course they all have charming piazzas and cobble stone alleys just waiting to be explored. Best of all you might be lucky enough to find that you have the place almost to yourself, at least you don’t have to worry about inattentive or rude tourists shoving you out of the way or photo bombing your pictures!
Assisi is a must see Italian town in the province of Perugia in Italy’s Umbria region. Though not quite off the beaten path, it is after all easily accessible by local trains and buses, it is a town rich in religious, historical, and archaeological sites.
Assisi is most famous for being the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi who was born in this town in 1182. He founded the Franciscans in 1209 which are a related group of mendicant religious orders with in the Catholic Church. The Sister of St. Claire are part of this order as Francis and Claire were contemporaries in Assisi and both were dedicated to prayer and ministry of the poor, the sick, and animals. And yes, St. Francis of Assisi is the Patron Saint of Italy as well as the Patron Saint of Animals, Merchants (he was a fabric merchant before he founded his order), and Ecologists (because of his great love of nature).
Today the Basilica of St Francis is a huge complex built to follow the slope of the mountain side. The lower basilica houses the tomb of St. Francis. Facing this basilica on the other side of the town is the Basilica of St. Claire and is where St. Claire is entombed beneath the main altar.
Assisi is also home to the ruins of a first century Roman amphitheater. It has seen its share of war and blood shed throughout the ages having been sacked by the Ostogoths in the 4th. century, conquered by Fredrick I (Barbarossa) in the 12th. century, and sacked again by Napoleon. It also played a heroic role during WWII when the city gave asylum to persecuted refugees, mainly Jews whom the locals hid in convents dressed as nuns and friars. Many were provided with false documents. Assisi became one of the main centers for the Italian Resistance movement. Such generosity and heroism earned the city a gold medal for civilian honor.
Assisi’s winding streets are filled with shops selling local crafts and religious artifacts. It is a popular pilgrimage destination and is filled with devout pilgrims on Sundays and the feast days of the Saints. So unless you are on a pilgrimage it’s probably not a great idea to visit town on those days. A weekday visit is much less crowded and you have the town almost to yourself!
Getting to Assisi is fairly easy. You can get there by train, bus, or private car, and of course you can take a day tour from Rome or Florence. To get there by train take the train heading to Cortona, get off at Terontola and transfer to a local train to Assisi. Get off at the main station which is located in the valley and take a taxi or bus up to the town on the mountain. Of course you could also hike up and pass the areas on the mountains where St. Francis spent time in prayer and contemplation.
Tarquinia is a must see Italian town located in the Northern Lazio region.
Ancient Tarxuna, as Tarquinia was known is one of the 12 Etruscan cities. The Etruscans were Italy’s first known civilizations settling in what is now Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio. Ancient Tarquinia was one of Eturuia’s most important cities and today is probably the best place to see Etruscan Tombs. The town and it’s ancient Necropolis is one of central Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The town is also home to one of the best museums of Etruscan finds outside of Rome. There you’ll find these fabulous terracotta winged horses that date from the 4th. century BC. You’ll also see Etruscan sarcophagi and statues as well as clay vessels and intricate funerary gold jewelry. The archaeological museum is housed in the Palazzo Vitelleschi on Piazza Cavor the town’s medieval center. The town’s Cathedral boasts good frescoes dating back to 1508 and other interesting churches.
But the town’s real attraction are the Etruscan tombs in the Necropolis. There are about 6000 tombs dug into the soft tufa dating back from the 6th. to 2nd. Centuries BC. The tombs are decorated with beautiful frescoes which still look vivid even today.
The Necropolis is located just outside of the town wall. There is a free bus that run from town to all the sites including the tombs but it’s a nice walk through the town and up to the tombs.
If you wish to visit both the tombs and the museum there’s a combination ticket which allows entrance to both. I would recommend having a look at the tombs first, there are about 15 or so open each day. Each tomb is from a different period allowing one to see the different styles thru the ages. The tombs are protected by these concrete “houses” and you’ll have to walk down some stairs to view the frescoes, definitely worth looking at several at least. After the Necropolis you can head back to town and make your way to the museum to see some of the artifacts found in the tombs. Then you can wander thru the medieval streets or have a snack at the piazza. One of my favorite treats is the ricotta pizza you can find at the local pizzaria!
Getting to Tarquinia is very easy. From Rome take the train to Tarquinia, it’s about a 1 1/2 to 2 hour ride. From the station take the bus to the town center. If you’re on a cruise ship that’s docked in Civitavecchia you can take the Cortal (Blue bus) from Piazza Vittorio and get dropped off by the Tarquinia InfoPoint. The ride is about 25 minutes.
