Italians love their staycations. Every August, without fail, much of the country shuts down and hits the beach or mountains. Restaurants close, entire offices turn on their autoreply messages, and the nation breathes — normally together, as the only thing Italians love doing more than spending August in a sun lounger is spending it in an Italian sun lounger. By
But they don’t go to the same places as tourists. The Italy of Italian vacations is a different beast from visitors’ usual network of art cities and Tuscan hills. While you’re there, they’re off exploring mountain meadows, relaxing on wild beaches, steaming in hot springs, or visiting lesser-known cities. Living in Venice, I’m used to escaping the crowds. Here’s where to follow Italians on vacation.
Named after the ancient Etruscan civilisation that lived here in pre-Roman times, this area of northern Lazio, a couple of hours north of Rome, has everything: rolling hills, clifftop villages, shimmering lakes, and crumbling badlands. The village of Civita di Bagnoregio, one of Italy’s most beautiful borghi (walled towns), is its best-known point. Perched high on a bluff between three canyons, and with just 12 permanent residents, its haunting beauty is accessible only via a 366-meter bridge across the abyss. Once past the gates, you can wind through the Renaissance-era alleys and around the edge of town, which used to be much bigger — before its outer edges plunged into the canyon.
Most people stay less than an hour, but you should definitely stop for lunch at Alma Civita, a superb modern restaurant in a cave sculpted by the Etruscans over 2,000 years ago. Stay overnight at Locanda della Buona Ventura to experience Civita at night, when it’s just you, the crumbling walls, and a colony of stray cats. It’s a great base for exploring the Tuscia area, with the grand Palazzo dei Papi in Viterbo and Europe’s largest volcanic lake, Bolsena, both within easy reach. It took me years to get here. Don’t make my mistake.
Straddling the hills in the central Marche region, due east across the Apennine Mountains from Florence, Urbino is one of Italy’s great art cities. The walled brick city is home to the enormous twin-towered Palazzo Ducale, the court of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, one of the main drivers of the Renaissance outside Florence. His sprawling palace is now a vast art gallery displaying much of his collection, including works from Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, and Raphael.
In fact, Raphael was born just up the street — his father was Federico’s court painter — and in his birthplace, you can see what is said to be his first work of art: a Madonna and Child, painted when he was just 15 years old, frescoed on the wall.
But it’s not all about the galleries here. Today, Urbino is a lively university town in Italy, where you can join the students for a crescia (a lard-moistened flatbread, filled with anything from chard to ham and cheese) while overlooking the terra-cotta rooftops and the rumpled hills beyond from the Parco della Resistenza, a green space below a ruined medieval castle.
If you thought Tuscany was all art-filled hilltop towns and cypress avenues, you need to follow in-the-know Romans, who spend their weekends on the region’s southern stretch of coast, brushing the border with Lazio. Here, you’ll find beaches, dramatic canyon-top towns, and excellent food and drink. If it’s summer, hit the beaches of Monte Argentario, an island welded to the mainland by two thick sandbars, or wander around Capalbio, a chichi hill town overlooking the coastline. An hour inland is Pitigliano, pitched dramatically on a canyon edge, its houses sculpted from the rock itself. The town is known as Italy’s “Little Jerusalem” for its Jewish community dating back to the 16th century. Wiggle west from Pitigliano around the back of Monte Amiata, the dormant volcano that looms over southern Tuscany, and you’ll reach the spectacular hot springs at Saturnia. At the Cascate del Mulino, the water gushes down steaming cascades, forming natural soaking tubs. While it’s great for photos, the place you really want to be is at the resort up the road, Terme di Saturnia, where the pool for hotel guests is a natural crater, with water bubbling straight up from the source.
Alpe di Siusi, South Tyrol
When August rolls around, Italians have two options: beach or mountain. And up in the Dolomites — whose jagged, tooth-like peaks famously flush pink in the setting sun — is Alpe di Siusi, a landscape of rippling green meadows. It’s so out of this world that it feels like a film set — especially if you stay right in the middle of it all at the Adler Lodge Alpe, a stunning modern chalet-style hotel perched on a hill with an outdoor infinity pool pointed right at the peaks. Follow the sound of cowbells to the malga (mountain farm) a few minutes’ walk away for home-produced meat, cheese, and kaiserschmarrn pancakes, or take off into the green. In winter, this is one of the Dolomites’ best areas for intermediate skiers; you’ll find more challenging runs on the other side of Ortisei, the pretty, German-influenced town at the bottom of the ski lifts (and home to the Adler Lodge’s sibling, Adler Dolomiti).
Foreigners flock to Puglia — the heel of Italy’s boot — for its cutesy white-stone fishing villages south of Bari and conical hobbit-like stone houses, called trulli, in the pretty Valle d’Itria. But keep heading south and you’ll find yourself on the sleepy Salento peninsula — the very southern tip. The main city of Lecce is known for its sumptuous baroque architecture, though I also love Nardò — smaller and less manicured, but just as romantic.
The coastline is also extraordinary. On the eastern side, it’s a dramatic roller coaster of prickly pear-topped cliffs with natural wonders like the Zinzulusa Cave, filled with stalactites and stalagmites. Meanwhile, the west coast has some of the finest beaches in Italy. Pescoluse is known as Puglia’s answer to the Maldives, thanks to its two miles of sheer, gently shelving water. And the vast, soft-sanded bay around the fishing village of Gallipoli is packed with beach clubs during summer. Don’t miss Punta Prosciutto further north, too — a wide, dune-backed slick of sand lapped by calm, clear waters. The best hotel in the area is the modern art-filled La Fiermontina in Lecce — its olive-filled garden and pool are pure Salento in the city.
