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Favorite atmospheric town/small city in Italy?

Summer of 2022, I’ll be writing my thesis, and I’d like to spend a month doing so in Italy from mid May through mid June. I lived in Milan for a year and experienced a lot of the popular spots (Rome, Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre, Naples, Capri, Turin, Bologna, and Verona.) I’m looking to explore small towns/cities, and I’d love your suggestions from any region!

My plan is to spend about 6-7 meandering days in each while I write. My priorities are:


  • Delicious food
  • Lovely surroundings (whether it’s rolling hills, pastel buildings, the sea side, mountains, all are welcome)
  • Reachable by public transportation

Nightlife and big ticket attractions aren’t necessary. I love wandering around the streets, eating, reading, and drinking wine. If you’d describe a place as: charming, romantic, atmospheric or cozy, I’ll probably love it. I speak enough baby Italian to squeak by, so I’m not terribly worried about the language barrier. Thanks in advance!

Posted by
824 posts

Assisi. During the mid-day there can be loads of tourists but they can be easily avoided. At night, well, Assisi is a place like no other. Pefect for long strolls, slow-cooking Umbrian foods, great local wines, views up and down left and right. And that's the short list - I've been there 16 years in a row, 2 1/2 weeks each time, for a music festival. I leave more rested (after a 14 hour work days?), 5 pounds lighter (a miracle!), and a better person (Assisi seems to put things back in perspective for me). Sigh.

Posted by
117 posts

Spello, in Umbria. We spent 5 days there and adored the little town. There are nice apartments to rent thru sites like VRBO. Some wonderful restaurants, tiny lanes to wander in, and beautiful countryside.

Posted by
55 posts

If you are traveling into Milan, I would go west to the Piedmont cities of Turin and then about an hour south of there (by train) to Alba. Both are wonderful, especially the latter where you can drink some fantastic Barolo, Barbaresco and other Nebbiolo varietals. The food in Alba is wonderful: lots of pastas and wild game/meats (it is famous for its truffles and Nutella, as well). If you are flying into Florence, I would DEFINITELY take a train to Lucca and Pisa: the local red wines are excellent, as is the food. Lucca is an ancient, walled city that sounds right up your alley: quiet streets and alleys, walkable (walking the entire wall/ramparts around the city is about a 3 mile round trip if I remember correctly). There are several old churches, a gorgeous amphitheate-shaped plaza, and if you're a music fan, a Puccini museum and concerts every night. Pisa has not only the Tower and the baptistry, but many beautiful squares and gorgeous architecture along the river Arno.

If you decide to go South from Florence, I would definitely go to Siena and Montalcino. The former is reachable by train, and the latter by bus (about 45-60 minutes, if I remember correctly). Siena is small, intimate, very walkable and filled with lots of great restaurants, Il Campo and a gorgeous Cathedral. From there you can sign up for many wine tasting tours that will take you through out Tuscany. As for Montalcino, it is tiny but beautiful. Again, you'll have to take the bus to get there, but the Brunello and Rosso red wines are top notch, as is the food.

If you make it to Montalcino, you can also take bus rides to Pienza and Montepulciano, two beautiful Tuscan towns filled with quiet streets, old churches, great restaurants and again, lots and lots of great Sangiovese based red wines. Both are within an hour of Montalcino by bus.

Best of luck

Posted by
2925 posts

A town that we really liked was Camogli. It seems to fit what you're looking for. Pastel buildings, seaside, excellent restaurants, unique regional food - especially seafood. A walk to nearby Recco will get you to some unique cheesy focaccia. There is a train station right in the town and you can easily take a daytrip to Genoa for more good food - Genovese pastas, pestos and more!

Not far away is Noli with lovely restaurants. I liked the traditional chickpea fritter appetizers.

And for a larger town in the same region, Turin is fun to explore.

A month in Italy - I'm envious!

Ciao!

Posted by
824 posts

Want to add something beyond Assisi. I'm currently reading Frances Mayes' book "Meet Me in the Piazza". it's pretty much a road tour of small, minimally touristy, towns with very interesting things to see, do, eat and drink. I'm going to make a list!

