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4 Stunning Non-Touristy Italian Travel Destinations

Italy is one of the most popular travel destinations in Europe, receiving over FIFTY MILLION visitors in 2022! This was actually below the 2019 peak of roughly 65 million, and is sure to rebound in 2023 and beyond. Italy’s population is not quite 60 million – that’s quite a few extra bodies.

unique italian travel destinations like Todi, a picturesque Umbrian hill town perched over an agrarian landscape.

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Are there too many tourists in Italy?

Social media is regularly riddled with horror stories of Italian travel destinations dramatically falling short of expectations. People packed asses-to-elbows in quaint villages on the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre hardly looks relaxing. Tourists behaving badly in Venice or Rome bring heavy doses of cringe.

Many travelers have found themselves wondering if they should cancel their trip to Italy altogether. It’s obviously unreasonable to expect a stunning country like Italy to be free of fellow tourists. From May through September, when numbers balloon wildly by mid-summer, it’s even more unreasonable.

Why Some Italian Travel Destinations are SO Crowded

The thing is, many of those 65 million tourists visit the same handful of locations. Naturally some worry if there are simply too many tourists in Italy. Of course the big three (Rome, Florence, Venice) are ever popular, but even once relatively unknown Italian towns and villages have skyrocketed to fame.

Talk to people planning a trip to Italy, and it’s likely the Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terre, and Tuscany are on that list. Matera was launched into further fame after a Bond film, and now Taormina is overrun by fans of the show White Lotus. For small towns, the sudden influx can strain infrastructure and frustrate locals.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t incredible Italian travel destinations that are managing to fly under the radar. Many aren’t even all that far from the well-known ones. Throughout Italy are a whole variety of amazing places to live a real taste of la dolce vita.

Places to Avoid in Italy During Summer

If at all possible, try to visit Italy in April or October. Even then the top Italian destinations will still be pretty busy but nothing like the high season. When someone bemoans that there are too many tourists in Italy, it’s inevitably because they had unrealistic expectations. When traveling to Italy between May and September, it’s generally best to avoid or at least minimize time in the following places:

  • Rome
  • Florence
  • Venice
  • Naples (including Pompeii)
  • The Amalfi Coast
  • Cinque Terre
  • Sicily (around Palermo and Etna)
  • Lake Como

If at all possible, try to visit Italy in April or October. Even then the top Italian destinations will still be pretty busy but nothing like the high season. When someone bemoans that there are too many tourists in Italy, it’s inevitably because they had unrealistic expectations. When traveling to Italy between May and September, it’s generally best to avoid or at least minimize time in the following places:

  • Rome
  • Florence
  • Venice
  • Naples
  • The Amalfi Coast
  • Cinque Terre
  • Sicily (around Palermo & Etna)
  • Lake Como
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Skip ROME? You MUST be crazy!

It might seem horrifying – or downright cruel – to consider skipping any of the above destinations. Especially for those that don’t travel as often or have much time, excluding a legendary place may be a nonstarter. After all, famous places are almost always so for good reason.

However, if the goal is an Italian vacation with cultural connection, room to breathe, and not being surrounded at all times by fellow tourists, then difficult choices will need to be made. Do a gut check before plowing on to a famous spot. Often people feel they are supposed to visit a place without considering how much they really do want to see it or why.

statue of man pushing on a building, temporary art installation in Florence, Italy
If you’re just not into something, no amount of trying will ultimately change it. Better to spend your time doing what YOU really enjoy!

Italy is chock full of stunning places to visit. Believe it or not, many remain largely unknown. If any further incentive is needed, choosing unknown and unique Italian travel destinations over the most popular means spreading tourist dollars into communities that really benefit.

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Visiting Italy’s Big 3 in Summer

Since ultimately there is no substitute for the big 3, some may decide to still visit anyway. Proper planning and managing expectations will make all the difference. It is possible to thoughtfully visit famous travel destinations without sacrificing sanity or ethics.

Mistakes to avoid on a first trip to Rome - thinking the Trevi fountain won't be packed with tourists
Rome’s Trevi Fountain in low season. From May-September it’s often nearly impossible to enter the area, much less get close to the fountain.

The Reality of Visiting Venice in Summer

Venice will be absolutely PACKED – plus likely boiling hot and humid (actually all 3) in summer months. While it has been repeatedly delayed, the likelihood of a tourist tax for Venice day trippers looms.

Also, cruise ships regularly disgorge hordes of passengers to flood the most famous sights. Don’t discount nearby areas like the surrounding islands or even Chioggia and Treviso. These still offer similar architecture and canals to enjoy.

Consider booking private or small group tours in Venice or the surrounding islands. The public transport can get super crowded (and take a while) so private options can really save time. Be sure to explore neighborhoods away from the major attractions. Many tourists don’t make outside of the center, comprised of San Marco and San Polo.

Boats awaiting repair in the waters of Dorsoduro, a neighborhood in Venice.
Squero San Trovaso, where gondolas have been repaired for generations in the Dorsoduro neighborhood and away from Venice’s main attractions.

How to Visit Florence in Peak Season

For Florence, a well planned day trip (or two) can hit key museum highlights while staying in a nearby small town or village. Travelers will enjoy a more relaxed, authentic experience without missing out on the history and Renaissance beauty of Florence. Public transport is quite good in the area, making it even easier to enjoy a quieter home base.

The towns of Lucca, Arezzo, and Pistoia are all about an hour (give or take) from Florence by train or car. Renting a car in Tuscany also means being able to explore random villages and the countryside at will. When visiting Florence, park just outside the historic center and walk.

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Is there really an alternative to Rome?

Ask anyone about a visit to Rome and they’ll tell you it’s a crime to spend less than four days there. But Rome in summer is challenging, and many sights are so mobbed by crowds they’re nearly impossible to enjoy. Pick a few can’t-miss sights and book ahead. A private tour can be well worth the money when it provides early access before the crowds descend.

Just next to Rome is Abruzzo, a stunning Italian region boasting dramatic mountains AND atmospheric coastline. A few well-planned days in Rome pair perfectly with a visit to the rustic mountain villages and dramatic scenery of Abruzzo. Pick up a rental car at the airport or one of the main train stations and go exploring!

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Where to go instead of Lake Como

Northern Italy boasts numerous stunning lakes, framed by mountains and palm trees. Lake Como is the most famous – not just because George Clooney purchased a stunning villa there in 2002. It’s easily reached from Milan, and offers breathtaking postcard views at pretty much every turn.

But there are absolutely alternatives to Lake Como sharing these attributes (minus George and his villa) – there are several nearby that make great alternatives to Lake Como. Head west just a bit and discover Lugano, Maggiore, and Orta. To the east is Lake Garda – which pairs nicely with a trip to either Verona or as a starter to a Dolomites trip.

boats overlooking san giulio island on Lake Orta in northern Italy
San Giulio Island in Lake Orta, Italy

How to Get to the Italian Lakes

Whether braving Lake Como after all or choosing one of the lesser known Italian lakes to visit, With 3 airports (Linate, Malpensa, and Bergamo Orio al Serio) served by numerous major and European budget airlines, Milan is an easy starting point. Trains also arrive from all over Italy and many Interrail cities too.

Orta and Maggiore can also be reached from Turin – an excellent alternative to Milan and home of Nutella! To reach Garda, look into arriving via Venice, Bologna, or Verona.

Where to go instead of Amalfi or Cinque Terre

So far the secret isn’t completely out about Liguria, the narrow strip on the western coast by France. It’s anchored in the south by Cinque Terre, but few travelers make it past that. The Golfo Paradiso offers similar scenery to the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre, with much less chaos. Camogli and Portofino are the best known villages, with colorful pastel houses strewn up cliffs by the sea.

South from the Amalfi Coast are Paestum and Agropoli. Paestum was an ancient Greek city, and impressive ruins remain. Agropoli resembles smaller Amalfi Coast towns, with dramatic cliffs and winding roads. Down the Cilento coast travelers can explore national parks, ruins, vineyards, and rocky coasts. The surrounding waters are beautifully clear, and there’s even a sand beach or two!

Camogli, Italy viewed from the sea with colorful buildings and blue sky
Camogli – very similar to the colorful cliffside villages of Cinque Terre

How to Get to Liguria

Flights and trains arrive regularly in Genova (aka Genoa), which sits almost smack in the middle of the Ligurian coast. Consider adding Genova to a Ligurian itinerary. Nicknamed “La Superba” (the proud one) and rich in maritime history, Genova’s historic charms are surrounded by modern liveliness.

How to Get to Paestum & Agropoli

Arriving in the area is similar to Amalfi – fly or take a train to Naples then pick up a rental car and head south. Salerno is another practical alternative if arriving by train, and may be less intimidating to drive out of than Naples.

Where to find fewer crowds in Sicily

The bulk of Sicily’s tourists end up mostly in (or around) Palermo and the cities (like Catania and Taormina) near Etna. These destinations tend to be easier to reach, with numerous flights, ferries, and trains.

Head inland or to the western areas to get a little more elbow room and find more unique Italian travel destinations. Siracusa (and its ancient town of Ortigia) are quite popular too now, but head west along the southern coast or towards the center of the island and visitor numbers fall rapidly.

There are still wineries to be had, ancient Greek ruins (Agrigento’s Valle dei Templi is most famous but Segesta is a smaller take), plus vast salt pans and rugged parks. Another western-Sicily destination is Marsala – yep, the that Marsala wine originates from.

Trapani, Sicily

Islands Favignana, Marettimo, and Pantelleria can be reached from Trapani or Marsala. Ragusa, Modica, and Noto are atmospheric little villages that don’t always make it on visitor’s Sicily itinerary. Clearly there are enough options for every taste where it’s a bit easier to avoid tourists.

The islands are a playground for fans of scuba diving

How to Get to Sicily

Of course Palermo has the greatest amount of options, whether arriving by plane or ferry. For central or southwestern Italy, Catania is the ideal arrival point. There are even some flights into Trapani’s petite single-terminal airport. Regardless of arrival point, renting a car is necessary in Sicily. If trains or buses even go to a desired destination, they are often slow or unreliable.

Where to go for beautiful beaches in Italy

Seeking a beach vacation in Italy? While Sicily and the Amalfi Coast are top choices, there are many other incredible summer vacation spots in Italy. Just avoid August, when Italians flock to the coastal towns throughout the country. Also, if looking for broad sandy beaches then Amalfi (and Cinque Terre) are not actually good choices! Beaches are pebbly, sometimes quite narrow or reached by perilous paths.

Puglia

While growing in popularity, Puglia still offers villages and beaches not yet discovered by the masses. Particularly in central and northern Puglia, it’s easy to find unique Italian travel destinations for summer. Highlights include dramatic gorges, jewel-like archipelagoes, and even cool forests. These areas are more wild and dramatic than the southern Salento area of Puglia.

photo collage showing pebbly cliffside beaches with clear water on the Gargano peninsula of Puglia, Italy
Few foreigners are familiar with Puglia’s breathtaking Gargano Peninsula

How to Get to Puglia

There are many ways to reach Puglia. Bari is the largest airport with many flights arriving from within Italy and Europe. If arriving from outside Europe, it will be a connecting flight. Ferries and trains also arrive into Bari, as it’s the hub of the region. Brindisi also receives visitors by train, plane, and sea though not as many. Like many areas, a car is the best way to explore Puglia – pick up after arriving in the region or from larger cities like Rome or Naples if a road trip sounds appealing.

Basilicata and Calabria: Two of Italy’s Least Known Destinations

Aerial view of Acquafredda with cliffs dropping to blue water, on the west coast of Italy in Basilicata
Acquafredda

For the adventurous summer traveler, Calabria and Basilicata are great choices. Basilicata is home to the aforementioned Matera – recommended as an overnight visit, so as to enjoy it without the day trippers. It actually has two coastlines – one in the arch of the boot and another on the western coast.