Bracciano is a small town in the Lazio region. It is situated above the volcanic lake from whence it’s named. Lago di Bracciano is the 2nd. largest lake in the region and the 8th. largest in the country.
One can canoe, swim, sail, and even dive in the lake specially during the hot summer months. The town above offers beautiful views of the lake below.
But it’s real claim to fame is the very well preserved medieval castle called Castello Orsini-Odescalchi which dominates the hilltop town. This castle was also the venue for Tom Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes.
You can take a tour of the castle, it’s huge and very cool! After you can wander the streets of the old town and stop at one of its fine restaurants for a meal. In the summer you can camp down by the lake and lounge on the beach or swim, sail, or canoe. There’s also a ferry that will connect Bracciano to the other 2 towns on the lake.
Getting to Bracciano from Rome is super easy. Just take a train to Bracciano from Rome’s Ostiense Train Station. (This is a main hub where the Blue metro line meets the train station – it’s where the Pyramid of Cestius is by Porta San Paolo)
The modern town of Ostia is basically a suburb of Rome. There’s not a whole lot to see and do in the actual town itself. The main attraction of this town is it’s vast archaeological site called Ostia Antica.
Back in the day it was a very important city because it was Rome’s ancient seaport. The sea has long receded and it’s no longer a coastal city, but the Archaeological site is fairly well preserved and offers a glimpse at how it was when it was a bustling seaport with over 60,000 residents.
To get to there make your way to the Ostiense Train station or the Piramide Metro (the lines are intertwined here). Walk over to the Lido line – it uses a metro ticket or pass – and hop on a train. Get off at the 7th. Stop – Ostia Antica. From the station walk over the bridge and follow the street to the park entrance. Buy your ticket at the kiosk before the gate.
Volterra, Palazzo dei Priori
Volterra is a walled mountaintop town in Italy’s Tuscany region. It’s history dates back from the 7th. century BC and has many structures from the Etruscan, Roman, and medieval periods.
It was one of the 12 cities of the Etruscan League and was a very important center in those days. After the Etruscan era the city became allied to ancient Rome then by the end of the 3rd. Century BC. In the 5th. Century it was a bishop’s residence the by the 12th. Century was conquered by Florence and fell under Florentine rule. When Florence fell in 1530 it ended up in the control of the Medici family then from there followed the history of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
In pop culture it was an important part of the popular Twilight series written by Stephanie Meyer. In this series Volterra was home to the Volturi, a group of powerful ancient vampires who essentially ruled over all the vampires in the world.
There are many interesting sites to in Volterra including the remains of a Roman Theater, Volterra Cathedral, the main piazza, museums which house works of Tuscan artists and ancient Etruscan funeral urns and other artifacts. And of course there are the city walls and some very well preserved gates.
Volterra is definitely one of the must see Italian towns which is not on the regular tourist agenda, and that’s a good thing. Because it’s not on the regular tourist route it’s not at all crowded. It’s a great town to visit to experience the authentic Tuscany. But it’s a bit hard to get to. The easiest way to get to Volterra is by car or if you don’t want to drive or hire a service by tour bus. If you want to get there via public transportation it’s doable, but not so easily done.
Getting there by public transportation involves a couple of train or bus transfer. You can get there from any of the main Tuscan towns like Florence, Siena, Pisa, or Livorno. The closest train station to Volterra is Saline di Volterra which can be reached by only by the line running from the coastal town of Cecina. So from any Tuscan city take the train to Cecina where you can transfer to the coastal line, but be aware that train service is intermittent. So most folks take the train to Cecina then transfer to a bus to Volterra.
So there you have it; 5 more must see Italian towns that are a bit off the beaten path. A day trip to any or all of these towns will give you a taste of the real Italy!
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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Italy! It’s a country that’s on just about everyone’s “bucket list”. Sure you want to go to Italy to see the sights, visit museums, and of course eat, eat, eat! But is taking selfies in front of the Vatican or the Colosseum, or grabbing a slice of pizza and a cup of gelato on the run really your idea of an Italian vacation? If it is then go for it! But if you want to really experience Italy read on! Here are 5 unique activities to really experience Italy!
Some of these activities are seasonal, but hey, you haven’t booked yet right? So plan your Italy vacation to be able to take part in at least one of these 5 Unique Activities to Really Experience Italy!
