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Italy’s unsung cities

Just an idle thought, but last night I realized I never heard anyone talking about going to Italy’s smaller cities like Genoa, Bologna, Turin, or Salerno (which are actually pretty big cities).

Why is that? Are they just not worth the sightseers’ time?

I’m not ruling them out for future trips. I just realized I’ve never heard anyone say “you gotta see Genoa!” And that surprises me.

Posted by
2822 posts

People sometimes mention these cities. They are not really small (all of them are bigger than Venezia). I think the issue is just that Roma /Venezia /Firenze have so much to do and see that they eats up the time budget most people allocate to "big Italian cities" in their itinerary before any spare day is left for these other destinations.

Posted by
2002 posts

I absolutely loved Turin/Torino back in 2014. Unfortunately, we arrived on Easter Sunday and had to leave on Tuesday. So much of what we wanted to see was closed. But the Palazzo Reale was gorgeous and the Piedmontese wine was magnificent. Would love another shot at Torino.

Bologna - I didn't love as a day trip from Florence. The only attempted pickpocket experience of my life, and a mime intent on stealing my husband's hat. With that said, the pizza we ordered at a random restaurant on the way to the train station was the best pizza I have ever had. Bar none.

Posted by
4059 posts

We keep planning to go to Bologna and Turin, but keep being seduced by RS tours. And sabotaged by lack of time. I'm going to try again in 2020; 2019 is already spoken for.

And we'd love to go back to Padua; we had a wonderful 3 days there before our Village Italy tour last year. Sigh. Too many places, too little time.

Posted by
16996 posts

The vast majority of Americans make only one or two trips to any given country in Europe if they get there at all. Some of the others fall so in love with one particular place that a lot of their time on repeat visits is dedicated to that single location. It's natural that a high percentage of the posts here concern the three most popular cities, just as Paris posts are an overwhelming part of the French forum. But a lot of us love Italy and have branched out beyond Rome-Florence-Venice, and even beyond places covered in Rick's "Italy" guide book. When asked for suggestions beyond the most obvious, we have no trouble coming up with them.

If you read through this forum, skipping posts that--based on their titles--seem to focus only on one of the big-three cities, you'll find frequent mentions of places like Orvieto, Sicily, Tuscan villages, Puglia, Siena, Lucca, Padua, Assisi, Ravenna, many towns around the lakes, the Dolomites, and many more great places to visit. I don't think you could find a spot in Italy that doesn't have a great destination within 15 or 20 miles.

Posted by
12117 posts

Those cities you list and more, towns or smaller cities are well worth visiting, such as Mantua, Bozen, Verona, Milano, Trent, ...well worth one's time.

Posted by
1882 posts

Ravenna is really nice, I was there a couple of years ago for the Byzantine mosaics and did not find many tourist from outside of Europe (mostly from neighboring countries). I found some of the best food in Italy was in Ravenna and Emilia-Romagna as a whole. I was there during a market day and had, hands down, the best prosciutto and melon, they put it together right in front of you! Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna, also makes the cut as an unsung yet fantastic city with a vibrant food scene.

Posted by
180 posts

I’m a pilgrim, so I’ve walked through some good chunks of Europe and seen towns that don’t show up on a map until you zoom all the way in. I’ve seen some that are just crossroads yet have a name. I usually start or end these trips with a couple days in a major city, if only to catch my flight out.

I just asked because the ones I listed are quite large and have epic histories. Aside from Genoa, they’re also not really out of the way. Even Milan, which is a major port of entry for foreign flights, doesn’t get the respetto that Rome, Florence, and Venice get. So I wondered if those cities just don’t have the sights to draw in tourists.

Posted by
1726 posts

The vast majority of Americans make only one or two trips to any given
country in Europe if they get there at all. Some of the others fall so
in love with one particular place that a lot of their time on repeat
visits is dedicated to that single location. It's natural that a high
percentage of the posts here concern the three most popular cities,
just as Paris posts are an overwhelming part of the French forum. But
a lot of us love Italy and have branched out beyond
Rome-Florence-Venice, and even beyond places covered in Rick's "Italy"
guide book. When asked for suggestions beyond the most obvious, we
have no trouble coming up with them.

If you read through this forum, skipping posts that--based on their
titles--seem to focus only on one of the big-three cities, you'll find
frequent mentions of places like Orvieto, Sicily, Tuscan villages,
Puglia, Siena, Lucca, Padua, Assisi, Ravenna, many towns around the
lakes, the Dolomites, and many more great places to visit. I don't
think you could find a spot in Italy that doesn't have a great
destination within 15 or 20 miles.

