Southern Italy: 5 overlooked cities to add to your Italian itinerary
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Most travelers to Italy opt for the same: Venice, Florence, Rome and Amalfi Coast. However, the Italian South offers a completely different feel than the typical popular tourist destinations.
Next time you make your way over to Italia, try venturing out from the usuals and add one of these overlooked southern cities to your Italian itinerary.
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Why visit: Alberobello is a unique town that can easily be squeezed into a day trip. The iconic trulli, or infamous white houses with cone-shaped gray roofs, have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Trullo is made of white stone and limestone boulders. Though there are several theories on why this town consists solely of them, a popular explanation is that Southern Italy was more stricken with poverty than its northern counterparts. The people of Alberobello thought that the stone would be easier to destroy when tax inspectors were in the area.
Each trullo is marked with different symbols – hearts, moons, arrows, etc. It’s said that the symbols were painted on the roofs to ward off demons and bring good luck. Aside from its interesting and slightly quirky history, the town’s picturesque white houses make for a fabulous sight, both for photos and for the memory.
What to eat: Orecchiette con cime di la rapa (or orecchiette with broccoli rabe) is on nearly every menu in Alberobello because it’s the traditional pasta dish in the Puglia region. Caciocavallo cheese, similar in taste to Provolone, is another must-try in Alberobello. Paired it with a glass of locally-sourced vino di Locorotondo.
Where to stay: Did you even really travel to Alberobello if you didn’t stay in a trullo? Search on booking.com or AirBnb for any accommodation in Alberobello, and plenty of options will pop up. Keep in mind, Alberobello can be done in a day trip from a nearby neighboring town, so finding a place to stay might not be necessary.
How to get there: Alberobello is conveniently situated about 45 minutes from Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport (BRI). Buses from there to Alberobello are around 9 euros ($9.48). Hiring a private driver or even renting a car is also an option.
Polignano a Mare
Why visit: This coastal town is easily one of the most picturesque in Italy. If you’ve ever been to Italy, you’ll know that’s saying quite a bit considering nearly every corner of the country is a feast for the eyes. Polignano a Mare is a common spot for Italian locals to go on holiday.
It’s a relaxing oasis if that’s what you’re in search of. Polignano a Mare also doubles as an adventurer’s haven. Red Bull hosts a cliff-diving competition once a year, where competitors dive anywhere from 20 to 27 meters high. Whether you’re there for relaxation or testing your daredevil abilities, an essential activity in Polignano a Mare is taking a boat ride to explore some of the caves.
What to eat: Octopus, or polpo, is on most menus in Polignano a Mare. However, studies have recently shown that octopuses are sentient beings, with the most recent news being that the U.K. government recognizes that octopus, lobsters, crabs and other decapods and cephalopods can feel pain. If you choose to indulge in octopus, you might as well go for the infamous polpo sandwich at Pescaria. It’s lightly fried octopus with ricotta, turnips and vino cotto sandwiched between two pieces of fluffy bread.
Where to stay: Feeling ritzy? Head on over to San Michele Suites. In your accommodation search, you might find that many hotel names begin with the word “dimora.” In Italian, it literally translates to “mansion,” but more so means “dwelling.” In other words, don’t expect the American idea of a mansion. In Polignano a Mare, dimoras are apartments and small bed and breakfasts for overnight stays.
How to get there: Polignano a Mare is about 20 miles south of Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport, the closest international airport. Though a bit of a long trek, there’s a bus option on FlixBus from Rome. The journey is six hours but offers some picturesque views along the way if you have the time and patience to spare.
Why visit: There are no real words to describe the majesty of Matera. Even locals can’t seem to wrap their heads around its beauty. It seems otherworldly. Sassi di Matera is the area of Matera in which there are cave dwellings where residents still live today. Matera is the third-oldest inhabited city in the world, after Aleppo and Jericho.
Matera was once considered the shame of Italy because it was notoriously poor. Families of 10 or more would live crammed in small conditions in these caves. Residents were riddled with diseases such as cholera, typhoid and malaria, surviving in conditions with no natural light, no running water and living in cramped spaces next to their pigs and mules.
In 1952 all of the caves were evacuated due to the unlivable conditions. In the mid-80s, the caves were renovated and residents moved back in. Since then, a tourist boom sparked – now 25% of the caves are available on Airbnb. Aside from its rich history, this UNESCO World Heritage city is full of museums and has great hiking options.
