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!
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