Think Lucy and Ethel stomping grapes in one of the “I Love Lucy” shows and plan your Italian vacation between late August and very early October. That’s the Grape Harvest season or Vendemmia in most of Italy.
The exact dates vary from year to year and from place to place, depending on the weather. But it’s safe to say that by September the grape harvest is taking place in most of the countries vineyards.
Many towns and vineyards throughout the country host grape harvest festivals. Vineyards open their gates and fields to the public for some fun, food, and of course drink. For the price of an admission ticket you can wander thru rows of grape vines, pick grapes, stomp them in huge wooden vats, then enjoy locally prepared food from antipasti to dolci, and of course taste the various wines the vineyard or winery offers. Several glasses of wine are usually included in the ticket price but you can buy bottles to take home or drink during the event at the vineyard. Trust me there will be more than enough wine to go around!
Click here to learn more about Grape Harvest in Italy!
Olive Groves & Olive Oil Factory
If you find yourself in Italy sometime between mid-October to early-December you can take part in the olive harvest. The craze may have been jump started by the popular book Under the Tuscan Sun, but there is something to be said about spending the day in the olive groves specially during harvest season.
My husband and his relatives have many fond childhood memories of warm fall days spent picking olives in olive groves where they grew up. Of course picking olives is outdoor work that builds up an appetite so a hearty picnic lunch is definitely a must have.
If you’re not the outdoorsy type then take a tour of the olive oil factory. It’s pretty interesting. You’ll learn how they take those olives and cold press them into incredible olive oil. Did you know that mills are communal mills called Frantoio where most of the local growers take their olives to be pressed? And did you know that olives are pressed only during the harvest season and the oil is stored to be bottled during the year?
You’ll learn all about the pressing and bottling process if you take the short factory tour which of course ends with an olive oil tasting and some time to wander around the gift shop!
Tour and tasting at the Bonamini Frantoio in Northern Italy.
Click here for more information!
Pizza & Wine Pairings
So you’ve been to a wine tasting and maybe even a pizza tasting, there are all sorts of tours around Italy that offer them. But have you been to a Pizza & Wine Pairing at the farm and vineyards that grow the food you’re tasting?
Pizza & Wine Pairings in a beautiful hillside setting on a farm built on top of a 17th. century Benedictine convent is truly a memorable event! You can do this at the Fattoria dell’Eremo outside of Padua in northern Italy. The hosts are friendly and the food and wine are amazing! They will cater to your dietary needs just let them know your preferences.
Click here for more info!
Italian Cooking Class
Yes there are pizza making classes and pasta making classes, they’re all great; but for a truly unique experience take an Italian cooking class at a local residence!
You’ll make everything from antipasti to dessert! Best of all you get to eat what you cooked!
Email me for more information about this cooking class in Northern Italy.
Every Italian town or city has at least one market day. For a truly unique local experience wander a local market or two.
Markets are usually held at the town’s main square or in the larger cities like Rome the markets spring up along side streets around town. You’ll find everything from fruits and vegetables to household goods, and clothing and shoes at these outdoor markets.
Some towns have specific days for specific vendors. Like in Vicenza food vendors are open in the main square and around town on Tuesdays; Thursdays are for clothing and household goods with a few food vendors around; and the last Sunday of the month is for the antique market. So find out what days are market days in the area you’ll be visiting.
Markets are a great place to find an inexpensive lunch. You can grab a loaf of bread from the bakery stall then meat and cheese from the deli vendor. Top it all off with some fruit and a bottle of wine and you’ve go the makings of a picnic lunch!
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City of Vicenza as seen from the Monte Berico viewpoint
Vicenza is a city in Northern Italy’s Veneto region. It is located 43 miles from Venice (a 45 minute train ride away), 38 miles from Verona, and 22 miles from Padua; making it an easy day trip from any of these other famous Veneto cities.
Vicenza is one of the oldest cities in the Veneto. It is known for its natural beauty and the beautiful villas in and around the city. The villas were designed by Andrea Palladio a humble stonecutter born in nearby Padua. Palladio fled an oppressive employer in Padua and ended up in Vicenza where he went on to become a noted 16th. Century architect. Palladio left a legacy of villas, churches, and other building in and around the city. Because of his contributions the city has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. It is listed as “The City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto” thus emcompassing all the building within the city center and those around the province of Vicenza.
