Why visitors to Italy are ditching hotels – and where they’re staying instead

Traditional hotels are falling out of favour in Italy as the rise of sustainable, experiential travel takes more people off the beaten path, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why visitors to Italy are ditching hotels - and where they’re staying instead
The breakfast terrace at the Sotto Le Stelle 'albergo diffuso' south of Rome. Photo by Silvia Marchetti/The Local

The pandemic has changed the way we travel, and the type of accommodation we want. Tourists flocking to Italy for the summer holidays are now looking at alternative places to stay, according to recent surveys, that transcend the concept of traditional hotel and allow them to fully savour the local vibe and lifestyle.

The change in preferences is also linked to greater environmental awareness. People are picking more sustainable, small-scale, low-impact and energy-saving accommodation options, as suggested by the recent ‘Future Travel Behaviours’ survey by the EY observatory: the study found 74 percent of travellers are planning eco-conscious holidays in ‘green’, Covid-safe resorts.

OPINION: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

Among these options are Italy’s so-called alberghi diffusi (scattered or ‘diffuse’ hotels) which I believe are the safest in guaranteeing pandemic social distancing and fewer crowds – still top concerns for many travellers.

This type of accommodation is not concentrated in one single building but scattered across a whole medieval village, often remote, sleepy and depopulating. The rooms are in former barns, stables, farmer or shepherds’ homes, elegantly renovated with their authenticity preserved. The reception is often in an old pigsty or little chapel at the entrance to the village. 

Here, you’ll avoid the risk of bumping into other guests and get to meet locals and savor the small-scale village buzz. The only drawbacks are that you’ll be walking a lot from one cottage to another for your spa or evening drinks, while to get to the breakfast room in the morning, prepare to walk around in your pyjamas and flip flops!

That’s what I did when I visited Borgo di Sempronio, an albergo diffuso in the secluded Tuscan village of Semproniano in the Maremma area, where wild boars crossing streets are a common sight. A maze of winding steps connect the reddish stone dwellings, which feature ceiling-high chimneys and modern facilities. 

The Borgo di Sempronio ‘albergo diffuso’ in Tuscany. Photo by Silvia Marchetti/The Local

At breakfast, owner Fulvio treated me to fresh, still-warm ricotta cheese straight from the shepherd and tasty seasoned hams. We dined at the main village restaurant, eating fettuccelle in a wild boar sauce, because the philosophy of the albergo diffuso is to experience the places where locals hang out. They offer the opportunity to live the village life and discover hidden spots, admiring the views each time you leave your doorstep. They’re a real throwback to the old rural days.

READ ALSO: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

Tour operators I spoke to say current bookings at these ‘scattered resorts’ are 40 percent higher than in pre-pandemic times. The main reason alberghi diffusi are taking off as an ‘alternative’ form of accommodation is that they offer greater flexibility and freedom in holiday schedules, allowing to also keep working remotely. 

Following the pandemic, many travellers still don’t want to go back to small confined spaces like hotel rooms with elevators; they long for outdoor space in a place that feels like home. 

Cottages in the Sotto Le Stelle albergo diffuso in Picinisco, a village in the wild Ciociaria region south of Rome, come with private kitchens, dining and living rooms and terraces. When I visited, old village ladies knocked at my door in the morning bringing breakfast: home made jams and acacia honey on thin slices of pecorino sheeps’ cheese.

The reception at Borgo di Sempronio in Tuscany. Photo by Silvia Marchetti/The Local

As traditional hotels become less popular, other types of accommodation people are  increasingly opting for include so-called agriturismi: rural farm-resorts with animals, orchards, traditional taverns and a few rooms rented on a bed-and-breakfast basis, which were once food stores and barns. 

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

Usually family-run, they’re located in quiet areas outside of towns and villages. At agriturismi guests enjoy being surrounded by nature and eating locally prepared foods, or relaxing by the pool and doing outdoor activities like horse riding.

