Get off the Beaten Track in Italy
Italy, the boot-shaped peninsula in Southern Europe, is a popular Eurail destination. Most travelers stick to the well-worn Venice to Rome route. I love those cities and they’re definitely places you should visit. However, you can have an even more rewarding experience if you see Italy off the beaten track. Travel to smaller towns that don’t receive anywhere near as many visitors.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy
Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. Wherever you go, you’ll find fascinating historical sites, stunning art and architecture, and of course mouth-watering food. Add some of these destinations to a classic Italy itinerary. You’ll benefit from fewer crowds, lower prices, and friendlier locals. I traveled across Italy by train with a Eurail Italy Pass – 8 travel days within 1 month.
Italy off the beaten track
North of the rolling hills and vineyards is the Garfagnana, a rugged mountain area that feels wild and undiscovered. You’ll find winding mountain roads, gushing rivers, and medieval towns perched on hills – but only a fraction of the tourists.
Barga, a small town in the area, can easily be visited by train. It’s 45 minutes north of Lucca. The town tumbles down a hillside, a serpentine maze of narrow cobblestone streets, and pastel-colored houses. Barga is the perfect place for aimless wandering, and you’ll have no tour groups to contend with. A highlight is the view from the Romanesque cathedral of the town’s terracotta roofs and the dramatic mountains that surround it.
We were looking for a taste of rural Italy. One that was accessible by train as we didn’t want to rent a car. The small medieval hill town of Spello in Umbria turned out to be perfect. It’s just two hours by train from Rome so it’s easy to slot into a classic itinerary. Surrounded by vineyards and olive groves for hikes and winery visits, the town is a wonderfully atmospheric place to wander around. When we entered Spello’s ancient fortress walls we felt like we were stepping back in time. We walked through medieval gateways and past Roman ruins, then shopped in small delis that have been run by the same family for generations.
- Hiking through olive groves along the Roman Aqueduct,
- Taking the train 10 minutes away to Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis, and
- Trying local wines and olive oils at the wonderful Vino Sofia wine bar.
You’ll find Lecce in Puglia in the far south of Italy, in the heel of the country’s “boot”. People call the city the “Florence of the South”. It’s a city of exuberant baroque architecture in the golden Leccese stone of the area. Its churches are lavishly decorated with delicately carved columns and cornices. Lecce is one of Puglia’s larger cities but it’s a walkable size, and manages to be both lively and relaxed.
There are many churches to visit and bars to people-watch in. We enjoyed taking a cooking class to learn how to make the local cuisine. You can also do trips further afield to beach towns like Otranto. Here the historic center is just feet from the turquoise waters of the Adriatic.
The cave city of Matera is one of the most unique and spectacular places I’ve visited in Italy. The ancient neighborhoods are known as sassi which are a series of grottoes carved out of limestone, teetering on the edge of a ravine. This dramatic tangle of grey stone houses is best explored on foot. It’s a great feeling to get lost in the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, climbing up and down uneven stone staircases, discovering cave churches, and enjoying expansive views of the sassi.
Matera is in a remote corner of southern Italy, in the small region of Basilicata. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site it’s relatively unknown. Although visitor numbers are slowly growing, many of the caves have been transformed into stylish hotels and restaurants.
To reach Matera take the train to Bari in Puglia. Then it’s a 1.5 hour journey to Matera. This route is run by the private company Ferrovie Appulo Lucane, so your Eurail Pass isn’t valid. However, tickets are only 4.80 euros and it’s well worth it. Trains leave from the FAL station next to the main station in Bari.
Trapani is located on the western tip of Sicily. You’ll see the North African influence on menus alongside pasta. The beautiful historic center is full of baroque churches and there’s also a scenic seafront walk along the old city walls. Trapani is also an ideal base for exploring Western Sicily. You can catch the train to the wine town of Marsala or the lively bazaar-like markets in Palermo. Take the ferry to the Egadi islands, or the cable car up to the medieval hill town Erice. You’ll find stunning views of the countryside and sea.
Why not mix some a look at Italy off the beaten track with some of the country’s most famous cities?