The Top 10 Spots in Southern Italy

by Monique @ Italian Fix

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top spots southern italy matera

Curious about Southern Italy?

If you’ve traveled through all that’s north of the boot already, you’re probably ready for something new.

Something different from the usual suspects. Venice, Florence, Milan – you’ve been there, done that.

If you want to get off the beaten track, Southern Italy is it.

It’s got nonna-cooking-in-her-apron on Sunday soul. It’s ancient and simple. More ruins, less boutiques.

We take our clients on a Southern Italy tour every chance we get, because it’s too darn pretty not to share.

But you don’t have to tag along on our tours to get the low-down on our secret sweet spots.

This list is every beginner’s guide to Southern Italy. The best ways to get around. Why it’s worth it. Where we take our people. And why we love these places so darn much.

What you should know about Southern Italy:

  • You’ll do best when traveling by car. If you’re planning on hanging out in Southern Italy for a while, a car is the best way to get around (rentals or private driver). If you can’t rent a car, check out our ideas for northern Italy.
  • Traveling between July-August? Not all places on this list will be suitable this time of year. Some will be fantastic. More deets below.
  • Hotels. Book well in advance for any popular city on the Amalfi Coast. As well as anywhere in Italy on the coast in August. We’re talking 6-9 months in advance. For our tours, we book our client hotels a year or more in advance.

Top Spots in Southern Italy We Love

1. Matera

top spots southern italy matera

Pack your toga and your cutest leather sandals, because Matera looks like it’s hardly changed since ancient times. Visiting Matera is like stepping back into Biblical times – or another planet. In fact, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was filmed here because it still looks like what Jerusalem might have looked like thousands of years ago. Our Southern Italy tour clients call it “otherworldly.”

As far as popularity goes, it’s virtually undiscovered – it only became a real tourism destination in 2014. Matera also recently won the bid to become the European Capital of Culture in 2019, so it is The Place to Be In Italy in 2019.

What we dig in Matera:
Just lookin’ at it. It’s a clay-colored city made up of rock-hewn dwellings, so it’s pretty jaw-dropping. The feeling of being transported back in time. It was first occupied in the Paleolithic Era, and said to have been founded by the Romans in the 3rd century BC. And it doesn’t seem to have changed much (except the cocktails are better and the running water is a bonus). Those creamy stone laneways are so gorgeous. We take our clients cruising in a cute Ape Calessino (like an Italian tuk-tuk) for the day. Wandering into the Sassi district, which is home to 1500 prehistoric cave dwellings. These digs are old! You just gotta see Matera to believe it.

How to get here:
This area is best explored by car, but if you’re driving, we recommend you be very comfortable cruising on roads less traveled. You can drive (or hire a private driver) from Bari to the east or Naples or the Amalfi Coast to the west.

If you’re flying in, you arrive at Bari Karol Wojtyla Airport (BRI). From here you can take a shuttle bus directly to Matera, or you can take a bus to Bari Centrale, and grab a train on the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane line (the FAL is outside of Bari Centrale by Piazza Aldo Moro) to Matera Centrale (travel time: 80 minutes).

You can also get to Matera by bus from many Italian cities. Bus companies to check for schedules are Flixbus, Marozzi, Liscio, Petruzzi, Miccolis and Marino.

2. Positano

top spots southern italy positano

Perched on a cliffside abloom with pastel buildings, Positano is the definition of quintessential Amalfi Coast. It’s a tiny village, where all paths run down to the sea. And it’s where your shoulders sink the second you arrive. The only hard decisions here are choosing between lounging on the beach or on a boat. This gorgeous town built around one stretch of sand is basically designed for winding down, which is why it’s the first stop on our Southern Italy tour.

What we dig in Positano:
People-watching in cafés. Rooftop domes filled with sand (to keep the town cool in summer and warm in winter). The fact that there’s only one street you can drive on. 400-step staircases (to burn off Positano-lemon gelato). Hopping on a boat, ‘cause it’s the best way to drink in the Amalfi Coast. Tranquil turquoise water. Boutique shopping for fab finds. Mostly, chillin’ under an orange-and-green umbrella on Fornello Beach.

How to get here:
Two ways: fly into Naples and arrange a private transfer to Positano, or take the ferry over. And if you want to drive along gorgeous windy roads, it’s easiest to do it from Rome or Naples.

