Get Stranded Like Odysseus on Italy’s Most Secret, Mythical Islands

Hear fisherman tales, sleep in sea caves, and see the ancient underworld.

Say you were looking to sunbathe on a red and black pebble beach that looks like a corner of Mars, surrounded by volcanic, yellowish sulfur-rich cliffs where sea turtles come lay their eggs. If this sounds like your jam, this otherworldly destination is really just one of many under-the-radar Italian islands where you’ll find nothing but prickly pears, capers, and utter silence.

On this and a handful of other remote Italian paradises, you’ll be one of few exclusive tourists. Forget the usual crowded beaches with screaming kids and the parked luxury yachts you’ll likely find in Liguria or Sardinia. These atolls are unknown even to many Italians, but are rich with sea grottos, mythical beaches, and ancient legends to go with them.

Whether you’re looking to snorkel among friendly baby barracudas, admire dawn from a solitary cliff on an uninhabited isle, dine on succulent dwarf shrimps, or drink wild fennel liqueur with your feet in the water, here are some of the most secret and stunning islands in Italy.

crater of volcano in Vulcano Island
Say hi to Pluto (aka Hades). | easy camera/Shutterstock

Get high on sulfur vapor in the ancient underworld of Vulcano

Vulcano Island is sort of what we imagine hell might look like, but in a really cute way. This most wild island of the Aeolian Archipelago has an active volcano and is kinda like an open-air spa. You’ll find bubbly sea fumaroles that serve as natural jacuzzis, a steaming mud bath to nourish the skin, and sulfurous vapors, believed to cure sore throats, oozing out at every street corner.

It’s also super-hot. It’s really no wonder the ancient Romans believed the isle to be the entrance to the underworld. For some natural treatments, people sit for hours inhaling the gasses but watch out if you have low blood pressure or it could make you faint. Another warning for the scorching lime of the mud bath: great for the skin, but not so great for the hair, so avoid rinsing your locks.

All that being said, you’ll be dazzled by the spellbinding lunar scenery here: rocks are streaked with yellow, white, and silver, and there’s a park with solidified magma rocks shaped a bit like monsters.

Boat in the natural Pools on the Pelagie Islands
Sands of all different colors on Linosa. | Education Images / Contributor / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Babysit sea turtles on black sand in Linosa

Linosa is so far down south that it’s closer to the shores of Tunisia than those of Sicily. This tiny, volcanic, jet-black island has just one fishermen's village made of brightly colored dwellings covered in red bougainvillea flowers. You won’t find any baby-powder beaches here: instead, there are rocky shores and underwater scenery that’s totally black but so translucent you won’t even need goggles to admire the seabed.

On La Pozzolana Beach, sea turtles come to lay their eggs under starry skies. If you want to get up close to the action, you can volunteer at the local marine ER, where wounded loggerhead turtles are treated. Once they’re healed up and released back into the sea, visitors can dive into the water to wave them a proper goodbye. Just don’t be surprised if you see a family of hammerhead sharks swimming by in the distance.

The little harbor is the only buzzing social scene on the island, and you're bound to see villagers meeting up for coffee slushies, framed by the capers and fig trees that sprout out of the brick walls that line the streets. Be prepared to stretch your muscles hiking to the grassy, extinct crater.

Panoramic aerial view at sunset of the harbour in the island of Ponza
Those caves along the bottom? That’s where you sleep. | Matteo_Ciani/Shutterstock

Sleep in a sea cave in Palmarola

This gem of the Pontine Archipelago is a real throwback to the primeval age. Forget roads, bars, Wi-Fi, or electricity and prepare for a detox break. The isle is totally uninhabited except for a cozy beach tavern called O’Francese. Open just during summer, the restaurant owners rent out “rooms” in the grottos cut into the rugged, white-painted cliffs, where you can spend the night.

Inside the caves, you’ll also find very rudimentary bathrooms. It’s an experience to sleep in natural surroundings, where old fishermen once took refuge during storms or, it’s said, from sea monsters and ghosts.

At dawn, the owners take guests to Tramontana Hill to watch the blazing sunrise. Beach dinners are made with fish fresh from the net and fennel liqueur. All you need here is a dinghy to zig-zag between sea stacks, purple sponge sea grottos, and natural rock arches that almost look ready to crumble.

