12 alternative places to visit in Italy when you want to get off the beaten path

Editor’s Note:

Story highlights

Ischia is Capri's sister island, without the VIP status. It's more real, more genuine

Mantova contains a "city within a city" -- the 34,000-square-meter home of a powerful Renaissance family

Ventotene is a small isle close to Rome and a former jail center for lustful Roman noble women and later anti-Fascists

CNN  — 

Tired of Rome? Done Milan? Kids start crying whenever you suggest another EM Forster tour of Florence?

Italy’s big cities are no doubt worthy and its popular regions are popular for good reason. But some of the country’s lesser known towns and villages are equally, or more, impressive. Here are 12 of our favorites.

(Scroll down towards the middle of the article for a map of all locations.)

1. Ischia, Campania

Lying in the Gulf of Naples, Ischia is Capri’s sister island, without the VIP status. It’s more real, more genuine.

It’s famous for its thermal baths (built by the Romans) and diving spots and features four-star luxury hotels with great prices year round.

Cheap but delicious fish restaurants lie along the harbor of Ischia Porto and the island is one of the few to make limoncello, that moreish lemon juice liqueur.

Visitors can opt for long strolls in the lush vegetation, or take a cab, bus or boat to tour the island. A must see is the majestic Aragonese Castle hanging on top of an isle-cliff, connected to the old hamlet of Ponte Ischia.

The Guevara Tower and Royal Palace (www.comuneischia.it) are worth a look for history fans, while at Fumarole beach you can see geysers of water vapor both underwater and above the ground.

With a temperature of up to 95 C, may want to test the water before diving in.

From the harbor ferries head for the neighboring fishermen island of Procida. Bellezza, one of the oldest restaurants on the island, also offers the best taste of the local cuisine.

The popular Kiwi Jam bar offers fantastic finger foods and happy-hour menus.

There’s a huge choice of hotels, but we love hotel Casa Sofia, located in the southern village of St.Angelo, where cars don’t run.

2. Caltagirone, Catania

Forget Palermo’s hellish traffic and Taormina’s designer boutiques – this is the heart of the real, wild Sicily famous for its artisan ceramics and the best slushies in Italy.

Getting here requires rolling across the desolate Erei hills. The top attraction is the monumental, flowery 142-step staircase of the Santa Maria del Monte, built in the 17th century, featuring hand-decorated majolica from different periods.

Once at the top the city’s streets and piazzas unravel before you, showing off the lively piazza.

Must-sees include the ceramics museum, the Borbonic jail and the crèche museum, showcasing the best of the Sicilian tradition (www.comune.caltagirone.ct.it).

The best way to savor the city is to walk along the artisans’ boutiques, which show off beautifully hand-made ceramics of live-size Christmas trees, Phoenician merchants’ faces, gigantic green, red and blue pinewoods but also miniature ceramic owls and snails.

A day of shopping can be concluded with a slushie served inside a warm brioche. The Bronte pistachio, figs and almond flavors at the central bar facing the staircase are the best.

Restaurant Il Locandiere (+39 (0)9335 8292) offers a typical lunch while B&B Tre Metri Sopra il Cielo offers a cozy stay at the top of the staircase.

The best way to discover Lecce is to walk the narrow alleys.

3. Lecce, Apulia

Dubbed the Florence of South Italy, Lecce can surprise even Italians. This is one of the country’s poorest regions, where sheep graze among old olive trees and stone walls line the roads.

Like a Western movie, the countryside clashes with the city’s luxurious Baroque, Roman and Renaissance elements.

The churches, like Santa Croce basilica, have golden-stone facades. Elegant fountains are scattered around. There’s the Duomo, the 72-meter-tall bell tower and the vibrant Sant’Oronzo square, the city’s pulsing heart.

Different architectural styles congregate, the most striking being the Roman column and amphitheater (www.infolecce.it). Here lies the center of the city’s lively nightlife too; for evening aperitifs and happy hours there’s the Caffè dell’Anfiteatro, right in front of the ruins.

Le Quattro Spezierie cocktail bar offers great finger foods on a stylish terrace overlooking the Baroque buildings.

Restaurants Arte dei Sapori and Rifugio della Buona Stella serve traditional menus at good prices (don’t miss special pasta called “orecchiette”).

A great place to stay is B&B Palazzo Bernardini in the center, an historic and elegantly restyled accommodation.

4. Mantova, Lombardy

Mantova (or Mantua) was the hometown of Rome’s most celebrated poet, Virgil. The pearl of the rich Lombardy region, it’s loaded with artistic heritage and has been inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Splendid buildings and a great skyline echo the grandeur of the Gonzaga, a powerful Renaissance family that helped make the city a rich power and trade center.

Dubbed “Tuscany’s angel in the north,” Palazzo Ducale, the Gonzaga’s historic residence, is a city within the city: 34,000 square meters of masterpieces by artists including Rubens and Raffaello (www.turismo.mantova.it).

Guided tours offer a chance to see the frescoed Palazzo Te and the Bibien scientific theater, a baroque venue that hosted in 1769 the performance of a young Mozart.

The 1472 Clock Tower’s internal mechanism still works.

Art mingles with nature. The foggy Mincio river and lakes create an ideal habitat for many bird species.

Food is a lifestyle here. The pumpkin “tortelli” (a tortellini variant), zafran risotto and pike served with polenta at Antica Osteria della Fragoletta or La Cucina are superb.

Caffé Modì (+39 (0)37618 10111) has the best aperitifs, while the central Rechigi Hotel showcases a permanent contemporary art collection.

5. Matera, Basilicata

Matera is a prehistoric “underground” stone village in the middle of a desolate southern region of Basilicata.

But it’s worth driving for hours to see it.

It is one of the world’s most ancient cities, provided part of the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and its ‘sassi’ (settlements cut out of the stone) and rupestrian churches are inscribed on UNESCO’s World heritage List.

Along the streets you can’t help notice the various layers on which the town was built over the centuries: Christian, Byzantine, Greek-Roman and the Metal Ages all feature.

Some 155 stone churches have been carved out of the rocks – frescoed ashrams and crypts lie close to cathedrals and medieval and Renaissance buildings (www.comune.matera.it).

The road that circles the town, suspended above a deep gorge, provides a view of the many holes carved into the mountain on the other side.

For centuries up to the 1950s, farmers lived and worked in these caves while bandits took refuge there from the authorities. No cars are allowed in and there’s a magical “Lord of the Rings” atmosphere.

Traditional restaurants Alle Fornaci and Trattoria Lucana both serve rich menus.

It’s really worth spending the night here for the scenery: the famous Sassi Hotel, woven inside the city’s fabric, is a restyled 18th-century building.

But if you prefer to sleep in ancient cave-houses, hotel Le Grotte della Cavita offers rooms with breakfast served in a rupestral church (www.sextantio.it/grotte-civita).

6. Narni, Umbria

This Umbrian village was built 3,000 years ago on top of a rocky hilltop above a yawning canyon, cut through by a black river.

Conquered by the Romans who called it Narnia, the dominating Albornoz fortress and lion statue, the symbol of the town, apparently inspired C.S. Lewis in his “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

It’s worth visiting the impressive Augustus bridge, built in Roman times, and the city museum showcasing Renaissance masterpieces (www.comune.narni.tr.it).

June is the best time to visit, when a traditional festival transforms the town into a medieval carnival with horses and dressed-up warriors.

And if you’re looking for something spooky but exciting, don’t miss Narni’s Holy Inquisition underground tunnels, featuring spectacular prison cells covered in graffiti, Masonic symbols and alchemic formulas, and the guided tours in the 700-meter long Formina Roman aqueduct, one of the few open to the public in Italy (www.narnisotterranea.it).

Part of Narni’s mystical status comes from its location: right at the geographical center of Italy.

B&B Podere del Cardinale offers accommodation in a former estate of Pope Giulio II, who commissioned Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

Il Gattamelata restaurant (+39 (0)74420 717245) facing the sculpted Cathedral has great wild boar and delicious porcini mushrooms.