I had to copy this whole quote because acraven speaks my mission statement for traveling in Italy, if I had one.

I've been to Italy three times in 8 years, have not visited Venice yet but have been to Florence & Rome twice apiece. And while I love Rome & like Florence, I keep searching for something else. What, I keep asking myself. Is it the Italy I dreamed about for all the years until I finally went?

I realize I am searching for those moments where I say to myself 'this is why I have come'. They're mostly in unexpected places and at unexpected times...

...like in the aforementioned Umbrian hilltown of Orvieto, where in a tiny luncheon place, we had our wonderful cinghiale (wild boar) and homemade noodles sitting next to the sleeping family dog on the chair next to us.

...or in Greve-in-Chianti at Montagliari Winery, after a cooking class, when the chef, the guide and my wife & I sat with the doors open to the Tuscan valley, afternoon sun shining and fall breeze wafting in, totally relaxed after a huge meal and a copious amount of SuperTuscan rosso, just BS'ing about nothing in particular.

...or a cool, clammy March day on my personal heritage trip to the mountain village of Sant' Arsenio (SE of Salerno, a great small city of 135,000) when we were led to a walk-up in town that supposedly housed a distant relative. It wasn't true, but the old woman, dressed in black, asked us--perfect strangers--if we wanted to come up to lunch at her apartment anyway. We declined out of modesty and I still regret that decision.

I could go on all day, and my point is...you probably won't have an opportunity for those moments until you get out of the main cities. Oh, I suppose they can happen in the 'Big Three', but the non-publicized towns and villages and small cities give the traveler a sense of exploration & adventure, if only because one doesn't read about them in the travel books & blogs. Having this mentality simply can't be beat to my way of thinking.

Posted by
1882 posts

@Ryan.T - One word... "movies"
When was the last time you saw an international film set in Milano or Genoa? Or one set in Hamburg in Germany? Or Nantes in France? These are big cities with equally deep histories, why are they not on the usual tourist circuit?

It's all about perception - mass media such as films, television, and books have a lot to do with shaping that. In most cases we may not immediately remember the original films or books that put these places on the map, but their influence remains. For example, before Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra, the Alhambra was in ruins after the Napoleonic invasion and an 1821 earthquake. This is not saying that mass media in a bad thing, on the contrary it can be a force for good. Tales of the Alhambra was instrumental in reintroducing the Alhambra to Western audiences, thus giving it the needed attention for the long overdue restoration work.

Posted by
11977 posts

First of all those are rather large cities. Turin, Genoa, and Bologna, are the 4th, 6th, and 7th largest cities in Italy, respectively, even ahead of Florence, which is the 8th (Venice is 11th, mainly thanks to the fact that Mestre and Marghera in the mainland are still within its city limits).

Those cities and many others are amply covered in many travel guides. Rick Steves tends to cater to the first time Noth American traveler who has only about 3 to 4 weeks max at his/her disposal, therefore he focuses on what he considers the top destinations for such short span of time.

Posted by
12117 posts

@ Carlos...If you watched the old German movies from the 1960s with Freddy Quinn, some of his films are set in Hamburg.

But, seriously, your point is well taken. On Berlin the famous one from 1987 (?), " Der Himmel von Berlin" with Bruno Ganz (forgot the English language) is set in Berlin. Peter Falk has a short role in that film too.

Posted by
4695 posts

Bologna - I didn't love as a day trip from Florence. The only attempted pickpocket experience of my life, and a mime intent on stealing my husband's hat. With that said, the pizza we ordered at a random restaurant on the way to the train station was the best pizza I have ever had. Bar none.

Sounds like the same place I had pizza in Bologna! Just some random place I found for a very late lunch - wow it was good! So surprised.

The lasagna I got at a bar later for dinner was out of this world as well.

I didn't fall in love with Bologna either - except for the food, which was the best I've had in Italy, a good reason for a short visit.

Genoa I liked even less.

Posted by
16996 posts

I liked Bologna a great deal. My sightseeing priorities are (aside from some very oddball special interests) art museums, 20th-century history museums and walking around picturesque historic districts. I am not particularly interested in individual historic buildings per se. Bologna has a large historic district which kept me occupied for many hours; I have no idea whether any of the buildings are important enough to rate two stars in a Michelin guide. The city gets major bonus points for: great food, not a lot of foreign tourists, and its position as a major rail hub.

Posted by
6067 posts

The best answer to the OP's query "why is that?" is acraven's first post so I won't repeat his/her sentiments. I have just one comment and that is that basically every person who responded that they have been to any or all of the named cities has been to Italy more than once, which pretty much proves what acraven said.

