Top Ten Hidden Gems of Italy
|The lavish 17th-century Palazzo Borromeo awaits on the Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore. (Buena Vista Images/Getty)|
Beauty, art, food, wine, ravishing landscapes, and fashion: Italy seems dedicated to enjoying the good life. But why restrict yourself to Rome, Venice, and Florence—magnificent as they are—when so many other fascinating towns beckon? Here's our guide to ten of Italy's must-see gems.
From its lofty perch 1,000 feet above the Amalfi Coast, Ravello's panoramas of sherbet-colored houses teetering on sloping hills, lemon and orange groves, vineyards, and the Bay of Salerno from the Villa Rufolo are nothing less than breathtaking. Richard Wagner was so enchanted by the villa's lush semitropical garden that he chose it as the setting for the magic garden in his opera Parsifal. Fittingly, each summer an open-air platform is built, suspended in mid-air over the sea, for Wagner and classical music concerts during the Ravello Festival. At the Villa Cimbrone—a hotel where Greta Garbo and Leopold Stokowski enjoyed their romance—the view of the bay from the aptly-named Terrace of Infinity, adorned with white marble busts, is so sublime, and so limitless, Gore Vidal called it "the most beautiful view in the world" (his home was directly below). Three luxury hotels converted from palaces in Ravello that also offer jaw-dropping views are Palazzo Sasso, Hotel Caruso and Hotel Palumbo.
9. Lake District
Sapphire blue lakes, aristocratic pastel villas with beautiful gardens, exquisite small towns, and a mild Mediterranean-style climate make lakes Como, Maggiore, and Garda, an hour or so north of Milan in Lombardy, an absolute delight (even more so if you bump into George Clooney, who owns a home here). Poets from Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth to the Roman poet Catullus have rhapsodized about the lake region's beauty. In Bellagio on Lake Como, the lavish gardens of Villa Serbelloni are abloom in spring with azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons, while scenes from Casino Royale starring Daniel Craig as James Bond were filmed at 18th-century Villa Balbianello, where a peninsula juts dramatically into the lake in nearby Lenno. On Lake Maggiore on the Borromean Islands, the lavish 17th-century Palazzo Borromeo features six fantasy-like grotto rooms, a terraced garden called a masterpiece of Italian Baroque design, and peacocks roaming the sculpture-studded grounds. You can reach it by ferry from Stresa. Overlooking Lake Garda, Italy's largest lake, in Sirmione are the ruins of a Roman villa frequented by Catullus, Grotte di Catullo, and a 13th-century crenellated castle.
Puglia is full of discoveries: whitewashed towns with a Greek Cycladic "island look" such as Ostuni and Polignano a Mare; Adriatic and Ionian seacoasts where northern Italians go to the beach; endless vineyards and olive groves that have earned this state in the south a reputation as the new Tuscany; and adorably odd cone-shaped houses called trulli, in and near Alberobello, that look like their inhabitants might be gnomes. For a truly authentic experience, stay in a farmhouse-turned-boutique hotel on a large estate such as Masseria Montelauro or Masseria Marzalossa, explore castles and see Byzantine-style mosaics that reflect the centuries-old influence of nearby Greece and Turkey, and savor a wine, prosciutto, and cheese tasting at a winery like Santi Dimitri in Galatina.
A delightful blend of Austria and Italy in its architecture, food, and language, this beautiful city in the South Tyrol, surrounded by jagged Dolomite mountain peaks and castles from the 10th to 13th centuries, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the end of World War I. Hiking and biking paths and nearby vineyards beckon, and in a fascinating cluster of museums you can discover Europe's oldest mummy, the 5,000-year-old "Iceman," at the Archeology Museum of the Alto Adige, plus Alpine flora and fauna at the Natural Science Museum of the Alto Adige, and man's relationship with mountains in cultures worldwide at the Messner Mountain Museum.
Deep in Umbria region, you'll find Perugia, one of Italy's best-preserved hilltop towns. Tasty Umbrian specialties like wild boar, truffles, and lentils delight the palette, a ten-day summer jazz festival with top bands entertains, and a fabulous art collection in the Palazzo del Priori delivers a big dose of culture. And did we mention the chocolate? The Perugina chocolate factory, the maker of Baci chocolates, offers chocolate-making classes to visitors, and a chocolate show, Eurochocolate, tempts with hundreds of booths and exhibits each October.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication