The Italian Insiders: Our ultimate guide to Italy without the crowds
Crowds flock to Venetian canals and Roman ruins, but there's a lot more to Italy than the big hits. Here's our alternative guide.
Italy is Ireland's favourite overseas holiday destination.
Says who? Says you - our readers - who voted it so in last year's Reader Travel Awards (vote now in this year's awards, and you could win one of seven holiday prizes).
While hotspots like Rome and Venice, Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast have captured our hearts, however, they have also captured something else… mushrooming crowds.
Overtourism is now a mainstream issue, and Venice, in particular, is one of its poster children. A small city visited by some 30 million people a year, it has taken to fining tourists for dawdling on bridges, swimming in canals and attaching 'love locks' to monuments. Big cruise ships are being banned from the old centre. With just 55,000 locals now calling the historic city their home, some believe La Serenissima is in danger of dying.
In peak seasons, you'll have noticed the crush in other Italian destinations too. So what can visitors do? Is it possible to have our cake and eat it?
Well, one trick is to travel off-season, in winter and shoulder months. Another is to look beyond pinch points, spreading the love (and your tourist euro) to lesser-known regions that will welcome it with open arms. That's our goal in this travel guide - to go off-radar, beyond the beaten path, and to offer a host of expert suggestions for your next Italian Job.
1. Instead of: Pompeii
Visit: Herculaneum, Campania
Why: Every year, crowds flock to Pompeii, one of the world's most fascinating heritage sites. But nearby, the former chic seaside resort of Herculaneum was also destroyed by that fateful eruption in 79AD. In fact, because it was coated in a thick layer of hardened, Vesuvian ash for centuries, it's actually better preserved. As a result, many structures (including the town spa, where affluent residents bathed), mosaics and colourful frescoes are largely intact. The UNESCO heritage site is smaller than Pompeii - although only 25pc of it has been excavated - quieter, and easier to navigate. While you won't see the type of preserved figures you would at Pompeii, there is an eerie collection of skeletons huddled in what would have been Herculaneum's boat-houses, struck down while trying to escape. A grim reminder of a volcano's deadly power.
Do it: The nearest airport is Naples, serviced by Ryanair and Aer Lingus, after which it's a 20-minute journey by train or car. The cheapest route is by Circumvenusiana train from Naples station to Ercolano Scavi (sitabus.it/en). See also pompeii-tickets.com/herculaneum.
2. Instead of: Alberobello
Visit: Matera, Basilicata
Why: Little-known except by Italians, Matera is due its moment in the spotlight as one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2019 (the other is Plovdiv, in Bulgaria). Inhabited since the 10th century BC, and built on the slope of a ravine, its centrepiece is the Sassi, an ancient town composed of striking, prehistoric cave-dwellings carved into the rock. Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1993, the town suffered badly from poverty after World War II, with residents barely scratching a living from inside the Sassi until 1952. Thankfully, it's one of southern Italy's fastest-growing towns today, and has even had some Hollywood star-dust sprinkled over it - featuring as a filming location for movies such as The Passion of the Christ and Wonder Woman. Studded with churches, bars and boutiques, this is a beguiling combination of ancient and (relatively) modern. Visit before the crowds!
Get there: The nearest airport is Bari International, 60km/40 miles away (Ryanair flies direct from Dublin). For more information, visit materaturismo.it.
3. Instead of: Capri
Visit: The Pontine Islands, Southern Lazio
Why: New Yorkers have got the Hamptons to escape to when summer gets sticky; Romans have the Pontine Islands. Two of this archipelago of five islands are inhabited year round - Ponza and Ventotene. Palmarola offers seasonal, summer accommodation, while Santo Stefano (which housed a notorious prison until 1965, available for guided tours) and Zannone are home only to wild goats and seabirds. Crescent-shaped Ponza, the biggest - though at 9km2 that's not saying much - oozes stylish, seaside charm, its harbour peppered with cafes and bars perfect for sipping an Aperol spritz. Beaches are pebbly, and boat tours essential to spy its secret grottoes and inlets. On Ventotene, you'll find the ruins of Roman villas, colourful piazzas and superb scuba-diving opportunities, while Palmarola is surrounded by granite arches and sea stacks, its turquoise waters ideal for snorkellers.