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7. Pienza, Tuscany

Set in Val D’Orcia, Tuscany’s most charming area, Pienza is a tiny jewel, the perfect Renaissance city designed by native Pope Pio II.

Everything here is clean, perfect and tidy. Incredibly restyled with a spectacular Duomo, the historic center of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and lies atop a hill with a circular path around the town walls offering a 360-degree view of the valley.

The main attractions are the cathedral featuring Gothic designs, the papal Palace Piccolomini and the Diocesan museum with breathtaking Renaissance chef d’oeuvres (www.ufficioturisticodipienza.it).

The streets have romantic names – “Love Street,” “Kiss Street” – echoing the concept of an ideal city.

La Buca delle Fate (+39 (0)5787 48448) or Latte di Luna (+39 (0)5787 48606) provide nice lunch stops, with the typical Tuscan menu items including “picci” pasta.

Hotel picks include Hotel Relais Il Chiostro di Pienza, inside a Renaissance convent, or cozier Piccolo Hotel La Valle.

Tuscan olive oil and local Pecorino cheese can be found in any of the many boutiques.

Cycling is another popular pursuit here, enhanced by the area’s green hills, vineyards and olive-trees fields. Guided tours (www.ibiketuscany.com) are popular and Siena lies just an hour’s drive away.

8. San Felice Circeo, Lazio

San Felice Circeo is a picturesque, centuries-old village built on top of Mount Circe, where mythology meets nature.

The place is marked by steep walls, vertiginous ridges and peaks, gorges and pebble-stone coves. Solitary lookout towers scan the ocean.

Between Rome and Naples, this promontory stretches out into the sea and rises along the coast where it is said Aeneas landed from burning Troy and the sorceress Circe bewitched Odysseus.

She kept him prisoner for years in a grotto – the Maga Circe Cave, accessible by sea. The enchantress’s profile is sculpted on the hilltop: its skyline has the shape of a sleeping woman.

At Torre Paola, 30 caves contain evidence of settlement by prehistoric men. The Templar’s Tower and impressive giant walls of the ancient Circei citadel are also noteworthy.

Bus and boat tours head out to what has been dubbed as “a Gods-kissed land,” including the nearby isles of Zannone and Ponza (www.prolococirceo.it).

Part of a lush protected reserve to explore on guided trekking trails, the promontory overlooks the miles-long sand dunes of the Mediterranean bush, buffalo-grazed fields and shimmering lakes.

La Terrazza bar (+39 (0)7735 46303), swarming with people at sunset, is suspended above a precipice. Elegant lounge Bar Centrale in the village square (+39 (0)7735 48098) has great cocktails and delicious home-made ice-cream.

For fresh fish there’s Il Grottino restaurant at the chic port while beach Hotel Maga Circe is one of the best places to bed down.

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9. Syracuse, Sicily

A mix of Greek, Roman, Arabic and Baroque architecture can be found in the vibrant open-air market at the center of this 2,700-year-old Sicilian city.

Each winding alley has a particular beauty and there’s so much to see, from Apollo’s temple and the magnificent Piazza del Duomo to the eerie catacombs that are second only to Rome’s.

The city’s archeological park features one of the greatest Greek theaters and a Roman arena once used for gladiator fights.

The most spectacular attraction is an immense botanic garden featuring dozens of caves from which limestone was extracted to build the city.

Around 8,000 Athenian slaves died in these caves after years of forced labor – it’s said that the caves still echo the prisoners’ laments.

One of these is the Ear of Dionysius, a 30-meters high rock cavern. Legend has it that this is where the tyrant Dionysius jailed his enemies and could hear what they were conspiring through a side room (www.comune.siracusa.it).

Recommended restaurant for fresh fish and great appetizers: Archimede.

Hotel Gran Bretagna, housed in an elegantly renovated 19th century building, offers beautiful frescoed rooms.

10. Turin, Piedmont

Turn was Italy’s first historical capital, where the country’s kings lived. There’s a regal feel to the city’s sophisticated galleries, decorated arcades and 17th-century cafés and piazzas.

