Do you know Italy… by region? It is a lot to ask, but if you’re planning a trip to Italy, this ultimate guide to the regions of Italy will introduce you to Italy’s regions and can prove quite helpful and beneficial. Italy certainly needs no introduction. For a country that’s slightly smaller than the state of California, Italy is a place that’s as diverse as it is beautiful, and its inhabitants are not only passionate about their own region, but also the country as a whole.
There is so much to see, from the famous cities to the many beautiful villages, from the beaches and the countryside to the mountain regions and the lakes. You’ve probably heard over and over again how Italy is a country of regions, perhaps more so than many other countries you’ll visit. The history of civilization on the Italian peninsula is ancient, but Italy as a unified country as we know it today is only 150 years old. For thousands of years prior, this peninsula was the most fought over territory in Europe, with various areas invaded and ruled over from neighbors; from Atila the Hun and Hannibal to the Austrians, French, Spanish, Saracens and Ottomans. You can choose to take a grand tour of Italy to explore a number of the regions we talk about all in one trip, or concentrate on just one. Many of the experiences I mention are in the company of your local host, cultural ambassador, myself, who can make all the difference no matter where you are.
There are 20 regions in Italy, plus two independent city-states, San Marino and the Vatican, that remain independent to this day. Five enjoy a special autonomous status, marked by an asterix *. What are the different regions, what are they known for, and which ones should you travel to? So, starting at the top of the boot, I worked my way down to the heel to bring you an ultimate guide to the different regions of Italy. If you have trouble finding what you’re looking for, contact me.
- Friuli-Venezia Giulia *
- Latium (Lazio)
- Puglia (Apulia)
- Sardegna (Sardinia) *
- Sicilia (Sicily) *
- Toscana (Tuscany)
- Trentino-Alto Adige (Trentino-South Tyrol) *
- Valle d’Aosta (Aosta Valley) *
What is an autonomous region:
Article 116 of the Italian Constitution grants to five regions (namely Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Aosta Valley and Friuli-Venezia Giulia) home rule, acknowledging their powers in relation to legislation, administration and finance. In return they have to finance the health-care system, the school system and most public infrastructures by themselves. These regions became autonomous in order to take into account cultural differences and protect linguistic minorities. Moreover, the government wanted to prevent their secession from Italy after the Second World War.
Italy’s autonomous regions are part of Italy, but they have a greater degree of control over local laws made and funds spent than other regions do. Each of the country’s 20 regions collects taxes, but these five autonomous regions get to keep more of their local taxes than the other 15 regions (60% instead of the usual 20% – and in Sardinia, they keep 100%). This means the regional government also pays for more services rather than the national government. What this autonomy is designed primarily to do is preserve each region’s unique cultural and linguistic differences.
The five autonomous regions are either on an international border – Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, and Val d’Aosta – or they’re islands – Sicily and Sardinia. Border areas changed hands frequently enough during wars, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the border regions of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, and Val d’Aosta have unique multi-cultural identities to this day. Sicily, too, owes much of its multi-cultural identity to having been conquered over the centuries by different rulers such as Normans and Moors. Sardinia, by contrast, is unique almost due more to its isolation from other invading cultures than anything else. One of the most obvious examples of how a region’s autonomy preserves local culture is through language. In these five regions, though Italian is one of the official languages, it’s not always the only one – and that means not only will a large percentage of residents speak something other than Italian most of the time, signs won’t always be in Italian, either. The languages spoken in each region are listed below.
- Friuli-Venezia Giulia: The official language is Italian, with the Friulian language spoken almost everywhere. In some parts of the region, the Venetian language, the Triestine dialect, and some Slovenian dialects are also spoken.
- Sardinia: The official language is Italian, with Sardu spoken by almost everyone. There are a few other dialects spoken in certain parts of the region, such as Algherese, Gallurese, and Sassarese.
- Sicily: The official language is Italian, with Sicilian spoken by almost everyone.
- Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol: The official languages are Italian and German, with a small percentage of the population also speaking one (or more) of three dialects: Ladin, Mòcheno and Cimbrian.
- Val d’Aosta: The official languages are Italian and French (specifically, a version of the language spoken in this region called Aostan French), with nearly 60% of the population also speaking a regional dialect: Valdotain.
Next time you’re traveling in one of these regions, pay special attention to the languages you’re hearing – and seeing – because they are a special part of the local culture and one of the many reasons Italy is the unique place that it is.
Independent City States: Italy completely surrounds two independent states: Vatican City and the mountain top Republic of San Marino. A semi-walled city-state inside the Italian capital city of Rome, Vatican City or Vatican City State is itself the capital of the Roman Catholic Church.
AOSTA VALLEY (Valle d’Aosta)
Nestled between Europe’s highest mountains, Mont Blanc (here called “Monte Bianco”) shared with France, the Matterhorn (the Italian resort is called “Cervinia”) shared with Switzerland and Monte Rosa, with deep valleys and studded with castles, Valle d’Aosta is undeniably picturesque. This mountainous region has breathtaking panoramas that provide endless opportunities for hiking and skiing. The region’s mixed heritage makes it culturally and culinary fascinating and is also Italy’s smallest of the 20 regions, less than a 2 hour drive from Milan.
There’s enough here for those of you who enjoy history: The capital, Aosta, has ancient Roman ruins and with its attractive cobbled streets and good shopping, it makes for an excellent base. Aosta Valley is also politically interesting, since it’s an autonomous region. And despite its agricultural background, it’s one of the wealthiest regions in Italy. The cuisine is simple but based on fresh ingredients from the mountains and streams. A much enjoyed dish here is the fonduta, made by melting fontina cheese with milk, butter and eggs. The cook tops the resulting fondue with sliced white truffles.