Posted by
635 posts

I second Camogli --- we spent a week there. Stay on the beach level.

For best food besides Genoa (too big of a city for you?), I'd say either Ostuni or Lecce in Puglia. Inside the walls ideally or just outside them.

Great food in a unique place = Matera in Basilicata. Write your thesis in a cave!

Most recent favorites, the historic centers of Padua and Treviso in the Veneto.

Posted by
9 posts

Thank you everyone for these thoughtful suggestions and detailed tips! All of these locales sound like a great fit and I've added them to the list to look into. So many gems…

I’m new to the RS forums, and y’all have made this such a lovely introduction! The love for Italy here is palpable :) Robert, I will definitely check out this book. Frances Mayes really has a singular way with words.

Posted by
3639 posts

My first thought is to go to Umbria and explore the towns. I also really liked Arezzo - the medieval section, and it’s also college town if you would like the option for a bit of change during your trip in the lower area of town. It is easy to reach from Bologna, Perugia, etc. by train.

If it’s not completely out of your way, I stayed two nights in Ravenna, and the mosaics are so beautiful! Also a nice flat town to ride bikes.

Montepulciano is wonderful and certainly fits your description, but with the chance to really get away for a month, I’d focus more on Umbria.

Posted by
3639 posts

And with your name, Clumsychef, don’t pass up the opportunity to take some cooking classes in Italy! ; ) I’ve taken several, and they’re always such a great way to learn more about the region’s food, the local culture, and it’s a nice break to speak English (if you sign up for that language) for a few hours. And sometimes the chef takes you to a few shops that are always great to stop in the next day.

Posted by
1806 posts

Maybe check out some regional cookbooks, as that might spark your inspiration. Liguria and Emilia-Romagna rank high in terms of public transport, but with the flexibility time affords, that might be less of a factor than it would be otherwise.

Posted by
2925 posts

Farther to travel but Ortygia in Sicily has some fantastic restaurants and a great market - it's a lovely seaside village.

Posted by
2443 posts

I second (third?) Ortygia island in Siracusa. After you fly or train (I think it's a very long train ride!) to Catania there are busses to Siracusa, it's something like 1-2 hours away, I forget but it's not terribly far. The island is lovely, great seaside views and pretty streets and squares. Sicilian food is wonderful, like every region of Italy it is distinct from the others, so there's a lot to explore. The island is connected to the mainland by a very short bridge - it's an island in the technical sense but it's right offshore, this makes visiting a lot of the sights in the rest of Siracusa as easy as hopping on a city bus.

Posted by
4646 posts

So many great towns in Italy, but I love Siena and Lucca.

We are planning a week in Umbria and looking forward to using Perugia as our base. Will visit Spoleto, Assisi and other close by towns. Also, plan two nights in Orvieto.

Posted by
11230 posts

Investigate, among others:

Cremona
Mantova
Padova
Ferrara
Ravenna
Parma
Spoleto

I can't speak to the physical surroundings of most of these places, but they're great towns, I had good to great meals there, and they're mostly off foreign tourist radar. Playing around online, you should be able to determine if they have the surroundings you seek.

Look at Fred Plotkin's book Italy for the Gourmet Traveler. He has details on lots of towns, and should give you inspiration for many months of travel.

Posted by
186 posts

After the serie "Master of nothing" even Modena is often chosen as place to stay. Is a small city, but with a very nice historical center and not yet crowded by tourists. Is an universitarian city too, so maybe there too much distractions.

Posted by
9 posts

Thank you all for these great ideas! You've all been so helpful. Cooking classes would be right up my alley :) I just ordered “Eating My Way Through Italy,” which I think will help me narrow down locations. Right now, my list is looking like:

  • Siracusa
  • Tropea
  • Lecce
  • Spello
  • Lucca
  • Camogli
  • Parma
Posted by
3639 posts

Parma has my favorite cathedral interior in Italy. While so many are decorated with gold, etc. this one has warm-toned frescoes and furniture with Bible verses in multiple languages. I stopped inside three times while we were there. And, yes, great food in the area!