Posted by
7735 posts

I think it's because many American tourists won't get many chances to go to places like Italy, so they focus on those cities where they think they are most likely to enjoy themselves. If you are fortunate enough (as we have been) to be able to keep going back, you can start branching out, although I think we will always include Rome on our itinerary because we enjoy it so much.

But allow me to throw Bergamo into the mix. Charming town.

I do credit Rick for demystifying the process of European travel, giving me enough confidence to start going to places that he doesn't cover (like Bologna).

Posted by
11658 posts

Even Milan, which is a major port of entry for foreign flights,
doesn’t get the respetto that Rome, Florence, and Venice get. So I
wondered if those cities just don’t have the sights to draw in
tourists.

Ryan, poor Milan often gets short shrift and it's really too bad. It's not as if we had a lot of time there but saw enough to wish we'd had more. I sort of get it if an itinerary is too crammed and something has to be dropped in favor of some bigger, first-time draws but it DOES have "sights" enough to warrant a couple of days. That city has a long and interesting history: read about the Visconti and Sforza families, for instance.

Posted by
1882 posts

@Fred - Bruno Ganz is one of my favorite German language actors, next to Jürgen Prochnow! Ganz's portrayal in Der Untergang (Downfall) was absolutely riveting I also really liked Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, in which he had a small role in.

Come to think of it, their was one recent English film that was set in Hamburg - A Most Wanted Man from 2014 comes to mind, it was one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's last films. It's an espionage thriller that revolves around the hunt for an Islamic terrorist cell in Hamburg (maybe not the best light Hamburg wants to be shown in tough).

Posted by
307 posts

As others have said, acraven pretty much nailed it. We've made three trips to Italy since 2013 (late starters and Italy was never on our list - until our first trip).

After our first trip we went further outside of the RS itinerary. The last trip was Milan and Sicily. We like Milan, although most on this forum don't seem to. It's our fly into and out of city (flights from Vancouver) and hang for a day or so, get over the jet lag and move on. Sicily was amazing and probably our favorite trip.

We also like Alba, Asti, Aosta and Stresa. So many places that we haven't seen yet, or may never see. We don't stress over the fact that we may never make it to Venice.

Posted by
996 posts

I realize I am searching for those moments where I say to myself 'this is why I have come'. They're mostly in unexpected places and at unexpected times...

THIS. I have found my best moments when I wasn't expecting anything at all.

But I also agree with the above poster who said that many Americans travel abroad so infrequently that they may concentrate on the cities featured in most tours - Rome, Florence, Venice - thinking that this is sufficient to see an entire country.

I have been extremely fortunate. Lord willing (and knock on wood), I'll make my fifth trip to Italy next year. I have had the chance to travel beyond the big three, and that has given me such an appreciation for Italy as a country. But if I were talking to someone planning their first trip to Italy, I'd recommend those three cities as a starting point unless they had a very specific interest which would make me recommend another part of the country.

Posted by
12117 posts

@ Carlos...Your basic point is valid in that it has to do with the film's budget. If one includes the various films of the Jason Bourne character (I am certainly no fan of that series or of that character), how many times is the background in Berlin, Moscow, Munich, etc.

Quite right, B Ganz's performance in "Der Untergang" is absolutely riveting. A few days after I saw that film in the theater, I went back again...this time focusing totally on the linguistic comprehension. There is one event completely left out, totally omitted, not even referred to in that film, and that is, by way of radio transmissions, Hitler in the bunker did learn of Mussolini's fate, since the film is based on J. Fest's biography of Hitler (trans.) and his secretary's memoirs. Playing the secretary, that actress speaks four languages.

Posted by
3448 posts

Ryan, your question would be the same for why tourists coming to the USA head to the top 5 destinations instead of covering other locations - trying to maximize first-time experiences during those valuable short vacations.

Personally, we’ve had an amazing time in Torino, Verona, Siena, the Dolomites, Stresa, Grosseto, Padova, Parma, etc. And, I just finished a solo trip focusing on several “lesser towns”, such as Arezzo, Montepulciano, Ravenna, Lucca, etc. I think I’ve mentioned all of these over the years of sharing advice, although Venice will always be our favorite, and that’s okay, too!

Posted by
11977 posts

If movies determine the popularity of cities with North American travelers, it doesn’t look like the Oscar winning success “Life is beautiful” (La vita è bella) acted and directed by Roberto Benigni did much for Arezzo, or even for nearby Castiglion Fiorentino, Benigni’s birthplace, also featured in the same movie.

We’ll see if the 2017 Oscar winning movie “Call me by your name” will put the town of Crema in Rick Steves’ travel guides.