Get there: Fly to either Naples or Rome with Ryanair or Aer Lingus; both are equidistant from the ferry port at Formia (directferries.co.uk), reachable by train. For more info, see italia.it or italyheaven.co.uk.
4. Instead of: Lake Como
Visit: Lake Iseo, Lombardy
Why: When it comes to the Italian Lakes, some hog all the headlines (we're looking at you, Como, with your celebrity residents, like a certain Mr Clooney…). But Lake Iseo, just three hours' drive southeast, is smaller and quieter, though arguably just as beautiful. What it lacks in flashy hotels and historic, waterside palazzi, it makes up for in scenic hiking trails, a medieval castle, a protected nature reserve, Torbiere del Sebino, and the Tadini Academy Gallery, which houses one of the oldest art collections in Lombardy. Add in boat trips to Monte Isola, a picturesque island in the middle of Iseo, the choice of several ski resorts, and a challenging but beautiful 40-mile cycle trail around the lake, and you have a diverse, year-round destination. Not to mention its proximity to Franciacorta, which produces delicious sparkling wine...
Get there: The nearest airports are Milan Linate, a one hour 40 minute drive away (fly with Aer Lingus), or Bergamo, 1hr and 20 minutes away (direct flights with Ryanair). For more information, see visitlakeiseo.info/en.
5. Instead of: Venice
Visit: Comacchio, Emilia-Romagna
Why: In Italy's foodie region - which is home to Parma (ham), Modena (balsamic vinegar) and Bologna (mortadella, tortellini, lasagne - you name it), the teeny town of Comacchio has only one, er, gourmet ingredient to offer: eels. They thrive in the nearby lagoons, and as a result are served baked, grilled, fried, or in risotto, but 'anguilla marinata' (that's pickled eels to you and me) are the area's speciality. There's an eel festival every October, and a factory devoted to pickling them has been here for decades. In fact, Sophia Loren once played the part of an eel pickler in a short film in the 1960s, which led to her doing some advertising for the company. Aside from this, Comacchio is a charming spot, criss-crossed by canals and bridges, which make it a handy stand-in for Venice for budget-conscious film-makers. Sit at an outdoor table in a restaurant by one of the canals, lined with colourful houses, and soak up the atmosphere. It's, ahem, eely good.
Get there: The closest airport is in Bologna (Ryanair flies direct); Comacchio is a 95km drive. For more information, visit winefoodemiliaromagna.com/journeys.
More: Revel in Rimini
6. Instead of: Lucca or Verona
Visit: Bergamo, Lombardy
Why: As medieval walled cities go, Bergamo is exceptionally beautiful, but stays out of the limelight thanks to better-known examples, such as Lucca, San Gimignano, or Verona. It would be a shame to pass it by, steeped as it is in gilded, baroque churches, frescoed chapels, cobbled piazzas and botanical gardens. Its centrepiece is the historic old town, or citta alta, elevated above the more modern citta bassa. Walk around its walls, constructed in the 16th century when Bergamo was owned by Venice, in an effort to protect it from threats by the Republic of Milan, and France. Here, you'll also find the old town's vibrant centre, Piazza Vecchia, perfect for gelato-eating (get yours at locals' favourite, Caffe del Tasso), people-watching, and architecture-exploring. Notable churches include the Capella Colleoni, its marble facade teeming with sculptured Biblical scenes and mythological stories, and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore; the columns of its exterior archway rest on carved, stone lions. Art fans will love the Accademia Carrera, stuffed with Raphaels, Botticellis and Canalettos.
Get there: You can fly directly into Bergamo itself with Ryanair, or, for a bigger choice of flights, Milan Linate is only 40 minutes away (Aer Lingus). See also visitbergamo.net.
7. Instead of: Positano
What: Ravello, Campania
Why: When people think of the Amalfi Coast, they usually think of two or three towns: there's Sorrento, the gateway to the idyllic, if expensive, Isle of Capri; chic Positano, star of the film Only You, and popular with the rich and famous; and Amalfi itself, a noble town with an impressive, black and white cathedral. But Ravello is almost in the middle of the coastal road that stretches from Sorrento to Salerno, and because it's set back from the sea, on a hill, people tend to just... drive past. Which is a mistake, as it's got some of the most picturesque gardens in Italy, set around historic villas. Known as the City of Music, thanks to its annual concerts and festivals, you can catch an open-air concert in the sumptuous grounds of the Villa Rufolo, which apparently inspired Wagner to write Parsifal. Elsewhere, admire the breathtaking view from Villa Cimbrone's Terrace of Infinity, lined with classical marble busts, or take an evening passeggiata in the main square, Piazza Vescovado.