Not only did Palladio design beautiful villas in and around his adoptive city, he transformed European architecture. Among his admires was Thomas Jefferson who considered Palladio the greatest architect of all time. Jefferson studied the works of Palladio and considered the architectural book written by him to be the Architectural Bible. Montecello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia was modeled after Palladio’s “La Rotonda” villa located outside Vicenza’s historic city center. Many British country homes are also designed in the Palladian style of architecture.
So a visit to Vicenza is really a walk thru Palladio’s City. Many of his works are in the city’s centro storico.
If you’re not a big fan of Palladian Architecture or architecture in general you don’t have to enter any of the villas or the Palladio Museum, but you can certainly stroll thru town and admire the classical styled building built by the great man.
Here are a few things to see and do in Vicenza:
Inspired by Roman amphitheaters Palladio started this Renaissance marvel in 1580, after his death it was completed by Vincenzo Scamozzi. Beyond the walled garden lies an elliptical theater with a stage set modeled after the ancient Greek city of Thebes.
You can buy an entrance ticket at the box office located on the right side of the arched stone entrance to have a tour of the building and the stage. Tickets are €11.
Or you can admire the statues of actors scattered around the garden. The garden is free to enter.
On hot summer days the garden is a nice place to cool off and rest after walking around Vicenza. I like to grab a cold drink, like a granita, from one of the bars just outside the gate and sit quietly on a stone bench in the garden.
The theater is still used for operas and classical and jazz performances. Italian performers vie for a chance to perform on the amazing stage.
Today the headquarters of Banca Popolare di Vicenza Palazzo Thiene was purchased by the bank from the Thiene family in 1872.
This palazzo is now home to fine paintings and statues. It also houses the world’s largest collections of oselle. Oselle are silver and gold coins once minted by the Venetian Doges to gift to all the noble families of Venice at Christmas.
A visit to this palazzo is by appointment only.
Click here for their website!
This Basilica located in Piazza dei Signori the town’s main square is now a venue for world class temporary exhibits and is the home to the Museo del Gioiello which houses a dazzling collection of historic and contemporary jewelry.
The building is modeled after a Roman basilica. It once housed the courts and Council of Four Hundred. Palladio was commissioned to restyle the old palazzo in 1549. It is capped by a huge copper dome that looks like an upturned ship hull.
During spring and summer you can climb up to the roof and walk around. The roof has a commanding view of Vicenza’s centro storico.
Designed in 1550 this palazzo is one of Palladio’s finest buildings. Located diagonally across from the Teatro Olimpico the palazzo is home to Vicenza’s Civic Art Museum.
On the ground floor which is used for temporary exhibits you’ll find the amazing ceiling fresco of Diana and Helios by Domenico Brusasorci.
The upstairs galleries include works by Anthony Van Dyke and Alessandro Maganza as well as the private collection of Guiseppe Roi with drawings by Tiepolo and Picasso.
Admission to the museum is €7.
Dominating the Piazza del Duomo is Vicenza’s Cathedral. Designed by Lorenzo di Bologna construction began in the late 15th. century. Palladio added his own touches to the unfinished building in the 16th. century, notably the dome that was inspired by the
Pantheon in Rome.
The building was heavily damaged during the bombing in WWII so the building seen today is a 20th. century reconstruction.
The square also hosts vendors on Market Days usually Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Actually you’ll find that the town pretty much turns into a huge open market on those days with vendors and food trucks setting up along the streets and the piazzas.
Chiesa di San Lorenzo
This 13th. century Gothic church was built by the Franciscans. It’s best feature is the marble entrance. It’s pretty spartan inside.
But it has a splash fountain nearby for kids to play in during hot summer months and on Tuesdays and Thursdays the square hosts an open market where you can buy fruits and veggies as well as dairy products and fried seafood.
Market days in Vicenza are normally Tuesdays and Thursdays. Food vendors set up stalls in front of the Chiesa di San Lorenzo and in the Piazza del Duomo.
Clothing and household goods are sold in stalls in and around Piazza dei Signoria and Piazza dei Erbe. Just walk around the town and you can’t miss one of the markets.
If you’re there during the summer months try some Pesche Saturnine. These saucer shaped peaches are delicious!
Gelato & Prosecco
When you’ve had your fill of the Markets or have seen your share of Palladian buildings treat yourself to a cup or cone of Gelato. You’ll find a gelateria on just about every street, but my favorite is Venchi just down the street from the Coin Department Store.
Gelato not your thing? Then head over to a Wine Bar or Porseccheria, they’re on every street too! Try a refreshing Hugo Cocktail, one of my favorites!
Better yet have both! Well maybe not at the same time, but believe me both are well worth it!
