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I’ve Lived in Italy for 15 Years — and These Are My Favorite Lesser-known Destinations

If I start to wax on about how much Italy has changed in the 15 years I’ve lived here, and how crowded it’s become, someone please stop me. Yes, it’s true the crowds have increased, overwhelmingly so in some places. And yes, globalism and the global pandemic have ruthlessly affected small-scale retailers and artisanal producers of every type. Much of the Italy that confronts visitors seems a bit too polished, like a cleaned-up, curated version of the real thing. After all these years, it sometimes feels like there’s nothing new under the Italian sun.

But just when I start to think I’ve seen all there is to see in Italy, I visit another great, new-to-me corner of the country that’s relatively free of crowds and serves as a reminder that there’s much more than the well-worn circuit so many pursue. There are lived-in mountain villages, traditional seaside towns that have remained unchanged in the last 50 years, and thriving cities where Italians of all ages live, work, study, and meet for a coffee or an aperitivo. Here are five of my recent favorites.

Pizzo, Calabria

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The southern region of Calabria isn’t the place to visit if you want a highly curated version of Italy. It’s lived-in and slightly unkempt, with idyllic towns and warm inhabitants. For some seaside flavor, visit the town of Pizzo, which Cherrye Moore of My Bella Vita Travel called “the lesser-known cousin of Tropea” as we walked to its pleasant piazza. You’ll hear way more Italian than English here, as well as streets, shops, and markets filled with locals going about their daily routines. This stretch of the Tyrrhenian coast offers brilliantly clear, blue water and lots of small coves with sandy beaches. The tartufo, a decadent gelato dessert, is best where it was invented, at Gelateria Ercole. And bright Piccolo Grand Hotel is the nicest in a town that values simplicity over swankiness.

Trieste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia

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Italy’s most elegant city is also one of its most historically fascinating, thanks to its strategic location on the northern Adriatic Sea. “Trieste is a bridge between two worlds,” our guide, Francesca, said as she walked us through Miramare Castle, the 19th-century seaside palace of Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria. During its five-plus centuries of Habsburg rule, Trieste was Austria’s only link to the sea, and vitally important in times of both war and peace. In the Cold War years, it was on the frontier of the Iron Curtain, with the former Yugoslavia just about six miles away. Today, it’s a mostly harmonious mix of Italian, Austro-Hungarian, and Slavic/Slovenian cultures, languages, cuisines, and architecture. Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta is a five-star property in the city, or make it a beach break at Tivoli Portopiccolo Sistiana Wellness Resort & Spa, a full-service resort about 30 minutes from Trieste.

Bressanone/Brixen, South Tyrol

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Some of our best summer vacations as a family have been to the Dolomites, which has glorious weather, dramatic scenery, and pretty small towns. My latest favorite place is Bressanone (or Brixen in the province’s first language of German), the oldest town in South Tyrol. Its colorful, compact center dates to the 12th century and is just as charming as you want it to be — even its cathedral is done up in shades of blue and yellow. Nearby Mount Plose is a winter ski resort, but also a summer playground where you can hop on a mountain coaster, hike, or go mountain biking. Back in Brixen, Adler Historic Guesthouse offers cozy dining and a riverfront setting. In nearby Luson, we stayed at Sonnwies Dolomites, a kid-friendly resort that also takes good care of parents.

Paestum, Campania

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Italy has no shortage of important archaeological sites, but its most popular ones are overrun with visitors most of the year. That’s why visiting the Archaeological Park of Paestum, on the Tyrrhenian coast south of Salerno, is a refreshing alternative. The mighty Greek temples here (the site was part of ancient Magna Grecia) were standing when Rome was still a swampy settlement of mud huts, and they remain remarkably preserved. It’s quite something to wander among these monumental stacks of stone, where an absence of crowds makes the past seem a lot closer. Bonus: Paestum is a beach town, and while it’s known among Italians, you’re not likely to hear much English spoken. The Savoy Hotel & Spa is a pleasantly upscale choice in the area, and it has its own beach club and buffalo mozzarella farm.

Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna

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Ravenna, a low-lying city near the Adriatic Sea, is easily one of Italy’s most livable places, and it’s one that visitors — especially art history lovers — shouldn’t overlook. The Romans, Ostrogoths, and Byzantines all left their marks here, most notably in elaborate mosaics — those in the Basilica of San Vitale date to the 500s and are among the most beautiful creations of western art. Ravenna’s manageably sized centro storico is well-suited for walking or biking, and its cafes, roomy piazzas, and large covered market are optimal for watching daily life go by in an Italian city. (No wonder Dante chose to remain here after he was banished from Florence.) Expect a lot more vacation rentals than hotels in the centro, though Palazzo Bezzi Ravenna is among the chicer options.

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