Staying at an ‘agriturismo’ in Ciociaria. Photo by Silvia Marchetti/The Local

There are even more quirky options: you can book stays in medieval towers, old pirate lookout fortresses that come with a private dinghy, restored lighthouses, and sea-view bunkers with panoramic patios. All these offer a knowledge jolt, allowing guests to fully experience and learn about Italy’s architectural past. 

And then there are caves turned into apartments, like on the islands of Ponza and Palmarola off Rome’s coast, where prehistoric people once lived. These whitewashed grottos feature layered stone terraces overlooking the sea. And the cave rooms are naturally cool during hot summer days, which cuts down on electricity costs.

I believe the quest for such alternative stays proves how the pandemic has boosted the desire to experiment with trips which were not the first option before, as people now long for greater exclusivity and privacy and more opportunities to interact with their surroundings.

Member comments

  1. alberghi diffusi sound charming. Can you suggest ways to find these? I google the term, but don’t come up with much information.

  2. From other articles I’ve read about alberghi diffusi, they are pretty expensive, so not an option for many people.

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TRAVEL: Why Venice is named among Europe’s cheapest city break destinations

The Italian city of Venice has been named the third-cheapest place for a city break in Europe - a survey result that might surprise some visitors. Here’s why it may not be as costly as you'd think.

TRAVEL: Why Venice is named among Europe’s cheapest city break destinations

A new survey of 100 different cities in Europe by the Omio transport booking website has revealed that Venice is the third-cheapest destination for a city escape, in terms of being the most affordable and having the highest number of free activities and attractions.

The ranking will no doubt come as a surprise to many, due to the city’s reputation as an expensive destination geared towards luxury travel – and the fact that Venetian residents have been leaving the city’s historic centre in droves partly due to high housing costs.

The objective of the study was to identify the best tourist destinations to visit on a reduced budget, due to the current economic climate of inflation and rising prices affecting almost all daily costs.

It also aimed to show tourists that they can save a lot of money if they organise their travel by taking advantage of free offers and opportunities, as well as thinking carefully about where they go.

“Believe it or not, it is possible to have a cheap holiday in Venice,” the study’s authors wrote, advising travellers to “follow a few simple tricks to turn some of Venice’s most expensive places into low-budget havens”. 

READ ALSO: How much does it really cost to live in Venice?

Venice was found to have a total of 136 free tourist attractions, 22 free museums, and 58 guided tours rated as “affordable”. The study also highlighted the city’s 186 public drinking fountains, which local authorities this summer urged visitors to use in order to cut down on bottled water purchases. 

The study however did not include the cost of accommodation, and it put the cost of a 24-hour public transport ticket in Venice at €21.88: several times higher than the prices listed for other cities at the top of the ranking.

Venice is promoting the use of its network of water fountains amid efforts to combat plastic waste. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

The average price of a beer in the floating city also seemed comparatively high at €4.38, though this was below the European average price of €4.91.

Travellers can expect a meal for two in an average restaurant to set them back around €61 – that is, as long as they don’t wander into any of the tourist traps notorious for rip-off prices.

READ ALSO: Nine ways to get into trouble while visiting Venice

Overall Venice got a score of 82.3 percent to take third place, whilst Bruges in Belgium came in second with 93.6 percent and Granada was first with 100 percent.

Further surprises came in the ranking for other Italian cities: Florence was rated the 10th cheapest European city break destination, with 113 free attractions, 17 museums with free entrance, and a 24-hour public transport ticket costing 4 euros.

Meanwhile Naples – where the cost of living is comparatively low – was rated as being slightly more expensive to visit, in 12th place. Tuscan tourist hotspot Pisa came in 13th place, while the northern city of Turin was 23rd.

Milan was 30th on the list, which the study said has 372 free tourist attractions, but higher costs for food and drink

Rome came in 37th place – despite the survey saying the capital has a huge 553 free attractions, 34 free museums, and ten times more public drinking fountains than Venice (1,867).