Posted by
824 posts

Your shortened list is still a bit geographically diverse - which is not a bad thing at all. It is possible to get around Italy within reasonable travel times. Heck, even the train or bus trip will probably be very scenice. The biggest travel would be to Siracusa. You'll spend more time getting to the airport probably than the actual flight. I've taken both a car service and a bus from Catania's airport to Ortigia - again, the scenery only adds to the experience. Guess I'm trying to get you to focus on Ortigia (ok, I'm prejudiced). I think you will also find the food, wine, gelato quite different from the mainland too! Damn, I do like Spello and Lucca too. Frances Mayes has gotten to me - I don't think I'll be happy until I pretty much live in Italy full-time. Good luck making your choice!

Posted by
1605 posts

hey hey clumsychef
more places to research since you have time:
trieste tripsavvy.com/fruili-venezia-giulia surrounding the adriatic sea and dolomites
treviso the crazytourist.com/ 15 best things to do in treviso.
rimini (along the adriatic coast) tripsavvy.com/emilia romagna towns to visit
lucca thecrazytourist.com/ 15 things to do in lucca
tripsavvy.com/ lucca day trips. extravirginlucca.com a cooking class

cucina-italiana.com cooking classes, accomodations
fattoriaaldoto.it a small family owned winery in lucca for tasting.
collodi is the home of pinocchio, a bus ride away, to visit the park, garzoni gardens and the
butterfly house. take a ride over devils bridge and to the garfagnana, castles and hills, small
towns/villages, stopping for a meal of their cuisine.
travelingspoon.com

eatwith.com
tripsavvy.com/may festivals lots of fairs and festivals happening. ask around. if you're near lake nemi outside rome, their is a strawberry festival last week may/first week june. everything and anything strawberry italymagazine.com/lake nemi and it's wild berry deliciousitaly.com/ nemi strawberry festival
have a great time and enjoy
aloha

Posted by
186 posts

In your list now are present villages, towns and cities, so very different size and vibes.
One thing to think about: you want to stay the whole period in the place to stay concentrated on the thesis? If so, a village or a small town is better, like Camogli, Tropea or Spello.
Parma and Lecce are cities and well connected by train (especially Parma), so these places could be a good base if you want even move and do daily trips.
Siracusa and Lucca are very nice little cities and two other good places to stay.
Another point: summer in Italy could be warm and humid: a place on the seashore could be a better solution. Or, at the opposite, a village or town among the Alps?

Posted by
24827 posts

if you are in Parma you should be in Modena

Posted by
9 posts

Princess Pupule, thank you for these detailed links! An Italian strawberry festival sounds like a dream. Jean, I’ll be sure to check out the cathedral.

Ricky, my hope is to choose about 4 or 5 locations and do 6-7 days in each. Like Robert said, my picks are quite geographically diverse, so I know I’ll be doing a fair bit of transit time in between. My eyes tend to be bigger than my stomach when it comes to traveling! I have to remind myself that I can always return one day— perhaps it would be better to move around less?

Posted by
186 posts

Ah. Sorry, but I haven't read the OP correctly... So your list could be nice because is a mix of big and small places.
About food festivals from the end of Spring to the whole Autumn there are many. For example in my town Vignola there is the cherries festival the first half of June (the harvest period).

Tropea is famous for the onions, but the period is July/August.
About strawberries there is a festival even in Cassibile (Sicily) and Terricciola (Tuscany).

Of course now is time for other tastes: for example the grape harvest festival or the cooked must tradition: https://www.mastcot.it/ . And we are looking for chestnut!

Posted by
2925 posts

Hi clumsychef!
Your narrowed-down list looks great! I would just add that for Syracusa, make sure to stay on the island of Ortygia.

It looks like you’ve done your homework and have a really nice trip planned.

Posted by
256 posts

Lucca should not be overlooked, you can package it with Pisa on the same day.

Posted by
1119 posts

For food, one of my favorites is Bologna. It might not be as small as you want, though. Lucca is another, and it is very charming inside the walls.

Posted by
1534 posts

We’ve lived in Italy and travelled a lot of the country for two + years. Our favorite cities to visit are with th populations of 100-200,000. One major train station. And most everything is within walking distance. Lots of activity but are not overly crowded with tourists. With a lot of cities these size, you are a quick train ride away from another great destination.

