Have you ever been to Rome in August and wondered where all the locals are? The truth is that they're likely in one of these Italian beach towns. So why not do as the Romans do and head to the sea?
When the temperatures climb, locals flock to the Italian coast for sunbathing, swimming, and seafood. With beaches ranging from jam-packed to near empty, from rocky to sandy, and from north to south, many of these towns in Italy are also home to monuments, ruins, and delicious local foods. Ready to summer like a local? Grab your suit and towel and swap the sticky city for a beachy breeze.
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It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Positano is one of the most beautiful places on earth. This small town on the Amalfi Coast awes visitors with its pastel-colored houses perched on mountains that rise above the sea. Positano has lived many lives—as part of Amalfi’s maritime republic during the Middle Ages, a major trade route during the Renaissance, a forgotten fishing village, and finally, an idyllic beach town experiencing a modern-day renaissance. John Steinbeck, who lived here in 1953, wrote, “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” Then again, you might never want to leave.
INSIDER TIPBring comfortable shoes. Positano has many winding paths and steep staircases. On your way to the beach, stop by Le Sirenuse, Steinbeck’s stomping ground, for a meal or a drink by the pool. The famed hotel also runs popular sunset spot Franco’s Bar, an homage to one of the four siblings who founded the hotel (open seasonally).
Amalfi may be more famous, but Ravello tops it—literally. French author Andre Gide wrote that it’s “closer to the sky than the sea,” and he’s right. The town is poised high above the Bay of Salerno, and is celebrated for Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone, two romantic gardens offering spectacular views of the water. Ravello became famous as the home of the noble families of Amalfi’s 12th-century maritime republic. It has also inspired countless artists, including M. C. Escher, Virginia Woolf, Joan Mirò, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Richard Wagner, who is celebrated every year with a music festival.
INSIDER TIPSplurge on a room with a view at Palazzo Avino, a luxurious pink hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, three levels of terraced gardens, and a swimming pool overlooking the sea, or at least stop by for an Aperol Spritz on the terrace.
The island of Capri was once the vacation spot of Roman emperors and derives its name from the herds of goats (capra in Italian) that once inhabited it. The natural beauty of the Grotta Azzurra is unparalleled and became a symbol of the pastoral Romantic ideal when it was “discovered” by Germans August Kopisch, a poet, and artist Ernst Fries in 1826. A hidden opening in the cave allows light to refract, making the water appear an incredible shade of sapphire blue. Today, the secret’s out and Capri draws crowds of tourists, but it’s worth a trip for the island’s stunning beauty.
INSIDER TIPMost visitors to Capri are day-trippers who arrive by ferry from Naples or the Amalfi Coast and leave with the last ferry in the evening, so the island becomes much less touristy at night. If it’s a calmer experience you’re after, consider staying at one of the luxurious hotels on the island, like J.K. Place Capri or the Capri Tiberio Palace.
Manarola might be the most picturesque of the five Cinque Terre. Built on black rock and hugged on either side by stepped vineyards, the village’s brightly colored buildings hover over a small marina. After a day of enjoying the sun and sea, shop for locally produced wine and olive oil, and don’t miss Liguria’s signature dish: pasta with pesto. Be aware that day-trippers overwhelm the Cinque Terre, so consider going in the spring or fall, or base yourself in one of the tiny villages for a few weeks so you can experience and connect with the local community rather than just passing through.
When we think about Tuscany, we usually envision rolling hills dotted with cypress trees and Medieval cities, but Tuscany has a coastline too, and a gorgeous one at that. About halfway between Florence and Rome lies Porto Ercole, “Port Hercules,” in the province of Grosseto. The town is the final resting place of Caravaggio, who died there on his way back to Rome to receive a pardon after being exiled.
INSIDER TIPThough it’s easier to reach by car, Porto Ercole is accessible by public transportation. Take the train to Orbetello-Monte Argentario and then a bus.
Portofino became famous for la dolce vita in the 1950s and ’60s when movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sophia Loren vacationed here. The town is still a star-studded destination—Madonna, Cate Blanchett, Heidi Klum, and Gwyneth Paltrow have all been photographed in the Italian fishing village in recent years. Long ago, Portofino was an ancient Roman colony, seized by the Republic of Genoa in 1229. The French, Spanish, English, Austrians, and a 16th-century band of pirates have all taken their turn at ruling Portofino.
INSIDER TIPPortofino caters to its affluent visitors, so if you’re traveling on a budget, you may want to stay in nearby Camogli or Santa Maria Ligure.
Located about halfway between Rome and Naples lies the charming town of Sperlonga, once home to Emperor Tiberius. A museum constructed on the former villa of Tiberius displays sculptures celebrating the deeds of Odysseus, which were discovered in the grotto for which the town is named. Long stretches of pristine beaches draw Romans to the village today.
