Italy is much more than grand museums and Baroque churches. While Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Rome’s marble-filled basilicas should be on any world traveler’s bucket list, the country’s small towns have plenty of homespun beauty that's very different from the Renaissance masterworks and gilt-covered spires found in the big cities.
Before the Boot unified in the 19th century, the peninsula was a collection of city-states that had great local pride and often went to war with other local territories. These weren’t strip mall towns where a developer plunked down a Starbucks and Spaghetti Warehouse, but hilltop escapes and seaside villages with Gothic castles and pristine beaches. Motor through the Italian countryside and you'll find several wonderfully distinctive small towns. Here are some of our favorites.
Less than a square mile, Atrani is the smallest village in Italy. Those who visit come for the climate and history. The winters here are mild and summers are sunny, but not too hot. Average temperatures range from the 50s to the 80s. And not only are the crowds light, the area is also free of automobiles. If you’re staying in Amalfi, Atrani is just 30 minutes away by foot. Once there, you can scout out Torre Dello Ziro, a 15th-century fortress, and the Church of Mary Magdalene, home to a handful of notable sculptures. The walls of the Grotto of the Saints -- a cave-like structure that remains from a long-defunct monastery -- are decorated with 12th-century frescoes of evangelists. Plus, you can scale the bell tower of San Michele Arcangelo for an epic view of the Amalfi Coast.
Atrani Hotel Pick:
Located in central Italy near the calf of the Boot, Castelluccio is the highest settlement in the Apennine Mountains. The village overlooks the Great Plain (Piano Grande), a basin made of porous limestone that bursts with wildflowers in the spring and summer. The 13th-century town has only 150 inhabitants and many of its roads and buildings were damaged during seismic events in 2016 and 2017. However, major reconstruction has led to the reopening of those pathways and the biggest attraction isn’t the local architecture as much as the illustrious outdoors surrounding it. For most of the year, large sections of the plains are used for grazing. Between May and July, a patchwork of flowers -- violets, asphodels, and clovers -- transforms the countryside into an Impressionist landscape painting. Explorers of the great outdoors can also utilize Castelluccio as a jumping-off point for hiking, paragliding, mountain biking, archery, and horseback riding.
If you look up at Positano from the Amalfi Coast, the cliffside town looks as if it has been plucked from a storybook. Colorful houses appear to be stacked on top of each other. The beach is framed by neatly arranged umbrellas usually shading a long row of sunbathers. Though Positano is small, the seaside village has a storied and glamorous history. Once a port of the Amalfi Republic, Positano thrived in the 16th and 17th centuries and then struggled from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, when many of its inhabitants immigrated to America. In the 1950s, the village became popular as a resort town, with the help of novelist John Steinbeck, who rhapsodized about it for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. In the last half of the 20th century, the town ballooned into a fashionable destination with stylish boutiques and celebrity guests such as George Clooney and Julia Roberts. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote the Rolling Stones song “Midnight Rambler” while kicking back in the local cafes. Positano’s Church of Santa Maria Assunta is a must-see, but you’ll probably want to spend much of your time staring into sapphire blue waters that roll up over the sand.
Positano Hotel Pick:
Tour buses regularly make the 25-mile trek from Florence to visit the uniquely preserved medieval town of San Gimignano. During its height, San Gimignano was a well-respected place, and often had to defend itself against neighboring city-states. Numerous stone towers were erected to give the home team an advantage against any attackers. Of the original 72 towers, 14 still remain and are very impressive. As you’re taking in this UNESCO World Heritage site, tourist crowds will likely be a regular sight, but that doesn’t subtract from the feeling of strolling through history. Plus, if you hike up the stairs of one of the towers, you’ll get one of the best views in Tuscany. The town cathedral has frescoes by Taddeo di Bartolo, Benozzo Gozzoli, and Domenico Ghirlandaio. For a more low-brow culture lesson, the Museum of Medieval Torture exhibits the tools used to intimidate and kill enemies.