3. Rome

top spots southern italy rome

Everyone pretty much agrees that The Eternal City is one of the most beautiful metropolises on the planet. It’s a mix of stylish and chic, but has a dose of grit and grime too. It’s rooted in ancient history but lives in modernity, so you have a real duality happening here. There’s something for everyone in Rome – history fans, art lovers, shopaholics and foodies included.

What we dig in Rome:
Truthfully, you can spend a month in Rome and barely scratch the surface. Definitely scope out the classic must-see spots in the historic city center: The Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Villa Borghese – you know the deal. We love how walkable Rome is (bring your comfiest shoes), because it means we can eat more carbonara. Pop by the Jewish Ghetto for a small-neighborhood feel and yummy eats. See Testaccio and explore its market – it’s one of the few areas we think has retained real “Romanness”. Monti’s crooked low-rise buildings and BlackMarket Hall are our faves, too. (We’re fans of more unique things to do in Rome.)

How to get here:
The easiest way to get to Rome is to fly into one of their two major airports: Fiumicino or Ciampino. Fiumcino is Rome’s largest airport, and reasonably connected to the city center (30-45 minutes away). Ciampino is on the smaller side, but no frills – so things move faster there. Though it’s closer to the city center, it’s not served by a regular transport network, so you’ll have to rely on commercial airport shuttle, taxi, private car with driver, or private car rental.

Want to save time, money and have more fun? Travel using our city guide to Rome.

4. Palermo (Sicily)

top spots southern italy palermo sicily

Palermo is on the island of Sicily, and it’s hella fascinating. Each year, just one Italian city is named the Italian capital of Culture. In 2018, that city is Palermo! Saying it’s got “culture” barely scratches the surface of the Arabesque domes here. It’s been a strategic military and trading position throughout history, and invaders have left their mark everywhere. Think architectural and foodie influences from the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Normans, Swabians, French and Spanish Bourbons.

What we love in Palermo:
Byzantine mosaics. Teatro Massimo (Italy’s biggest opera house). Tucking into street food like sfincione and arancini at 10 pm. Taking home treasures from antique markets. Gothic-renaissance sculptures sprinkled throughout the city. 25-acre long botanical gardens. Creepy cool catacombs. The endless events in the city’s social calendar – scope them out before you go.

How to get here:
Getting to Palermo is a cinch ’cause — ta da! — it has an airport. (When traveling Italy, this is something to cheer about!) So it’s simple to add a trip to Palermo to your European itinerary by using the convenient “hopper flights” within Europe. Staying 2 nights will work, and head over to the Aeolian islands next (more on these fab islands below). Oh, and we have some sweet tips on how to get to Sicily here.

5. Aeolian Islands

top spots southern italy aeolian islands lipari sicily

The Aeolian Islands are the Hawaii of Italy. It’s a string of islands north of Sicily, and it’s silly gorgeous. We take clients here as part of our Sicily tour. Our founder Bianca even invited a bunch of friends to enjoy Salina Island on her birthday.

And as amazing as it may be, hardly anyone knows about it. But the ones who do keep coming back. Because they know they’ll have the place all to themselves.

Insider tip: travel here between Easter-October. Book in advance if you want to visit in August.

What we dig in the Aeolian Islands:
Renting scooters to zip around beautiful black beaches. Sunset aperitivi in Pollara. Boating around the surrounding islands of Stromboli, Panarea and Lipari. Gettin’ steamy with sulfur water spas in Vulcano. The Greek vibes (no surprise – the islands were named for Aeolus, god of the winds, by Greek settlers). Salt-eroded houses spilling down to the shore. And feeling like you’re in on a big secret that you only wanna share with your loved ones (like almond milk baths in copper tubs — yes, our Sicily tour clients love that too).

How to get here:
The islands aren’t easy to get to, so 3-4 nights is our minimum recommendation. In a perfect world, stay for a week! The closest airport is Catania, but you can also arrive from Palermo. Once in Milazzo, you ditch your car and take the hydrofoil.

6. Tropea (Calabria)

top spots southern italy tropea calabria

Tropea is a hot spot for Italian vacationers (they call it the Coast of the Gods). It’s virtually undiscovered by foreigners, so you have lots of baby-powder-soft sand beaches to yourself. It’s located right at the toe of Italy’s boot. Legend has it that this town was founded by Hercules. (We believe it.)

