You’ve hiked the Cinque Terre, gondola’d down Venice’s Grand Canal and got Renaissance art fatigue in Florence’s Uffizi. So what’s next? Italophile Natasha Foges picks six lesser known places that offer all the charm of Italy's big sights.
Of the six Italian Lakes, it’s Garda and Como – renowned for their heart-stopping beauty and sweeping panoramas – that hog the limelight. But between the two, serene Lake Iseo is the region’s best-kept secret. Long, sinuous and hemmed in by mountains, the lake has drama in spades, seen to best effect in autumn, when the wooded hillsides are in glorious colour and the lake is mistily atmospheric.
If you can bear to tear yourself away from the pretty lakeside villages, check out the stone-age rock carvings of the Val Camonica at the head of the lake, or drive through the Franciacorta area at the lake’s southern end, celebrated for its sparkling white wines.
The ruggedly beautiful fishing villages that comprise the fabled Cinque Terre, each a tumble of cheerily painted houses, have long enthralled tourists – and now lure millions of visitors a year. If you’re hankering for salty air, sparkling seas and pastel-hued houses – but without the crowds – plump for Ponza, a pretty island that lies off the coast between Rome and Naples. Popular among weekending Romans in summer (it’s within easy reach of the city), it sees few foreign visitors.
With few sights as such, it's the perfect place for a laid-back holiday. There's little to distract you from the simple pleasures of paddling in limpid waters, sunning yourself on crescent-shaped Chiaia di Luna beach and messing around in boats.
Rural Tuscany’s best bits – scenic landscapes, fantastic food and wine, winsome hill towns – can also be found in next-door Umbria. If you dream of a escaping to a rustic hill-top agriturismo, spending your days contemplating the rolling hills and eating your body-weight in pasta (but not paying an arm and a leg for the privilege), Umbria is for you.
As for where to stay, try Norcia, Spello, Todi, Montefalco, Amelia, Bevagna or Narni: all picture-perfect little towns that never get overwhelmed by tourist hordes, even in the holiday month of August, when Italians head for the sea, leaving this land-locked region blissfully quiet.
Love Venice but not its camera-clicking crowds? For a low-key version of La Serenissima – and with not a tour group in sight – head to the city’s pint-sized neighbour, Treviso, just 40km away. The self-styled “piccola Venezia” is no mini-Venice – it lacks the showpiece sights, and its canals are pretty rather than grand – but it’s a lovely spot for a weekend away, with cobbled streets, frescoed churches and ancient waterways galore.
Crossed here and there with wrought-iron bridges – with picturesque views of still-churning waterwheels – Treviso’s canals thread its walled medieval centre, encircling the town’s rowdy fish market, which sits on its own islet. Take a seat at any of the cafés here and order a glass of local fizz: in the heart of Italy’s prosecco region, it would be rude not to.
There’s a lot to love about the Amalfi Coast, from its craggy mountains plunging sheer into the sea to the drama of its serpentine coast road, winding past verdant hillsides dotted with sun-bleached houses. If you’re looking for a similarly scenic spot that’s cheaper and easier to get to, try Procida, a 40-minute ferry ride from Naples. Outside August, when holidaying Italians descend en masse, this is a sleepy, unpretentious island – a far cry from the glitz of the Amalfi Coast.
The director of the film The Talented Mr Ripley, Anthony Minghella, scoured Italy for a suitably lost-in-time location to act as the fictitious Mongibello and found it here – specifically in Procida’s most picturesque corner, the Marina di Corricella, whose old-school trattorias share harbour space with fishermen mending their nets. If you tire of watching the comings and goings in the harbour, you can while away your days basking on beaches, admiring the dazzling seascapes and wandering narrow streets heady with the scent of lemons.
A ravishing hill-town to rival any in Tuscany, Urbino also has a remarkable hoard of first-class art – if Florence’s Renaissance treasures have left you wanting more, you’re in for a treat. Though well off the tourist trail in the region of Le Marche, on the other side of the Apennines from Florence, Urbino wasn’t always a backwater: under the patronage of Renaissance poster boy Duke Federico da Montefeltro in the fifteenth century, the town flourished into a cultural capital.
The duke’s sprawling palace, worked on by some of the greatest architects and architects of the age, now holds one of Italy’s best galleries, the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, with a fantastic collection of works by Piero della Francesca, Titian, Uccello and local-born Raphael, among others.
Top image: Iseo Lake, Italy © Andrew Mayovskyy/Shutterstock