Visit Aosta Valley if: You’re a fan of winter sports, especially skiing or snowboarding; if it’s summer, you’d love to hike or do other outdoor activities; you have a soft spot for picturesque Alpine villages; you want to get out of the heat (because of the mountains, even the summer can be chilly here); you want a taste of a multicultural side of Italy; you like castles and ruins.
See my post “Travel Guide for Valle d’Aosta” for more information
Lombardy, Italy’s richest and most developed region, often seems to have more in common with its northern European neighbors than with the rest of Italy. Given its history, this is hardly surprising: it takes its name from invading Lombards, and was ruled for almost two centuries by the French and Austrians. Lombardy has profited by being a commercial crossroads, too. Not surprising, too, is that Northern Europe takes Milan more seriously than Rome, and the region’s businesses and banks wield political as well as economic power. Upper reaches of Lombardy’s valleys are largely unspoiled, its towns and cities retain their medieval cores, and the famed Italian lakes are surrounded by stunning scenery and lush vegetation. Milan dominates the plains of the southern part of Lombardy. Lombardy is home to plenty of great art, culture, and food. Main cities to visit include:
- The capital Milan, famous for its fashion houses, its Cathedral (Il Duomo), Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Last supper fresco and the Scala Opera house.
- Mantua for its Ducal Palace and frescoes by Mantegna
- Cremona has been a famous music center since the 16th century and is still known for its artisan workshops producing high-quality stringed instruments. Antonio Stradivari was a famous luthier, producing over 1100 violins and his violins are some of the best in the world. Today there is a luthier school and many small workshops producing stringed instruments
- The medieval town of Bergamo, which serves up lots of ancient architecture alongside its snow-capped mountains that peer over the city.
The cuisine (risottos, stews, and mostarda are specialties) is also rich, like the region itself. In addition to shopping and museums, Lombardy is also famous for its lakes. Lake Garda, Como, Maggiore, and Iseo are some of the most picturesque places in northern Italy, but vacation prices are high.
Visit Lombardy if: You’d like to experience a city known for its nightlife and fashion; you want to explore Italy’s most famous lakes; you want to day-trip to Switzerland on the famous Bernina Express train.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Rock Drawings in Valcamonica (1979)
- Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1980)
- Crespi d’Adda (1995)
- Mantua and Sabbioneta (2008)
- Longobards in Italy, Places of Power (568-774 A.D.) It’s a group of seven Longobards sites: Brescia, Cividale del Friuli, Castelseprio, Spoleto, Campello sul Clitunno, Benevento and Monte Sant’Angelo (2011)
- Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy. The several churches and religious centers in Lombardy (2003)
- Monte San Giorgio. Extension of the Italian border of Monte San Giorgio in Switzerland (2010)
- Prehistoric Pile dwellings around the Alps, shared with Austria, Germany, France, Slovenia, Switzerland (2011)
- Rhaetian Railway, shared with Switzerland (2008)
Piedmont means “at the foot of the mountains”. This part of Italy is largely untouched by tourism rooted in agriculture and fiercely proud of its culinary heritage. In the autumn, food festivals take place nearly every weekend, celebrating the regional produce of local farmers and wine-makers. This northern region is surrounded by the Alps on three sides and borders with France and Switzerland, but it’s not all mountainous; in fact, much of Piedmont is a flat plain. Italy’s longest river, the Po, begins in Piedmont, and its vast plain stretches across northern Italy, allowing both manufacturing and rice cultivation in paddy fields (Italy is the largest rice producer in Europe). Gastronomic delights include truffles, cheese, excellent meats and some of Italy’s most well-renowned wines, including Barolo and Barbaresco.
The destination also happens to be the place where everyone’s favorite chocolate spread, Nutella, was born. The spread gets its rich flavor thanks to the area’s hazelnut crops. The most famous delicacy of Piedmont is the tartufo bianco, the white truffle; highly prized by gourmands who travel from all over the world every autumn to enjoy both hunting for what is known locally as ‘white gold’ and to feast on truffles in one of the many superb restaurants scattered throughout the region.
The Slow Food movement is based here in the region, making it a must-visit for foodies. Many of the dishes in Piedmont’s swankiest restaurants derive from the tables of the Piedmontese aristocracy, in particular the Savoy dukes and kings. Piedmont and the Savoys were at the heart of the Italian Unification movement in the 19th century. Piedmont is second only to Lombardy in national wealth and power with industries like Fiat and Olivetti.
Turin is the capital which hosted the 2006 winter Olympics. It is famous for a religious relic known as the Holy Shroud once owned by the Royal family of Savoy, in the Duomo di San Giovanni, but also for its world renowned Egyptian Museum. With lovely small hilltop towns, the bustling baroque city of Turin, and its mountains, Piedmont has something for everyone.
To discover the region’s produce beyond truffles, we suggest a private tour with us which gives you a chance to connect with three of the area’s artisan producers: Visit a shepherd who tends a flock of heirloom sheep and makes cheese from their milk, bake a cake with the owner of a hazelnut orchard, and enjoy a tasting at a family-owned winery.
Why visit: Tuscan-style gastronomic pleasures, without the crowds and you want to get somewhat off the beaten path and enjoy history. You love wine and good food.
Main highlights: Turin, Barolo and Barbaresco
But don’t miss: Alba, known for its autumn truffle fair
Get to know the area with: A private tour to meet a local vintner, farmer, shepherd and cheesemaker
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Residences of the Royal House of Savoy (1997)
- Sacri Monti of Piemonte and Lombardia (2003)
- Prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps (2011)
- Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato (2014)
- Ivrea, industrial city of the 20th century (2018)
See my post “Travel Guide to Piedmont” for more information
LIGURIA (Italy’s Riviera)
A narrow strip along the coast in northwestern Italy, Liguria is bordered by France, Piedmont, Tuscany, and Emilia-Romagna. Sometimes called the Italian Riviera, this region features rolling hills and dramatic coastlines. Liguria has a proud maritime history. In fact, its capital, Genoa, was one of the most important maritime states in the Middle Ages and Renaissance; it was also the hometown of Christopher Columbus. To the west of Genoa, is the Riviera di Ponente, a long ribbon of hotels filled during the summer with Italian families who book a year ahead to stay in their favorite spot. San Remo, near the French border, is the grande-dame of Riviera resorts. Flanked by hillsides covered with greenhouses, it is a major center for flower export. Albenga and Noli are attractive medieval centers that have also retained a good deal of character; and Finale Ligure is a thoroughly pleasant Mediterranean seaside town. To the east of Genoa, the coastline is more rugged, stretching from the capital and the Gulf of Poets, past the famous Liguria beaches and resorts of Santa Margherita and the prestigious port of Portofino, down through the Silent Bay, Portovenere and the ever popular picturesque Cinque Terre villages, a UNESCO world heritage site. Umbrella pines grow horizontally on the cliff faces overlooking the water, and in the evening a glassy calm falls over the little bays and inlets. Cuisine in Liguria includes a mix of fish and the rich dishes of the mountains, so think focaccia Genovese and plenty of pesto and pasta from the local pine nuts.
Visit Liguria if: You’d like to see one of Italy’s most spectacular stretches of coastline; you’re a fan of pesto alla genovese and want to try the real stuff; you want to take a day or weekend trip to the seaside from Milan or Florence. Visiting out of season, of course, is the best way to enjoy the beauty without the hubbub.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Porto Venere, Cinque Terre, and the Islands (Palmaria, Tinoand Tinetto) (1997)
- Genoa, Le Strade Nuove and the system of the Palazzi dei Rolli (2006)
The Veneto has it all. Stretching from the western shore of Lake Garda, embracing the art cities of Verona and Vicenza and the foothills of the Dolomites, with a sprinkling of Palladian villas and Prosecco vines in between, the region remains remarkably, and blissfully, free of visitors with the exception of Venice the capital of course (no fewer than 60 million tourists visit Venice each year). Although tourism and industry are important here, agriculture still plays a big part, and it produces some of Italy’s most famous wines, Valpolicella, and Soave. The UNESCO Strada del Prosecco route leads from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene where the finest Italian sparkling wine is produced and where the views and the trattorias match the region’s reputation in wine. Top towns to visit here for their beauty, art, architecture with masterpieces by artists like Giotto, Donatello, Canova and Tiepolo include Venice, Verona and Vicenza.
Venice of course, with its combination of extraordinary location, rising from the waters of the lagoon, its romantic history and the magnificence of its buildings is irresistible. Nobody can fail to be touched by its beauty. If you succumb, you will be in good company: Venice has inspired countless great artists and writers. It is a city best navigated by boat – whether it be vaporetto (water bus) or gondola – or on foot walking bridges over canals from piazza to piazza. It is a city built on 117 small islands, and holds 150 canals, connected by an amazing 409 bridges, of which only 4 cross the main canal.
Visit the Veneto if: You’re keen to see Venice or Verona; you want to visit a region as well-known for its mountains as its seaside; you’re intrigued by a region of Italy that has a different, but just as renowned, of tradition of art and architecture as regions like Tuscany; you want to try some of Italy’s finest wines; you’d like to combine sightseeing with outdoor activities.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Venice and its lagoon (1987)
- City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto (1994)
- Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico), Padua (1997)
- City of Verona (2000)
- Le Colline del Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene
- Venetian works of defence between the 16th and 17th centuries
- Prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps. Pile dwellings were houses built by lakes or rivers, or on marshland, and were set on piles to protect against flooding. There are four such structures in Veneto. Two are close to Peschiera del Garda (at Belvedere and on Lake Frassino), one is at Tombola (40 km southeast of Verona) and one is at Arquà Petrarca (35 km southwest of Padua). There is more information about the dwellings at the Museo della Pesca in Peschiera.
- Fresco cycles of Padua. This is a collection of buildings with important medieval frescoes, including the Scrovegni Chapel, a chapel with a fresco cycle by Giotto.
- The beautiful Dolomites mountain range spans Trentino Alto Adige South Tyrol as well as the neighboring regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia in north-eastern Italy. Reaching a peak of 3,343 meters above sea level, they’re famous for their jagged peaks.
See my post “Venice is not as touristy as you think” for more information
Known as the “rooftop of Italy”, the Trentino Alto Adige region lies to the North East and is made up of two provinces. One is Trentino in the south, mainly Italian speaking and its capital is Trento. The other province is Alto Adige in the north bordering Austria, mainly German speaking and its capital is Bolzano. In winter the skiing is absolutely unparalleled. Spring and fall offer enchanting hikes along an extensive network of well-marked trails in the Dolomites and Eastern Alps. Both parts of the region enjoy semi-autonomy from the central government, along with one of the highest standards of living in Italy.
Tourism, farming, apples and wine production are the mainstays of the economy, and there are plenty of good, affordable guesthouses and “agriturismi” places in the mountains and vineyards. One of the first things you’ll notice about Alto Adige is its German character with its immaculate medieval towns. It comes by it rightfully; until 1919, Alto Adige was known as the South Tyrol and was part of Austria. At the end of World War I, Austria ceded South Tyrol to the Italians, and Mussolini renamed it after the upper reaches of the Adige River, which bisects the region. Many Tyrolean’s opted for resettlement in Germany, but others stayed in the region and have maintained their language, culture and traditions. Gothic onion-domed churches dot the landscape of vineyards and forests, street signs are in German and Ladin, and there’s sauerkraut, strudel and dumplings (instead of pasta) on the menu.