San Gimignano Hotel Pick:
An hour south of Turin in northwest Italy, Saluzzo was once a mighty city-state. Today, the hilltop town is known for medieval architecture, much of which dates back to those powerful 15th-century days. While one family controlled the place from 1142 to 1548, Ludovico I del Vasto, who was the Marquess of Saluzzo from 1416 to 1475, brought it to its height by being politically neutral and well-liked by the rulers of neighboring villages. Many of the town’s historic sites date back to his reign or the rule of his son, Ludovico II. The Cathedral of the Assumption features rose windows, a Baroque altar by Carlo Giuseppe Plura, and a 15th-century triptych by Hans Clemer. Not far from Saluzzo is the 12th-century Castello della Manta, a onetime noble residence. Fun fact: Giambattista Bodoni, the designer whose work inspired the Bodoni font, was from Saluzzo.
Anyone visiting the island of Sardinia should plan at least a day trip to the medieval town of Castelsardo. While archaeologists have found traces of local settlements dating back to prehistoric times, relatively little is known about all of the civilizations that have come and gone and left structures that resemble sets from the “Lord of the Rings.” For example, there are numerous nuraghi stone towers built around 1,000 B.C. that may have been used by clans to mark their territory. The most famous building in the area is arguably the Doria Castle. Perched on a hill overlooking the bay, the 12th-century structure was constructed by Genoa’s Doria family and remained a stronghold of their empire. The castle’s distance from saltwater has allowed it to remain in fairly good condition. Inside the castle is the Museum of Mediterranean Weaving, which showcases one of the area’s major crafts. Beyond baskets, local weavers also fabricate fishing traps, horse bridles, and bread-making tools. Peer over the city walls and you’ll see a magnificent view of the northern coastline as well as the island of Asinara. Of course, Castelsardo isn’t all about history -- there’s also a beautiful beach, boating, and plenty of cobblestone steps to keep your hamstrings in shape.
Castelsardo Hotel Pick:
More like a small city than a tiny town, Lecce has grand architecture and impressive artifacts that have led to its nickname, the “The Florence of the South.” One of the region’s major exports is Lecce stone, a type of soft limestone that’s great for sculptures and building facades. Easy access to the stone has partially inspired a distinct style of Baroque architecture found in many of the local churches and piazzas. Lecce artist and sculptor Giuseppe Zimbalo designed several of the major buildings in town, including the Celestine Convent and the bell tower of the Lecce Cathedral. If you want to see the phrase “too much is never enough” translated onto a 17th-century church, take a look at the ornate facade of the Basilica di Santa Croce. Fans of Roman ruins can check out the Lecce amphitheater, which originally held 25,000 people. For tourists more interested in the present than the past, Lecce is also a college town, an excellent base for exploring the Salento region and close to numerous coastal beaches.
Lecce Hotel Pick:
Located halfway between Rome and Naples, Sperlonga is a summer beach town much better known among Italians than tourists. If you’re looking for things to do in Sperlonga, it might not be the right town for you. This sleepy seaside spot is celebrated as a beautiful place to get away from the hubbub and just take in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Roman emperor Tiberius vacationed there in the first century A.D., but only a few things are left from his villa, including the foundation, freshwater pools, and sculptures. The Sperlonga sculptures are now housed in a museum near the ruins of the villa. In the 1950s and ’60s, the town was considered a glamorous destination and celebrity visitors included Andy Warhol, Marlene Dietrich, and John Updike. These days, it’s a fine place to wander through streets that were created in the Middle Ages and lie on the beach under the warmth of the sun.
Sperlonga Hotel Pick:
Much about Glorenza underscores how fluid Europe’s borders have been. Located in the South Tyrol section of northern Italy, the commune of about 1,000 people is close to Switzerland’s border, yet over 90 percent of the population speaks German as a first language. (Glurns is the German version of Glorenza.) It was once a center for the salt trade between Austria, Lombardy, and southern Germany. Many of the notable medieval structures, such as the gate towers and town walls, are intact and reminiscent of the buildings in other parts of the Alps. Glorenza also has more modern indulgences such as the Puni single malt whiskey factory, which distills its spirits in bunkers that date back to World War II. Local cuisine is a combination of Italian and Germanic country favorites.
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