A world above the chic cities and magnificent beaches, the magic of Italy is found more in its mountaintops than its monuments.
If you think you’ve already seen Italy because you’ve been to Rome, Venice, and Milan, you made an impressive dent in the culture of the country’s cities but you missed a lot of its magic. Atop Italy’s many mountains, in various states of decay and preservation, hundreds of villages remain from the middle ages (and earlier). Every one of them is a photographer’s paradise of snaking alleys and frenetically stacked houses with killer views, and many have fantastic beaches below, but each of them has a distinct personality worth discovering. It’s within these villages that you’ll truly come to know the Italian people and culture much more than in the crowded cities (and you’ll definitely get more invites to nonna’s house for homemade pasta).
Perched above the Esaro River valley, surrounded by mountains and overlooking lake streams, the medieval village of Altomonte is so prized by Italian brides for its pristine views and romantic architecture that it’s been dubbed “the wedding city.” Not getting married? You can still find romance (of the historical variety) with a stay in a 12th-century castle that’s now a hotel, or a visit to Renaissance-era library in a Dominican monastery. While the village stays current with music festivals and even modern art spaces, it’s truly the past that keeps Altomonte alive and high atop the list of Italy’s most beautiful villages.
Famous for its chocolate-covered figs, Amantea dates back to the 7th century and boasts Byzantine castle ruins at its highest point. Winding down the hillside through the old village, you’ll find a 15th-century church with a sea view worthy of the divine—the perfect place to stop and indulge in the village’s traditional pistachio gelato. At the bottom, there’s nearly a mile of modern shops leading straight to Amantea’s coastline and its seemingly endless beach lined with the occasional bar and plenty of beach volleyball matches.
INSIDER TIPAmantea’s commercial center is one of the more bustling among the area’s villages, so pick up some inexpensive Italian clothes and souvenirs here, if you’re so inclined.
Assisi claims history as ancient as 1000 BCE and is probably best known for its most famous resident, St. Francis, whose 13th-century basilica is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, the entire village itself is, too. Plenty of other impressive churches, Roman ruins, and not one but two castles top the extensive list of architectural offerings of this ancient town. From ceramics to medieval weaponry, Assisi’s artisan history remains strong. Cured meats and chocolate are popular here, so grab a snack between sword fights.
INSIDER TIPAssisi may not be as famous as Florence for leather, but the craftsmanship is just as strong here and the prices are much better.
High atop Mt. Saint Nicholas in Calabria is the thousand-year-old village of Badolato Superiore. With about 200 full-time residents, much of the village is empty but this no ghost town. A handful of engaged community groups, in conjunction with the local government, are actively renovating centuries-old houses and restoring them to upscale homes.
Today, a colorful cast of international transplants makes up a fair percentage of the village’s residents, but Badolato remains authentic Calabrian to its core. Italian moms still hand-roll pasta in restaurant kitchens, labyrinthine alleyways confound and amaze as they wrap up and around the mountainside through impossibly thin openings, and the siesta is a well-honored afternoon mandate.
INSIDER TIPWant a thousand-year-old house for free? Badolato will give you one if you promise to restore it within two years, and they’ll help you with the design and renovation, too. Average cost to restore? Under $75,000.
WHERE: Reggio Calabria
Three thousand feet up with views of the Ionian Sea and Mt. Etna, it’s no wonder that Bova has been occupied since Neolithic times, sought and conquered by the Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, and Normans (among others) in its pre-Italian history. Dozens of noteworthy churches and palazzos speckle the village, but the castle ruins offer an astounding panoramic view worth climbing for.
For something out of the ordinary among Italy’s mountaintop offerings, check out Bova’s paleontology museum. And if you’ve ever dreamed of a palace made of wine, be sure to visit Palazzo Nesci. Local lore holds that the palazzo’s red stones are a result of a water shortage during construction, prompting the masons to use wine instead.
INSIDER TIPIf everything in this adorable village seems so foreign it’s like Ancient Greek to you, that’s because it almost is. Bova is in one of the two regions of Southern Italy so heavily influenced by Greek and Byzantine cultures that the local dialect is known as Calabrian Greek.
Soaring 2,000 feet above sea level and teeming with the quaint cafes and the meandering alleys of Italian legend, Castelmola is a postcard village. The Antico Caffè San Giorgio is reputed to be the birthplace of the almond wine now famous in Castelmola, and the cafe owners insist that only they can produce the same remarkable flavor as the monk who invented it there. For a complete turnabout, pay a visit to Bar Turrisi, the decidedly adult themed bar that takes the romance of Castelmola in a more lustful direction and is all the more fascinating in such a historic setting.
