Italy's Most Charming Small Towns
Most tourists in Italy flock to the country's major attractions and cities, paying homage to the wonders of Rome, Florence and Venice. They're more than worthy of a visit -- they are, of course, must-see destinations -- but once the major cities have been explored, travelers should take pause, catch their breath and dive into Italy's off-the-beaten-path destinations. Breathtaking natural beauty, as well as centuries of art and architecture, lie tucked in tiny towns dotting mountainsides and valleys throughout the country. Here, we've picked our 5 favorite charming small towns in Italy.
RavennaVisitors to Ravenna will be hard-pressed to decide which of the town's extraordinary sights to explore -- the 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites or the museums? Dante's tomb or the 4th- century churches? Despite the number of attractions, you’ll want to spend your time first and foremost appreciating the mosaics. Ravenna's claim to cultural fame may well lie in the glimmering Christian and Byzantine mosaics found throughout the city, which are considered the finest outside of Istanbul.
To experience some of the oldest and finest examples of Ravenna's mosaics, explore the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, admire the domes of Battistero degli Ortodossi and Battistero degli Ariani, and marvel at the Chapel of Sant'Andrea's mosaics depicting flowers, figures of Christ and at least 99 bird species. To experience as many of Ravenna's mosaics as possible, purchase a combined ticket to the town's sites, admission to 6 monuments. Be sure to pay a visit to Dante's tomb; the Italian literary giant called Ravenna home for 20 years, and wrote his epic, Divine Comedy while here.
UrbinoOne of Italy's most romantic hill towns, Urbino lies tucked in Italy's Le Marche region, an off-the-beaten path nook filled with stunning views of the Apennine Mountains along with rich Renaissance culture. Urbino, the Marche region's capital, might well be the most charming of its towns, though most tourists merely know it as the town ruled by the Duke of Urbino, whose famed profile portrait by Piero della Francesca hangs regally in the Uffizi. In the 15th century, the duke served as a great patron and helped foster one of Italy's most vibrant arts scenes, as well as a still-revered university.
Urbino's Ducal Palace houses one of the nation's most illustrious Renaissance art collections, and the entire town has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spend time mingling with the students who relentlessly converge in the Urbino's Piazza della Repubblica and grab an espresso at Caffè Basili, before exploring the 17th-century Duomo and the Renaissance painter Raphael's house (now a museum). Next, trek to Albornoz Fortress at the top of Urbino to capture photos of the postcard-perfect town sprawling below.
Lecce"The Florence of the South," as it's sometimes called, Lecce steals the hearts of travelers who, upon arriving, find themselves immersed in the town's flowery barocco leccese, an ornate style of architecture. Many of Lecce's buildings and monuments date back to the city's heyday, between the 16th and 18th centuries, and were constructed using this region of southern Italy's soft sandstone, which could be carved into swirling columns and even gremlins. Spend your time meandering through the tiny town's ancient quarter, sipping an aperitivo at a bar overlooking the 12th-century square, followed by window-shopping along the Via Vittorio Emanuele.
Explore the ruins of the town's Roman Amphitheater; built in the 2nd century, it could once accommodate some 25,000 people. Then pop into the church of Santa Chiara to admire its ceiling's papier-mache decorations. You won't suffer a shortage of delicious restaurants in Lecce, but do stop by Casareccia. Located a bit beyond the center of town, the restaurant offers mind-bogglingly tasty, traditional, local cuisine including -- brace yourself -- horse.
RavelloAs you ascend the Amalfi Coast's precipitous cliffs while riding in a bus taking hairpin curves (without braking!), you might find yourself wondering why, exactly, you decided to make the trip up to the tiny town of Ravello. Then, as you arrive in town, breathe in the crisp sea air, and gaze down at the extraordinary coastline twisting below, you will know: Ravello is the Amalfi Coast's hidden gem.
Plan to tour the town's 2 major villas, Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone, if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse at how the international jet set used to live while furiously snapping panoramic views from their many terraces and gardens. It's even possible -- if pricey -- to spend a night in Villa Cimbrone, and dine at its tiny restaurant. While the villas are undoubtedly the major attractions here, follow them with a visit to the Duomo; an 11th-century cathedral noted for its bronze door. Check out the relic here of St. Pantaleon; his blood sits in a vial, which, on the anniversary of his death (July 27), is said to mysteriously liquify.
GubbioPlan ahead and save plenty of suitcase room for souvenirs before you visit Gubbio, the town in Italy's Le Marche region that is widely considered the ceramics capital of Italy: Visitors can scoop up all the hand-painted pitchers, vases and plates that their hearts desire. It's hard to over-romanticize Gubbio; the town stretches up a mountain, with winding medieval streets, arching buttresses overhead supporting centuries-old buildings and flower boxes dangling from most windows and dripping with geraniums (in season, of course).
Take the chairlift to the 16th-century Basilica of St. Ubaldo (named in honor of the town's patron saint), where you can actually see his desiccated body preserved above the altar in a glass casket. Visit the minimalist Piazza Grande, admiring the views of the valley beyond, then head into the Palazzo dei Consoli and museum on the piazza's edge, and take a peek at the 7 bronze Eugubine Tables, a set of tablets inscribed with the most complete version of the Umbrian language. Other notable sites include the Teatro Romano, the remains of a Roman amphitheater, and the 13th-century Sant'Agostino church, which contains the fresco "The Life of St. Augustine."
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