By Dana Perkiss
Italy is one of the most wondrous countries in the world, offering countless cities filled with ancient history, magical landscapes, and delicious cuisine. It’s easy to choose a popular city like Rome or Florence, but the lesser-visited cities in Italy offer more local, authentic experiences — as such, they shouldn’t be overlooked.
Whether you want to plan a trip to these alternative cities or take an excursion while visiting another, here are five small towns in Italy you should visit.
A small village found in southern Tuscany by the gorgeous Val D'Orcia, Pienza is an Italian gem known as the “ideal city of the Renaissance”. Pope Pius II designed Pienza in his humanist views, and one can feel his idealism when visiting the charming little town. Pienza is perched on rolling hills offering stunning views of cypress trees, vineyards, and Renaissance buildings, creating the idyllic brilliance of Tuscany that one might imagine.
The Duomo, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the historical center of the city offering towering views of the entire landscape. You can visit their popular palace Palazzo Piccolomini then stroll through the main street, Corso Rossellino, which will inevitably lead you to a Tuscan favorite: Pecorino. Sheep’s milk is beloved there, so you won’t want to miss visiting a cheese shop — or multiple. Might as well eat up while you’re there, right? You’ll also love walking along the romantically named streets, like Via del Bacio (Kiss Street) and Via dell’Amore (Love Street). Whether with a partner or exploring the city by yourself, you can’t help but feel the charming, lovable energy of Italy’s most ideal city.
San Felice Circeo, Lazio
This picturesque town and commune is in the Lazio region of Italy, Latina to be more precise. Instead of choosing between Rome and Naples, pick this smaller ancient city that’s literally in between. It is a part of the Circeo National Park so there is no shortage of outdoor activities with the many beaches and valleys. San Felice Circeo is one of the most ancient villages, offering tons of historical activities for your wonder. Visit Grotta Guattari to view the site of where nine Neanderthal bodies were discovered, or the coastal tower Torre Paolo where 30 caves filled with evidence of prehistoric humans can be found.
Being so ancient, it’s no surprise San Felice Circeo has famous mythology behind the area. Son of Aphrodite and famed as a Trojan hero, Aeneas is believed to have come here after the battle of Troy. In the Odyssey, this is where the goddess Circe tries to prevent Odysseus from going home by imprisoning him in the Maga Circe Cave, where you can now see the goddess’ figure sculpted on the hill above. There are many boat and bus tours in San Felice Circeo that will take you to surrounding areas, including the islands of Zannone and Ponza.
Modena is a city in Italy’s northern Emilia-Romagna region, and is basically every car lover’s dream; Enzo Ferrari calls Modena home, and you can visit the house he grew up in at Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari. You can find the Enzo Ferrari Museum in the city center Piazza Grande, or drive 20 minutes to the Lamborghini Museum. Car fanatics will be thrilled from visiting these museums, but there’s something for everyone in Modena — it’s also home of the legendary opera tenor, Licano Pavarotti, so opera lovers can visit the Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti.
As if the city couldn’t get more tempting, Modena is also home to some of the best restaurants in Europe. 3-star Michelin winning restaurant Osteria Francescana is found here, ranking as No. 2 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The area is also known for its fresh cheeses and decadent balsamic vinegar which can’t be tasted anywhere else in the world. The Emilia-Romagna region is known to have the best cuisine in Italy, so there’s no better place to visit for food lovers.
Instead of visiting the bustling center of Sicily, head to the Ionian coast for the city of Syracuse. The city offers dramatic views of mountains and beaches, and inside there are narrow streets and abandoned buildings emitting a medieval atmosphere. The ancient city dates back to 734 BC, so you can firsthand experience ruins from over 2,000 years ago. One of the best attractions to visit is the Ear of Dionysius, a large ear-shaped cave that legend says is where Dionysius held prisoners. You can also visit the expansive Greek Theater where actors used to perform and gladiators were made to fight.
Just like anywhere else in Italy, there’s no shortage of amazing food in Syracuse. For a classic Sicilian fish market experience, head to the famous Ortigia Street Market. Locals love this market for their array of spices, fresh seafood, espresso, and sweet chocolates.
This beautiful city in Italy’s Veneto region is just an hour away from Venice, and is definitely worth a few days' excursion. Padua is a cute university town that’s known for its fun nightlife, beautiful scenery, and low tourism. The University of Padua was established in 1222 and the campus is beautiful to walk around, or you can follow the students to visit Padua’s old town with its cobbled streets aligned with ancient statues and old markets.
Padua is also home to historical art from the 14th century; visit the Scrovegni Chapel to see magnificently painted frescoes of St. Mary and Christ painted by Giotto around 1305. To enjoy Padua’s beautiful scenery, be sure to check out the oldest surviving botanical garden in history, Orto Botanico di Padova, which boasts over six thousand types of plants. You’ll also want to enjoy a walk through the huge grassless-lawn square of Prato della Valle with its green island and surrounding statues.