12 spectacular places in Italy – from the famous to the fabulously under-the-radar

places in italy
12 spectacular destinations in Italy to visitPositano © Marco Bottigelli

Does Italy have a bad angle? If so, we haven’t found it. Instead, the country has an endless array of spectacular places, from the mountains of the Dolomites to the Adriatic- and Ionian-edge coastline of Puglia, via beautiful, historic cities, and more stylish shorelines and holiday-playground islands to which its effortlessly chic denizens have flocked to come summer for decades.

There are some obvious contenders – La Serennissima, for example. There’s nowhere quite like Venice on Earth. And honeymoon hotspot, the Amalfi Coast, famous for its secluded coves, hair-raising hairpin bends (convertible practically essential), colourful coastal towns built up and down the cliff edge, romantic trattorias and grand old villas.

Among the most incredible places in Italy are the jet set’s regular summer destinations, from the always-yacht-studded marina of Portofino on the country’s Ligurian coast, to the glamorous isle of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples.

Then there are the dramatic landscapes of Italy’s volcanic islands, such as the Aeolian archipelago and Pantelleria, technically off the coast of Sicily, but actually closer to Africa.

Feeling inspired? Here are 12 of the most spectacular places in Italy…

Positano, Amalfi Coast

It’s hard to narrow down the most spectacular part of the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy’s Campania region. There’s the fishing village Conca dei Marini, where monasteries cling to the cliffside; romantic Ravello, high above the Tyrrhenian Sea and home to hallowed homes such as Villa Cimbrone; and peaceful Praiano, a little away from the action, and all the better for it. Then there’s perfect Positano, a “vertical” town with colourful buildings stacked along its precipitous coast. John Steinbeck was right when he wrote in the May 1953 issue of Harper’s Bazaar that “Positano bites deep”. He continued: “It is a dream place that isn’tquite real when you are there and becomesbeckoningly real after you have gone.” We couldn’t agree more.

Where to stay: You’ll likely have seen images of Le Sirenuse, since it’s undoubtedly one of the most attractive hotels in the world, run by the Sersale family since 1951. For something a little more modern, check in to the minimalist Casa Angelina, a short drive along the coast in Praiano.

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Venice, the Veneto

Italy’s great cities are all spectacular in their own right but few capture the imagination like Venice does. The Floating City is adrift in the Adriatic, built on more than 100 islands in the Venetian Lagoon. There are must-do tourist activities, whether it’s ordering a Bellini at Harry’s bar, heading over to the Cipriani for a dip in its Olympic-size swimming pool, or parting with a small fortune for an espresso at one of the two iconic cafés on St Mark’s Square – Caffè Florian has been serving coffee on this site since 1720. For a more local feel, don’t miss art district Dorsoduro, or visit other islands, such as colourful Burano.

Where to stay: Back in 2014, Amal and George Clooney staged some rather spectacular nuptials in Italy and one backdrop was provided by the Aman in Venice, a converted palazzo with a mesmerising view of the Grand Canal.

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Portofino, Genoa

There’s a reason Portofino’s harbour is awash with super-yachts come high summer. The former fishing village is south-east of Genoa, with Italy’s signature pastel-hued houses lining the coastline, plenty of designer boutiques and a cobbled square overlooking the port. It’s an excellent base for exploring the Italian Riviera, especially if you want to see the colourful, captivating villas of the Cinque Terre, a Unesco World Heritage Site an hour’s drive away. For something a little off the beaten track, head to Lerici and the Bay of Poets, where Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in 1822.

Where to stay: As splendid as its name suggests, Splendido Mare, a Belmond Hotel, has long been one of Portofino’s most sought-after stays, favoured by the jet set since the 1950s. It is set in what was once a Benedictine monastery.

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Aeolian Islands

Travellers who venture a little further are always rewarded and this is certainly the case with the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the north coast of Sicily. There are no airports on the islands themselves – you’ll have to touch down in Palermo or Catania in Sicily and travel onwards by boat. The main islands are Lipari (the largest), Salina, Stromboli and the aptly named Vulcano (there are seven in total, and each has its charms). Your itinerary should, naturally, involve taking to the water, whether that’s with a sunset tour around Lipari’s faraglioni rocks, or spending the week at sea on a cruise with Cognoscenti Travel, where all the logistics will be taken care of for you.

Where to stay: On the second-largest Aeolian island Salina (mostly famous for its delicious dessert wine – and capers), Hotel Signum has a spa and a Michelin-starred restaurant with a female chef at the helm.

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The Dolomite Mountains

Travel to the very top of Italy, and you’ll be swapping sun-soaked beaches for spectacularly scenic mountain ranges. The Dolomites, which stretch across several regions, are a breathtaking destination to visit in spring and summer, when the temperatures rise and the snow subsides to reveal a canvas of rolling green hills. Vineyards abound here, meaning oenophiles are in for a treat, while you’ll also find some of the best spa hotels in Europe, where bracing hikes are bookended by serious sauna sessions.