INSIDER TIPSperlonga is easily accessible by train from Rome, and the beach is much cleaner and more beautiful than those of Lazio’s more popular seaside towns, such as Ostia and Fregene.
The picturesque island of Ponza is another popular destination for Romans fleeing the city in the summer. Legend has it the island was named after Pontius Pilate, whose family owned a grotto there. The Etruscans first colonized Ponza, which may be the last remnants of the lost island of Tyrrhenia, and archeologists have found the ruins of sunken Roman temples nearby. It is also rumored to be the home of Circe, the sorceress who seduced Odysseus and turned his men into pigs. More recently, Wes Anderson filmed some scenes from The Life Aquatic here.
INSIDER TIPCirce’s cave—Grotta della Maga Circe—can be found on the western side of the island, between Capo Bianco and Chiaia di Luna beach.
If you’re not big on sunbathing and prefer to spend your days cooling off in the water, this might just be the place for you. Formed on black volcanic stone from nearby Mount Etna, Acireale’s unique beaches aren’t ideal for sunbathing, but they’re great for swimming, thanks to the ladders that descend into the water from the rocks. Climb down as if you were entering a pool, or jump right in. Visit the town’s ornate Baroque churches, beautiful parks, nature reserves, and excellent open-air market. Acireale is also famous for its Carnival festivities, considered the best in Sicily.
INSIDER TIPStart your morning off right with a typical Sicilian breakfast of granita, a slushy treat that comes in a variety of flavors, or if you’re really hungry, opt for a sweet brioche bun that’s sliced in two and filled with gelato.
Named for Aeolus, the Greek god of winds, the Aeolian archipelago is made up of seven main islands: Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi, and Alicudi. The islands, along with the islets sprinkled around them, were formed by volcanic eruptions, and two of them, Vulcano and Stromboli, are still volcanically active. The archipelago was given UNESCO World Heritage status in the year 2000. Visitors to the islands can swim, sail, sightsee, hike, and eat their way around each one.
INSIDER TIPLipari is the largest island and has lots to offer by way of sightseeing, and Panarea is frequented by a wealthy and glamorous crowd. If you’re looking for something quieter, check out Filicudi and Alicudi. Salina is known for its Malvasia vineyards, and if you’re into adventure, head to Vulcano for fumaroles, mud baths, and hot springs, or to Stromboli, where you can witness an eruption.
Polignano a Mare
Puglia makes up the “heel” of Italy’s boot. This region has steadily been growing in popularity for the last several years, thanks to its pristine beaches with crystal-clear water, the laid-back lifestyle of its inhabitants, and its cuisine, which includes orecchiette pasta and creamy burrata cheese. Polignano a Mare is an idyllic village perched on limestone cliffs above the Adriatic Sea. It’s a popular spot for cliff divers, but there are many tamer ways to enjoy the scenery, like strolling through the white-washed town, gelato in hand.
INSIDER TIPPolignano a Mare is a great base for exploring Puglia’s many charming towns, including Alberobello, where you can see the trulli (ancient homes with conical roofs).
As the easternmost point in Italy, Otranto was originally a Greek village known as Hydruntum, which sided against Rome in the wars of Pyrrhus and Hannibal. The town gives its name to the Strait of Otranto, which connects the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, and on a clear day, you can see across to Albania. Over the course of its history, Otranto came under the rule of the Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Ottomans, and Napoleon’s troops. Travelers can swim in the pristine turquoise sea and trek up to the Castello Aragonese medieval fortress.
INSIDER TIPTravel to Otranto by train from Lecce.
Another off-the-beaten-path spot on the Adriatic, Numana is more tranquil than beach towns to the north, such as Rimini and Ravenna, and just as beautiful. Known during ancient times as Humana, the town later became an episcopal see. Numana’s city hall was once the Bishop’s palace and now hosts exhibitions. Though Marche is less wealthy and full of art than nearby Umbria and Tuscany, the region is celebrated for its rugged beauty. Travelers will find rolling hills peppered with vineyards and olive groves, and stunning views of the Adriatic Sea.
INSIDER TIPAncona is the closest major city and another lovely seaside town.
The largest town in the Maddalena archipelago, which lies between Sardinia and Corsica, La Maddalena is renowned for its dazzling beaches. The granite islands are composed of rocky outcroppings, and the coves make for some stunning scenery. The old town has all the charm of a historic Italian village, with pale yellow and orange buildings, narrow streets, and piazzas where visitors gather for a drink or meal. Caprera Island, in the Maddalena archipelago, is the final resting place of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian revolutionary, and history buffs will appreciate a visit to his tomb (though the body was exhumed in 2012 for DNA analysis).