Visit Trentino-Alto Adige if: You’d like an active holiday; you’re into mountain sports; you like nature; you want to visit small, picturesque Alpine villages, you like food and wine.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- The Dolomites: The majestic mountains in Veneto, Friuli and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (2009)
See my post “Hiking in the Dolomites” for more information
Friuli Venezia Giulia (often referred to as Friuli), tucked into Italy’s north-eastern corner, cradled among the Alps, the Venetian plains and the Adriatic sea, is the perfect location for a vast choice of holidays offering from snow-capped mountains, warm sandy beaches, rocky coastal cliffs, enchanting landscapes dotted with vineyards and castles, Roman ruins, country villas, idyllic villages to delicious food and prestigious wines. It has been invaded from every direction, by Romans, Huns, Goths, Lombards, Nazis and even the Cossacks. This area has always been a bridge between the Mediterranean world and central Europe.
Like the Aosta Valley, it’s an autonomous region, accounting for its unique cultural heritage. From its exquisite food, world class white wines, WWI history, to its language (Friulan), this is a region that’s markedly different than the rest of Italy, with its own traditions and strong sense of identity and rightly proud of it! Despite its proximity to Venice (one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations), Friuli-Venezia Giulia remains largely free of international tourists, making it even more enjoyable for the discerning traveler.
Visit Friuli-Venezia Giulia if: You’re a fan of outdoor activities and winter sports; you want a taste of a unique region of Italy, one with a multicultural background; you like both the sea and the mountains, white wines and have an interest in WWI history.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Archaeological Area and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia (1998)
- Cividale del Friuli & Palù di Livenza, the Roman Forum Julii & Longobard Temple (2011)
- Palmanova the star city fortress (2017). Palmanova forms part of the Venetian Works of Defence listing.
- The Dolomites: The majestic mountains in Veneto, Friuli and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (2009)
See my post “Insider’s guide to Friuli Venezia Giulia” for more information
Expect a relaxed way of life when visiting Emilia-Romagna, the region that extends from the Apennine Mountains to the Po River in the north. Set between Lombardy and Tuscany, and stretching from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean, Emilia-Romagna is the heartland of northern Italy. It is really two former Papal States, joined together after Unification: Emilia to the east and the Romagna to the west. The castles and fortresses of the families who ruled remain, preserved in towns with restored medieval centers. The region’s landscape is a varied one, and the area has grown wheat since Roman times.
Another foodie destination that will leave you wanting more! Renaissance cities like Bologna (the region’s capital with a beautifully preserved city center), Ferrara (one of the most important Renaissance centers in Italy), Modena, Parma all offer some of the best regional cuisine in Italy and Travels with Audrey can offer private tours & tastings of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factories, Parma Ham Prosciutto producers; 25 year aged traditional Balsamic Vinegar. The famed ragu, a thick, rich and complex tomato sauce is the most commonly enjoyed pasta topping here. You can learn to make ragù, the authentic version of what’s known outside Italy as pasta Bolognese, at a cooking class with a local chef. Your chef will enlighten you on conventions of local cooking, such as how the meaty sauce is served with tagliatelle, not spaghetti, as you select your ingredients at the city marketplace, the Mercato delle Erbe, and then prepare your Bolognese meal back at the cooking school.
Emilia-Romagna’s pasta creations are well known: tortellini (small, stuffed ring shaped pasta), tagliatelle (ribbon shaped pasta, the favorite base for a ragu). The region’s internationally famous wine is Lambrusco, a slightly sweet, slightly effervescent red wine.
With the nearby UNESCO heritage listed city, Ravenna which houses some of the world’s most impressive Byzantine mosaics along with the Lamborghini. Ferrari Museums… there’s something for everyone in Emilia-Romagna! It’s a joy to visit!
Visit Emilia-Romagna if: You want to visit beautiful cities that have some must-see sights, but aren’t quite as crowded or touristy as Florence or Venice; you have a weakness for Italian sports cars (Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, De Tomaso and Ducati all are based here); you want to try some of Italy’s most famous foods, in the place where they come from!
But don’t miss: The Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna
Get to know the area with: A private countryside tour to visit the small-scale artisans who make the region’s signature foods
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta (1995)
- Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna (1996)
- Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande, Modena (1997)
See my post “Why visit Emilia Romagna” for more information
Who hasn’t heard of Tuscany? The region has it all: seaside and countryside, food and wine, cities and small towns, and the tourism to match. Tuscany is unsurprisingly a favorite Italian region for many. The region’s stunning cities (including not only Florence, but Siena, Lucca, and Pisa) are considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Blessed with some beautiful sandy beaches, the Tyrrhenian Sea is also a good place to head for some time by the water. The beautiful countryside is quintessentially Italian, with rolling hills, cypress trees, olive groves, fields of sunflowers, and lovely vineyards (in fact, the landscape of Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia was named a World Heritage Site in 2004). Tuscany is also famous for its food and wine, as the region produces Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino, among others.
While Tuscany is touristy and Florence is amazing and should definitely be on the itinerary, there are still plenty of other equally charming, quieter towns and undiscovered corners of this large, central region. Let Audrey help you avoid the crowds.
Visit Tuscany if: You want to feel like you’ve stepped into a postcard of the Italian countryside; you’re excited to see some of Italy’s most stunning, and important, art and architecture; you’re a fan of the Renaissance; you’re interested in wine tastings or vineyard visits; you feel like you can’t miss Florence—or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Historic Center of Florence (1982)
- Piazza del Duomo, Pisa (1987)
- Historic Center of San Gimignano (1990)
- Historic Center of Siena (1995)
- Historic Center of the City of Pienza (1996)
- Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany (2013)
- Val d’Orcia (2004)
Often referred to as the “green heart of Italy,” Umbria is smack-dab in the center of the boot, and right next to Tuscany, to whom it’s always compared. Like Tuscany, Umbria boasts dozens of medieval hilltop towns (like Assisi, Perugia, and Orvieto), beautiful countryside, olive groves and wine vineyards (Find out about 6 spots we love in Umbria here!). One thing everyone remembers about Umbria is its wonderful little hill towns – Montefalco, Spoleto, Orvieto, Todi, Gubbio and Spello – just to name a few. The many Umbrian hills and mountains cast long dark shadows over river valleys which are already darkened by lush chestnut groves and elm forests. And, like Tuscany, it has stunning art and architecture and a fascinating history that dates back to the ancient Etruscans. However, Umbria feels a little “wilder” and more off the beaten path than its famous neighbor. It’s also much less touristy (although it’s far from an undiscovered region!) and less expensive. (Here’s help if you’re trying to decide between Umbria and Tuscany for your trip).
