Gorgeous Small Towns in Italy to Avoid the Crowds
All roads lead away from Rome.
It may not be your first thought, but Italy is actually an excellent destination to escape crowds—if you know where to look. The country has thousands of rural villages spread across the peninsula, many of them looking like gorgeous ruins or castles perched atop hills, where time seems to pass more slowly and peacefully.
After having been one of the hardest-hit countries by Covid-19, Italy is now one of the most vaccinated countries in Europe. Incoming tourists must show proof of vaccination and a negative antigen test taken 48 hours before your flight in order to get a green pass to enter the country. And once you’re there, a stay in the gorgeous countryside—often easily accessible from Rome—helps avoid the masses.
Whether you’re hoping to go to Europe at some point this year or just want to start shaping up some dream plans, Italy’s under-the-radar villages have a lot going for them over the usual cities and popular destinations. In these bucolic villages, you can zipline from one town peak to the next town over, forage for mushrooms, hike through pagan sacrifice sites, or hear ghost stories about the many who’ve passed through these lands. You can also find regional delicacies made by locals such as handmade pasta, pungent sheep cheeses, and cured prosciutto.
Here are the best small towns in Italy, where some of the biggest crowds you’ll come across are flocks of sheep.
Castel di Tora
Dating back to medieval times, Castel di Tora is perched on a hilltop overlooking lake Tora in the Latium region, close to Rome. A small bridge leads to the ancient town, where a bunch of ragged stone dwellings climb up a precipice to an old tower, their balconies jutting out over the lake. The road to Castel di Tora cuts through deep forests, so don’t be shocked if the biggest crowds you encounter are made of cows and sheep. The village has winding, narrow cobblestone alleys that lead to a little piazza, where you can sit at a bar and soak in the sunshine while sipping an aperitivo. Fresh fish is served at taverns with open patios facing the lake. Take advantage of that lake by fishing for giant, 2-meter-long trouts, going for a swim, or lounging on a boat along the shores.
As the smallest village in Calabria, the town of Staiti is located inside the hilly Aspromonte national park and was once inhabited by outlaws. Founded by ancient Greek-Byzantine sailors and monks, locals still speak a Greek-sounding dialect and street names look very different from the rest of Italy. The village is an open-air museum: narrow alleys lead to the ruins of a temple dedicated to sea gods, Byzantine rock chapels, and human-shaped stone bas-reliefs on walls and buildings. The old architecture is juxtaposed to modern street art, and phrases of poems are written on painted house doors. Staiti’s wonderful trekking trails, leading to ghost hamlets and abandoned fortresses, lure hikers from across the world. While there, don’t forget to taste the delicious homemade maccheroni pasta with goat sauce ragù.
Located in Abruzzo, the town of Roccascalegna is definitely off the beaten track—here you’ll mainly be rubbing shoulders with cats, hens, and shepherd dogs. The village bakery is a must-stop for giant biscuits and pane porchettato, which are pork roast sandwiches. The top highlight in Roccascalegna, though, is the overhanging fortress, dubbed the “Castle in Sky.” Italy may have thousands of fortresses, but this one will have you questioning the law of gravity: suspended over a chasm, it resembles a spacecraft ready to take off. Prepare to flex some muscles going up the crooked mountain trail, all the way to the upper turret, which offers a stunning panorama of the snowy Apennine hills. Get goose bumps on a guided tour where you’ll hear about the past tortures inflicted in the underground dungeons and the ghost story of a headless warrior said to haunt the fortress.
Pietrapertosa is in Italy’s deep south, but has northern-looking alpine scenery. The village sits between the huge pointed crags of the Lucanian Dolomites mountain range in Basilicata. Shards of weird-shaped rocks jut out from street corners, behind houses, and along roads. The town builders drilled all the way through the peak, including through a massive boulder that you go through in order to enter the town. Many residences are carved directly into the mountain, creating a natural wind shield for the inhabitants. There’s also an ancient Arab district from medieval times with dark sandstone cottages, and each summer a festival features Arab food and dancing. If you want an adrenaline rush, you could admire the aerial view via Angel Flight, where you’re strapped into a metal harness attached to a steel cable running from Pietrapertosa’s highest peak to that of the nearby village of Castelmezzano.
If you’re an Indiana-Jones-style, explore-an-ancient-world kind of freak, this one’s for you. Dubbed “Little Pompeii,” Sepino is located on the ragged mountains of Molise, Italy’s most remote region, and has ancient ruins that rival those of Rome. The village was founded by the fiery Samnite tribes, who were wiped-out by ancient Romans. Inside a 12-hectares walled city, colorful dwellings sit on the ashes of the burnt Samnite settlement, including 30 towers, four monumental doors, a basilica, and numerous fountains, markets, artisan shops, and thermal baths. Statues of imprisoned warriors greet visitors at the entrance. Indulge in yummy cold cuts, such as ventricina salami stuffed with chili peppers and torcinelli sausages filled with sheep liver.
Perched on a tufted hilltop rising out of a green canyon near the city of Viterbo, Faleria has a dreamy, time-stands-still vibe. Located within a natural park carved out by a pristine river, lush vegetation creeps over the dwellings. The hamlet, founded by the primitive Falisci tribes—who also had to eventually bend their knee to Imperial Rome—is a labyrinth of moss-covered cobbled alleys leading to tunnels and wall openings overlooking the chasm. Locals live in grotto dwellings with panoramic balconies. Faleria is divided in two parts: the inhabited area and the spooky abandoned ghost district, just behind the majestic fortress, which is the top attraction. Trekking routes departing from the village wind through a wilderness where pagan sacrifices were once performed.
Forget the usual, overcrowded Perugia and Todi. This village is one of Umbria’s best-kept secrets, sitting on a hill crest where untainted nature rules. One single, narrow road cuts through brilliant green-and-brown meadows, chestnut forests, and tiny abandoned hamlets, connecting Calvi to an ancient Roman road called Via Flaminia, dotted with archeological wonders along the way. There’s almost a mystical vibe to the setting here, with farms, orchards, honey-making cottages, and solitary stone chapels dotting the olive grove landscape. The village comes to life during summer when food fairs lure gourmands of handmade pasta. Take your time visiting farms where shepherds sell seasoned, pungent pecorino sheep cheese, fresh ricotta, and yogurt. And you can finally add some foraging skills to your repertoire by participating in a porcini mushroom hunt, where the treasures are deliciously edible.
Foodies with a craving for Italian prosciutto can’t miss Bassiano. This village is famous for its succulent dry-cured ham, which has a strong, seasoned flavor and is one of Italy’s most tasty and expensive. Located on the Lepini hills between Naples and Rome, Bassiano overlooks a valley dotted with lush gardens, kiwi plantations, and grazing buffalo (mozzarella is another must-try food here, by the way). Shaped like a spiral, the town has medieval architecture with lookout towers, fortified walls, and stone turret houses, where peasant families once lived alongside their animals. Moss grows over many doorsteps. A labyrinth of arched passageways and stone steps connect the different levels of the village. From any belvedere lookout room atop the houses, the view stretches to the Tyrrhenian coast’s Pontine islands.