INSIDER TIPLa Maddalena is only accessible by a ferry that leaves every half-hour from Palau.
The fortified village of Alghero was taken over by the Aragonese in the Middle Ages and later by Catalan colonists, lending it a distinctly Spanish air. Many whitewashed buildings feature wrought iron scrollwork and other Spanish embellishments. Alghero is the only place in Italy where a Catalan dialect is spoken, though locals also speak Italian and are friendly to visitors. Wander through the narrow streets and up the ramparts to the zigzagging “goat steps” that lead to the Grotta di Nettuno. The cave, full of calm pools, stalactites, and stalagmites, is one of the most popular attractions in the area.
INSIDER TIPYou must visit the Grotta di Nettuno with a guide; tours are offered on the hour and you can reach the grotto by land or by boat from the port of Alghero.
Forio is the largest town on the island of Ischia, which fans of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels will recognize from the books. Though it’s more under-the-radar than Capri, Ischia has long drawn Italians seeking sun, sand, and the healing treatments offered by its mineral-rich thermal waters. There are plenty of charming shops, trattorias, and gelaterias in town, but the best hotel is in nearby Lacco Ameno. There you’ll find the Albergo della Regina Isabella, where Elizabeth Taylor stayed.
Blink and you could miss this tiny town in the heart of the Maremma, but if you want to get back to nature, it’s the perfect place to go. Much of the coastline in this area has remained undeveloped, so you’ll find lush forests just beyond the beaches. There’s little more than a marina, a handful of restaurants, the charming Baglioni Resort Cala del Porto, and its beach club, La Vela. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the island of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled.
INSIDER TIPIf you can tear yourself away from the beach, it’s worth visiting some of Tuscany’s best wineries, like Rocca di Frassinello.
Located on what’s known as “the Coast of the Gods,” Tropea, Calabria has been voted one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. In addition to its charming historic center, the beach in Tropea boasts glowing blue water and white sand that’s perfect for sunbathing. Climb the 300 or so steps up to the Sanctuary of Santa Maria dell’Isola for a view that stretches all the way to the Aeolian Islands.
INSIDER TIPThe red onions of Tropea are known throughout Italy for their sweet flavor. In July, a sagra, or festival, is held to celebrate the onions along with bluefish, another staple of the area’s cuisine.
One train stop north of the Cinque Terre is Levanto, a town of about 5,000 that is nowhere near as well known as its five neighbors to the south. At first glance, Levanto seems like a typical seaside town, but what makes it special is that it’s home to the Ciclopedonale Maremonti, a stunning cycling and walking path that was put down over an old railway line and connects Levanto to nearby Bonassola and Framura. Rent a bike and cruise through the galleries, which periodically offer peekaboo looks at the crashing waves below. If you get hot then stop, lock up your bike, and take a dip at one of the small, secluded beaches along the way.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re hungry after all that cycling and swimming, head to La Picea for its award-winning Profumi Liguri pizza, which is topped with yellow and red cherry tomatoes, burrata, pesto, and toasted pine nuts.
“Were a man to spend only one day in Sicily and ask, ‘What must one see?’ I would answer him without hesitation, ‘Taormina.’” So said Guy de Maupassant, the 19th-century French author. It’s easy to understand why he felt this way as you stroll around and take in the magnificent views Taormina offers of the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna in the distance. Take the cable car down for a swim near Isola Bella, a tiny island that doubles as a nature reserve and is connected to the mainland by a strip of sand. Don’t miss the Greek amphitheater either, where musicians still perform under the stars all summer long.
INSIDER TIPTaormina is accessible by train. Hop in a taxi or on a bus to reach the town above. You can buy tickets in the bar at the train station or right on board.
San Vito lo Capo
Nestled in a sheltered bay, the beach of San Vito lo Capo in Sicily’s northwest is known for its crystalline waters and white sand. Go for a swim right in front of the Tonnara del Secco, where tuna and other fish were processed starting in the early 1400s. There are nearby ruins of another similar structure that date all the way back to the 4th century BC. You can also head up to the base of San Vito lo Capo’s working lighthouse for a great view of the sparkling sea.
INSIDER TIPIf the beach in San Vito lo Capo is crowded, spend a day in the nearby Riserva dello Zingaro, a nature reserve where you can hike to beaches that are more secluded.
Voted the Italian capital of culture for 2022, Procida is a small island that lies between Ischia and Capri. It is most widely recognized for the fishing village of Marina Corricella, which is lined with pastel-colored houses, but it doesn’t end there. Procida is actually divided into nine districts and a few separate villages. Film buffs might recognize the island from such classics as Il Postino and The Talented Mr. Ripley.