Get there: The nearest airport is Naples (fly with Ryanair year-round), after which it's a scenic - if somewhat hairy - two and a half hour drive along the Amalfi coast. For more information, see visit ravello.com.
8. Instead of: Cacio Fiorentino
Visit: The Palio, Tuscany
Why: More than just a horse race, Siena's Palio is billed as 'the toughest in the world'. And it certainly provides a spectacle that is not to be missed. Put simply, it's a race that takes place twice a year - on July 2, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, and August 16, for the Assumption of Mary - in Siena's Piazza del Campo, and has been run continuously since 1633. Jockeys are only assigned their horse four days before the race, followed by practice heats and trial runs. Ten horses and riders (bareback), who each represent one of the city's 17 wards, or neighbourhoods, and are dressed in their colours and emblems, must complete three laps of the piazza. And, that's it - except to say just that would be do a disservice to the chaotic frenzy of the crowds, the deafening thunder of the horses' hooves, and the fierce, committed passion of the riders.
Get there: The nearest airport is Florence; Siena is an hour's drive away. For more information, visit discovertuscany.com/siena/palio-siena.
9. Instead of: Cortina, Veneto
Visit: Bolzano, South Tyrol
Why: Straddling the dramatic Dolomites, which connect Italy with Austria, Bolzano is the region's valley hub. Both Italian and German are spoken, and restaurants abound with hearty mountain food which blends the best of both countries, from Sachertorte and strudel to polenta and gorgonzola. Of course, as you're surrounded by mountains, hiking and skiing are strong seasonal options, but in Bolzano itself, don't miss the top tourist attraction, a man called Otzi. Alas, you can't speak to him, as he has been dead for 5,300 years, but his frozen, preserved body can be observed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. He was discovered in the mountains in 1991, his copper-bladed axe revealing he was a Bronze Age hunter. Elsewhere, explore the main square, Piazza Walther, which holds a colourful flower market every spring, stroll around the cloisters of the Gothic Franciscan church, and do a little wine-tasting; there are vineyards aplenty nearby.
Get there: Nearby airports include Innsbruck (Ryanair flies direct) and Verona or Bolzano (with one-stop connections). For more info, visit bolzano-bozen.it/en.
10. Instead of: Sicily
Visit: The Aeolian Islands
Why: Etna and, to a lesser extent, Vesuvius, are the volcanoes with all the touristic firepower, but among the handful of islands in the Aeolian archipelago off the coast of Sicily are two delightfully active ones, Vulcano and Stromboli. Hike to the rim of Vulcano, where you'll be breathing in delicious lungfuls of scorching, eggy, sulphuric air, then treat your skin to a mud bath in the hot springs by the harbour. And there's nothing like a night-climb of perfectly cone-shaped Stromboli, which spurts fiery, molten lava into the air at regular intervals, but with fewer crowds (the 1950 Ingrid Bergman film of the same name plays out against its backdrop). The rich and the beautiful party on Panarea, parking their yachts in the sparkling turquoise waters, while the biggest island, Lipari, is the place for laid-back sundowners; the best view across the coast is from Quattrocchi (which means 'four eyes'), just two miles from town on the way to Pianoconte.
Get there: The nearest airports are in Palermo or Catania (Ryanair & Aer Lingus), then you take a ferry or hydrofoil from Messina. For more information, go to visitsicily.info/en/10cosea/the-aeolian-islands.
Six off-radar tips for Lake Garda
How to dodge the crowds in Lake Garda? Italian resident Hugo McCafferty has the inside track on Italy's loveliest lake...
1. Skip high season
Lake Garda is a stunning location offering the best of Italy in one place. Spectacular scenery, pristine coastline, picturesque towns and hidden gems can all be found within easy reach. It's great for families or a short romantic break, and you'll find it least crowded outside of high-season (May-August). Don't worry, the lake keeps temperatures mild, even in winter...