Visit Umbria if: You like the sound of Tuscany—or you’ve visited Tuscany, and liked it—but you want an alternative destination that’s a little less well-known, touristy, and expensive; you’re looking for a day or weekend trip from Rome (Umbria is closer than Tuscany); you want to get off the beaten path (check out my article on places to visit off the beaten path in Italy).
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi and other Franciscan Sites (2000) which includes the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli which is situated to the south, a ten minute drive away.
- Two sites in Umbria belong to the Longobards in Italy listing with the Basilica di San Salvatore in the town of Spoleto and the Tempietto del Clitunno joining five other locations in different Italian regions.
Travelers who want the best of central Italy are now heading for Le Marche. Between the Apennine mountains and the Adriatic Coast lies the region called Le Marche, often unknown to many travelers means there are far fewer tourists than in many of Italy’s other regions therefore remains unspoiled by the ravages of mass tourism. This relatively little-known region in central Italy is hilly and mountainous, and has long stretch of coastline along the Adriatic. Italians enjoy the many beach resorts around the towns of Pesaro and Ancona here in the summer but the region offers much more. Inland, perhaps more so than anywhere else in central Italy, you will find places where time really has stood still. Many visitors who come to Le Marche are looking for a taste of the “real” Italy, unsullied by mass tourism, yet welcoming to foreigners – if that’s what you want, you won’t be disappointed. Whether you want to admire masterpieces of Renaissance art and architecture, trek across wild uncharted mountains or hunt out the best of the catch in a Mediterranean fishing port, Le Marche has enough to keep you busy for a vacation and beyond.
There are many lovely towns to visit such as Urbino, a beautiful Renaissance city, the fortress of San Leo (just across the border from San Marino) but also wonderful inland mountain countryside, like the stunning Monti Sibillini Mountains, and nature parks. Farther south, from Ancona to the Cnero Riviera, is a spectacular stretch of coast, with small beaches nestling beneath the dramatic cliffs of Monte Conero. San Benedetto del Tronto has several miles of beach, five thousand palm trees, and numerous discos. Macerata is a sleepy university town surrounded by lovely countryside. Ascoli Piceno is a worthy stop-off on the way into Abruzzo. Historically agricultural and poor, today, it’s known for its specialized industries, like furniture and textiles.
Visit Marche if: You’d like to get off the beaten path; you want to hit the beach (the beaches around Rimini are especially popular in summer); you want to hike or enjoy other outdoor activities; you’re on a budget.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Historic Centre of Urbino (1998)
The rural region of Abruzzo, located near the center of Italy, often gets ignored by international travelers. And that’s a shame: With beautiful countryside, beaches, the Appenine Mountains, home to the National Park of Abruzzo where you can follow mountain trails and perhaps catch a glimpse of the local wildlife, including some rather shy bears. Sulmona is considered the most beautiful town in the region with its Gothic and Renaissance style of buildings and Chieti with its wonderful views across Abruzzo to the sea. Abruzzo is the region that gave us the word confetti (which here refers to colorful sweets). Like the territory, Abruzzo’s traditional cuisine is rustic, comprising of much lamb and mutton.
About midway between Rome and the Adriatic Coast lies the remains of Alba Fucens, a Roman site built to be a sort of half-way city for visitors and troops on the way to the coast.
It’s the perfect place to “get away from it all.” It’s an especially great place to hike, ski, camp, or bike, and while Italians certainly travel here, it’s hardly a touristy region. That’s partly because, for many years, rural Abruzzo was dogged by poverty. This has turned around recently, although Abruzzo’s comeback hit a serious road bump in 2009, thanks to the devastating earthquake in L’Aquila, the region’s capital.
Visit Abruzzo if: You love the outdoors; you want to experience the “authentic Italy”; you’re planning on driving (public transport isn’t great); you’d like an active vacation; you’d like to get off the beaten path; you want to travel on a budget (it tends to be pretty cheap to stay and eat in Abruzzo, especially compared to other regions!).
Lazio is a pretty well-known region since, after all, it’s home to Rome! (It’s also the third most populous region in Italy). But there’s much more to this central region than Italy’s capital. Lazio, which gets its name from “Latium,” has sandy beaches along the coast and hills and small mountains further inland. It’s home to famous lakes, like Bracciano and Albano; the lovely Castelli Romani hills; remains of the ancient Etruscan civilization which dates back to before Rome was founded; medieval towns and Renaissance gardens; and great archaeological sites, like Ostia Antica.
Visit Lazio if: You’re keen to see Italy’s famous capital; you’d like to mix up your city sightseeing with ancient ruins, small towns and lush countryside; you’re a history buff.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia (2004)
- Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura (1980)
- Villa Adriana (Tivoli) (1999)
- Villa d’Este, Tivoli — The classic Renaissance villa, with magnificent water gardens (2001)
Italy’s newest region (until 1963, Molise was lumped in with Abruzzo), Molise is also Italy’s second-smallest region. The Molise is noted for its cheeses, its regional cuisine and its rural atmosphere. Mainly agricultural (it produces wine, olive oil, dairy, fruit and vegetables, and cereals like faro), hilly Molise has some lovely small towns, countryside, and castles. Many people visit Termoli, a popular beach resort with a lovely old town. From the harbor of Termoli you can take the boat across to the Isole Tremiti, uncontaminated islands that lie just off the coast. The main towns of the region are Campobasso and Isernia. Tourism isn’t particularly developed here, so it’s also a definitely off-the-beaten path destination, and a good place to find meals and accommodation on a budget!
