If you've been to Italy, you've probably been to Rome. It's got most of the sites and attractions that come to mind when people even THINK of Italy: the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Forum, Saint Peter's Basilica. The city's cobblestone streets, medieval architecture, and Renaissance-era fountains are (literally) what romance is made of.
The beauty of Rome has inspired many a cinematic love story, from Audrey Hepburn's Roman Holiday to the recently released Little Italy starring Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen. It's a place that's both ancient and timeless, with stunning treasures around every corner. We almost forgive travelers for believing that it's the one Italian destination they must see. Almost.
Italy is an entire Southern European country full to the brim with rich history, friendly locals, and spectacular geographical gems. Some of the most worthwhile destinations to visit are not even close to Rome, with completely different cultural vibes. We're not just talking about other major cities, either. Venice and Pisa have their own world-famous sites to see, but we're interested in giving you some spectacular experiences that are further off the beaten path.
To the tip of this boot-shaped country's heel and beyond, we've gathered up 20 of the most underrated places Italy has to share with intrepid travelers like you. Think you've seen it all in Italy? For truly unique travel experiences, one-of-a-kind photo ops, and chances to interact with authentic local Italian communities, read on.
Here are 20 unmissable, underrated, and largely unknown Italian destinations for you to explore:
20 20. Stromboli Island in Sicily
Northeast of the coast of Sicily you'll find the misty and mysterious Aeolian Islands. Think of this region as Italy's version of Great Britain's Isle of Skye. It's inspired awe and wonder (and sometimes, legends and myths) for centuries. Today, you can visit the region to admire Stromboli.
Stromboli is an island with an active volcano, surrounded by crystal clear sea that travelers can dive into for snorkeling and scuba diving. It's a welcome change from the crowds, hustle, and bustle of Italy's capital city. Who wouldn't want to take a trip out to the Aeolian Islands to watch molten lava slide into the sea? It's a sight that you'll never forget.
19 19. Portovenere in Liguria
Did you think Italy was all stone buildings and castle ruins? You'd be very wrong if you had. This town is a great example of a colorful Italian seaside village community. Portovenere sits at the bank of Italy's "Bay of Poets" - a destination that's just as magical as it sounds.
The Bay of Poets is so called because its beauty and serenity have inspired writers and artists for decades. Mary Shelly, Lord Byron, Oreste Carpi, and even Dante have all taken inspiration from this beautiful body of water. Enjoy it from the quaint streets of Portovenere, preferably with a cone of gelato in hand.
18 18. Pyramids of Zone in Cislano
They look man-made, kind of like the Inuksuit rock formations of Canada's First Nations people. What makes these formations worth visiting is precisely the fact that they aren't man-made at all. The Pyramids of Zone are products of nature, resulting from centuries of rock erosion and clay deposit patterns.
These pyramids are also known as tent rocks, hoodos, erosion pyramids, or (our personal favorite name) fairy chimneys. Over time, wind and water in this clay reservoir have washed away layers of clay around the ones held down by boulders. Now the boulders look so surreal perched atop the spindly clay towers that it's easy to see why some people would believe these pyramids had something to do with fairies.
17 17. Universita di Bologna
Not only is Bologna the “food capital of Italy” but it’s also home to the oldest university in Europe. This is the closest you will get to Hogwarts outside of Universal Studios.
It was first founded in the 11th century. We're currently living in the 21st century. If math isn't your strong suit, we'll clue you in: this university is over 1000 years old. That's older than most Western nations! From the Universita di Bologna came the world's first ever university student guilds and organizations, and the foundations of many modern faculties of study. If you're into history that reaches so far back it enters the legendary territory, this place is a must-see.
16 16. Laglio in Lombardy
From the utmost ancient to the majorly modern, we bring you the small town of Laglio. This place is so chic and pristine that George and Amal Clooney chose it for their summer home destination. You can find it right at the top of Italy's Como province beside Lake Como, which flows right along the knee section of the country's boot shape.
If you visit Laglio hoping to knock on George Clooney's door, beware: the town has bylaws preventing access to the Clooney property. This can work to your advantage, however! Restricted access for fans and paparazzi has allowed this world-class lakeside community to stay quiet and hidden from the public eye.
15 15. Otzi the Iceman in Bolzano
Aside from George Clooney, one man is similarly popular among travelers to Italy's small towns. People in the know make sure to stop in Balzano when they visit Italy so they can sneak a peek at Otzi the Iceman, Europe's oldest preserved human body.
Otzi is projected to be over 5,300 years old and amazingly preserved thanks to very lucky timing and glacial ice. The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano has a world-class exhibit on what scientists have learned from Otzi. Otzi himself is displayed in the museum along with his fascinating tools and clothes. Don't miss getting the furthest possible glimpse back in time by visiting this miraculous discovery.