Neighbor Calabria seems to be equal parts cliff-strewn coastline and rugged mountainous interior. It’s even a destination for skiing, peppered with several ski resorts! Calabria is best known for the beach town of Tropea, known for its azure waters, little red onions, and overlooked dramatically by a Byzantine style monastery.

For better or worse, much of Calabria and Basilicata have far less tourism infrastructure than nearby Puglia and Campania (home of Amalfi Coast), though that is slowly changing. A car is definitely necessary to visit!

triptych of photos around Calabria italy showing onions, boats, and clear blue sea
Scenery like this – with a fraction of the tourists – is worth extra effort!

How to Get to Calabria & Basilicata

There are no commercial fights into Basilicata, and no fast trains either. It is definitely ideal for slow travel in the best way! Arriving in Bari or Naples, depending on which part of Basilicata is being visited, is the best bet. There it’s easy to pick up a car and enjoy one of Italy’s most remote Italian travel destinations.

Calabria actually has three airports, all located in the toe of the boot. Reggio Calabria Airport and Lamezia Terme Airport are convenient to Tropea and Cosenza as well as ferries to Sicily. Lamezia is the largest, and is even served by some direct flights outside Italy. Crotone Sant’Anna Airport is on the opposite side and the most “remote” of the three options.

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How to Find Unique Italian Travel Destinations

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This post covers just a handful of the many not-so-obvious Italian travel destinations to choose from – there are many more in regions like Aosta Valley, Trentino Alto Adige, Molise, and Le Marche.

It takes some patience to discover which of the many options is best. For less experienced travelers, or those with less time to travel, choosing towns or regions close to better known destinations can be a good start. It allows for a mix of unique adventures and famous stand-bys.

With more time and/or travel experience, the further afield the better! Once on the ground, choosing to explore under the radar Italian travel destinations like the ones detailed here will often mean stretching travel dollars. Of course luxury can be found anywhere (like Borgo Egnazia in Puglia) so there’s a fit for every budget and travel style.

The beauty of Italy is that there really is something for everyone. It’s accessible to both budget travelers and lovers of luxury. It offers cosmopolitan cities and quaint villages throughout the country. And the natural scenery is of course spectacular, perfectly suited to outdoor adventure pursuits or much needed relaxation.

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16 Comments

  1. Maggie

    I love this!! All three times I’ve been to Italy have actually been during the off-season, so I haven’t experienced the hordes myself but I’ve heard horror stories. But since I’ve already hit all of the big touristy spots, next time I go I want to explore these more off-the-beaten-path places!

    • Ella

      Time of year makes a big difference. But in the most famous spots “off” season seems to be shrinking. Either way, you’ve got the right idea!

  2. Brittany

    Great post! Italy is such a popular destination (and for good reason!), and sometimes, it’s nice to get off the beaten path for a more authentic experience. I have heard great things about Puglia, I would love to visit!

    • Ella

      There are sooo many places, it’s such an amazing country. I highly recommend Puglia pretty in April-June or September-October depending on interests.

  3. A Capone Connection

    This is so helpful! I love Italy and I’ve been to the major tourist destinations in Rome, Pisa, Naples, and Milan. This is really useful to know for the future. I tend to travel during the off-season. Thanks so much!

    • Ella

      I love the big-hitters too but the smaller/less famous ones are so delightfully different. Hope you get to experience some of these!

  4. Patty

    This is very insightful, thank you! My family heritage is Italian on both sides of my family, so I’m working on more of a heritage trip than the typical tourist trip. My father’s family is from a tiny port village on the southern coast of Sicily and my mother’s side of the family is from a couple of small towns on the mainland. I need to research exactly where. A long time ago, I lived in Germany for a couple of years and did make a drive down to the town of Rimini. So pretty!

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