2. Verona or Bergamo?
The Irish usually fly to Verona and many decide to visit Venice before or after their Garda trip. However, flights can be expensive during peak season and Venice is always busy. You could fly to Bergamo and take the train through Brescia and on to Dezensano on Lake Garda. Bergamo Alta is an incredible town and often overlooked as just an airport - but it's highly recommended for the scenery, the art and the food.
3. Sirmione and Jamaica Beach
On the little peninsula that juts out into Lake Garda from the southern shore you'll find beautiful Sirmione. The remains of Roman Villa Grotte di Catullo are spectacular and nearby is the 'Jamaica Beach', so-called because of its flat white stone edge at the water. It's a spectacular place to watch the sunset.
4. Best beaches
Lake Garda's beaches clearly get busy in summer, so if you want to avoid the crowds, stick to the western shore or go as far north as you can. Makio beach near Salo is usually a less crowded option. There's also a private area where you can hire a sun lounger for the day... it's a lot more comfortable than a towel thrown over pebbles.
This is a good place to base yourself if you want to get away from intense tourism activity. There are plenty of museums and historic villas to spend the day in. You can also take a day trip to Isola del Garda and visit its stunning villa and gardens.
6. Eating out
Forget overpriced pizzerias on the lakeshore; ask at the hotel for the local trattoria. You'll eat better, cheaper and have a far more authentic experience. On a Sunday, look for the local Agriturismo. These are farms that produce the food they serve - the best of fresh, local cuisine. They're excellent value, too - justifying a taxi ride.
Beyond Venice: The Venetian Lagoon
How to re-discover the magic of Venice? Explore the lagoon in a boat, says Conor Power. By the time you get to the city, crowds will come as a shock…
Set the Mood
Get up nice and early to sip a morning coffee on deck for that lovely calm view of lagoon life before the tourists start to arrive. Watching life come and go in the form of boats of all sizes and types is mesmerising: supermarket deliveries, fishermen, businessmen, flirting teenagers and people just going from A to B, communicating over the water in their loud, musical Italian.
Generally speaking, keep towards the south for beach life with authentic Venetian atmosphere. The Lido di Jesolo at the northern end, for example, is a popular spot but it can get just as crowded as Venice itself in the summer and during school breaks.
There are plenty of great choices for eating out, but if you’re on a boat, then there’s no better table in the whole of the Venetian Lagoon than the one on your own floating home-from-home. After stocking up at the local Aliper hypermarket, make sure you have plenty of the local specialities — prosciutto crudo, tortellini, Moretti beer, prosecco and limoncello.
Take a spin to Pallestrina. This is where you’ll see the lagoon from an ordinary citizen’s perspective, devoid of tourists yet full of uncommon beauty and exotic atmosphere. It also has a beach and friendly, unassuming locals.
You can’t visit the Venetian Lagoon properly without visiting La Serenissima herself — Venice. Mooring overnight at the Santa Elena Marina will cost you €85, and it’s down at the “tail” end of Venice (which, in case you haven’t noticed, is shaped like a fish). What this does allow you, however, is the possibility of getting up at dawn — the only way to get a real appreciation of Venice. The city’s magnificence is without equal but it’s overcrowded to the degree that it’s virtually impossible to enjoy otherwise. The location of the marina is in probably the quietest part of Venice, and the 10-minute walk from here to Via Giuseppe Garibaldi is rewarding as it’s far enough from St Mark’s to have a normal atmosphere and near enough to still have a mild, touristy buzz.
A normal river cruise is a therapeutic journey of calm and tranquillity, but navigating on the Venice Lagoon involves regular waves created by the huge amount of passing vessels so you need your wits about you, even though the sense of adventure ultimately more than makes up for the lack of serenity.
How to do it
The Venetian Classic and Italian Golfing Cruise with Emerald Star allows you to see Venice and its lagoon as it has been seen over 1,000 years. A seven-night, self-catered stay on an Elegance boat comes in at €2,303, sleeping up to six people in three cabins. For more information, visit emeraldstar.ie or call (071) 962 7633.