What to eat: The cuisine of Matera has a direct relation to its impoverished past. Polpette di pane translates to “bread balls,” and is essentially a meatball without the meat. It’s typically served over red sauce with freshly grated cheese. Trattoria Lucana is arguably the most famous restaurant in Matera. Focaccia bread is often served for breakfast. Peperone crusco is dried sweet peppers crushed over dishes to add more flavor.
Where to stay: The obvious choice is to stay in one of the many caves of Matera. L’hotel in Pietra is a boutique cave hotel close to the city center.
How to get there: Matera is a little tricky to get to. Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport is the nearest airport (a little over an hour away). There are direct trains from Salerno, but Salerno isn’t close to Bari. The best way to get to Matera is by either hiring a driver or renting a car.
Why visit: When people think of Italy, the images of Tropea might be the last that come to mind. Italy has some of the best beaches in Europe, and yet, they are often overlooked for places llike Nice or Ibiza. If you’re looking for a white rocky beach, crystal clear blue waters and intense cliffs with a rigid coast, then look no further than Tropea. It’s a perfect place to put the itinerary away, kick back, sip on some prosecco and relax.
What to eat: The most famous food in Tropea is Cipolle di Tropea, or the red onions of Tropea. It may seem odd that a town is known for its red onions, but in Tropea, there’s no shortage of them hanging on shop windows and lining the streets. The locals claim you can eat them like an apple because they’re extra sweet. Being a seaside beach town, seafood is also popular here. Filetto di tonno con cipolla rossa, or tuna with red onions, is a typical dish at most restaurants. Nduja, a spicy spreadable salami, is commonly found in the Calabrian region, and many shops sell small jars of it that are airport-friendly to take home.
Where to stay: Hotels in Tropea are typically much cheaper than those in the more popular Italian cities. Try Hotel Virgillo, closely situated to the water, with a balcony in most rooms to enjoy sunrises and sunsets over the sea. A fabulous breakfast of endless espresso, fresh fruits, bread, meats and cheeses, is included with most stays.
How to get there: The nearest airport is Lamezia Terme International Airport (SUF), about an hour’s drive. Trenitalia has connecting routes to Tropea from Lamezia and Rosarno stations.
Why visit: If Rome is classical music and Florence is jazz, Catania is pure rock-and-roll. This nitty-gritty, lively city is, plain and simple, a good time. The city has no shortage of beautiful architecture. There’s also a plethora of bustling markets, most infamously, the Catania fish market, or pescheria.
Vendors line the streets selling handmade espresso cups, plates, mugs, wine glasses and more. Maybe most importantly, Catania won’t make as big a dent in your wallet as cities on the mainland. Sicily is overall more affordable. Catania is a city in which no itinerary is needed. Simply get lost in the colorful streets and see where it takes you.
The best day trip options are a hike on Mount Etna, Italy’s highest peak, and Taormina for surfing, diving, swimming, or all of the above.
What to eat: Italians take a lot of pride in their cuisine. Ask anyone anywhere in Italy where the best food is, and most will say Sicily. Arancini is a popular street food believed to have originated in Sicily. Cannolis are a staple of Sicilian cuisine.
Pistachios will be served as a snack with most glasses of wine or espresso. Spaghetti ai ricci (with sea urchin), is a common dish that can best be enjoyed in Taormina. Pasta con le sardine is also popular in Sicily, as well as pasta alla norma, which is said to have originated in Catania.
Carne di cavallo, or horse meat, is considered a local delicacy in Sicily. Near Mount Etna, there are many shops selling locally made honey, some with orange or almond flavoring. They make great gifts to bring home for either yourself or your loved ones.
Where to stay: One of the best ways to enjoy a proper Italian holiday is by staying with a local family. Many accommodations in Catania are bed and breakfasts, where a couple and/or family stay with you. This is a great way to gain knowledge on how everyday life is for locals and an even better way to enjoy homemade meals.
How to get there: Catania International Airport (CTA) is quite nice. If you’re already in Italy and don’t want to fly, take the train from the mainland. Most major cities have connecting trains to Catania, but beware that it’s far, so you’re likely to be enduring at least an 8+ hour train ride. Once you arrive at the toe of the boot, the train will be loaded onto a cargo ship, and you will literally be shipped to Sicily. It’s quite the experience to sit on a train and have it rocking as you sail across the way.
Featured photo by Kaitlyn Rosati for The Points Guy.
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