The Tonnara building on Favignana
Old factories that look like Roman palaces on Favignana. | Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock

Suntan naked in quarries in Favignana

In one sea grotto on Favignana, myth has it that the beautiful nymph Calypso seduced wandering Greek hero Odysseus on his return home from the Trojan War. Today, locals have a habit of suntanning naked behind the huge stones of former quarries, which have been turned into lush gardens covered in thick vegetation.

If you’re looking to get stranded here for a few years yourself, the best way to explore the butterfly-shaped isle is either by bike or fishermen-guided boat tours that take you to sunbathe in hidden inlets with fluorescent-blue waves. The most spectacular of all such beaches is Cala Rossa.

Favignana also used to host a tuna factory that’s now been turned into a museum, and restaurants serve tuna delicacies of all kinds.

Boats in the bay of Levanzo Island, Sicily
Who wouldn’t get naked here? | Marcin Krzyzak/Shutterstock

Explore ghostly sea grotto parties in Levanzo

The juxtaposition of dazzling whitewashed fishermen's dwellings with the turquoise blue of the shimmering sea is only one good reason to visit Levanzo. The other, main lure is the maze of sea grottos you can explore on a guided boat tour with a savvy fisherman guide who enjoys spinning tales.

The Genoese Grotto, which was first inhabited by prehistoric people, just might be the most fascinating. Today, you can still see wall drawings and symbols that tell the story of the origins of the universe. Nearby, the so-called Flintstone Village is a former seaside hippie retreat where nudists lived in the 1960’s in straw huts and caves, and partied in sea grottos.

After you’re done riding a dinghy around to the different caves and snorkeling along the shore, try walking to different inlets and pebble beaches, and then indulge in grilled giant octopus served on a lava rock plate.

crumbling building of former prison fortress
Santo Stefano’s ancient Roman fortress. | Stefano Batistini/Shutterstock

Visit a former prison fortress in Santo Stefano

Santo Stefano was once used as a former prison in the time of ancient Rome and later for anti-fascists, but the island has since been reclaimed by nature. Now, its waters are a snorkeling and scuba diving mecca brimming with baby barracudas and giant groupers. Though there’s still a horseshoe-shaped fortress at the top of a hill, a jungle of palms and fig trees has grown over the prison cells.

Just off the coast between Rome and Naples, the minuscule atoll can be reached via boat from the nearby sister isle of Ventotene, where scuba diving tours regularly depart.

View of cliffs over water on San Domino island
San Domino is the workout island. | maudanros/Shutterstock

Jog up the ‘killer climb’ in San Domino

The thick pinewood and dark blue waters of San Domino send out a siren call to adventurers. This main island of the Tremiti Archipelago is not a place for everyone, since you need to climb one long, steep road from where ferry boats land to the houses, hotels, and main piazza above. Some super-fit locals who jog up and down the steps have nicknamed it the “killer climb.”

Muscular thighs are also needed to reach the many solitary pebble inlets and cliffs that are fantastic for snorkeling. It’s safe to say this isn’t really the place for sun tanning unless you can cling to the granite rocks like a crab. In other words, not really a destination for flip-flops.

Al faro beach on Ustica Island with lighthouse in background
Swimming parties instead of dance ragers on Ustica. | Gandolfo Cannatella/Shutterstock

Swim with and then eat dwarf shrimp ceviche in Ustica

Ustica is shrimp heaven both for gourmands and scuba divers. The specialty dish here is made of raw dwarf shrimps served with lemon juice, while the greatest dive is inside the so-called “shrimp underwater cave,” where you get to stare into the flashlight-like eyes of shrimps staring back at you.

Head to the fishermen's village for a layer of cottages connected by steep staircases—which means it’s best to pack light. Forget clubbing here: in the evenings, the greatest thrill on Ustica is meeting in the tiny piazza for a gelato. You could check out Deadman’s Cliff or head somewhere less spooky, like the hilly, fluorescent-green countryside dotted with orchards, solitary farmer dwellings, and old donkey trails.

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Silvia Marchetti is a contributor for Thrillist.