The Roman Colosseum, The Sistine Chapel, Mt Vesuvius, Cinque Terre and Florence were places I always thought of when I dreamed of visiting Italy. Looking back at the 5,000 km I walked through Italy in 2017, I found that visiting these sites will leave you somewhat unfulfilled. A visitor doesn’t really learn very much about Italy or its people by visiting them. They are not quintessential “Italian” experiences in my mind. They tend to be crowded and filled with American tourists. Your senses are assaulted by street vendors, cheap trinkets and occasionally, scams. As great as these places were, I left thirsty for a truly Italian experience.
With this in mind, I have made a list the “Best of Italy”. These are the places that I enjoyed in my time in Italia, that others might consider when planning a vacation.
1. Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso: Gran Sasso, not the Alps, is where the finest hiking in Italy is found. Far less crowded than the Dolomites, Gran Sasso in Abruzzo, features hiking trails with beautiful ridge walking, clear trails, and stunning sunsets. It’s a very rural area, so finding authentic and cost effective food isn’t too difficult. Italy is home to the largest wolf population in Western Europe and if you are going to see one, this might be the place.
2. The Dolomites: In northeastern Italy are the most visually striking mountains in Europe. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it features phenomenal trails, cheap accommodation, and lots of tourists. The food culture is not as satisfying to my palate than what you might find in the south, but still somewhat interesting. German language can be heard as often as Italian among the inhabitants of this region.
3. Amalfi (Sorrentine Peninsula): Definitely a tourist destination, it spares you of the tackiness and unseemly commercialism of Cinque Terre. We hiked into the Sorrentine Peninsula from the north and arrived in Sorrento, on the Gulf of Naples. Sorrento was surprisingly “local” and affordable. We hiked over the mountains to the Gulf of Salerno and connected to the Path of the Gods which dropped us into the charming Nocelle and the swanky Positano.
4. Siena: In the heart of Tuscany, Siena is a charming city with plenty to see, especially the Cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo. Similar to Florence, but more easily consumed in a short period of time.
5. Passo Stelvio: In Northern Italy, along the border to Switzerland and Austria, Passo Stelvio climbs to above 9,000 feet (2,700m) and is a scenic playground for hikers, bikers and cyclists.
6. Appennino Tosco Emiliano National Park: Beautiful mountain ridges, cheap accommodations in various mountain huts, and locally sourced food. This park features above the tree line hiking and deep forest rambles.
7. Tuscany, Along The Via Francigena: The little villages and small cities along the S2 highway on the Italian Camino are clips from travel brochures; San Gimignano, San Miniato, Monteriggione, Radicofani, Buonconvento and Lucca are mostly walled cities upon a hill, surrounded by rolling vineyards and farms. Great food and wine, and welcoming hosts used to seeing tourists.
8. Umbria: Mountains and hills similar to Tuscany, but much quieter and more remote. Some beautiful cities in the region such as Assisi and Perugia.
9. Selvaggio Blu (Sardinia): Sardinia is very rural but you will find people along the east coast in the mountains that hug the Tyrrhenian Sea. The most remarkable blue ocean is found here and the best hiking in southern Italy.
10. Venice: Beautiful architecture, Rialto Market, The Grand Canal, and reasonably consumable in a couple of days. Visually eye popping, but it’s filled with tourist traps, and it’s harder to find great food than you might find in the south.