Visit Molise if: You’d like to do some outdoor activities; you want to get off the beaten path; you want to visit some of Italy’s most authentic small towns; you’re traveling on a budget; you have your own car (public transportation is a little tough here).
The southern region of Campania has a lot to recommend it, from fascinating Naples, to the spectacular islands of Capri, Procida and Ischia, to the world-renowned ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. An indescribable world of dazzling seaside villages and sweet scented lemon trees is waiting for you along the winding roads of Amalfi. Every town along this coastline such as Positano, Ravello, Praiano, Minori, Amalfi and the island of Capri each have its own charms to be discovered and appreciated. But Campania, Italy’s second most populous region and one that has, like much of Italy’s south, struggled with poverty in the past, has lots of off-the-beaten-path destinations, too. We especially like Paestum, the best ancient Greek ruins on Italy’s mainland.
Near Sorrento, you can take a cooking class with Laura, a Sorrento grandmother who’ll invite you into her home in a rural village. A Michelin-trained chef, she’ll teach you her family’s recipes, from rolling out your own pasta to cooking the daily catch. You then share your multi-course meal on the terrace of the family’s home.
Visit Campania if: You’re looking for a taste of Italy’s sun-soaked south, but don’t have time for more than a day or weekend trip from Rome or Florence; you want to visit Italy’s most famous coastline (here are 5 reasons we love the Amalfi coast, in photos!); you want to taste real mozzarella di bufala and pizza napolitana!
But don’t miss: Naples, birthplace of pizza and home to many Caravaggios
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Historic Center of Naples (1995)
- Costiera Amalfitana (1997)
- 18th century Royal Palace of Caserta with the Park, the Aqueduct of Vanvitelli and the San Leucio Complex (1997)
- Archaeological Areas of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata (1997)
- Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park with the Archaeological sites of Paestum and Velia, and the Certosa di Padula (1998)
The southern region of Basilicata is located in the “instep” of Italy’s boot. Large and rural, it has a very low population density and lots of countryside, not to mention mountains, the Apennines run right through here, the highest point of the southern Apennines being Monte Pollino (7325 ft). People have lived in Basilicata since the Palaeolithic times, and you can still see Neolithic cave dwellings in Matera, the number-one city in Basilicata to visit (and a UNESCO World Heritage site). One of Italy’s poorer regions, Basilicata is also one of its most starkly beautiful, filled with forests, lakes, and tiny villages. Without a doubt, Basilicata is one of the most interesting if neglected areas of Italy.
The region’s food is based on a typically Mediterranean diet of local production foods, rich in the use of olive oil, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella (di bufala, which is of a specific cow that thrives best in dry, mountainous coastal settings such as Basilicata offers), lemons, fresh vegetables, pasta and of course, wine.
Visit Basilicata if: You’re driving (public transport isn’t great here); you want to really go off the beaten path and explore areas of Italy that tourists hardly ever visit; you’re as fascinated by Matera as we are.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera (1993)
The “heel” of the boot of Italy, for a long time, Puglia experienced much of the same poverty as the rest of the south. While still poorer than northern Italian regions, though, Puglia today has a good deal of industry, and its agricultural sector, especially its olive oil industry, is one of the most important in the country. Puglia has also gotten very hot lately, finally getting attention in the foreign press and travel magazines for its beautiful beaches, gorgeous countryside, excellent food, and unique towns and architecture (like its cone-shaped trulli in the town of Alberobello). With the lovingly restored Masseria farm houses, the White City of Ostuni, the Baroque capital of Lecce, the seaside village of Gallipoli, the historical caves of Matera or the vineyards and olive oil trees as far as the eye can see with olive trees dating back to the Roman Empire it is a favorite destination for Italians in the summer. This is hardly an “undiscovered” region… but there are definitely parts of it that remain to be discovered!
An interesting fact: Puglia is Italy’s region with the largest olive oil production.
Visit Puglia if: You want to see some of Italy’s most beautiful sandy beaches; you’d like a taste of the Mediterranean lifestyle; you’ve always wanted to see (or stay in) a trullo; you want to go slightly off the beaten path (especially if you’re traveling outside of summer).
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Castel del Monte (1996)
- The Trulli of Alberobello (1996)
Another quintessential southern region, Calabria sits in the “toe” of Italy’s boot, a great place for experienced travelers to discover. As you might expect, that means it has lots of beautiful beaches! Calabria is another region that is less well known by international visitors although it is a popular holiday destination for Italians. It received international attention recently when the famous Greek Bronze warriors were retrieved from the seabed. Like Basilicata, it’s mountainous, so it’s great for hiking. And like the rest of Italy’s south, Calabria historically has been fairly poor.
The capital of Calabria is Catanzaro. Lined with mountains and situated between two seas (Tyrrhenian and Ionian) with 500 miles of coastline, Calabria has remained an undisturbed, unspoiled paradise, full of both ancient mountaintop villages and newer seaside towns. It is a peninsula that measures 150 miles long and just 20 miles wide at its narrowest. Calabria is separated from Sicily by the Strait of Messina, and has been under the reign of just about every civilization you can think of — Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Aragonese, Normans, Spanish, French, Bourbons.
So despite its natural gems (and long stretches of lovely coastline!), it’s pretty underdeveloped compared to other seaside destinations in Europe. Great pizza, amazing strawberries, delicious nduja (with everything), and cipolle di Tropea are just some of the reasons why southern Italy can claim to have some of the best food in country. Note than you might have a hard time finding the more obscure and out-of-the-way places everyone will recommend, at least without the help of an Italian friend or guide.
