Someone once said that taking a holiday anywhere else but Italy kind of feels like a mistake. After all, who could tire of the charms of Tuscany, the beauty of the Amalfi Coast or the verve of Milan? And then there’s Rome, Venice and Florence — as well as, for many months of the year, the crowds of tourists who also succumb to the Italian spell.
While the Italian Big Three will never lose their overall appeal, their stars shine so bright they tend to obscure other great spots on the Italian travel stage. Italy’s landscapes seldom disappoint, but in terms of cities, the hidden gems that you don’t want to miss include Bologna, Bari, Lecce, Catania and Trieste.
Unsung Bologna, capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, has many of the charms of nearby Florence minus all the tourists. But there are lots of Italian students: the world’s oldest university, dating back to 1088, is still going strong here. The historic city combines the elegant assurance of Milan with some of the more brooding and mysterious qualities of Venice. There are nearly 50 miles of porticos, so even when it’s raining out, you’re basically covered by all those lovely colonnaded arcades. Culturally, there’s a lot to take in, like the Museo di Palazzo Poggi (art and science museum), an evocative Jewish Museum and the Civic Archaeological Museum. But Bologna is very much a modern city. The locals move fast like the Milanese, slowing down perhaps to enjoy the rich food for which the city is justly renowned.
The town center is a 350-acre repository of Renaissance and Baroque architecture, the medieval inventory includes the Towers of Bologna. Climbing up the 334 feet of the Torre degli Asinelli is a good way to work off plates of egg pasta tagliatelle and Bolognese meat ragu.
Bari is an interesting animal as Italian coastal cities go. The capital of the sunny Puglia region has bragging rights on Italy’s longest seaside promenade. The winding lanes of Barivecchia, the walled old town, ooze authentic southern Italian charm and character. Wandering about means stumbling upon some of Bari’s foodie sights, such as making the city’s signature orecchiette ear-shaped pasta. Foccacerias abound, turning out delectable thin-crusted pizzas — for a more modern cafe and pub scene the area between the old walls and restored Teatro Margherita, built on piles in the sea, is the place to be.
While there’s no well-trammelled laundry list of sights to check off in Bari, there is a pretty cool Norman-Swabian castle on the perimeter of the old city and the cathedral is a gem of the Apulian Romanesque. The patron saint of Bari is St Nicolas — a basilica in his name has been standing since 1087, and you’ll see stone carvings made in the saint’s honor in many building facades in Barivecchia.
Bari, along with smaller Brindisi, can be considered the gateways to Puglia, and each has a decent international airport. Especially in the summer season, there’s often no need to transit through Rome or Milan to get there and start exploring.
Sometimes called the Florence of the South, Lecce is a genuine jewel of a city on the heel of Italy’s boot. While its artistic treasures can’t equal those of its Tuscan sister, Lecce is definitely sunnier and has no shortage of gorgeous Baroque architecture. Naturally, there are ancient Roman ruins too. The cultural links to ancient Greece in this part of Italy are strong and you’ll see them in force at the Museo Sigismondo Castromediano, which boasts a knockout collection of ancient Greek vases.
The entire Salento peninsula (the southernmost part of Puglia) is a beauty to explore, from Gallipoli on the west side to Otranto in the east and many scenic coves in between, but Lecce is the provincial capital.
When we’re talking about the cities of Sicily, passionate Palermo tends to steal the thunder but Catania is an underdog to be reckoned with. It’s a historic and bustling place with an intense Baroque aesthetic and vibrant outdoor markets under the gaze of unpredictable Mount Etna, the biggest active volcano in Europe. The earth’s crust gets pretty impatient in these parts, and in fact, Catania has been twice destroyed by earthquakes. The city today is a jumble of ancient ruins, Baroque buildings in varying states of preservation or decay and also more modern buildings. There’s a second-century AD Greco-Roman theater, an ancient Roman forum and numerous early Christian basilicas, too. The signature sight, oddly enough, is a fountain whose centerpiece is a small elephant made of black lava with an Egyptian obelisk jutting up from his back.
Another attraction of Catania is simply its great location, being about equidistant from the resort town of Taormina to the north and Siracusa (Syracuse), with its fabulous ancient ruins, on the coast to the south. Palermo is the largest Sicilian city, but Catania-Fontanarossa Airport is Sicily’s busiest airport.
In her book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, the great writer Jan Morris wrote that Trieste is “so lacking the customary characteristics of Italy that in 1999 some 70% of Italians, so a poll claimed to discover, did not know it was in Italy at all.”
If many people still don’t realize that Trieste is in Italy, that’s probably because for several centuries until 1918, when it was annexed by the Italians, this unusual city on the Adriatic was actually the main seaport of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, Trieste is the capital of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, which borders Slovenia with Croatia just 19 miles south.
The home of Illy coffee was once a great Mediterranean port and the fact that it now kind of still is but also kind of isn’t lends it the special ambience that held Morris in its thrall. The grandeur hasn’t faded from the vast central Piazza Unita d’Italia (which Slovenians still call Great Square) and a prominent statue of Sissy, Empress Elizabeth of Austria is a reminder that Trieste owes much of its current gracious aspect to the glories of a now-vanished empire. The broad Trieste seafront is a good place to contemplate all this — and maybe a side trip to Venice, just under two hours away by train.
Italy’s lesser-known cities may not be huge or very obviously Instagrammable and may not host prestigious international film festivals either, but so what? There’s a lot of history and texture to explore and authenticity to savor. Frankly, to pass over some places in the Bel Paese — or “beautiful country” — that are off the tourist track is bit of a travel sin. While the heavyweights like Florence and Rome will always be alluring, there is something equally seductive about cities like Bologna whose storied pasts make for compelling city breaks today.
Featured photo by Lysvik Photos/Getty Images.