The scenery in the Italian countryside ranges from towering Alpine mountains to gentle island seascapes. But if you want something besides countryside tours and crowded urban tourist sites, Italy has plenty more for you to explore. These four under-the-radar cities capture both the natural charms and man-made charisma that have garnered this nation the fitting nickname "Bel Paese" — beautiful country.
Ancient culture comes to life in the southern Tuscan town of Saturnia, located in the Maremma region of western Italy. Home to 3,000-year-old thermal springs that are heated by the underground volcanic roots of Mount Amiata, the sulphuric waters pool into a crater before flowing over the Cascate del Mulino and Cascate del Gorello at a warm and inviting 99.5° Fahrenheit. Historical texts tell of these hot springs being used by the pre-Roman Etruscan people, and today they can be enjoyed for free by sightseers seeking rest and rejuvenation in their bubbling turquoise baths.
The city itself showcases a living archaeological record of its Roman past as a stop along the famous Via Clodia, or the "thermal way." Remains of the road can still be found within the town proper, alongside the Aldobrandesca Fortress, the Porta Romana walled arch, and the medieval Church of Santa Maria Maddalena. A visit to the Archaeological Museum of Saturnia reveals the historical Etruscan excavations of the Ciacci family, and the nearby Park of Roselle showcases well-preserved Etruscan city architecture. There's plenty of pampering to be had in Saturnia, as well, with cozy bed and breakfasts, cafes, and even a world-class wellness and golf resort.
Known as the gateway to the Italian Riviera, La Spezia is a port city that more than holds its own when it comes to enchanting Italian culture. Packed with family-owned eateries, numerous museums, a naval base, and even its own artist-inspired body of water, this Mediterranean hub of just under 100,000 people is a great jumping-off point to explore the Liguria and Tuscany regions. This old town has preserved some of the original architecture from the Germanic Lombard Era, and the dividing line between the historic center and new district, Via del Prione, blends landmarks from the past with contemporary shopping, art, and culinary scenes.
Visitors can take a stroll down the palm-tree encased Passeggiata Costantino Morin to enjoy views of the harbor and catch a glimpse of the Apuan Alps, before heading to the Naval Technical Museum to learn about the history of the Italian special forces at the oldest naval museum in the world. The fortress Castello di San Giorgio houses its own archaeological museum containing Roman artifacts, and the city's vibrant civic theater features opera, dance, and musical ensembles. Perhaps La Spezia's most charming claim to fame is the Gulf of Poets, which has inspired numerous writers with its colorful Italian landscapes. The bay offers sailing, diving, and coastal "village hopping," where you can enjoy fresh seafood, quaint shopping excursions, and wine tastings. Other activities include visiting artisan workshops, castle tours, hiking and biking, and rejuvenating spa treatments along the magnificent Italian Riviera coastline.
Syracuse, Island of Sicily
If outdoor museums are more up your alley, you won't want to miss the archaeological sites in the ancient Greek city of Syracuse on the Island of Sicily. Founded in 734 B.C. on Ortigia, just off the Sicilian mainland, the city soon spread across the Mediterranean Bay. Throughout its rich history, Syracuse has experienced Arab, Frankish, Norman, Spanish, Byzantine, and Roman rule, making it a fascinating place to experience some of the world's most celebrated cultures.
At just two-thirds of a mile long and about one-third wide, the Ortigia Island section of the city is known as the "White Pearl of Syracuse" for its many marble-encased buildings. The Piazza del Duomo — built in the 5th century B.C. — holds timeless treasures such as the Temple of Apollo, which is surrounded by one of the oldest churches in Europe, the Syracuse Cathedral. The city was founded here due to its natural freshwater spring sourced from the Ciane River, and today the central Fountain of Arethusa still stands encased in papyrus grasses. Also, an open-air farmers' market overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, and it's complemented by Ortigia's chic, contemporary wine bars, restaurants, craft shops, and boutiques.
Three bridges connect the Citta Vecchia to the "new" Syracuse on Sicily's sunny southeastern shores. Here sits the Neopolis Archaeological Park, one of Italy's greatest heritage sites and where you can still see performances by the National Institute of Ancient Drama at the original 5th century Greek Amphitheater. The park also houses a Roman Amphitheater, ancient stone quarries and cave networks, and the Altar of Hieron II dedicated to Zeus the Deliverer. Just on the city's outskirts sits the Necropolis of Pantelica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, containing rock-formed tombs from as far back as the 13th century B.C. Head back to the city to see the impressive stone fortress castles, ornate basilicas, and dazzling blue beaches of this 2,700-year-old treasure by the sea.
A trip to the northwestern Italian city of Turin will take you from serene ocean sunsets to snow-covered mountain panoramas. Known colloquially as the Italian capital of the Alps, Turin is located in the famed Piedmont wine region, which produces some of the world's most celebrated red Barbaresco and Barolo varieties from the indigenous nebbiolo grapes. You can enjoy the fruits of the area's local vineyards at one of the Celtic city's oldest restaurants, the 500-year old Tre Galline, or pair a glass with the famed gianduiotti chocolates made from hazelnuts and cocoa brought to the city by Spaniards. Torina, as the Italians call this vibrant and innovative town of around 900,000 people, has been known as the capital of chocolate since 1678, when chefs began blending creamy hot drink delights, such as the espresso, chocolate, and whole milk concoction that you can still enjoy at Café al Bicerin.
Nestled against the Po River, the city seamlessly blends sophisticated charm with adventurous outdoor living. Visitors can experience a bicycle or walking tour along the tree-lined waterway and see medieval palaces, cathedrals, and castles, all set against a backdrop of the western Alpine Arch. Favorite sights include the Castello del Valentino, which was renovated from an ancient building in the 16th and 17th centuries and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the replica Medieval Village in Valentino Park. Turin's central Piazza Castello is also home to a myriad of architectural marvels, and the Lingotto entertainment district houses the famed Fiat Factory, with a museum dedicated to the city's most famous car. When you're ready to discover the majesty of the mountains, try a day hike to Mont des Capucins for views of the entire town, or journey into historic Susa Valley to walk in the footsteps of pilgrims who once journeyed to the Holy Land along the Via Francigena. This natural wonder also has some of the most fabulous climbing expeditions and ski resorts in the world.