When the Cinque Terre are too crowded and Portofino is too glitzy, you need genteel Camogli, the understated belle of the Ligurian coast. Backed by rearing forested hills, with its candy-coloured houses racked up along the pebbly bay, it’s the classic Italian Riviera, and still retains a feel of yesteryear. This is one place where it’s worth splashing out — grand dame hotel Cenobio dei Dogi sits on the glassy gulf, with terraces cantilevered over the water. The town is beautiful to wander — spot the colourful trompe l’oeil windows and balconies on the elegant houses, or climb up to the Castello della Dragonara, a 13th-century fortification overlooking the sea. If you’re a diver, zip down to the Christ of the Abyss, a statue of Jesus throwing up his hands from the seabed in San Fruttuoso Bay. Pretty Portofino, Santa Margherita Ligure, and Rapallo are within a half-hour drive, but none roll back the centuries like Camogli. Don’t miss Michelin-recommended seafood restaurant Da Paolo, or if you really love fish, visit for the annual Sagra del Pesce (fish festival) in May, when the town’s fishermen cook a mega fry-up of the day’s catch in an enormous pan on the waterfront.
Trieste, Friuli Venezia Giulia
Trieste is home to Europe’s largest waterfront square, city centre beaches, and a fairy-tale castle cantilevered over clear, blue water. If it were anywhere else, Trieste would be on top of visitors’ lists. But because it’s two hours from Venice, it gets overlooked.
As a Venetian resident, though, this is my retreat. Sure, its single canal is no match for La Serenissima, but where Venice feels like a slice of the past, this is a thoroughly modern city on water. It only became Italian in 1920. Before that, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — and it shows. Grand Habsburg-era buildings line the main square, Piazza Unità d’Italia, which opens straight onto the glassy Gulf of Trieste. The rococo cafes that line the streets sell strudel and Sacher torte, and its most famous sight — the bone-white Miramare Castle — juts out into the water five miles out of town and was built by an Austrian archduke. It’s the perfect spot for the summer, when the five-mile stretch of coast to Miramare turns into a rocky beach, and beach clubs open in the city centre (my favourite is La Lanterna, which is so old-school that there are still separate areas for men and women). Throw in a Roman amphitheatre and another castle with a wine bar in the ramparts, and you have the recipe for a perfect weekend.
Capo Vaticano, Calabria
Calabria, the knobbly toe of Italy’s boot, gets little love from international visitors. All the better for the Italians, who flood down for unspoiled towns, Amalfi-style coastal roads, and brooding views of Sicily across the water.
But it’s the beaches around Capo Vaticano that are the main summer draw. Coddled by high, green-fuzzed cliffs, they’re a series of sandy coves and sweeps, squaring off against volcano-island Stromboli, which puffs smoke into the sky offshore. They’re not well signposted, so to find them, head west from Ricadi and follow the signs to beachside campsites. While you’re in the area, don’t miss Pizzo, the home of tartufo — Italy’s legendary dessert of chocolate and hazelnut gelato balls filled with molten chocolate sauce and dusted in cocoa powder. The nearby town of Tropea is a knockout, too. Here, you’ll find a slalom trail of narrow streets and baroque palaces abruptly finishing at a cliff’s edge, beyond which is a church-topped rock, stitched to the mainland with a dainty beach.
Closer to Tunisia than Italy, this oval-shaped island off the southwest coast of Sicily is where Italians (as well as A-listers) come to check out of the rat race. Phone signal is scarce, the best restaurants are shacks on the beach, and instead of high-rise hotels, there are dammusi — traditional white-domed, box-like houses stacked down the sheer cliffs. There’s little to do here, but that’s exactly the point: The main road, which loops the island, will deliver you to tiny coves and beaches where warm thermal springs bubble up from the bottom of the sea. They’re all rocky, but if you want sand, head inland to Specchio di Venere, or Mirror of Venus — a bright turquoise lake of sulphur-rich thermal waters in an old volcanic crater. Cover yourself in mud from the edges, baste on the sand, and repeat.
Few other countries do rolling hills like Italy, but while foreigners make a beeline for Tuscany, residents love Le Marche, the central region on the eastern Adriatic coast. Across the Apennine Mountains from Tuscany and Umbria, it has just as many hilltop towns and unspoiled landscapes, but fewer visitors. It’s a large and varied region, but for a real “Under the Tuscan Sun” feel, I love the area around the university city of Macerata. The views from here — snow-dusted mountains in the distance and terra-cotta towns perched on hills that roll down toward the sea — are so spectacular that even Napoleon was captivated. He demanded to stay the night instead of moving on, and so should you.
Macerata itself needs a full day to discover. Palazzo Buonaccorsi, an ancient and modern art gallery in a glam old palace, is a can’t-miss attraction, but for me, this area is all about the smaller hilltop towns, and the roads snaking around the billowing landscape that you’ll take to move between them. Montappone, Mogliano, and San Severino Marche are all gorgeous, but my favourite is Treia. It feels a bit like Tuscany’s Montepulciano, with a main square cantilevered over the open landscape, narrow, photo-friendly streets, and even a little jewel box of a 19th-century theatre. Stay in a B&B immersed in the landscape — I’m a repeat visitor to the gorgeous La Casa degli Amori, located in the hills outside Treia and owned by an English couple. As newcomers, they’re aware of how special the area is, and their suggestions for private museums, tiny olive groves, and artisan handbag makers always make the vacation.