There are many underrated places in Italy far from the madding crowd that should be more valued and discovered, but which are neglected by traditional tourist routes, and in some cases, which suffer from prejudice and a superficial negative reputation.
This town near Naples is notorious as an area which suffers from the presence of organised criminal gangs but it should be famous for so much more: it makes the best buffalo milk mozzarella in Italy (the real, original one) and has a lovely ancient district called Caserta Vecchia, which lies higher up the hills.
The town most famously boasts the Reggia, a lavish royal palace with gardens and fountains that outshines the Palace of Versailles. It’s really worth exiting the A1 highroad just to visit the Reggia.
Everyone knows Sicily’s Lampedusa island is the ‘door to Europe’ for many migrant arrivals, and often a place of sea tragedies. Despite the gloom, it has one of the world’s top rated beaches in front of the Isola dei Conigli’ (Rabbit Island) with turquoise clear waters and powder-white sand where loggerhead turtles lay their eggs. Locals sunbathe on the rocky platforms cut into the surrounding white limestone cliffs. I’ve been to the Maldives and Indonesia but I’ve never seen a more beautiful beach anywhere.
At the tip of the boot, the regional capital of Calabria doesn’t usually top travelers’ bucket lists – but it should. It has a lovely palm-lined seafront promenade and its main museum showcases the Riace Bronzes, the ancient Greek sculptures of two perfect men warriors, found at the bottom of the sea and listed as UNESCO world heritage attractions. I stood for hours admiring their stunning sculpted bodies, wondering if ancient men were really so hot.
The town of Termoli on the Adriatic coast is another hidden, unknown gem. Popular just as the departure port to the Tremiti islands it has a gorgeous ancient walled centro storico with pastel-colored houses and some of Italy’s narrowest alleys, with views of the traditional trabocchi, old fishermen’s wooden huts suspended above the water. Plus, it makes a superbly tasty huge brodetto fish soup.
In deep Sardinia far from the loud VIP beaches is Orgosolo, the center of the wild Barbagia, a once bandit-sacked area. The town is covered in wall paintings depicting rural life and trompe-l’oeils of grannies sitting at doorsteps and running horses.
In western Sicily was another unexpected pleasant surprise. I went there to embark to the Egadi islands but on my way back home I decided to visit this old seaside town dotted with dozens of white-washed chapels belonging to artisan brotherhoods. I explored a very vibrant fish market and discovered extraordinary salt pans dating back to Phoenician times, with windmills and pyramids of salt. When the sun sets the salines, surrounded by the exotic vegetation of a natural reserve, turn purple and blue.
On the other side of Sicily is an industrial town where tourists go just to set sail for the Aeolian islands, which is a pity. They miss its unique historic center. The upper part of the town boasts a medieval castle-fortress with an armory museum while from the abandoned lighthouse there are breathtaking views of the entire coast, dotted with tiny rock chapels and crypts cut inside the cliffs open to the public. I never thought such a low-profile place could have so many interesting spots.
South of Rome lies this city which was founded during fascism and has been completely preserved. Its residents are often seen as fascist nostalgics, however, for history lovers it’s like traveling back in time.
The original architecture of the 1930s includes imposing monuments, buildings and big statues hailing to the ‘Italian farmer pioneer’ which was at the core of the fascist ideology. The main city buildings still bear Mussolini’s favorite pompous mottos engraved over the entrances.
There’s a unique ‘malaria museum’ showing the story of the fight against the malaria which for centuries infested the surrounding plains. Old blood samples of infected people and different types of dried mosquitoes can be seen stuck behind glass cases.
Close to Latina is Terracina, another under-the-radar town right in the middle between Rome and Naples along the coast. What makes this place a must-see destination is the massive clifftop temple sanctuary of Jupiter Anxur built by the ancient Romans which is open to the public. The view stretches to Vesuvius and the temple’s reddish-golden stones glow at dawn.
There are so many other overlooked places in Italy worth discovering, even though it often means going beyond appearances or assumptions.