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Beat the crowds at these 3 'secret' Italian spots

Sept. 26, 2020
8 min read
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When people go to Italy, they tend to think of the major players such as Rome, Capri, Milan, Florence and the Cinque Terre. And while those destinations are beautiful and unique in their own way, they are hardly the only beautiful parts of Italy. There are plenty of lesser-known spots that make for fabulous vacations including the Piedmont region, the Aeolian Islands and the city of Bergamo.

Here are three of my favorite places you should definitely seek out: Matera, Soave and Cinque Valli.

Italy's Aeolian Islands are beautiful. (Photo by Gabriele Scotto di Fasano/Getty Images)

The word "authentic" may be a cliché, but I can't think of a more apt description for my favorite Italian towns. In southern Italy, the laid-back culture influences daily life. For example, I still remember the lemon gelato I enjoyed every evening in Matera while perched on the edge of a fountain enjoying the show. Even in the industrial north's small towns, life can be very relaxed. Recently I stood on the main street corner in Soave at 2 p.m. and timed it -- there were six minutes between the only two cars that went by.

I will warn you in advance these three Italian places -- Matera, Soave or Cinque Valli -- are not particularly hotel-points friendly. But the extra work of booking stays outside of the normal hotel chains is so worth it. Prices, especially at restaurants, in all three are a fraction of what you'll pay in the big cities.

Read more: 6 reasons to visit Italy’s Aeolian Islands

Matera, Italy. (Photo by Luca Micheli via Unsplash)

Matera

To locate Matera, picture the “boot” part of Italy, south of Rome. From Naples, you can draw a somewhat straight line to Bari. Matera is roughly in between those lines.

The Sassi are Matera's claim to fame. The Sassi, or caves, of Matera, were lived in from the Paleolithic era after World War II. The extreme poverty of the Basilicata region meant that poorer residents simply couldn’t afford houses and made do with the caves. Finally, in the 1950s progress came to Matera and the government relocated most of the population of the Sassi to more modern areas. However, UNESCO ensured the Sassi remained intact. From afar, the town looks like Tatooine from “Star Wars". Up close it rendered me speechless.

Even the “new” (17th to 18th century) Matera is worth seeing. The piazzas are walkable, the cathedrals are gorgeous and more culture drips from a random Matera street than off many "A-list cities" I’ve visited.

You can even stay in a high-end luxury cave, the Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa, for about $199 per night.

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(Photo by Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Getty Images)

Getting there: Matera is not the easiest to get to as you have to either take a train, flight or bus to Bari and then transfer to Matera or find one of the few direct bus lines from Rome or Naples. Rome2Rio might help. I came from Rome and departed to Naples, and it was five hours from Rome and four hours back to Naples.

Soave

I believe that any town that has its own wine cannot be bad by definition. Soave certainly lived up to the bill, both with its crisp white namesake and the travel experience. Soave is pretty close to being a fictional Italian town -- it was just that perfect.

Castle on the hill? Check. 360-degree vineyard views? Check. Local restaurants where the waiters know you by name by day two? Check. Pasta with truffles for $10? Check. Not only is Soave brilliant on its own, but it's also a terrific base for exploring Verona, Lake Garda and the surrounding areas. I spent a week there and didn't scratch the surface of Soave's charms.

Read more: 7 underrated regions in Italy with the best food and wine

View of Soave, Italy. (Photo by Isaac74/Getty Images)

In searching for hotels in Soave, there aren't loads available but the ones that exist are usually under about $115 per night.

Getting there: Verona and Venice are the closest major cities. From Verona, it's about an hour's drive or two hours on the train. From Venice, it's about two hours drive or about four hours on public transport.

Cinque Valli

Just to the west of Tuscany and the more famous Cinque Terre is Liguria -- a region just as beautiful but with half the crowds and cost. The Cinque Valli region, within Liguria, is off the radar for many people -- and that’s a good thing.

I would base in Dolceacqua, which is about an hour from Monte Carlo, and smack dab in the middle of the area you'll want to see. It’s a bit more touristy, but for good reason. My first thought upon seeing it was “this looks like it's out of an impressionist painting".

Dolceacqua. (Photo by Dufrenoy/Getty Images)

Well, it is. Monet spent a fair amount of time in Dolceacqua and a number of his works are based on the area. The lanes lining the bridge pictured on one side feature cafes perfect for people-watching and on the other side, a farmer's market. I enjoyed picking up fresh pasta and tomatoes from the market and tossing them up with olive oil from a local grove. Paired with wine from the vineyard next door, I was in heaven and it cost me almost nothing.

Pigna, just north of Dolceacqua, is a must-see. But at first, it’s jarring, to be honest. A little disorienting. No, scratch that -- totally disorienting. The entire town looks like a stage set. Because nobody actually lives in a medieval town, right? Wrong.

A few intrepid tourists have found the place, but it’s otherwise untouched from its founding 1,000 years ago. The 900 residents go about their business of, well, living -- but not of driving: once you arrive into Pigna, you have to park your car as the entire town is only accessible on foot.

Read more: 5 reasons to visit Naples, Italy

Pigna. (Photo by Tinieder/Getty Images)

Pigna is Italian for “pine cone". Think of the streets as layers of a pine cone -- each is only accessible by stairs from the next. It’s a recipe for getting lost, which I did numerous times. Pigna is not for anyone with mobility issues -- and this includes needing to use a stroller. If you can’t use a baby carrier, or your tyke isn’t ready for the hike, wait a year or two.

A lot of Italy is very close to a coastline, and Cinque Valli is no exception. I especially enjoyed strolling along the boardwalk in the city of Sanremo, gelato in hand, of course. Even at the height of August, I didn’t feel rushed or crushed and the environment was much more family-friendly than the neighboring French Riviera.

Getting there: The easiest gateway to Cinque Valli is Nice. From there it's easy to rent a car for the drive to Cinque Valli.

Bottom line

It’s going to take a specific kind of traveler to seek out Matera, Soave or Cinque Valli. However, if you’re tired of the well-trodden trails and looking to add authenticity to your travels I hope this has inspired you to get out of your comfort zone.

Additional reporting by Hayley Coyle

Featured image by Getty Images

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1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
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    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Good, Excellent

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.