When you’re planning your trip to Italy, do you find yourself flying into Venice, taking the train to Florence, and then flying out of Rome? When we’re restricted by time, we tend to choose these three cities to get a good “taste” of Italy. But, most people, after their first time agree that it’s better to visit, smaller, less-touristic cities to get the real experience.
Until very recently (1871) Italy wasn’t even Italy as we know it today—it was comprised of many small city-states. The cultural identity of those city states is still intact for the most part, which is why it’s even more fascinating to experience them one by one. Unlike Florence, Venice, and Rome, these cities haven’t been as diluted from tourism and still hold onto much of their individual charm and distinctiveness.
While still very populous, these are my top recommendations for just going slightly off the beaten path italy on your travels.
To start our list of off the beaten path Italy cities, Bologna is #1. Known for the oldest university in the world (Università di Bologna, founded 1088), Bologna is still a vibrant college city today—at least on one-half. The other half, in the super-rich Po Valley, is elegant and home to some of the best (and heavy) dining in Italy. Bologna is also famous for its ragù or bolognese sauce and continues to be regarded as a liberal epicenter of sorts, nicknamed La Rossa (the Red).
Known for the origin of everyone’s favorite Italian food, pizza, Naples today is Italy’s third-largest city. It’s on this list because people often skip over it because of its gritty reputation. Outside of the historic center, graffiti is as common as corruption and trash piles up on the corners. But, Naples is actually home to some of the most important archaeological sites in Italy. Its many palaces, castles, and churches are awe-inspiring, and you can’t miss Mount Vesuvius, the only active volcano in mainland Europe. Naples is passionate, and I’d argue, the true heart of Italy.
Bari is a lively port town, and second most important city in Southern Italy (second to Napoli). Bari sports a beautiful coastline, an important university, a lively nightlife and some of the best seafood on the Adriatic. Because of its university and its location, Bari has a high percentage of young people that give the historic city that houses St. Nicholas’s bones a little edge.
Sometimes called the City of Engines, Modena is a city well-known as the home base of luxury car companies Ferrari and Maserati. It’s also famous for its balsamic vinegar and for its Medieval history. Modena is a hidden gastronomic hub, and you’ll find some great eats here in the local restaurants. Pavarotti is from Modena, too!
Genoa is Italy’s largest port city, and well known as the hometown of ‘Italian’ Explorer Cristoforo Colombo a.k.a. Christopher Columbus. Another explorer, Marco Polo, was also imprisoned here in a famous historic dispute between Genoa and Venice. The city began as a wealthy port, and also founded the world’s first bank in 1407. Today, Genoa host’s Europe’s largest aquarium. And food-wise? Of course, pesto, or pesto alla genovese, originated here. Why visit Genoa? NYTimes says it all.
You might have guessed it—Parma is known for its cheese! (and prosciutto)! But seriously, if you love food, Parma has got to be on your list. The city is virtually car-free (despite being home to the Lamborghini), and is proud to be one of the best spots for gastronomic splendor in Italy. It’s also home to plenty of Renaissance masterpieces by Correggio, Parmigianino, da Vinci, and El Greco. This is another city I wouldn’t dream of leaving of our list of off the beaten path Italy cities.
What isn’t Turin famous for? Turin is home to the Fiat, The Shroud of Turin, Juventus (the wildly successful football club that can’t stop winning this year), the 2006 Winter Olympics, and is a veritable paradise for chocolate lovers. Surrounded by the Alps in the north and to the west, Torino is also a popular ski and snowboard destination.
Like it’s big brother Napoli, Salerno has a bit of a gritty nature to it. In recent years, the city has gone through an urban transformation, and it’s new waterfront, lined with trees, is one of the most beautiful in mainland Europe. Salerno also has plenty of winding, narrow streets in centro storico, but most importantly, you must try the typical dishes of salernitana cuisine, which encompass the true variety of the Mediterranean diet.
This list of off the beaten path Italy cities wouldn’t be complete without adding my love, Perugia to the list. I spent 3 months in the lovely Umbrian countryside and frequented Perugia so often I know it’s story by heart. Perugia is well known historically as being the city that imprisoned St. Francis of Assisi. Today, you can still see where he was held. It’s also notable for its still standing Etruscan gate (built 3rd century BC), it’s original walls, the Universita per Stranieri (University for Foreigners) and a popular festival that occurs every summer called Umbria Jazz.
How could I forget Sicily?! Until 1816, Sicily was known as “The Kingdom of Sicily” founded by Roger II in 1130. This is important to note as you wander the city of Palermo—most Sicilians are proud of their heritage and will claim that they aren’t ‘Italian’ at all. Palermo hosts a number of outdoor markets, historic piazzas, and botanic gardens. Also famous for its ancient edifices and churches, catacombs, and delish street food and pastries, Palermo is the one-stop destination in Sicily.