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 towns, as Italians in major cities make a mass exodus toward the coast every summer. Many of the well-known beaches get crowded or too touristy, but this list also includes some under-the-radar gems where you can escape the hubbub. From the Italian Riviera to the farthest reaches of Sicily, there are plenty of seaside villages to please travelers in search of pristine beaches, ancient ruins, art, culture, and delicious cuisine. So why not do as the Romans do and head to the sea? —Laura Itzkowitz
WHERE: Amalfi Coast
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 Tip: Bring comfortable shoes. Amalfi has only one street, and the rest of the paths are 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.
WHERE: Amalfi Coast
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 Tip: After climbing up to the highest point of Villa Cimbrone, known as the “Terrace of the Infinite,” head over to Cumpa’ Cosimo for a hearty and delicious meal.
WHERE: Naples and Campagna
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 Tip: If you have a few days, the nearby island of Ischia is known for its hot springs and is said to have healing properties.
WHERE: The Italian Riviera
All five towns that make up the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera are beautiful, but Manarola is the most picturesque. The whole village is built on a foundation of black rock, and colorful buildings hover over the small marina. Manarola was established in the 12th century and features the church of San Lorenzo, built in the 14th century. Stepped vineyards curve around the hillsides that join the five towns. The town produces wine and olive oil, which are readily available at shops in the historic center.
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 Tip: Porto Ercole is accessible by train, though it’s generally easier to get there by car.
WHERE: The Veneto
The Venice Lido became the first European bathing resort in the 1800s when Lord Byron, Lido’s first famous foreign tourist, arrived. He certainly wasn’t the last. The Lido is a seven-mile strip of beach in Venice that became known as a luxury destination for the likes of Serge Diaghilev, Coco Chanel, and Thomas Mann, author of Death in Venice. As if Venice wasn’t already beautiful enough, the Lido only increases La Serenissima’s charm.
Insider Tip: Every year in late August or early September, the Lido hosts the Venice Film Festival, which draws a large international crowd.
WHERE: The Italian Riviera
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 Tip: Portofino 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 the 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 Tip: Sperlonga 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 Fregenae.
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 Tip: Circe’s cave—Grotta della Maga Circe—can be found on the western side of the island, between Capo Bianco and Chaia di Luna beach.
Sicily is known for its alluring beaches, but Acireale is special. Formed on volcanic rock from Mount Etna, Acireale’s beaches are made of stone, not sand. While this isn’t ideal for sunbathing, it makes for a truly unique place, where ladders descend from the rocks allowing people to climb down into the sea as if it were a swimming pool. Of course, most people just dive in and swim out to the next outcropping. Acireale is known for its ornate Baroque churches and beautiful public parks and nature reserves. It’s also famous for its Carnival festivities, considered the best in Sicily.
Insider Tip: There is an excellent open-air market in the historic center, but for a traditional Sicilian treat, try the granita, a semi-frozen dessert similar to gelato. Sicilians mix it with their espresso and dunk brioche in it for breakfast.
The island of Lampedusa is the southernmost part of Italy and the largest of the Italian Pelagie islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Though the island belongs to Italy, it is actually closer to Africa, just 70 miles from Tunisia. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, and Arabs used the island as a maritime base long ago. On the south coast, Rabbit Beach is a nature reserve where visitors can swim with tropical fish and dolphins in crystal clear water.
Insider Tip: Lampedusa is a remote destination—perfect if you want to get away and be close to nature, but not great if you’re looking for culture.
The Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea, were formed by volcanic eruptions. Of the eight islands, Lipari is the largest and most welcoming. Visitors can see the fortress, castle, and cathedral that rise above the coastline. In the west, there are thermal springs and mud baths. The northernmost point of the island contains quarries for pumice and obsidian, a black volcanic rock glass.
Insider Tip: The Museo Archeologico Eoliano displays archeological finds from the island dating back to 4000 B.C.
White houses perched on a coastline overlooking turquoise waters welcome the traveler who sets his sights on the Aegadian Islands. The archipelago comprises a group of small mountainous islands, the largest of which is Favignana. The smallest, Levanzo, bears evidence of Neolithic and Paleolithic cave paintings. The islands are reachable from Trapani on the western coast of Sicily.
Insider Tip: The islands are made up of small, peaceful fishing towns, so you can be sure the seafood you’ll eat here is extremely fresh and delicious. Tuna and swordfish are local specialties.
SANTA CESAREA TERME
Puglia is still a bit of a secret, as foreigners do not often visit the area, the “heel” of Italy. But Italians sing its praises, from the pristine beaches with crystal-clear water to the laid-back lifestyle of its inhabitants. Santa Cesarea Terme is an idyllic village on the Adriatic Sea. Underground caverns and rock strata are responsible for hot springs celebrated for their healing properties, which drew 18th-century aristocrats to the small seaside village.
Insider Tip: People coming for the spa and beauty treatments will find plenty of charming cafes and restaurants on the seaside promenade.
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 Straight 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 Tip: Travel 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 Tip: Ancona is the closest major city, and another lovely seaside town.
Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, has it all: gorgeous beaches, superb Italianate architecture, plenty of shops, cafés and restaurants, wildlife, and parks. On the Poetto Beach, flamingos roam in the marshy areas and people picnic under umbrellas. Sardinians call the city “Casteddu” (literally, castle) and the old part of the city high up on the hilltop is certainly worth exploring. Climb up to Castello for a walk through the narrow cobblestone streets, visit the impressive Bastione San Remy, and stroll over to Piazza Indipendenza for a glorious panoramic view of the city and the sea.
Insider Tip: Prepare a picnic with fresh food from the Mercato di San Benedetto, considered one of the best fish markets in Italy. Sardinia also has some of the best windsurfing in Italy.
White-sand beaches and crystal-clear water characterize the beaches of Stintino on the northwestern coast of Sardinia. La Pelosa beach is especially beautiful and a favorite of Romans, who flock here in the summer. Stintino borders Sassari, Sardinia’s second largest city, which has an important university and a rich artistic and cultural heritage.
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 Tip: La 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 Tip: You 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.