Everyone has a picture in mind when they think of Italy: gondolas gliding through the canals of Venice, the Trevi Fountain in Rome, the famous red-tiled Duomo in Florence. And while these sights are iconic for obvious reasons, it’s worth remembering Italy is a large and beautiful country. Here are four of our favorite small cities and towns that, while not exactly off the beaten path, offer respite from summer crowds and no shortage of charm. In short, these are some top Italian gems every traveler should make time to visit.
Located about an hour west of Venice, Verona is well-known as the setting for “Romeo and Juliet.” Today, the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts visitors from around the world for its stunning medieval and renaissance architecture. With a palpable buzz, this picturesque small town is the perfect place to relax into the rhythm of Italian life.
Built in the first century, Verona’s open-air amphitheater, the Arena di Verona, is one of the town’s largest draws, especially during the summer when the Arena Opera Festival wows crowds of opera lovers with world-class productions. Even if you can’t get tickets to a show, the arena is still worth a visit as one of Europe’s best preserved Roman theaters with stunning views over the city.
Evening strolls, la passeggiata, are a national pastime in Italy, but Verona takes this tradition to a whole new level. Verona’s cobblestone streets, framed by pink-hued medieval buildings, are the perfect backdrop for this cinematic ritual. As you wander, keep your eyes open for the 13th-century Domus Mercatorum before stopping in the Piazza delle Erbe for a refreshing Aperol spritz.
Home to one of the world’s oldest universities, Bologna is the quintessential university town. Steeped in history, culture and world-class baroque and renaissance architecture, Bologna also accommodates more modern pursuits with museums dedicated to Lamborghinis and gelato. And like any good university town, Bologna has plenty of local breweries, charming cafés and neighborhood bars.
One of the best places to start exploring this compact town is Piazza Maggiore, where you’ll find the Basilica di San Petronio, home to the world’s largest sundial. Next, wander into the adjacent Piazza del Nettuno to see Giambologna’s elaborate Fountain of Neptune from 1567. Finally, head to Piazza Santo Stefano, where you can climb the almost 500 steps to the top of the medieval Asinelli Tower and be rewarded with spectacular views over the city.
Of course, Bologna is also the birth city of Bolognese sauce, and most menus revolve around this and fresh pasta such as tortellini, tagliatelle and lasagna. But don’t leave without sampling mortadella, a local specialty sausage made from pork, spices and herbs.
It’s hard to imagine a more enchanting setting than Ischia. Set in the Tyrrhenian Sea, about an hour off the coast of Naples, this small mountainous island rises dramatically from the azure waters of the Bay of Naples. Covered in lush gardens, thick forests and picturesque vineyards, Ischia offers stunning views along with some of the country’s best beaches.
Easily reached by hydrofoil or ferry, Ischia is also heralded for its thermal waters, a reputation that has endured since the eighth century B.C., thanks to the more than 100 hot springs that flow from Mount Epomeo. Hotels often have pools filled with the hot spring water, but you’ll also find numerous wellness centers.
Most of the hotels are located in Ischia Pointe, where you’ll find a collection of charming shops and cafés. Serious outdoor enthusiasts will want to head to Fontana, where you can journey to the top of Mount Epomeo, which rises over 2,500 feet above sea level and offers stunning 360° views of Capri and the Sorrentina Peninsula.
Spectacularly perched on a mountainside high above the glittering Ionian Sea, Taormina is Sicily’s second-largest city. Best known for its historic Greek amphitheater and breathtaking views of Mount Etna, this charming resort town has been a beloved tourist destination since it became a popular stop on the Grand Tour in the 1850s.
Besides the views, beaches and medieval architecture, Taormina’s biggest draw is the Teatro Antico. Remarkably well-preserved, you’d be hard pressed to find a more dramatic amphitheater in the world. Today it hosts performances as diverse as Eddie Vedder and the Mythos Opera Festival.
Time in Taormina can also be spent relaxing on one of the many beaches, such as Giardini Naxos, Mazzaro or the natural oasis of Isola Bella. A cable car ferries visitors to and from these seaside attractions. For more adventurous travelers, hiking the trails around Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano, is a thrilling experience.