From Bologna to Bari: 5 of Italy’s best hidden gem cities

Aug 21, 2019

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We will be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year.

Someone once said that taking a holiday anywhere else but Italy kind of feels like a mistake. After all, who could tire of the charms of Tuscany, the beauty of the Amalfi Coast or the verve of Milan? And then there’s Rome, Venice and Florence — as well as, for many months of the year in Normal Times, the crowds of tourists who also succumb to the Italian spell.

While the Italian Big Three will never lose their overall appeal, their stars shine so bright they tend to obscure other great spots on the Italian travel stage. Italy’s landscapes seldom disappoint, but in terms of cities, the hidden gems that you don’t want to miss include Bologna, Bari, Lecce, Catania and Trieste.

Sign up for the free daily TPG newsletter for more travel tips!


Unsung Bologna, capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, has many of the charms of nearby Florence minus all the tourists. But there are lots of Italian students: the world’s oldest university, dating back to 1088, is still going strong here. The historic city combines the elegant assurance of Milan with some of the more brooding and mysterious qualities of Venice. There are nearly 50 miles of porticos, so even when it’s raining out, you’re basically covered by all those lovely colonnaded arcades. Culturally, there’s a lot to take in, like the Museo di Palazzo Poggi (art and science museum), an evocative Jewish Museum and the Civic Archaeological Museum. But Bologna is very much a modern city. The locals move fast like the Milanese, slowing down perhaps to enjoy the rich food for which the city is justly renowned.

The town center is a 350-acre repository of Renaissance and Baroque architecture, the medieval inventory includes the Towers of Bologna. Climbing up the 334 feet of the Torre degli Asinelli is a good way to work off plates of egg pasta tagliatelle and Bolognese meat ragu.

Read more: 11 of the coolest airport hotels in Europe

Street scene in Bologna. (Photo by Anthony Grant/The Points Guy)


Bari is an interesting animal as Italian coastal cities go. The capital of the sunny Puglia region has bragging rights on Italy’s longest seaside promenade. The winding lanes of Barivecchia, the walled old town, ooze authentic southern Italian charm and character. Wandering about means stumbling upon some of Bari’s foodie sights, such as making the city’s signature orecchiette ear-shaped pasta. Foccacerias abound, turning out delectable thin-crusted pizzas — for a more modern cafe and pub scene the area between the old walls and restored Teatro Margherita, built on piles in the sea, is the place to be.

While there’s no well-trammelled laundry list of sights to check off in Bari, there is a pretty cool Norman-Swabian castle on the perimeter of the old city and the cathedral is a gem of the Apulian Romanesque. The patron saint of Bari is St Nicolas — a basilica in his name has been standing since 1087, and you’ll see stone carvings made in the saint’s honor in many building facades in Barivecchia.

Read more: These Italian villages will pay you to live there — here’s the catch

Locals make orecchiette past in old Bari. (Photo by Anthony Grant/The Points Guy)

Bari, along with smaller Brindisi, can be considered the gateways to Puglia, and each has a decent international airport. Especially in the summer season, there’s often no need to transit through Rome or Milan to get there and start exploring.


Sometimes called the Florence of the South, Lecce is a genuine jewel of a city on the heel of Italy’s boot. While its artistic treasures can’t equal those of its Tuscan sister, Lecce is definitely sunnier and has no shortage of gorgeous Baroque architecture. Naturally, there are ancient Roman ruins too. The cultural links to ancient Greece in this part of Italy are strong and you’ll see them in force at the Museo Sigismondo Castromediano, which boasts a knockout collection of ancient Greek vases.

Roman amphitheater of Lecce. (Photo by Allen Lechtman/The Points Guy)

The entire Salento peninsula (the southernmost part of Puglia) is a beauty to explore, from Gallipoli on the west side to Otranto in the east and many scenic coves in between, but Lecce is the provincial capital.


When we’re talking about the cities of Sicily, passionate Palermo tends to steal the thunder but Catania is an underdog to be reckoned with. It’s a historic and bustling place with an intense Baroque aesthetic and vibrant outdoor markets under the gaze of unpredictable Mount Etna, the biggest active volcano in Europe. The earth’s crust gets pretty impatient in these parts, and in fact, Catania has been twice destroyed by earthquakes. The city today is a jumble of ancient ruins, Baroque buildings in varying states of preservation or decay and also more modern buildings. There’s a second-century AD Greco-Roman theater, an ancient Roman forum and numerous early Christian basilicas, too. The signature sight, oddly enough, is a fountain whose centerpiece is a small elephant made of black lava with an Egyptian obelisk jutting up from his back.

Another attraction of Catania is simply its great location, being about equidistant from the resort town of Taormina to the north and Siracusa (Syracuse), with its fabulous ancient ruins, on the coast to the south. Palermo is the largest Sicilian city, but Catania-Fontanarossa Airport is Sicily’s busiest airport.


In her book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, the great writer Jan Morris wrote that Trieste is “so lacking the customary characteristics of Italy that in 1999 some 70% of Italians, so a poll claimed to discover, did not know it was in Italy at all.”

If many people still don’t realize that Trieste is in Italy, that’s probably because for several centuries until 1918, when it was annexed by the Italians, this unusual city on the Adriatic was actually the main seaport of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, Trieste is the capital of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, which borders Slovenia with Croatia just 19 miles south.

The home of Illy coffee was once a great Mediterranean port and the fact that it now kind of still is but also kind of isn’t lends it the special ambience that held Morris in its thrall. The grandeur hasn’t faded from the vast central Piazza Unita d’Italia (which Slovenians still call Great Square) and a prominent statue of Sissy, Empress Elizabeth of Austria is a reminder that Trieste owes much of its current gracious aspect to the glories of a now-vanished empire. The broad Trieste seafront is a good place to contemplate all this — and maybe a side trip to Venice, just under two hours away by train.


Italy’s lesser-known cities may not be huge or very obviously Instagrammable and may not host prestigious international film festivals either, but so what? There’s a lot of history and texture to explore and authenticity to savor. Frankly, to pass over some places in the Bel Paese — or “beautiful country” — that are off the tourist track is bit of a travel sin. While the heavyweights like Florence and Rome will always be alluring, there is something equally seductive about cities like Bologna whose storied pasts make for compelling city breaks today.

Featured photo by Lysvik Photos/Getty Images.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.