Visit Calabria if: You want to hit the beach, but still be away from the crowds; you’d like to go off the beaten path; you’re traveling on a budget; you want a taste of quintessential southern Italy, from the food to the small towns.
SICILY & THE AEOLIAN ISLANDS (Sicilia)
The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily is a place, and has a culture, all its own. The island consists of miles and miles of vineyards rivaling any in Tuscany or Piedmont, endless olive groves sprouting from emerald-green carpets of grass, forests of shiny citrus and fruit trees, rugged silver mountains, all against a backdrop of the deep blue sea. (Some Italians joke that it’s not even Italy!). That’s because of its unique, and ancient, history. Settled by the ancient Greeks and Romans (in fact, Sicily boasts some of the best ancient sites in Italy), Sicily later was conquered by the Arabs, Norman French, and Spanish. That mixed-heritage background makes for not only fantastic art and architecture, offering a wealth of sightseeing from Greek temples and Roman ruins, Norman castles and Byzantine domes, but cuisine, as well (don’t miss our post on the best food to eat in Sicily). Sicily truly has it all.
From the utterly fascinating city of Palermo to the salt flats and roaming wild sheep of the West, to the Baroque decadence of Ragusa, Modica & Noto, to the Valley of the Temples and the mosaics of Piazza Armerina, past the stunning coastline of Taormina, the active volcanoes of Stromboli on the Aeolian Islands and the ever prominent Etna (Europe’s largest active volcano) looming in the sky, Sicily is a land barely touched by mass tourism & ready to be explored! For these reasons, along with its sunny climate, miles of beautiful coastline, and natural beauty, Sicily is a top destination for tourists, although you’ll still find plenty of towns and areas untouched by tourism, and outside of high season, even the beaches and resort towns are relatively quiet.
Visit Sicily if: You’re looking for a beach holiday; you’re interested in seeing some of the best ancient Greek and Roman ruins in Italy; you’re curious about a culture that’s Italian… but with a special stamp that’s all its own; you’re attracted to sunny, warm, dry weather; you want to try real cannoli or arancini (or pasta alla norma, or granita, or…).
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Archaeological Area of Agrigento (1997)
- Villa Romana del Casale (1997)
- Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe (2013)
- Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica, Sicily (2005)
- Isole Eolie (Aeolian Islands) (2000)
- Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto: eight towns in South Eastern Sicily: Caltagirone, Militello in Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa and Scicli (2002)
In the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, about 125 miles from the Italian mainland, lies the unique island of Sardinia, or Sardegna in Italian. It can be reached easily from Rome by plane (about a 1-hour flight) or ferry. This island, located to Italy’s west and just south of Corsica, relatively free of large cities or heavy industry is a long-time favorite summer destination of Italians… with reason! The beaches are stunning, and the resort towns of Costa Smerelda, in the island’s north, buzz with nightlife. Sardinia has by far the best Italian beaches, in fact these are the best beaches in Europe and maybe the world.
In addition to beaches, there are historic and archaeological sites all over the island, too. For example, Olbia, in the northeast, was a vital seaport during the Middle Ages, and today, you can see the 11th-century Basilica of San Simplicio, as well as Phoenician and Carthaginian ruins. The island was ravaged by a succession of invaders over the centuries, each of them leaving some imprint behind: Roman and Carthaginian ruins, Genoan fortresses, a string of elegant Pisan churches with some impressive Gothic and Spanish Baroque architecture. Perhaps most striking of all, however, are the remnants of Sardinia’s only significant native culture. The Nuraghic civilization, named after the 7000-odd nuraghi that they left behind, was unique to Sardinia. Their mysterious, stone-built constructions are often in isolated places, but there are a few to be seen in the museums of Càgliari and Sassari.
The capital is Càgliari. With good accommodation and restaurants, it makes a useful base for exploring the southern third of the island. Alghero, on the western shore, has a Spanish ambience, a legacy of long years in which the town was a Catalan colony, and a wholly different feel from the rest of the island. Inland, Nuoro has impressive literary credentials and a good ethnographical museum. As the biggest town in Sardinia’s interior, it also makes a useful base for visiting some of the more remote mountain areas, in particular the Gennargentu range, which covers the heart of the island. This is where you can find what remains of the island’s traditional culture, best embodied in the numerous village festivals. As for the cuisine in Sardinia, expect dishes that are largely focused on fish. Make sure to try the local pecorino cheese as well.
Visit Sardinia if: You want to experience some of Italy’s most spectacular coastlines and beaches; you’re going in August, and want to be where all of the Italians are; you want to visit a part of Italy that has a very different history from, and culture than, the mainland.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Su Nuraxi di Barumini (1997)
SAN MARINO, Independent city state
One of Europe’s most underrated destinations. The Most Serene Republic of San Marino is a must-see destination for lovers of history – and for those who love picturesque panoramas. One of the world’s smallest and oldest republics, San Marino isn’t, technically, Italy. It is surrounded by Italy’s Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche regions near the Adriatic Sea, making it an easy day trip from cities like Florence or Bologna.
San Marino is tiny at only 24 square miles, and there’s very little about stepping into the Republic from Italy that would make you feel like you’ve left the country that surrounds it. This is, however, the “oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world,” so although its footprint may be small its historic importance is huge.
The Republic of San Marino’s constitution was enacted in 1600, but the republic dates back to 301 A.D. when a stonemason settled on this spot after fleeing from present-day Croatia. Much of the reason San Marino has maintained its independence through the many wars and border adjustments over the millennia is its location and its size – it’s both difficult to reach and small enough to not seem worth the trouble. Visitors today definitely think San Marino is worth the trouble – tourism accounts for a large part of the Republic’s economy each year – and although you can make it a day trip from nearby cities in Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche, you can also stay right in San Marino for a few days to explore.
San Marino: Fast Facts
- The official name of San Marino is the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, although the Italian name for the republic is Repubblica di San Marino.
- The capital of the Republic of San Marino is the city of San Marino, but the most populated town is Dogana.