Here's a list of some of our favorites:
Modena- with visits to Bologna and other nearby cities
Ravenna—Visits to Bologna and Venice
Perugia- day trips to Spello, Assisi
Verona- day trips to Bolzano, Venice and Bolzano
Bolzano- day trips to Dolomites

Posted by
3513 posts

You haven't shown any interest in any part of Tuscany other than Lucca. If you've not visited this area, there are an abundance of small towns and villages with easy transportation from Siena.
Here's a partial list.

These towns are easily accessible by bus and train. Some towns I've combined with others. (B=bus, T=train)
Siena-Colle di Val d'Elsa ( B 30m)-San Gimignano (B 35m)-Siena (T 1H05m)
Siena-Montereggioni (B 18m)-Castellina in Chianti (B 30m)
Siena-Radda in Chianti (B 55m)
Siena-Buonconvento (T 28m)-Monteroni d'Arbia
(T 12m)-Siena
Siena-Rapolano Terme (T 37m)-Asciano Mont Oliveto (T 10m)-Siena (T 26m)
Siena-Sinalunga (T 53m)
Siena-San Quirico d' Orcia (B 50m)
Siena-Pienza ( B 1H05m)
Siena-Certaldo (T 39m)
Siena-Pisa (T 1H46m)
Siena- Viareggio ( T 2H55m) beach town, but 28 minutes from Pisa. I'd do the beach first, then Pisa towards sunset after the crowds have left.
Even if you decide on 1 hilltown a day, there's plenty to do. Look at the towns to see what interest you.
Be sure to check return times by bus carefully.

With only a month, you might have more time for your thesis if you limit the number of transfers.

You could do Parma, Camogli and Lucca then fly from Pisa to Catania (1H30m) then bus to Siracusa (1h20m) from the station in Siracusa take the line 1 bus to Ortygia.

You'd end up with a land/sea, land/sea itinerary.

You could do this in reverse starting in Sicily.

Posted by
4 posts

@Robert @clumsychef - currently reading Frances Mayes book as well - very interesting read and love that it is focused on some of the less touristy but no less interesting smaller towns/cities!

Posted by
826 posts

I vote for Orvieto and Lucca. Wish I were in either of them now!

Posted by
9 posts

So many great recommendations-- truly, thank you everyone! @Gerri your detailed points are super helpful. And @dcantwell, I agree. She inspired me to come to Italy for the first time.

I know I'm already being greedy, but I wish I had more than a month so I could see every single of the places you all have suggested!

Posted by
222 posts

Bevagna as base, thus easy access to Spoleto, Trevi, Montefalco, Spello, Perugia et al. *Prior to the quakes I would've suggested Castellucio, but now that's just not possible. A huge loss both to locals and we travelers.
Monopoli also might be worth looking into, with its easy access to Lecce, Ostuni, Locorotondo, Polignano, Alberobello and Galipoli.
Good luck OP CC!

I am done. The end.

Posted by
7737 posts

When I saw this question posted, I immediately thought "Uh-oh. Someone's about to take a drink from a fire hose." And by the sheer volume of the responses, I see that I was right. One of the things that I love so much about Italy is how many many places fit your description. It's an embarrassment of riches.

Here's my vote for the following:
Assisi
Orvieto
Bergamo
Padova

Happy travels.

Posted by
48 posts

Liguria...The Cinque Terre. In particular, rent an apartment in Manarola. You can hop from there and venture all over Liguria.

Posted by
99 posts

I'm just gonna add my two cents; I know you said you wanted easy transportation connections and this doesn't exactly fit the bill but whatever.... I'm suggesting Matera. It's life altering. The best bread there ever was and views for days. I've been to Italy 9 times and nothing besides this place and Venice takes my breath completely away. Not touristy (for english speaking people) and a bit out of the way but all my Italian friends will tell you how amazing this place is. I took the train in from Rome to Bari and drove (about an hour). But there is a local train that runs to Matera, I understand. Just look it up. If you don't think it's for you, no worries. But I'm betting that this is just what the doctor ordered.

