Italians know Italy best. Most often they vacation where tourists would never go. So, if you’re looking for a new, undiscovered, and authentic Italian vacation, these five (almost-secret) locales offer the adventurous and savvy traveler truly unique experiences.
1. Toscana Resort Castelfalfi, Tuscany
Stunning scenery. Fantastic organic wine. Winning organic olive oil. Renowned restaurants. What more could you want? A favorite destination of Italians – which is high praise indeed – Castelfalfi is perched on a hilltop in a remote corner of Tuscany between Florence and Volterra. At 820 feet, you’re surrounded by dreamy panoramic views of more than 2,700 acres of gorgeous organic vineyards and olive groves. Offering an authentic Tuscan countryside experience, the renovated 800-year-old borgo (village) boasts a charming castle, woods, lakes, 57 acres of vineyards, more than 10,000 olive trees and a 12th-Century church.
On property, stay in the Borgo, one of its 48 apartments winding up the hill to the castle, a restored luxury farmhouse villa, or in its boutique hotel, La Tabaccaia, that once upon a time was a tobacco factory. Offering diverse authentic Tuscan experiences, any desire to drive down the hill vanishes in your glass of organic Chianti whilst in the garden overlooking seemingly endless verdant Tuscan rolling hills disappearing into the horizon.
Even if you did venture out of Castelfalfi, it would be a challenge to find better restaurants. The restored castle is home to La Rocca–fine dining with sweeping views of olive groves and vineyards from its panoramic patio. Trattoria Il Rosarmino’s head chef Francesco Ferretti serves up country Tuscan cuisine that is garden fresh and traditionally cooked. His gnudi di ricotta e spinaci al pomodoro fresco and pici alla norcina are so good, you’ll soak up every last bit of sauce with rustic Tuscan bread. Fantastic organic wines are produced by the Azienda Agricola di Castelfalfi, and delicious antipasti are served in the garden by the local wine shop. Perfect for a sunset apperitivo.
If you think Castelfalfi is passionate about its organic wine, including the famous Poggio alla Fame, talk to them about their olive oil! Made from a blend of Frantoio, Leccino, Leccio del Corno, and Pendolino olives, you can take home the quality and flavor of Tuscany and enjoy it to the last drop. And if you’re inspired by all the local organic Italian goodness you devoured, learn how to make it at home at Castelfalfi’s Rosso Toscano cooking school. Go forage for wild asparagus and truffles in the woods. Or cool your jets under the Tuscan sun at one of the stunning pools with views that pair perfectly with a relaxing afternoon.
2. Todi, Umbria
While most travelers take the fast train immediately to Florence, those looking for a more rustic Italian countryside experience take the local train to Umbria’s medieval hilltop towns. Todi is surrounded by rolling hills bursting with vineyards and sunflowers. And when it’s wine o’clock, the perfect place to go is Roccafiore. Locals describe it as da vedere which means it’s a “must see.” And the ultimate compliment? You’ll be elbow to elbow with Italians at their luxury zero-kilometer restaurant and organic wine tasting in their stunning new cantina. Dine al fresco with sweeping views of Todi, surrounded by lavender gardens, or take a jungle vineyard safari for a picnic in Grechetto vineyards. So, get out your navigation device and make your way to Roccafiore. I wouldn’t make any plans for later What often starts out as just a visit turns into an all-day stay. It’s that magical.
3. Lake Maggiore, Piedmont
Long before George Clooney put Lake Como on the map, Italians summered at Lake Maggiore. Imagine lakeside lidos, rivers, mountains, and valleys landscaped with palm trees that give the north of Italy a distinct holiday feel. That and all the sparkling lake views you can handle. Take an alpine hike in the clouds by day or lounge in a lettino at one of Lake Maggiore’s many lido beach clubs. One of the more famous cobblestone villages dotted along Lake Maggiore’s shores is Cannobio. Famous for its Italian market bursting with local specialties, charismatic vendors fill winding viccolos selling their wares. In fall, when the days are still warm, indulge in the Piedmonte’s rich autumn flavors such as risotto with white truffles, chestnuts, and pumpkin. It’ll warm your heart as well as satisfy your belly.
Another little-known secret is that Lake Maggiore borders the Italian-speaking Canton Ticino in Switzerland – which offers a unique mountain dining experience. Above Ascona, a lake town just minutes from Italy, traditional grotto mountain restaurants are where locals go for authentic Tincenese cuisine. Here, farm-to-table isn’t a buzzword. It’s simply the way it’s always been. That and dining on traditional stone picnic tables by candlelight under the stars.
4. Ischia, Campania
If you’re looking for beauty, glamour, and healing waters, not far from Capri is another beloved Italian island: Ischia. This volcanic island overlooking the Bay of Naples with views of Mount Vesuvius was the destination for Italian film stars, royalty, and the glamorous during Italy’s La Dolce Vita era who reveled in its healing thermal waters. Today guests of the Miramare e Castello indulge in its stunning hotel with sea views and healing thermal spas. The hotel encourages “bathrobe culture” as you’ll be in and out of the thermal pool and sea all day. In Italy, the healing benefits of thermal water are so embedded in the culture that doctors prescribe it and treatments are paid for by insurance.
5. Alta Badia, South Tyrol
If you’re a foodie, the north of Italy is host to the Dolomites, a stunning mountain range and UNESCO World Heritage Site that offers bespoke Italian alpine gastronomic experiences all year long. The region is a culinary hotbed where you can enjoy fresh alpine fine dining in rustic mountain huts above the clouds. Alta Badia’s Peaks of Gastronomy is literally haute cuisine. With ten participating mountain huts with star chefs in summer, guests can indulge in some of the freshest most innovative Italian mountain cuisine. You’ll also find excellent high altitude wines that pair perfectly with South Tyrolean cuisine.
There are so many wonderful surprises waiting for the adventurous traveler who ventures beyond the tourist hotbeds of Rome, Venice, and Florence. When you visit these secret spots in Italy, you’ll mix with locals, try flavors you never knew existed, and venture into la vera Italia that Italians know and love.
Related on EcoSalon.com
Images via Miramare e Castello, Alta Badia Tourism, Castelfalfi, Rolcofiore.