- The historic center of the city of San Marino, including Monte Titano, gained inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2008.
- San Marino is an enclave within Italy, but it borders both the Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche regions of Italy. The closest sizable cities are Rimini (Emilia-Romagna) and Pesaro (Le Marche).
- While San Marino is officially part of the Council of Europe and the United Nations, it is not part of the European Union. It’s still on the euro currency, however.
- In 1861, San Marino made U.S. President Abraham Lincoln its first honorary citizen – and in 1959 they issued stamps with his likeness.
- Officially one of Europe’s “microstates,” San Marino is the 3rd smallest country in Europe.
- There is no train service in San Marino, but there is an aerial tram that runs up to the top of Mount Titano from the valley below.
- People from San Marino are called sammarinesi (plural). The singular version is sammarinese.
What to Do & See in San Marino
For most visitors to San Marino, the main objective is to say they’ve set foot in this microstate – and perhaps to mail a postcard using the Republic’s unique stamps. You can also get your passport stamped at the tourist information center in the city of San Marino, for a €5 fee. If it’s sights and attractions you’re looking for, however, San Marino offers several of historic significance. The capital city has several churches and palaces worth visiting, but perhaps the most iconic images of San Marino are its three towers. Built in the 11th, 13th, and 14th centuries, these towers sit atop the three peaks of Mount Titano overlooking the city. Two of the towers are open to visitors (one contains a museum), and the views from the towers are spectacular. Outside the capital, there are more than 40 hamlets and villages in San Marino, many of which have historic buildings and town centers. Aside from the main pursuits of country collecting and history seeking, another popular pastime for visitors and residents alike in San Marino is shopping. It tends to be on the high-end of the retail scale, but since San Marino is on the euro just like Italy at least you don’t have to worry about exchanging money.
As the smallest independent state in the world, it’s easy to pretend that a visit to Vatican City during your stay in Rome doesn’t involve leaving the country of Italy – but technically speaking, that’s just what you’re doing.
Vatican City is a tiny walled enclave on the western side of the Tiber River in Rome. The city-state covers roughly 110 acres, and although it’s incredibly small it contains some of the most popular attractions in the entire Italian peninsula.
The Catholic Church is the whole reason for the existence of Vatican City, but although the church itself and many of the monuments in Vatican City date back hundreds of years the city-state wasn’t established officially until 1929. The area was settled in the 1st century A.D., and when the first church built on the spot where St. Peter’s Basilica now stands was constructed in the early 4th century, the surrounding land started to become more populated. From the 4th century through the mid-1800s, the area then called the Papal States (now known as Vatican City) was essentially ruled by Popes. With Italian unification in 1861, however, the new country claimed the Papal States as part of Italy. The church said Italy had no right to govern the Vatican, and Italy didn’t try to oust the Pope from his palace, but the argument over just who ruled over this small patch of land went on for almost 70 years and is referred to as the “Roman Question.” Finally in 1929 the Lateran Treaty was signed, with Italy giving the Holy See complete sovereignty over Vatican City. The differences between the “Holy See” and “Vatican City” are complicated, but the short version is this – the Holy See isn’t a country, but rather the official seat of the bishop of Rome’s Catholic Church. Vatican City is the country, and the only entity of the two that can issue passports. Confusingly, however, ambassadors aren’t sent to Vatican City, but to the Holy See. Thankfully for visitors, these distinctions don’t matter all that much. What matters to most tourists is that they’re visiting the world’s smallest city state, and that they’re able to see the incredible treasures within its borders just by taking a bus across Rome.
Vatican City: Fast Facts
- The Italian name of the city state is Stato della Città del Vaticano, which is pronounced although it’s often shortened to simply Il Vaticano.
- The capital of the Vatican City State is technically Vatican City, but since it’s a city-state then the city and the state are one and the same.
- The whole of Vatican City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Vatican City is an enclave within Rome, entirely surrounded by the Italian capital city.
- The Vatican Gardens make up more than half of the land included in Vatican City.
- Vatican City is not part of the United Nations, although the Holy See has “permanent observer status” at the U.N.
- The list of people actually born in Vatican City is incredibly short, but one name that does pop up is English shipbuilder Sir John Isaac Thornycroft. Since he was born in 1843, however, before the Lateran Treaty, his birth pre-dates the official creation of the Vatican City State. Vatican City today doesn’t have a hospital that’s equipped for births, so even those who reside within its borders go into nearby Rome in order to have their babies.
- While Vatican City isn’t technically part of the European Union, it is on the euro currency. Vatican City does mint its own euro coins, as well, and they’re quite collectible.
What to Do & See in Vatican City
The big attractions on a must-see list for Vatican City are much the same as a must-see list for Rome. Most people will spend, at most, a day of their Rome trip touring the sights of Vatican City, and that’s usually plenty of time – provided you’ve got a good guide. The Vatican Museums alone could take weeks of exploration, so making sure the important pieces are pointed out to you can be the difference between a pleasant visit and museum boredom. Of course, if you’re familiar with some of what’s in the Vatican’s collection and you want to spend more time in the museums, then a longer stay in Rome and a few days spent wandering through the galleries isn’t a bad option, either. The centerpiece of Vatican City is St. Peter’s Basilica and the enormous piazza in front of the church, and blissfully both of these sights are free to visit. There’s a strict dress code to visit the church, and it’s enforced at every entrance (so don’t try to get in with shorts or a tank top on). For those of you who are stamp collectors, or who still send postcards, remember that because Vatican City is a separate country you can buy stamps at the Vatican post office and mail things there, too. Given how unreliable Italy’s postal system is, this isn’t a bad idea – many Romans who live near Vatican City use the Vatican’s post office when possible. Oh, and although this “to-do” item will take you all of a minute, it could be fun for those of you who learned Latin back in the day – bank machines in Vatican City have a Latin language option.
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