Italy Travel Guide
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The Secret Beach Town That Should Be on Every Italian Itinerary

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While popular with Europeans and Italians, Americans have yet to discover the rugged Calabria region’s most picturesque village.

Deep in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, Tropea doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. The town is perched above the Tyrrhenian Sea on the Coast of the Gods and is stunningly beautiful with fantastic beaches, a charming historical center, and restaurants serving fresh seafood. Tropea is literally mythical: One legend says it was founded by Hercules, who is honored in the name of the main square, Piazza Ercole.

This happening summer beach town does get crowded in July and August—mostly with Italian and other European tourists—so if you enjoy personal space, May, June, September, and October are probably better choices. Visit and spend some quality time in one of Italy’s best-kept secrets.

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The Beaches

Tropea‘s two and a half miles of pristine white beaches are among the cleanest and best in Italy. Dramatic rock formations, cliffs, coves, and grottoes dot the coastline, holding ground against the sparkling, turquoise, Caribbean-like water. Tropea has both public (free) and private (fee) beaches. Bring or rent an umbrella, soak in the rays, take a dip in the Tyrrhenian, and watch tiny fish swim through your legs, or rent canoes, paddle boats, or rubber dinghies. TropeaSub Diving Center is open year-round and offers snorkeling and scuba diving.

INSIDER TIPIf you prefer a quiet spot, one of the least crowded beaches is Cannone, tucked between the marina and the Rock of San Leonardo.

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Santa Maria dell’Isola

Set high above Tropea’s beaches on a rocky promontory is the Sanctuary of Santa Maria dell’Isola, a 6th-century Benedictine monastery. Earthquakes in 1783 and 1905 hit the structure hard, and the church has been rebuilt, giving it a more modern look. Wear your walking shoes and bring a bottle of water for the trek to the top—about 300 steps up a staircase built into the rock around 1810.

Santa Maria dell’Isola is the classic postcard shot of Tropea, with incredible views to Sicily’s Aeolian Islands. When you reach the sanctuary, be sure to also admire the stacked houses of old Tropea, impossibly clinging to their own immense rock opposite the church.

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Centro Storico (Historical Center)

You could easily spend hours wandering Tropea’s enchanting maze of cobblestone, pedestrian-only streets lined with grand 17th- and 18th-century palazzi, restaurants, pizzerias, cafés, gelaterie, and artisan shops. Adding to the ambiance are the stolen glimpses of the sea and Santa Maria dell’Isola between buildings. Tropea’s centro storico is so picture perfect, it feels like a movie set. Several stores sell local foodstuffs, handcrafted products, and souvenirs, of course, but one you shouldn’t miss is Creazioni Artistiche Il Faro on Via Pietro Ruffo di Calabria. You may have heard of the presepi (Nativity) popular in Naples, but lesser known—though no less impressive—are Benito Badolato’s creations in Tropea. Badolato pays homage to ancient Calabrian occupations from cheesemaker to orange-picker with his intricate, life-like figurines.

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Norman Cathedral

Tropea’s history is ancient, dating back 2000 years, but many natural disasters and wars have claimed countless town landmarks. One of the finest still standing—the Norman Cathedral with vast Gothic portals in the historical center. The Cathedral’s main altar features a 4th-century painting of Tropea’s patron saint, the Madonna of Romania, who has been credited with saving the town many times over, including during World War II when two bombs were thrown in the middle of the town but remained unexploded (and which are now on display inside the church).

INSIDER TIPThe Madonna of Romania is brought down from the altar and carried through the streets in a procession of the faithful every September 9.

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Red Onions of Tropea

If it seems strange to read that you should visit a place because of its onions, you haven’t been to Tropea. The Cipolla Rossa di Tropea IGP (indicazione geografica protetta)—Tropea red onion—is sweet, delicate, and actually more purple than red. They’re easy to find throughout Calabria, especially in the open-air markets, where you’ll see them tied or braided in bunches. They are equally as lovely raw or cooked.

INSIDER TIPEvery summer toward the end of July and beginning of August, the town holds a sagra (festival) for the Tropea red onion and the local pesce azzurro, blue fish, which draws fish and onion lovers from all over Calabria and beyond.

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Sailing & Mini-Cruises

Calabria tends to be breezy year-round, whether the air is a hot scirocco from Africa or a cool tramontana blowing down from the Alps. This weather pattern bodes well for sailing in the Tyrrhenian, and In Italy Tours provide a great chance to get out on the open water on a sailboat to nearby, gorgeous Capo Vaticano. You can also choose a luxury yacht to take you to the equally beautiful swordfishing village of Scilla down the coast.

Several companies also offer mini-cruises to the Aeolian Islands, including Savadori Navigazione, Comerci Navigazione, and TropeaMar, which generally stop at Lipari, Vulcano, and Stromboli.

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Sunsets

Tropea is on “The Coast of the Gods,” but it also benefits from the occasional purple hue of the sea that inspired the name of “The Violet Coast” just south of here. On many nights, the sky can be downright fiery, dominated by deep, vibrant red-orange, and the volcano on Stromboli across the Tyrrhenian will provide an even more dramatic background.

With magnificent views from several vantage points, just go outside during twilight on a clear night and you’re bound to catch an Instagram-worthy view of the sun setting over the Tyrrhenian.

INSIDER TIPThe panoramic viewing spot at the end of Via Indipendenza is a particularly lovely place to wrap up an evening passeggiata (walk) around town. Gelato in hand is optional but recommended.

 

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Al Migliarese Cocktail Bar

When you put “cocktail bar” in your name, you had better deliver mighty fine drinks. Al Migliarese Cocktail Bar does, and then goes above and beyond with its aperitivo—that wonderful Italian concept of including stuzzichini (snacks) in the price of your before-dinner drink. Al Migliarese’s offerings vary, but are always a delightful taste of Calabria, including local specialties such as Tropea’s sweet onion marmalade.

But it’s all about location, location, location. Al Migliarese has a prime spot on the edge of Largo Migliarese, a straight shot down Corso Vittorio Emanuele toward the sea from Piazza Ercole, which provides one of the best panoramic views in town, especially at sunset (a.k.a. aperitivo time).

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Ristorante Pizzeria Pinturicchio

Although somewhat hidden away in an alley in the historical center, Pinturicchio is anything but a secret—it’s a perennial favorite of locals and tourists alike. The atmosphere is romantic yet relaxed, whether you’re seated outside or inside the stone, arched cantina-turned-restaurant. Specialties include fresh, local seafood and homemade pasta, fileja, especially tasty served with Calabria’s famous ‘nduja, a spicy, spreadable sausage. Reservations are encouraged.

INSIDER TIPThe tuna (tonno) is exceptional in a variety of ways, including carpaccio or grilled and smothered in Tropea red onions or coated with sesame seeds. Or, impress your friends with tales of a truly Tropean pizza: one topped with tuna and Tropea red onions.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of La Pergola
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La Pergola

Just outside the historic center on Via Libertà, this charming restaurant’s tables are situated under a grand pergola covered in intertwining grapevines. A bit less trafficked than other Tropea restaurants because of its location, La Pergola offers diners a slightly more upscale experience all-around, though it still offers down-to-earth dishes like pizza and manages to remain cozy and welcoming.

INSIDER TIPAnything that involves fish or seafood is highly recommended at La Pergola as it’s always fresh, but for a particularly local flavor, try the surici fritti (pearly razorfish), prepared whole, dredged in flour, and fried.

 

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Villa Paola

Villa Paola is a luxury, 5-star hotel converted from a 16th-century monastery dedicated to San Francesco of Paola, