Italy: one of our favorite vacation destinations. When traveling to Italy, the choice often falls on one of the beautiful big cities such as Rome, Milan or Naples. However, if you have already seen these and want to escape the tourist crowds this year, you can alternatively opt for one of Italy’s charming small towns. For planning such a trip or excursion, we have compiled a list of the 20 most beautiful small towns in Italy.
Positano is located on the south coast of the Sorrento peninsula on the Amalfi Coast. Today’s town, with its steep alleys and many stairs, grew out of a small fishing village. The small port town impresses visitors with its pastel-colored houses perched on mountains that rise above the sea.
In the Middle Ages, the town belonged to the Duchy of Amalfi and even had a port. During the Renaissance, an important trade route ran along here and the town grew significantly. In the middle of the 19th century, more than half of the population emigrated to America and Positano fell into oblivion again.
The forgotten fishing village eventually became an idyllic beach town and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Positano is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Sorrento is located on the Sorrento Peninsula on the Gulf of Naples. The city was built on black rocks of dark volcanic rock on a tufa terrace and is surrounded by the imposing cliffs of the limestone mountains.
For centuries Sorrento has been the destination of northern European longing for Italy. Writers and painters have immortalized the place with words and pictures. With the Amalfi Coast to the north, the hilly countryside to the east, and breathtaking Capri off the coast, the town is a popular base for day trips. In addition, excursion destinations such as Pompeii and Naples are nearby.
The place is incredibly beautiful – the location on a small peninsula inspires, the old castle towers, the rocky background and the small piazza by the sea fascinate. No wonder that Vernazza is not missing in any Liguria reportage, that every Riviera guide brings the picturesque place on the cover. But the whole thing has its price: it often gets very crowded here. On weekends and holidays, you should avoid Vernazza by a wide margin, because when the tour groups roll down the main alley from the train station to the harbor, you lose your fun.
That said, Vernazza is pretty through and through. The harbor piazza is where all the world meets; you can eat outside, watch the waves, cats, kids, mommas and grandpas go about their business. Cinque Terre à la carte: It doesn’t get more photogenic anywhere along the entire, many thousand kilometers long Italian coast!
In the narrow valley of Manarola, the locals have cleverly used every meter to place the houses on top of and next to each other in crazy nestings. Staircase alleys lead up the slopes from the main road on the left and right. The place looks like a cubist composition. It is no coincidence that Manarola has long been a painter’s village, where artists such as Renato Birolli, one of the most important Italian painters of the 20th century, worked. (Incidentally, Michelangelo Pistoletti, the avant-garde founder of arte povera, lived for a long time in the neighboring village of Corniglia). The most beautiful part of the village rises south of the harbor on a small rock above the sea.
The capital of the Valle d’Aosta region is the city of Aosta with about 35,000 inhabitants. The history of the city goes back relatively far. Even in Roman times, Aosta was important – this can still be seen in the cityscape today. The city wall with the city gate Porta Pretoria is of Roman origin, the Arch of Augustus (Italian: Arco di Augusto), the bridges Pont de Pierre and Pont-Saint-Martin as well as remains of the Roman theater (Teatro Romano) are among the sights of Aosta. The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta offers a view of different eras and is also worth a visit, as is the Collegiate Church of Saint Ursus (Sant’Orso). The archaeological museum offers a whole range of treasures, prehistoric can be found in the excavation site Saint Martin de Corléans.
The old town around Piazza Émile Chanoux (Aosta Town Hall) consists of charming alleys lined with stores. This is also a good place to go shopping, have an ice cream or indulge in other northern Italian delicacies.
Alberobello is a small town in southern Puglia known for its fairytale Trulli. Traditional dry stone huts with conical roofs dating back to the 14th century. The origin of the Trullo has always been very controversial and mysterious. It is believed that these houses were created by the influences of the Middle East. There are two sides to the story behind these unique architectural structures. Some believe that these buildings were built because of the geographical conditions and the abundant limestone materials. Others think that they are easy to disassemble and assemble so that the owners could avoid paying taxes to the Kingdom of Naples at that time.
Today some of the Trulli are converted into souvenir stores, museums, restaurants and lodgings, but there are still many houses that are inhabited. In 1996, the town of Alberobello, with a large collection of more than 1500 beautifully preserved Trulli in the region, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Taormina is one of the oldest settlements in Sicily: the city was founded around 1300 BC by the Sicilian people and was under Greek and later Roman rule from 358 BC. Today, numerous ancient buildings bear witness to this era, such as the famous Teatro Greco, which has made Taormina famous worldwide. One of the first illustrious visitors to Taormina was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who visited the city during his trip to Italy in 1787. In the 19th century, Taormina became a popular destination for European aristocrats, and in the 20th century, movie stars such as Greta Garbo, Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor sought rest and relaxation there.
In Taormina, you don’t have to search long for photo opportunities, because you stumble upon them all the time. The old town of Taormina is located on Monte Tauro 200m above sea level and offers its visitors not only spectacular wide views of the sea and the offshore Isola Bella, but also of the fascinating volcano Etna, which from Taormina seems close enough to touch. The most important sight of the Sicilian city is the Teatro Greco. The second largest ancient amphitheater in Sicily was built by the Romans in the 2nd century BC and had room for over 5,000 spectators.