Check out Monte Berico and the Basilica di Santa Maria di Monte Berico. The Marian church is a minor Basilica in Vicenza and sits atop the hill of Monte Berico.
It’s about a 10 minute ride up the hill from the city or you can walk up from Vicenza in about half and hour. The walk takes you thru a tall staircase and thru a beautiful arcaded walkway. Free parking can be found in Piazzelle della Vittoria across from the church’s main entrance.
That’s where you’ll find the viewpoint for some awesome views of Vicenza and the surrounding countryside.
Try going up during the day and again at night, it’s two totally different experiences!
These are just a few things to see and do in and around Vicenza. Believe me if you’re a real Palladio buff there are more villas to see and a Palladio Museum to visit. But to do all that would require much more than a day. I’ve been to Vicenza at least 3 times and have stayed for a month at a time and I still haven’t seen everything!
Of course we’ve wandered the other nearby towns like Quinto Vincention, Torre de Quatresolo, Camisanno, and more. Believe me there is so much to do in and around the area. So if you have friends and family stationed at the Casserma Ederly Army Base in Vicenza be sure to visit them and plan to stay for a while!
Ready to plan your trip to Northern Italy? Call Savvy Nana Travel 808-372-7734, we’ll help you plan your dream vacay!
Padua, or Padova in Italian, is a quiet little city in the Veneto area of northern Italy. Unlike its illustrious neighbors Venice and Verona, Padua sees much less tourist traffic making it an ideal place to spend a few hours wandering its dense network of arcaded streets where you’ll find lazy piazzas, artwork by famous Renaissance artists including Donatello and Giotto, a university, bridges, and several churches including a Duomo and a Basilica.
Padua is the setting for Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Although it’s not really certain whether the Bard actually spent time in the area it was clearly a region he liked. He set several plays in the Veneto including The Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen From Verona, and of course the tragic romance Romeo and Juliet which was set in Verona.
Padua is situated on the Bacchiglione River 25 miles west of Venice. The Brenta River once ran thru the city and still touches its northern part. In fact the Brenta Riviera Cruise from Padua to Venice departs daily from the historic Burchiello’s Stairway at Portello the city’s ancient river port. This slow boat takes tourists down the Brenta River, thru its canals, and stops at historic villas once home to the Venetian elite. That’s a day long excursion from Padua and ends in Venice in the late afternoon.
Other than the river the city is home to the University of Padua one of Europe’s oldest universities founded in 1222. Galileo Galilei lectured at this same university between 1592 and 1610. It is still a bustling university today!
In Padua one can visit “Il Santo” as the locals call the Basilica di Sant’ Antonio da Padova the most celebrated Paduan church. It houses the bones of the saint in the chapel richly decorated with carved marble and the works of great artists including Sansovino and Falconetto. The church is dedicated to St. Antonio of Padua aka St. Antonio of Libon, the Portuguese Franciscan who spent part of his life and died in the city.
This Basilica is one of the eight international shrines recognized by the Holy See in Rome.
Although Il Santo is the city’s beloved church it is not the titular cathedral of the city. That honor belongs to the Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta a church dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is the seat of Padua’s Bishop. The current structure dates from the 16th. century and its construction involved Michelangelo.
A must see for art lovers is the Cappella degli Scrovegni. The chapel situated in a small church next to the Augustinian monastery contains a fresco by Giotto that is considered to be a masterpiece of western art.
Another Basilica with beautiful chapels and artwork is the one adjoining the Benedictine Abbey of Santa Giustina.
The abbey and its adjoining Basilica faces the Prato della Valle. The church was built in the 520s to house the remains of St. Justina of Padua and other Christian martyrs of the city. The interior is home to chapels dedicated to various saints and is decorated with ornate multi colored marble from quarries in France, Genoa, Padua, and Carrara.
Statues and paintings throughout the church were done by various artists.
My favorite place in the city is the Prato della Valle. It’s 90,000 sq. meter elliptical “square” in the city.
It’s border is defined by a moat that is ringed by 2 rows of statues depicting Padua’s elite citizens of old. There are 4 bridges that span the moat and allows you to enter the huge green space where you’ll find the fountain in the center.
The Prato della Valle is a great place to let the kiddies burn off all that pent up energy while the adults relax on one of the low walls or on the grass.
At certain times of the year the square hosts concerts, markets, fairs, and other events.
The square is surrounded by shops, restaurants, and cafes. It really is a great space to relax after wandering this charming city!
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