Civita di Bagnoregio
About 75 miles north of Rome, Civita di Bagnoregio evokes dreams of the past even before entering. With the land bridge that used to connect Civita to Bagnoregio now completely eroded, the only way into town is by an epic footbridge. A massive Etruscan arch opens to a nearly vacated village that continues to dwindle. Eventually, the entire town will give way to the cliffs, but for now there are dozens of quiet moments to discover among ruins and exciting traditions to experience, like the twice-annual wild donkey races in Civita’s main square.
Once a flourishing medieval city with its own university and plenty of wealth, Craco’s tragic history has left it in complete ruin and it’s now a ghost town in the truest sense. Plague was the first major hit to Craco’s population, but centuries of war and a string of natural disasters from landslide to flood took their toll, and an earthquake in the 1980s finally left the remaining village completely abandoned.
Today, the village remains exactly as it was when the last inhabitants left, making this ghost town an urban explorer’s paradise. If you find yourself in familiar territory while wandering the abandoned streets, you may have seen them before in any number of the TV shows and movies filmed there, including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
WHERE: Emilia Romagna
If art and wine are two of your favorite things, the northern Italian village of Dozza is your dream come true. The basement of the Sforza castle (circa 13th century) is no longer a dungeon, but a trove of wine particularly admired because of the region’s rich soil. Here, the Enoteca Regionale Emilia Romagna (consider them the gatekeepers of the region’s wine) houses and sells over 1,000 labels, offers samplings, and educates visitors to the joys of the grape.
Every two years, the town plays host to the Painted Wall Festival, in which international artists are invited to paint murals on the exteriors of some of Dozza’s medieval gems, making the entire village a colorful art exhibition that only improves with age, just like its precious wines.
A mouthful to say, Fiumefreddo Bruzio has plenty more than its name to stuff your mouth with. While the chili pepper reigns supreme throughout most of the Southern Italy, cheese takes a strong second place here. From provolone to ricotta, this village specializes in a boatload of cheeses, but the most unique is filiciata, a soft cheese served in fern leaves. After a day of eating, climb the castle ruins for a dreamy sunset over the Tyrrhenian Sea, seen through crumbling windows originally shaped in 1201.
INSIDER TIPIf cheese and peppers aren’t your bag, you can still join in the culinary quirks of Fiumefreddo Bruzio: Try their famous potato omelet for a taste of traditional local flavor.
WHERE: Reggio Calabria
Okay, Gerace may not technically be a mountaintop village, but it’s perched on a 1600-foot mass of sea fossils 60 million years old, and that’s pretty cool.
Gerace’s castle was constructed as early as the 900s and most of the surrounding medieval town remains intact, including over 100 churches and buildings carved directly out of the surrounding rock. Another excellent wine producer (with vineyards originally planted by Ancient Greeks), Gerace is also known for its ceramics, which make great souvenirs. Though Gerace claims awesome sea views, like most of the mountaintop towns in Italy, the beach is actually six miles from this sky-high perch—a testament to the clear skies and pristine vistas of Calabria.
Montefollonico’s name alludes to textile workers, likely honoring the wool-working monks who properly settled the village in the middle ages, though the area has been inhabited for over 60,000 years, when Neanderthals left behind some of the artifacts that have been more recently uncovered. Relatively unique among the medieval villages of Italy, Montefollonico’s restaurant La Chiusa may be a bigger draw than its old churches and storied streets. It once held a Michelin Star and remains a popular destination restaurant for foodies and celebrities.
Book a Hotel
Italy’s calendar of religious festivals is more than overcrowded—it’s overrun with them. But for events of a more unique variety, the red-roofed village of Morano Calabro has some quirkier options ranging from a folklore festival to the banner-waving festival, complete with medieval reenactments. If you arrive between festivals, there’s plenty of twisty-turny exploration to uncover, and a couple must-sees like the 5th-century monastery of San Bernadino and the church of Santa Maria Maddalena, whose brilliantly tiled cupola can be seen from just about anywhere in the center of Morano Calabro.
A quintessential medieval Italian village so evocative that dozens of Italian TV shows and movies have been filmed there, Orvieto is also a foodie’s dream. Famous for both white and red wines, Orvieto’s culinary classics run the gamut from boar and dove to pastas and pastries that will keep you eating around the clock. Above all, olive oil reigns supreme in this Umbrian village, which is probably the reason why Orvieto’s culinary specialty seems to be … everything. While architectural wonders adorn the village (including the massive 13th-century Duomo), what’s underground may be even more fascinating: a series of more than 1,000 tunnels form a labyrinth under Orvieto, and much of it is now open to the public for exploration.
A 1783 earthquake drew most of Pentedattilo’s population away from its mountaintop perch, and it finally reached total abandonment in the 1960s. The ghost town remained untouched until the 1980s when international Europeans began restoring a small portion of the village. Today, some of the streets and buildings have been restored by these multinationals, and the village is secured enough to host an annual summer fest and even a film festival. Still, most of the village sits as it has for ages, an empty setting rife for adventure, particularly alluring at night when it is dramatically lit from below.