Posted by
1590 posts

"Reachable by public transportation" applies to a lot of places, but EASILY reachable by public transportation is another story. I thought of this when Bevagna was mentioned. I don't believe it has a train station.

Posted by
570 posts

I would step outside the box from the other posters and travel to the arch and heel of Italy, and head up the coast, Matera for starters 2-3days so much history past and present - Lecce a wonderful small historic centre, (use as a base for 3 days- Day trip down the coast to Gallipoli. Head around the heal, Marina di Leuca to Otranto (back to Lecce).
Then head up the coast by way of Alberobello (truilli houses) over to Polignano a Mare to Bari- Going up the coast , Trani.
We also stopped in at Ascoli Pienco just off the coast and then to Senigallia a wonderful town and beaches with an historic area as well.
Travelling further up to Ravenna. Seafood excellent and of course the pasta
We were driving but from what I have read bus and train travel are available pretty well everywhere in Puglia region.
Enjoy!

Posted by
2490 posts

Sounds like a lot of great suggestions up thread. I was perusing your wonderful list of areas that you have experienced in the past.

We were going to revisit Sicily this past fall and spend 28 nights exploring and taking public transportation. I think your priority list for 6-7 meandering days, delicious food, lovely surroundings & reachable by public transportation could work in Sicily. On our first visit we were on a culinary tour that ended in Eastern Sicily. We enjoyed Catania, Mt Etna, Taormina, Ortigia, Noto, Ragusa and Modica. Our favorite town in Sicily was Ortigia. I could stay there a month and be happy! Another idea would be to stay in Western Sicily, based in Palermo and visiting small towns.

Posted by
9 posts

Thank you for more excellent suggestions! Looks like I'll need to start doing some research into Matera and eastern Sicily, both sound divine.

Posted by
2490 posts

If Sicily peaks your interest I recommend reading "On Persephone's Island" by Mary Taylor Simeti. Ms. Simeti specializes in Sicilian cuisine and it's history and is a former regular contributor to the New York Times. In addition she has written several cookbooks. After graduating from Radcliffe she travelled to Sicily to work as a social activist. She met her husband there and together they restored the family farm near Alcamo where they produce organic olive oil and wine. Buon Appetito!

Posted by
5835 posts

We did our first trip to Europe together, nearly 40 years ago. It was a 3 week trip and we started with 5 nights in Venice -- starting first of May and arrived to 70F blue skies -- so lovely (no boats running and we walked a mile with luggage to the hotel over bridges -- we didn't know about 'May Day' as the biggest secular holiday in Europe with things closed.

On that trip I had rented an apartment about 7 miles outside of Siena in a tiny hamlet and since there was no restaurant or open store that first sat evening, we drove to Siena for dinner. It was thrilling -- the stroll around the Campo for Passeggiata, dinner at a common table at La Logge for those without reservations -- so fun -- and a drink afterwards on the Campo under a full moon. We came back and climbed the Torre Mangia which I did again probably for the last time 10 years ago; the Campo may be the prettiest square in Italy.
https://janettravels.wordpress.com/2011/09/18/climbing-the-torre-mangia-at-67/
And I still remember how my jaw dropped when we entered the amazing Cathedral. We were lucky and the floor was uncovered -- but it was the striped column and ceiling full of stars that mesmerized me; I had never seen anything like it before. Siena remains my favorite small city in Italy. We have visited for two or three days at a time several times over the years. I particularly enjoyed strolling through the Contradi -- each has its own totem fountain and you see their symbols displayed through out the district. Nearly ever time we have been there we have seen some sort of medieval ceremony. We watched the selection of the Contradi for the Palio, a ceremony carrying candles to the church that houses the head of St. Catherine of Siena, young men practicing flag throwing in anticipation of future ceremonies etc. A wonderful place.

Posted by
238 posts

I did ten days in Sicily 5 years ago and only scratched the surface. Flew into Palermo, spent a few nights there, then headed east and spent time in Ragusa, Siracusa and Catania. Also did day trips to Noto and Modica. Was a great trip. Loved each town, but I think Ortygia was my favorite. Great atmosphere, dining and wining.