14 14. The Tree Cathedral in Bergamo
Unlike most other items on this list, The Tree Cathedral is so new that it isn't even technically complete. If you visit Bergamo, you can see this one-of-a-kind creation in progress. The Tree Cathedral is destined to become one of Italy's most breathtaking places of worship - and that's saying something.
It's a space designed by Italian artist Giuliano Mauri, who is famous for his groundbreaking natural architecture style. He builds things by using natural resources to his own advantage, bending and shaping trees and plants as they grow. His Tree Cathedral uses evergreen saplings as walls, a roof, an entryway, an altar, and windows. You can bet that you (and your Instagram followers) have never seen anything like it.
13 13. Torcello in Veneto
Torcello is located in the same province as the city of Venice, offering travelers a taste of similar culture without the massive crowds of tourists. It also holds a handful of worthwhile attractions that you wouldn't be able to find in Venice, anyway.
Torcello used to be one of the most densely populated islands in the region, but those days are history. They've left behind two artistic churches, quiet village streets, and all the treasures of the Museo Querini Stampalia. This museum's jewel is a mysterious piece by Giovanni Bellini called Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. You'll get closer access to these pieces than you can dream of accessing in busy museums like Rome's Borghese and MAXXI.
12 12. Valle dei Mulini in Sorrento
This valley has been abandoned for just 80 years, but it looks like it belongs to a long-lost civilization. Hiking through the Valle dei Mulini (Valley of the Mills) in Italy's Sorrento region is a quick way to see what the world might look like if humans ever go extinct. Spooky? Yes. Intriguing? Definitely.
Valle dei Mulini was once a bustling industrial block where workers and machinery turned wheat into flour and flour products. In the 1940s, flour milling became the work of nearby pasta mills and factories that put these mills out of business. Once the buildings became obsolete, lush greenery took over. This site gives new meaning to the idea of an urban jungle.
11 11. Perugina in Perugia
You can't enjoy Italy without a love of food. Perugia is an Umbrian town that has some of the country's best cuisine - including chocolate. Ever had a Baci? These Italian chocolate kisses are little truffle-type treats topped with one hazelnut apiece. They're cute to look at, delicious to eat, and beloved by Italians the world over.
Perugina is the company that makes the iconic Baci and many more chocolate delicacies. Take time to visit the Perugina factory in Perugia to taste pure chocolaty heaven by the spoonful. Intimate factory tours show you exactly where and how the chocolates are made, giving you plenty of samples along the way! You can even pose with the world's biggest Baci. Adorable.
10 10. Casa di Giulietta in Verona
Never was there a story of more woe than this of Juliet, and her Romeo. We're sure you know it well! You might not know that Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers were inspired by stories told right here in Verona, a truly romantic Italian village.
Visit Verona to explore the Casa di Giulietta, a 14th-century villa that locals believe to have inspired Romeo and Juliet. The villa's exterior is popular with tourists, but it's worth it to pay for entry into the villa itself. Within it, you can walk the halls of a home once belonging to the Cappello family, thought by historians to be the inspiration for Shakespeare's Capulets. Admire Juliet-era clothing, decor, and (of course) that legendary balcony.
9 9. The Bay of Salermo in Ravello
Ravello is a scenic seaside town on a hill that slopes down to the vast and scenic Bay of Salermo. It's off the beaten path for tourists, but it's been favored by high-flying travelers like film stars and politicians for decades. Consider it one of Italy's best kept seaside secrets.
If you want an Amalfi Coast-style experience minus the mega yachts, choose the Bay of Salermo. Aside from the serene waters it's got stunning whitewashed neighborhoods, fresh vineyards, lush lemon and orange groves, and relatively quiet beaches that feel like paradise. We're not surprised that Greta Garbo fell in love on its shores, nor that Gore Vidal called it "the most beautiful place on Earth." See if you agree.
8 8. Gardens of Bomarzo in Northern Lazio
You can probably already tell that this isn't your ordinary renaissance garden. Commissioned by a prince after returning from war, the garden's architect was hired to create a space that reflected deep inner turmoil. The prince had lost his friends in the war, been held for ransom, and returned to find his wife dead, so there was plenty of turmoil to go around.
The architect made it so unusual that it was later a favorite spot of Salvador Dali's. You can now visit the garden to step through and around a wide variety of monstrous sculptures. Be sure to enter the above-pictured "Mouth Of Hell" to find the perfect table and chairs for a little picnic in this bizarre park.