One for the bucket list, this village claims one of the highest zip lines in the world, sending adventurers up to 70 mph as they race across the valley between Pietrapertosa and the neighboring mountaintop village of Castelmezzano. Over 4,700 feet long and 3,200 feet high, it’s affectionately known as the Angel’s Flight. Don’t zip out of the village before taking in its own vertigo-inducing views, though. With the meandering medieval village built right up to the edges of its cliffside perimeter with dizzying drop-offs, there’s good reason Pietrapertosa is also called the City in the Clouds.
While most Italian villages are overflowing with impressive churches, Pitigliano may be most famous for its synagogue, drawing attention to its rich history of Jewish settlement and giving the old town its nickname of Little Jerusalem. Of course, countless churches dot the rest of this Tuscan village, as do a smattering of museums and other historic gems like the Palazzo Orsini, a renaissance palace built on the ruins of medieval fortresses and containing both art and archaeological museums of its own.
While most medieval towers have given way to war and erosion through the centuries, San Gimignano retains so many that it has been dubbed the Town of Fine Towers and its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While packed with immaculate examples of medieval architecture, this village is among the more tourist-minded, with contemporary events like music festivals and art exhibitions, and plenty of modern conveniences and services for travelers. San Gimignano even has its own app.
Ham it up in Sorano, where the local ham is so revered they hold a festival for it every August. If you don’t eat pork, don’t worry; there are plenty of other local specialties highlighted in this festival, particularly cheese, oranges, and the ever-popular Italian liqueur, limoncello. Don’t miss the Masso Leopoldina (sometimes called the Rocca Vecchia), which was once central to the defense of the town but is now a fabulous terrace for panoramic views of Tuscany (and a great place to swig another limoncello if you can smuggle some up).
Stilo’s history dates back over two thousand years and its Calabrian surroundings are so beautiful that monks carved rooms and churches out of the natural rocks to set up life here. By the 10th century, proper churches were on the scene, and one of Italy’s most famous Byzantine examples, Chiesa dell’Annunziata, still stands on the ancient Greek temple columns borrowed for its construction. Stilo is a small village, but the charm of its winding lanes and storied arches revealing views of olive groves, vineyards, and the Ionian Sea make it well worth a stop on any village itinerary.
The Sicilian village of Taormina has an ancient history and has not been forgotten by time. With settlements predating the Ancient Greeks, and a turbulent history that has seen Greek, Roman, Muslim, and Norman rule, this cliffside town has always managed to stay current. It has been frequented by notable cognoscenti like Oscar Wilde, Freidrich Nietzsche, Truman Capote, and Richard Wagner.
Today, it’s home to countless festivals, art fairs, and concerts, but the village hasn’t lost its history either. A Roman theater, the 13th-Century Duomo, and medieval palazzos are just a few well-preserved reminders of Taormina’s mutli-faceted past.
Most Italian mountaintop villages have sea-level counterparts with popular beaches, but perhaps none of these combos is as astonishing as Tropea. A walk down the main alley of this originally Ancient Roman town leads to the edge of a cliff (don’t worry, there’s a railing) directly over Tropea’s famed beach with crystal clear blue waters and rock formations demanding a climb and a jump. But the real jaw-dropper here is the view from below. Climb the exhausting stairs down to the beach, turn back, and look directly up the cliff at the stunning village lining the rockface. The Calabria region has long been a beach destination for vacationing Italians from the north, and Tropea is the jewel in its crown.
But the real jaw-dropper here is the view from below. Climb the exhausting stairs down to the beach, turn back, and look directly up the cliff at the stunning village lining the rockface. The Calabria region has long been a beach destination for vacationing Italians from the north, and Tropea is the jewel in its crown.
INSIDER TIPThe red onions from Tropea’s rich soil are so distinct and favored that red onions are simply known as Tropea onions throughout Southern Italy—no other variety will do. You can find everything from red onion pasta to red onion gelato here. Just request a sample of the gelato, though; a taste is more than enough of this … unique … flavor!
Twelve miles from the better-known village of San Gimignano is the less visited (less crowded) Volterra. While there are some serious medieval remnants in this village, it’s much more famous for the historical periods before and after. Some of its ancient Etruscan fortification walls still surround Roman ruins, including an impressive amphitheater worth exploring, and the Florentine influence of the Medici family left behind some dazzling Renaissance art and architecture throughout the once bustling mercantile village. The alabaster trade remains strong today and provides beautiful souvenirs from this Tuscan treasure.
Best known for its white walls facing the sparkling blue waters separating the Adriatic and Ionian seas, Otranto is also famous for the impressive 12th-century mosaic inside its cathedral. Spanning most of the nave, the mosaic features characters from Biblical stories, history, and mythology alike. Don’t forget to look up, though—the altar is surrounded by the skulls and bones of the 813 Martyrs of Otranto that creates an eerily impressive display of their own.