That Italy has some of the finest cities in Europe, you already know. That it has blockbuster smaller towns, which aren’t full of fellow tourists, you might not. The 12 towns here enjoy everything that Italy is good at — incredible art, top-notch food, and beautiful countryside views — but on a smaller scale, with populations under 10,000. As visitors flock back to the major cities, here’s how you can find a more intimate kind of dolce vita. By Julia Buckley
This hilltop Tuscan town on the border of Umbria is overshadowed by the region’s showstopper destinations — in fact, it’s best known for the 1440 battle between Florence and Milan that took place on the plain beneath the town. Despite being lesser-known, however, Anghiari is up there with Italy’s loveliest destinations: a walled town high on a bluff, with pedestrianised alleyways roller coastering up and down the hillside, and crammed with grand palazzi and art-filled churches. Walk the city walls for spectacular views toward Umbria and the Apennine Mountains, learn more about the battle at the brilliant Museo della Battaglia e di Anghiari, which has regular exhibitions in conjunction with Florence’s Uffizi Galleries, and swim in the Tiber — yes, Rome’s river, which is just a mountain stream here. Stay outside town at Agriturismo Terra di Michelangelo, located in the hills with sweeping views and an excellent restaurant.
Cortina d’Ampezzo, Veneto
The “Queen of the Dolomites,” Cortina is a chichi ski resort — it has even been chosen as the location for the 2026 Winter Olympics. But Cortina is just as lovely off the slopes, thanks to the Regole — a collective of the valley’s earliest inhabitants, who are part of the local Ladin ethnic group. They’ve worked hard to stop Cortina from being overbuilt, meaning its small town centre has stayed largely unspoiled compared to other resorts. Stay in the hills outside town at El Brite de Larieto, a working farm with a B&B and superb restaurant (the same family owns the Michelin-starred SanBrite).
Calabria is famously the toe of Italy‘s boot, and on the knobbly bit of the toe, you’ll find the Capo Vaticano peninsula, home to some of the south’s best beaches. Tropea sits right at the edge, where the cliffs plunge vertically into the sea and the volcano island of Stromboli belches smoke offshore in the distance. Tropea itself is a beautiful mix of palazzo-filled alleyways coming to an abrupt stop at the cliff face, where there’s a pretty crescent of sand at the bottom.
Already a thriving town when Rome was just a minor settlement, Norcia, in the Umbrian mountains, has long been a place of pilgrimage — both for religion (St. Benedict, who founded the Benedictine order of monks, was born here) and for food. So famous are the butchers here that norcineria has become the word used all over Italy for a type of deli, and prosciutto di Norcia is up there with Parma ham for its quality. The town was devastated by an earthquake in 2016, but Norcia is holding on — and while many historic buildings, including the churches, are still rubble, the town’s superb restaurants and food shops continue to operate. Many are in temporary buildings on the outskirts of town, but the new surroundings haven’t affected the quality — this is still one of Italy’s best foodie destinations. Cantina 48 is a top option, especially if you like truffles. For accommodation, stay at luxe retreat Palazzo Seneca, which also has its own Michelin-starred restaurant.
Palmanova, Friuli Venezia Giulia
Seen from the air, Palmanova is a gem — literally. Its striking star-shaped walls were built by its Venetian rulers in 1593, and they’ve been preserved so well that they’re part of a UNESCO World Heritage network of Venetian defences. Meanwhile, the elegant town itself — shaped like a finely cut gemstone — radiates out in neat wedges from the hexagonal main square.
Thought the Amalfi Coast was Italy’s prettiest seaside road trip? Prepare to be blown away by Sardinia’s west coast, where the road swerves around cliffs, wiggles across bridges, and switchbacks through towns and villages spilling down the cliffside. Bosa — on lower ground, astride the Temo river as it reaches the sea — is one of the prettiest. Its houses are painted in Instagram-friendly pastels and the town is watched over by an ancient castle. Following the river just outside out of town, you’ll find Bosa Marina, one of Sardinia’s most popular beaches. Villa Asfodeli is a lovely albergo diffuso (scattered hotel), located in Tresnuraghes, a 10-minute walk away.
San Vito Lo Capo, Sicily
In the summer, people flock here for the nearly two-mile beach, splayed out at the foot of the town. But sunny San Vito — dangling into the Med on Sicily’s northwestern tip — offers year-round charm. It punches above its weight culturally, with a summer literary festival, a fall climbing festival (in the mountains rearing up behind town), and the annual Cous Cous Fest in September, which brings chefs from all over the Mediterranean to share their traditional couscous recipes. It’s perfectly placed for outdoorsy vacations, with two nature reserves — Monte Cofano and Zingaro — nearby.
Central Italy is packed with fortified medieval hill towns, all enjoying jaw-dropping views over the local landscape. Treia is one of the loveliest, perched amid the undulating hills around Macerata in the Marche region. Where many equally pretty towns have been taken over by tourism, Treia remains fiercely local, with storefronts more likely to be taken up by football clubs than souvenir shops. The surrounding countryside is full of excellent agriturismi and B&Bs — try La Casa Degli Amori, run by an English couple who knows the area better than many locals.
When Horace Walpole wrote his gothic horror novel, The Castle of Otranto, he hadn’t actually been there; if he had, perhaps the book would have been less of a screamfest. This beautiful fishing town spilling down the hillside on the Salento peninsula — the spike on Puglia’s heel of the Italian boot — oozes dolce vita, from the seafront restaurants serving freshly netted fish to the white-stoned palazzi lining the streets. There is a 15th-century castle, and the cathedral has one of the finest mosaic floors in Italy, with zodiac signs, the Tower of Babel, and even Alexander the Great on there, all done in the 12th century.
As Italy’s foodie capital, Emilia-Romagna is known for its pasta, prosciutto, and parmesan — but not its olive oil. Things are different in Brisighella, though — in the hills heading toward Tuscany, this bluff-topping town, overlooked by an ancient castle, produces exceptional oil, bringing people from all over the region to its annual festival. Every May, the Borgo Indie festival brings together small food producers from the area.
Civita di Bagnoregio, Lazio
Under 20 people live in Civita, once a thriving Renaissance town, later largely abandoned due to subsidence (this is Lazio’s canyon country). Most locals now live in Bagnoregio, the town sitting across the canyon, while access to Civita itself — now just a nub of the original town, the rest having fallen into the abyss — is via a long, steep walkway. That said, it’s an Italian borgo (walled town) at its best, with cobbled alleyways, flowerpots on the doorways, and gasp-inducing views of the badlands surrounding it. Despite its tiny population, Civita is home to an exceptional restaurant that wouldn’t be out of place in Rome or Milan — Alma Civita, sculpted from the rock face by the pre-Roman Etruscan civilization.
Porto Venere, Liguria
The Cinque Terre towns are smaller than Porto Venere if you’re going by population, but add in the tourists and you’re at city numbers on the streets. Porto Venere — reached by a winding bus route across the mountains or a ferry — has all the sea views and cutesy alleyways of Cinque Terre, but it’s not as busy, with more Italian than international visitors. Its seafront, which features brightly painted houses, is typical Genoese style, while the caruggi (alleys) behind it are filled with shops and bars. Can’t skip Cinque Terre? Boats from here take you straight there.