The Roads Less Travelled: Regions Of Italy That Most Tourists Miss

You’ve certainly seen Rome, Naples, Milan, Venice, and Florence, but here’s a few other places for your consideration.

Regions of Italy, Matera, Basilicata
Grotte Brune, Matera, Basilicata. Photo: Luca Micheli on Unsplash.

Some regions and tourist destinations of Italy are famous for obvious reasons — from the genteel days of the Grand Tour to modern backpackers on a shoestring budget, the cities of Rome, Naples, Milan, Venice, and Florence have seen centuries of visitors walking up and down their cobblestone streets.

But the country is much bigger than that. We recommend venturing down the roads less travelled and visiting some of the smaller towns for a new experience of Italy. Dust off the keys and fill up the tank, it’s time for a road trip.

Emilia-Romagna

Unofficially accepted as the food capital of Italy — Emilia Romagna is the DOP for Parmigiano Reggiano and Parma ham, after all — the region is also home to the oldest university in the world (University of Bologna, established in 1088AD) and a number of equally stunning historical sites. Visit the capital Bologna to eat the best mortadella you’ve ever had in your life, or the unique cotoletta alla Bolognese, and walk through the medieval streets to the Asinelli Tower. Hop provinces to Ravenna to pay your respects at the final resting place of Dante Alighieri at the Basilica of San Francesco after visiting the Dante Museum, and feast your eyes on the striking mosaics of 3rd century Mausoleum of Galla Placidia; or head west to Modena to the beating heart of Italian motorsports and the hometown of Ferrari, which houses the Enzo Ferrari Museum for a more modern kind of pilgrimage.

Umbria

Landlocked Umbria is one of two regions that dosn’t border with the sea or a second country (the other is Trentino), so for that novelty alone it’s worth a visit. Medieval towns and centuries-old Etruscan walls are dotted between the rolling green hills and idyllic farmlands, which makes for charming scenery during long drives. A stop in Perugia is required, and if the hilly roads scare off the unseasoned driver, park at the base of the minimetro for a quick ride into the centro storico and explore the old capital on foot (and maybe enroll at the University for Foreigners of Perugia for an Italian language course if you’re looking for a reason to stay longer) — visit in July for the annual Umbria Jazz festival, or in October for Eurochocolate. Perugia is also the hometown of Baci chocolates, but for those who prefer something savory, the region is famous for black truffle and prosciutto di Norcia. And while you’re there, nip out to Assisi to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi and Santa Chiara.

Basilicata

Dial things down a notch and head south to the ancient cave dwellings of Matera. The millennia-old Sassi were carved into the surrounding rock and then developed into complex structures that include many spectacular rock churches, and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 — they were inhabited until 1952, when residents were forcibly evacuated by the Italian government due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. But in recent years there has been a push to make the area more appealing to tourists (and Hollywood directors, Matera served as the backdrop for the films The Gospel according to St. Matthew and The Passion of the Christ).

Apulia

Just next door is Apulia (or Puglia as it’s locally known), wrapped by both the Adriatic and Ionian Seas and considered to be among the hottest and driest regions in the summertime. Start your visit in the capital city of Bari, discover the old town Bari vecchia that was built in the Middle Ages and marvel at the Basilica of San Nicola. Do not leave town until you have tried the perfected focaccia barese or locally-made orecchiette. Head west into the the Itria Valley to Alberobello to see the whimsical white-washed trulli houses (another UNESCO World Heritage Site), a small settlement that is easy to walk and explore. Continue driving down the ‘heel’ to Lecce and take in the sights of Lecce Cathedral and Piazza di San’Oronzo in the city center before doing tours of the vineyards and olive groves.

Calabria

Staying in the neighborhood, drive southwest to the tip of the boot and into Calabria. Most famous for the enigmatic Riace bronzes, currently on display in the Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria, it’s a testament to the rich ancient history of the region. But it’s not only ruins and relics, as the region boasts one of the oldest national parks in the country: The National Park of Calabria. Within this is Sila National Park, spanning 74,000 hectares and three provinces, which is home to black pines, beech trees, white spruces (and some of the tallest trees in Europe in the ‘Forest of Giants’), as well as wolves, deer, and various birds of prey resident in the area – it’s a highly recommended trekking location, and an equally appealing destination in the winter for the excellent skiing. Drive down to Pizzo Calabro at the Costa Delgi Dei for a taste of life on the Tyrrheanian Sea. Don’t miss a chance to try the Tartufo di Pizzo ice cream – a local specialty!

Abruzzo

Nestled between the mountains and the sea, Abruzzo has a wealth of breathtaking landscapes to make a drive anywhere in the region a total joy. The Altopiano delle Cinquemiglia plateau is not a typical tourist stop as it’s far from main cities and mostly populated by smaller mountain towns, so it’s ideal for the traveler who wishes to escape the crowds and occupy themselves with horseback riding or cycling through unspoilt nature. Further into the Central Apennines is Monte Majella, and the Majella National Park, which is the habitat for wolves, eagles, chamois, and bears. For the history buffs, a visit to the Medieval castle Roccascalegna would not go amiss, impressively built on a rocky hilltop overlooking the village in Valle del Riosecco. It was most recently restored in 1996, so while it’s in ruins, it’s safe to visit and explore.