Posted by
9447 posts

Ryan, your question would be the same for why tourists coming to the USA head to the top 5 destinations instead of covering other locations - trying to maximize first-time experiences during those valuable short vacations.

So true, Jean! When I speak to Italians, for example, of where in the U.S. they have visited, New York City, Miami or other points in FL, Las Vegas, and occasionally, Washington, D.C. or cities in CA come up.

I have to describe Oregon as "north of California."

Posted by
134 posts

It really is a shame that there's so much emphasis on the big 3. I love Rome, but... Here's the problem: With so many tourists there and in the other two, there's so much cynicism. For the unwary, it's easier to get ripped off, encounter a nasty waiter and in general not have a great time, apart from the sights. And think back to Rick Steve's shows--he keeps stressing that it's not just sights and sites, but the people. And people in less-touristy cities and in the countryside are more likely to be kind, to go out of their way to help you have a good time. I have self-interest here, I'll admit. I live in Umbria, and in one way, we could use more visitors. It's less flashy than our good neighbors in Tuscany, but more genuine in that you won't always be running into Brits or Americans instead of Italians. On the other hand, I like it as it is. Stay away! Just kidding.

Posted by
1882 posts

@Roberto da Firenze you make a good point!
My theory is based more on popular mass media, specifically North American produced for a North American audience - for example Roman Holiday or the Sound of Music. While Life Is Beautiful and Call Me by Your Name are fantastic films, they were introduced to a more niche North American audience via the Awards/Film Festivals circuit, not through a wide release in movie theaters.

For me, the films you mentioned (although great films), are not on the same level, in terms of production and distribution infrastructure, as media such as Roman Holiday, Sound of Music - or even the 1926 Hemingway book The Sun Also Rises (which introduced the United States to Pamplona and the Running of the Bulls.) These forms of media have a significant cultural cache that shapes the perceptions on the locations in which they are set.

Posted by
11977 posts

The very popular Italian TV series “Scomparsa”, which has been recently imported to the US as “Tangled Lies” (with subtitles, but soon to be dubbed), put the Italian “Palms Riviera” of San Benedetto del Tronto on the map for the Italians.

Posted by
1882 posts

@Roberto da Firenze
You make another good point, in recent years there has been a trend of "importing" foreign produced media (especially television) to the North American domestic market. Companies such as Netflix and Hulu have a lot to do with this revolution in the media landscape. However it is yet to been seen if they have a similar cultural impact as they do in their home countries.

For example, back in my home country of Spain, there was a very popular television series called Los misterios de Laura. This series was so popular that Warner Bros. Television decided to produce their own North American version for the domestic market called The Mysteries of Laura. Unfortunately the series was not so easily translated from a Spanish culture to the North American one and did very poorly and was canceled after two seasons.

Posted by
173 posts

I think anytime just chilling in italy is a success! no work...no stress...no problem. Italy is a beautiful country with LOTS of history...just enjoy :)

Posted by
173 posts

You can do that in Rome or Venice or Florence or Padua or the AC or Sorrento or anywhere in Sicily...just thank the good lord that you are not in a cubicle :P

Posted by
12117 posts

How about "Three Coins in a Fountain" True about "Roman Holiday" and there is film, "The Sun Also Rises"...one of Errol Flynn's last films

Posted by
3826 posts

Of all the crazy things, we actually visited Genoa and Bologna on our first trip to Italy 10 yrs ago - skipping Milan and Florence - we didn't even do Florence until our 3rd trip to Italy. We are planning to return to Bologna next year to explore more of that part of Italy. We didn't have long in either place - we basically went to Genoa to see the aquarium and we wandered around the area near the train station, and stopped in Bologna because it seemed like a good place to stop between Genoa and Venice.

Alas, we didn't see enough of them to say they were must-sees (and they were totally overshadowed by Venice), but I really hope we can see a lot more of Bologna.

Posted by
1726 posts

I have no idea when I will tire of it, but one of the personally intoxicating aspects of visiting Italy is simply observing locals in their daily routines. This was a specialty of our departed master poster & friend Zoe, and she wrote about it often.

When in Rome a year ago March, each day I'd take an early morning brisk walk along the Tiber, then nip on down one of the streets to a tiny tabacchi shop near our apartment for an espresso. I'd stand at the counter and listen to the conversations, picking up a bit of recognizable Italian here & there from residents beginning their day with a caffe and cornetto.

It requires being away from the tourist hordes, and in a sense I suppose it borders on voyeurism, but as a writer I've been self-trained to put myself in the other guy's shoes. I'm forever playing mind games & wondering to myself, 'what's his story?'