7 7. The Mosaic Festival in Ravenna
When you think of brilliant Italian mosaics, you might think of Florence. That city is home to dozens of spectacular mosaic pieces integrated throughout its famous buildings. It's not the only place worth visiting for this kind of art, however. We recommend you give Ravenna a good look.
The Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna are listed by Unesco as some of the most beautiful historic art in the world. Visit from late June to early September to see them lit up by night! It's impossible not to be dazzled by the Mosaico di Notte Festival. On feast days during the festival, you'll be treated to feasts and fireworks under the stars. Ravenna's mosaic-themed sound and light shows are uniquely unmissable, too.
6 6. Wild Harbor in Puglia
Porto Selvaggio or Wild Harbor is a small coast off southern Puglia that earned its name by being virtually untouched territory until about 30 years ago. Because of its insular kind of local community, the language and customs of Wild Harbor are the same as they were when ancient Greece colonized Italy centuries ago.
The locals still speak the language Griko, a Greek dialect that comes from that point in history. Although Wild Harbor isn't undiscovered by Italy at large, it still seems set apart from the rest of Puglia in its culture and overall feel. Visit to explore ancient olive groves, gnarled orchards, and a slice of Italy that even Italians don't often see.
5 5. Herculaneum in Campania
Just like Torcello (item 13 on this list) is a savvy traveler's alternative to Venice, Herculaneum is a great alternative to Pompeii. You might be familiar with Pompeii. It's Italy's city in Naples that became famous for a massive eruption from Mount Vesuvius. Tourists visit Pompeii to find a city trapped in time, preserved by ash and lava.
Herculaneum is sometimes referred to as "Pompeii's little sister," located just two hours north of Mount Vesuvius. It attracts many fewer tourists but offers similarly spectacular ashy ruins. This town was also ravaged by volcanic eruptions as early as 79 AD, which leaves it with fascinatingly preserved sculptures, buildings, and cityscapes. Just as cool as Pompeii, without the tourists? Yes, please.
4 4. The Palio Horse Races in Siena
Twice every summer, the gorgeous Italian region of Siena hosts a Palio horse race. Not a horse person? It doesn't matter. The festivals that surround these horse races are immense, vibrant, and often overlooked by even the most informed travelers. You'll want to be there to witness Siena's local pride and history come to life in all its glory.
There are medieval parades with ornate costumes, banners, era-specific musical entertainment, and street parties that feel like next-level renaissance fairs. Everything culminates in piazzas filled with authentic Gothic and Renaissance-era art, history, and even food. For a step back into Italy that Rome's Colosseum can only hint at, visit Palio in the summertime and let history come to you.
3 3. The Matera Sassi in Basilicata
Unesco describes the Sassi of Matera - the staggering cluster of partial cave dwellings in Italy - as "the most outstanding example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean." That means that your trip to this part of the world wouldn't be complete without a visit to this crowning jewel of ancient Mediterranean living.
It was once a honeycomb of homes that used the caves of Matera's mountain as some of their walls and roofs, but it was completely cleared out in the 1960s. Now the community is back with a bang, opening museums, cafes, gourmet restaurants, and more. You can actually find five-star hotels built into the rock! Enjoy the views, espresso, and undeniable photogenic qualities of the Sassi.
2 2. The Sunken City of Baia in Napoli
Have you heard of Baia? It was the Las Vegas of ancient times, attracting people from far and wide to its state-of-the-art baths and nightlife spaces. Powerful icons of ancient times were known to frequent Baia, from Nero to Cicero to Julius Caesar. If you want to walk in their footsteps now, however, you'll need some scuba gear.
Because of Baia's location over natural volcanic vents, its water level slowly rose to swallow its once majestic buildings. Saracens sacked it by 1500, but some meaningful relics still remain under its waters to this day. Take time to visit Baia for an unparalleled perspective on antiquity. You'll feel like it's been frozen in time! It's truly like no other place.
1 1. Monti Della Laga in Abruzzo
For our number one not-in-Rome, completely underrated Italian destination, we had to take you somewhere that showcases the literal peak of Italy's natural beauty. For all the history and culture this country has preserved to share with its visitors, nothing can beat the natural wonders that make your jaw drop without costing you a dime.
That's the case for Monti Della Laga; remote and beautiful mountains along the Umbrian border, unvisited even by most Italians. Rarely disturbed by tourists, these mountains are still home to immense peaks, soft shaggy parks, and wildlife like the wolves and bears of Italian legends. There are small villages too, so you'll never be too far from a mountaintop espresso. Is there anything more divine?
References: Britannica.com, ItalyMagazine.com, Iceman.it, TripAdvisor.ca, DiscoverTuscany.com