Turin is an elegant, charming spot in the wine-rich Piedmont northern region. It’s nicknamed “Madama” (My Lady) and is good even on rainy days thanks to 14 kilometers of covered passages and a chessboard center: orthogonal streets make it impossible to get lost.

Majestic piazzas include Piazza San Carlo, a pedestrian open-air salon. Piazza Castello is worth visiting for a glimpse of the magnificent bronze horse statue and Piazza Vittoria provides Europe’s biggest square.

The architectural symbol of the city is the Mole Antonelliana, a tall building with a superb 360-degree panorama, hosting the National Cinema Museum (www.comune.torino.it).

There are guided tours through the city’s underground tunnels and passing by esoteric symbols, Masonic buildings, historic crime scenes and even some ghosts (www.somewhere.it).

Worth visiting too is the splendid royal palace Reggia di Venaria, a place of historical cafés and sophisticated aperitif lounges.

Caffé Mulassano was the meeting point of royal clerks and artists. Caffé Confetteria Al Bicerin is renowned for the “bicerin,” a typical hot drink made of coffee, chocolate and cream served in a glass goblet.

Mood Libri e Caffé offers aperitifs in a trendy lounge bar setting while traditional meals – like anchovies in green sauce – can be found at restaurant L’Acino.

For some great shopping the comfy Hotel Victoria is close to the boutiques.

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11. Tuscania, Lazio

Tuscania offers a traveler’s cocktail of Etruscan, Roman and the Renaissance worlds. Located in the countryside north of Rome, close to Tuscany’s border, it was built by the Etruscans – an Indo-European people wiped out by the Romans.

It’s a necropolis city: once you pass the surrounding walls and enter the old city you’ll see carved sarcophagi lining the streets.

There are guided tours to the Queen’s Cave, Dado’s tomb and the archaeological area of Colle San Pietro, featuring Roman mosaics, fragments of an ancient road and museum (www.turismotuscania.it).

The Etruscan Seven Spouts Fountain is a great sight too, but there’s more to this town than medieval cathedrals and neighborhoods.

Its ancient tombs are neighbors with monumental palaces, fountains and churches of other periods. The Romanic basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore has an amazing 14th-century wall fresco dubbed by locals “The Souls-Sh***ing Devil.”

Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, it depicts Judgment Day with a devil eating and excreting sinners’ souls – a must see!

The most characteristic bars are Caffé del Duomo facing the cathedral (+39 (0)7614 35426) and Bar San Marco (+39 (0)7614 35586), both central.

Local cuisine is fabulous with strong flavors and original menus. Restaurant Sette Cannelle does a fantastic fettuccine either with wild boar or porcini mushrooms.

For accommodation hotel Tuscania Panoramico features a fabulous terrace overlooking the Etruscan hills.

12. Ventotene, Lazio

Ventotene is a 2-kilometer-long isle close to Rome and a former jail center for lustful Roman noble women and later anti-Fascists.

This is where Nero shipped his wife Claudia Octavia in the first century on false charges of adultery, and where Altiero Spinelli co-wrote the “Ventotene Manifesto,” becoming one of the “founding fathers of the European Union.”

The sea bed here is full of ancient relics, Roman vases and other treasures. A natural marine reserve, it’s a popular diving spot.

Forget discos and wild nights, you’ll be going to bed early and waking up at sunrise.

The ancient Roman port is still used today and the former prisoners’ cells have been transformed into pink, yellow and purple summer houses.

Local boats offer tours to the abandoned, freaky Borbonic prison-fortress on the tiny neighboring isle of Santo Stefano, a sort of old times Alcatraz.

Things to make time for include: Calanave beach, the sunset from Parata Grande cliff (www.paratagrande.com), the Roman Villa of Giulia and the ancient fishery (www.comune.ventotene.lt.it).

The lighthouse cave bar has delicious eggplant sandwiches. Small family-run hotels overlook the sparkling sea and offer extraordinary cuisine and good prices.

If you’re in for something typical and snug, cliff hotel restaurant Isolabella serves homemade pasta and artistic fish dishes on a sun-kissed terrace.

The outdoor tables of Vento di Mare bar (+39 3 4561 65571) have the best grilled octopus and aperitifs on the island.

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