What we dig in Tropea:
Red onion ice cream at Gelateria Tonino – Tropea is famous for their super sweet red onions. Boating to the island of Stromboli at night to see the volcano exploding. Crystal clear water that you could float in forever. Groovy grottos. Walking 300 steps up to Santa Maria dell’Isola, a monastery perched above the beach. And sunset aperitivo featuring crunchy breaded razorfish.

How to get here:
Tropea travels are reliant on a car. You’ll also need at least 3 nights. If you’re traveling in summer, stay longer and day-trip to surrounding areas. The closest airport is Lamezia Terme. And if you’re into road trips, you can also drive from the Amalfi Coast.

7. Lecce

top spots southern italy lecce

Lecce is the Florence of the South. This city is baroque extravagance at its best, full of spiraled columns, cute cherubs, gargoyles, and… amazing shopping. Lecce is not for “doing”. It’s for experiencing. On our Southern Italy tour we stay here a few nights.

Lecce is for lazy lunches on sandstone streets. Where you take cooking classes to learn how to make orecchiette without your phone on hand. And where you stroll, like, everywhere.

What we dig in Lecce:
Dancing the pizzica, a popular folk dance here (totally normal in Lecce). Day trips to classic Puglian countryside with olive trees and vineyards for company. The workshops churning out gorgeously hand-crafted clothing, leather goods, pottery and shoes. It’s the kind of place where creativity smacks you in the face and new business ideas start flowing into your brain like good Primitivo (Lecce’s wine specialty).

How to get here:
Fly into Brindisi Airport and take one of the public shuttles or trains – they operate reliably and frequently. You can also get the train to Lecce from Rome or Bari. Or travel on our Southern Italy tour and we’ll bring you.

8. Alberobello

top spots southern italy alberobello puglia

If you’ve dreamed about writing a fantasy novel at any point in your life, visit Alberobello. It’s the fairytale land of trulli houses. It’s like a National Geographic cover shoot! A total UNESCO-Heritage-site kinda treat.

What we dig in Alberobello:
Uh, basically being transported back in time. Cutie-pie cones atop trulli houses. Feeling like a gorgeous giant among gnomey houses. Impromptu photo shoots, ‘cause this kinda scenery only happens to your camera once in a while.

How to get here:
Cars are best. Alberobello is worth a day trip from Matera (if you’re visiting). Or travel on our Southern Italy tour and we’ll bring you.

9. Paestum

top spots southern italy paestum capaccio

This spot is another one for Greek fans – Paestum is actually an ancient Greek city. Paestum is in Capaccio, but the two names are used interchangeably – don’t get confused. They’re in the same place. For any history buff, it’s a must-see in the area. It’s got the best-preserved Greek remains in Italy.

What we dig in Paestum:
Towering temples of Hera and rocky ruins to text home about. The way rebuilt Capaccio still clings to a hill, even though it was destroyed in the Middle Ages. How it’s sandwiched between rolling fields, pine forest and the sea. Haunting homes abandoned in ancient times. Biodynamic wineries. The food, especially anything with mozzarella di bufala. Being an agricultural region, anything you consume is here is amazing.

How to get here:
You can get here by car, if you’re driving in from the Amalfi Coast. If you’re anywhere else, it’s incredibly well-connected by the Trenitalia train system – just get off at Capaccio or Paestum.

10. Syracuse / Ortigia (Sicily)

top spots southern italy syracuse ortigia sicily

This small city is paved with limestone and has one of the most beautiful piazza we’ve seen in Italy. It’s right on the ocean, and 30 minutes on one of the little tourist boats will take you on a tour of the town from the sea. It’s crumbling and faded, but tidy and pretty all at once.

What we dig in Syracuse / Ortigia:
We love Ortigia, the most ancient part of Syracuse — it’s like a city inside a city. We love the market — go have lunch down there on the wooden tables.

How to get here:
Closest airports are Catania or Palermo. You’ll need a car to get to Syracuse, but you can hire a private driver to get you there. Or travel on our Sicily tour and we’ll bring you.

top spots southern italy aeolian islands sicily

Want more insider intel on Southern Italy? Here are the solutions we provide:

Here’s more blog posts too:

Tempted to travel Southern Italy yet?

Tell us which spot made your brain say si immediately! And share your questions with us in the comments – we want to share our wisdom for your trip.

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I have done north of Italy iam ready for the south

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