Where to stay: My Arbor, perched high above the South Tyrolean town of Brixen, is a shiny new wellness hotel with a serious reputation. Perched on stilts, this architectural marvel combines morning yoga and walking trails with a world-class spa and tasting menus worth lingering all evening over.

alpine pastures in rendena valley with views of the snowy peaks in the adamello brenta nature park, trentino alto adige, italy
DEA / G. ROLI - Getty Images

Ischia, Gulf of Naples

We don’t have a bad word to say about any of the isles in the Neapolitan Archipelago, but less-frequented than its super-glamorous neighbour Capri is Ischia. This volcanic island in the Gulf of Naples has thermal waters, with rock pools heated by underground volcanic activity, Roman ruins and sandy beaches with panoramic views, including out to the mediaeval Aragonese Castle, on a small tidal island but connected by a stone bridge. One of its most picturesque towns is Lacco Ameno, at the foot of Mount Epomeo. Even less visited by tourists is the colourful island of Procida, Italy’s official Capital of Culture a couple of years ago.

Where to stay: For an unforgettable setting, book a stay Faro Punta Imperatore, located within a lighthouse in a remote corner of Capri – the views are as incredible as you’d hope.

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Lake Orta, Piedmonte

When imagining Northern Italy’s scenic lakes, your mind likely goes to the famous Lake Como. But for something a little off the beaten track, Lake Orta has plenty to offer. Perched on the peninsula, main town Orta San Giulio offers postcard-perfect streets dotted with authentic restaurants and independent, artsy shops.

Where to stay: Chateaux Villa Crespi is a 14-room palatial wonder, where the stately rooms are studded with antiques and a double-starred restaurant awaits you downstairs.

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Frank Bienewald

Norcia, Umbria

In the central Italian region of Umbria, Norcia is the place that gave us charcuterie – the term norcineria denotes the art of processing pork and the techniques that have been handed down since the Middle Ages in this part of the country. The beautiful countryside that surrounds the mediaeval town is especially scenic come early summer, when the lentil fields flower before the harvest. It’s the Italian destination for you if you want to get out into the great outdoors, since the village of Castelluccio di Norcia, one of the highest settlements in the Apennines, is the perfect base for hiking and mountaineering. The town is in the province of Perugia – to the namesake city, which is the capital of Umbria, it’s around an hour and 20 minutes’ drive north of Norcia.

Where to stay: Palazzo Seneca is a refined Relais & Châteaux property close to the town square (sadly affected by the earthquake in 2016) in Norcia, with supremely stylish bedrooms and a Michelin-starred restaurant (with cookery classes available to show you the ropes).

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Ostuni, Puglia

Dazzling Ostuni is all the way down south in the heel of Italy’s signature k nee-high boot, with bright white buildings, and lots of scenic surrounding countryside and shorelines. The whitewashed old town is complemented by a cathedral with Gothic, Romanesque and Byzantine architectural accents, and the Porta San Demetrio, one of the city’s original mediaeval gates. While you’re here, Puglia has many more places that are worthy of a visit, including the Baroque beauty Lecce, affectionately known as the Florence of the South, sleepy seaside towns such as Castro and Gallipoli, and gourmet haven Nardò, flocked to by foodies in the know.

Where to stay: Paragon 700 is a boutique hotel housed within a palazzo in Ostuni, with a vaulted restaurant and a swimming pool you’ll be grateful for when the scorching summer heat hits.

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Lake Como, Lombardy

Lake Como is a worthy winner of a slot on our most spectacular places in Italy shortlist – and we’re sure George Clooney would agree. The fork-shaped lake in Lombardy, a swift drive north of Milan, is lined with stately private homes (including, of course, Casa Clooney), beautiful towns such as Bellagio, and swimming pools suspended over the water. You can get around the lake by ferry, but really the only way to see it in style is on board a glossy wooden Riva boat.

Where to stay: The grande dame of the lake is Villa d’Este, which has one of the region’s signature over-water pools, gorgeous grounds that feature a mosaic with a path leading up to a fountain, a spa and various restaurants, including the refined Veranda. Alternatively, you could book a stay at the place recently crowned the best hotel in the world, Passalacqua, or check in to the sleek, chic Il Sereno, with its contemporary design, world-class facilities and breathtaking views.

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Matera, Basilicata

The main attraction in millennia-old Matera in the south is its Unesco-protected Sassi, a complex of cave dwellings carved into the edge of a mountain, inhabited since the Paleolithic period until as recently as the early 1950s. It’s thought to be one of the oldest cities in the world, up there with the likes of Jericho and Aleppo. Unsurprising for somewhere this photogenic, it’s no stranger to film crews – James Bond fans will have spied it in No Time To Die. The city – in the Basilicata region, which borders Puglia and Calabria – is built on a rocky outcrop with a canyon backdrop. More history awaits at its rock churches, some of which are graced by 13th-century frescoes.

Where to stay: If you want to experience what it might have been like for the cave dwellers of Matera, stay at the atmospheric Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita. Or be a temporary member of the Coppola clan with a sojourn to their Italian casa, Palazzo Margherita, in the walled 15th-century town of Bernalda.

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Pantelleria, Strait of Sicily

Made famous by the film A Bigger Splash back in 2015, Pantelleria was until then one of Italy’s best-kept secrets. The island is in the Strait of Sicily, and fewer than 70 kilometres from the coast of Tunisia. As with many of Italy’s isles, it’s volcanic, with lava rock formations, beautiful bays, an ancient castle, lots of old churches, narrow cobbled streets to stroll and vibrant markets to browse. It’s home to several lakes, including the heart-shaped Specchio di Venere, along with acclaimed wineries and orchards producing prized olives, dates and capers.

Where to stay: Sikelia Luxury Retreat is a boutique retreat that can be hired as a whole to create a private island paradise for you and a select fortunate few.

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