The main attraction of Sirmione is undoubtedly the Scaliger Castle with a large harbor basin and a circular wall. This castle with the 47 m high Mastino tower, which served as an armory in the Middle Ages, was built in the 13th century. It served not only as a defense but also as a demonstration of power for the Scaligeri from V erona. Through a drawbridge you can enter the castle through a portal from which you could control the access to the village. A tour of the battlements and the corner towers gives a good idea of the defensive system of thick walls, staircases and drawbridges. The castle offers a view of the port of Sirmione, which was also built by the Scaligers.
The narrow, picturesque alleys of Sirmione are filled with ice cream parlors, souvenir stores, restaurants, hotels and fashion stores. Sirmione is also known and loved as a spa town. With its modern spa facilities, it represents the largest private thermal center in Italy.
Montepulciano is a small town in the Siena region. It is located outside the typical tourist centers and is a charming and at the same time impressive vacation destination. Montepulciano was built on a hill and is characterized by historic buildings and an appealing townscape. A stroll through the town reveals romantic alleys and quaint restaurants.
The place where almost everything happens in Montepulciano is the old town. Some of the buildings in the old town date back to the 13th and 14th centuries. The Palazzo Pubblico, for example, looks like something from another world. The Madonna di San Biagio is also impressive. The church was designed by Antonio de Sangallo and has a large round dome.
The name Montepulciano stands not only for the medieval town in Tuscany, but also for a noble grape variety that grows on the slopes of the hill. Montepulciano is also known as the “wine of the popes” and has been known since the 13th century. Today, the wine is known far beyond the Italian borders and was highly appreciated not only by the popes, but also by various royal families.
The people here live from fishing and tourism. Their houses nestle on the rocky slope that rises above the small bay. The cathedral and the castle of Scilla watch over the village. Traditions are upheld here and the Italian attitude to life sets the pace. And the visitor feels this when he wanders through the intricate fishermen’s quarter of Chianalea with its alleyways. Not even a car can pass through, so narrow are the alleys, where the residents have stretched their clotheslines high up on the facades. The pebble pavement is well-kept and always leads the visitor to the coast. But even without a view of the sea, in the maze of alleys, you can hear the crashing of the waves against the stone coast. The fishermen have built their houses directly on the sea and “park” their boats right in front of the front door. They take them out to sea at night and come back in the morning with the specialty scillas. As a visitor you should not miss this delicacy. In one of the many small bars or restaurants it is worth to enjoy the favorite dish of the Scillans: swordfish – freshly caught and prepared according to the Scillanian tradition.
10. San Gimignano
Anyone traveling to Tuscany to walk in the footsteps of bygone eras must visit the “City of Towers” in the province of Siena, because it is not only the city with the best preserved so-called family towers, but also offers its guests many other historical sights. These include the Porta San Giovanni, built in the 13th century, like the Palazzo del Podestá and the Palazzo del Popolo. The picturesque Piazza della Cisterna owes its name to a medieval fountain. Also from the 13th century is the Torre Grossa, the only family tower in the city, which can be visited and climbed to enjoy the wonderful view.
It seems that time has stopped in the town, because it has kept its ancient charm and presents itself with wonderful alleys, buildings from the different centuries and Tuscan tranquility.
9. Polignano a Mare
The view of Palignano a Mare is impossible to forget for anyone who has ever been there. Tight on the perforated limestone spur, the whitewashed houses crowd to the precipice, rising like many brightly shining castle keeps of a medieval fortress. A walk through the clean, narrow streets, often with a view of the sea, lets you participate in southern Italian life and guides the visitor directly to the cozy piazza in the center of town. In the center of Polignano a Mare, it is worth visiting the Chiesa Matrice, the church built as early as 1295, which delights with playful Renaissance stone carvings by the artist Stefano di Putignano.
A special experience is the visit to the Grotta Palazzese, which is not only the largest and most beautiful cave below the city, but also with a noble restaurant tempts visitors to a romantic dinner on the cliff terrace.
Every year cliff divers show their skills at the Red Bull Cliff Diving, when they plunge into the Adriatic Sea from the 24-meter-high Polignano a Mares cliff.
Urbino is considered a popular destination among guests from all over the world due to its magnificent sights. The most beautiful building in the city is the imposing Palazzo Ducale from the 15th century.
The Italian city of Urbino is located in the Marche region and has only about 15,000 inhabitants. It was founded in the 6th century and gained great fame, especially during the Renaissance. Thanks to its many magnificent churches and imposing architecture, Urbino is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Those who spend their vacations in the city can take relaxing walks through the picturesque old town and enjoy its historical atmosphere. The city’s numerous small cafes and restaurants invite you to relax while enjoying the view of the impressive buildings and the idyllic countryside in the surrounding area. A visit to the Palazzo Ducale or a trip to one of the surrounding towns: a vacation in Urbino will remain unforgettable for visitors for a long time.