Get me there
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Venice Marco Polo Airport. A taxi to the boat base at Casale-sul-Sile will cost around €70. Allowing about two hours to run through formalities and a brief training course (it’s very easy to drive a boat), you’re off and into the Venice Lagoon like an ancient Venetian trader by the evening, with the colourful island of Burano as your first mooring spot. See also veneziaunica.it.
Revel in Rimini - the Italians' resort
Skip Bologna and Florence and stay at the Adriatic resort favoured by Italians, says Dee Finnerty. It's an ace base for exploring Emilia Romagna, too...
Entering the Old Town of Rimini through its enormous Roman arch, I am swiftly transported into a traditional Italian lifestyle that I have longed to prove true.
Leisurely cyclists weave the streets as their canine companions sit upfront in baskets. Locals sit under canopies outside coffee shops. Boutique windows are lavishly decorated with the luxury wares of Prada, Margiela and Balenciaga.
Forget the jostling crowds of Florence. Here, in the shoulder month of May, I can meander around cobbled streets lined with quaint, pastel-toned houses and window baskets tumbling with flowers. I'm beginning to see why Rimini provided such inspiration for Federico Fellini. The film-maker grew up here, and almost 100 years since his birth, houses and streets are decorated with murals dedicated to him, and to famous works like La Dolce Vita.
It's not all about the town, however. As a beach destination, Rimini is a mainstay of Italian tourists. It also provides an excellent base from which to explore northern Italy - one reason more Irish tourists are awakening to the Adriatic resort. With Ravenna, San Marino, Bologna and Florence all just a short trip away, this is an ideal compromise for city slickers and beach bums alike.
The Emilia Romagna region is famous for its home-grown cuisine, so a trip to a winery is a must. We whisk ourselves away from the fresh morning sea breeze and, after a half-hour car trip, arrive at the scenic Collina dei Poeti winery. Here, we bask in the Italian countryside, snaking through olive trees and grape vines while observing tiny lizards scurrying about the rocks.
At the end of our stroll, the our guide explains the manufacturing process and, needless to say, we take a seat to sample the wares. It's the cherry on the cake for this day out. The only problem is deciding which bottle to bring back home!
Our next excursion takes us slightly further afield, but San Marino is certainly worth the visit.
The 61km2 Republic is in fact a micro state surrounded by Italy, governed by its own laws with a parliament resting atop its medieval walled town. Cobblestones and steep hills lead to remarkable views of the surrounding countryside - even just wandering the streets is a visual treat in itself.
It doesn't stop there though - San Marino is a shopper's paradise with lower taxes making it an ideal spot to pick up some bargains along the way. From pistachio liquor to high-end fragrances, you won't be disappointed discovering each small boutique - that's if you can tear yourself away from exploring the city's many historical sites.
The next day, we venture to Ravenna, again leaving the comforts of a day at the beach to delve into a new city.
We begin by visiting the infamous Basilica di San Vitale, one of the most important examples of Christian Byzantine art. The octagonal church is awe-inspiring - its dome towering above our heads, every inch decorated with golden, glimmering mosaics. Everything is in perfect symmetry. Any art history buff would be at home here.
After this mesmerising excursion, lunch and drinks are in order. We visit Ca' de Vèn, a tavern-like restaurant that gives you a chance to imagine what it would have been like on a night out in this town a few hundred years ago. With a medieval-style structure and wooden beams supporting barrels of wine above us, the restaurant combines old world with new. Here, I am served thick Strozzapreti pasta (that's 'Choke the priest' to you or I), as my guide relays the story behind its name. It was created to deter medieval priests - who were taking advantage of their status by turning up at
restaurants for a free feed every day!
Over the next few days, I venture out on some more mini-excursions, immersing myself in the rich food and decadent wine of Emilia Romagna. But the simple pleasures of buying a gelato and taking a wander along the shoreline of the beach in Rimini, with my toes in the hot sand, is enough to make this break memorable.
Dee travelled to Rimini on the Adriatic Coast as a guest of Topflight, staying at the 3-star Hotel de France. Topflight offers packages during the summer months with weekly flights from Dublin, with prices from €529pp, including flights, bags and rep service. It also offers coastal resorts Cattolica, Cesenatico & Bellaria. (01) 240 1700; topflight.ie
Read more:Famous Five: Why Italy's Cinque Terre is worth braving the crowds