If you travel to the southern Italian peninsula of Salento, you should definitely stop in Otranto. The small port city of Otranto on the Adriatic coast enchants not only with its picturesque old town, but also with some important sights.
Otranto is located at the very tip of Italy’s boot heel and is considered the easternmost city in Italy. From here the Albanian mainland is only 82 km away. Until today, the small port city has had a very eventful history.
The town, which has only about 5500 inhabitants, can offer tourists some very significant sights thanks to its glorious history. The highlight of the city is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata, in which there is a very well preserved floor mosaic from the 12th century. Also buried in the church are the bones of the 800 martyrs of Otranto, who are venerated by Catholics as saints. Every year in mid-August, the festival “Beati Martiri d’Otranto” is held in their honor, commemorating the martyrs with masses and processions. A wonderful view of the city and the sea can be enjoyed from the fortified castle Castello Aragonese.
The small town of Cefalu on the Italian island of Sicily is perfect for a relaxing beach vacation: Cefalu offers those looking for relaxation year-round sun, a beautiful white sandy beach and a characteristic old town with numerous restaurants, bars and stores.
Like so many towns and villages in Sicily, the town of Cefalu has Greek roots: the ancient conquerors gave the settlement the name Cephaloidion, from which the present name Cefalu is derived. After the Greeks came the Romans, then the Arabs. The city owes its present appearance to the Normans. Under their king Roger II of Sicily, Cefalu experienced a splendid epoch in the 12th century, of which many important buildings such as the Cathedral and the Osterio Magno still bear witness today.
Cefalu is located on the northern coast of Sicily, about 70 km from the capital Palermo. This stretch of coast is characterized by small rocky bays, often difficult to reach. The 1.5 km long, fine sandy beach of Cefalu is an exception in this area and therefore so popular with tourists and locals alike.
Riomaggiore is a pretty little village on the blue waters of the Gulf of Genoa and just one kilometer from Amalfi.
Although the picturesque coastal town is very small, it is the largest of the five villages of the Cinque Terre. Pastel-colored houses seem to cling to the cliffs. From these rocky shores, you can see the calm sea and how the azure water gently winds onto the fine-grained sand without spraying foam.
Here begins the famous Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Path) with the first stretch between Riomaggiore and Manarola. It is also known as Via Dell’Amore (Love Street).
Our tip: To cope with the overwhelming influx of tourists, access to the rather small Cinque Terre towns is limited during the summer months. So you may be denied access to the more coveted trails.
Ravello is a small town in the Italian region of Campania. The pretty town is one of the most famous on the Amalfi Coast and is located 300 meters high above the bay of Salerno.
Ravello became famous in the 12th century as the residence of many noble families of the Maritime Republic of Amalfi. The Rufolo family, one of the richest in Ravello, had the villa of the same name built on a rocky promontory. The spectacular view of the water from the romantic gardens of Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone attracts thousands of visitors every year.
Artists from all over the world have found inspiration in picturesque Ravello on the Amalfi Coast, including Richard Wagner, who is celebrated every year with a music festival.
Portofino became famous for its “dolce vita” in the 1950s and 1960s, when movie stars like Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren vacationed here. The town is still a star travel destination – Madonna, Cate Blanchett, Heidi Klum and Gwyneth Paltrow have all been photographed in the Italian fishing village in recent years.
Long ago, Portofino was an ancient Roman colony that was conquered by the Republic of Genoa in 1229. The French, Spanish, English, Austrians and a 16th century band of buccaneers were all in power to rule Portofino.
Corniglia is special among the Cinque Terre villages: it is not located directly on the sea, but on a rock eighty meters above the water. This gives the place a special charm. Nowhere in the other villages can you enjoy such a view over the coast. The disadvantage: to get to the sea, you have to go down many steps (and on the way back up again…). That’s why Corniglia has remained a bit off the beaten track – it’s the only one of the five villages that doesn’t have a hotel.
There is a little less going on here than in the other villages. The big crowd in the narrow streets remains the exception. One is “among oneself”. If you live in the village (there are numerous private landlords), you will know many familiar faces by the third day at the latest.
The southern Italian town of Tropea attracts many visitors with its beautiful beaches and several sights. Among the most beautiful attractions is the famous viewpoint Capo Vaticano
Assisi is located in Umbria near Perugia, about in the middle of Italy. The town of Assisi stretches along the foot of a mountain. Even from a distance you can see the beautiful sight of the double church of San Francesco and the mighty retaining walls of the ancient castle of Rocco Maggiore.
If you are looking for Italian history, churches, art, old town, crafts, wine and beautiful scenery, you should make a trip to Assisi. The city is so worth seeing that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. This small town attracts eight million visitors a year from all over the world. The completely preserved and sensitively restored old town district contains a wealth of sights, restaurants, stores and many hotels. Other luxurious hotels are located in the immediate vicinity. The tranquility of the old buildings is enlivened by the friendly Umbrian residents and the hustle and bustle. Here you can sit in peace and enjoy the day.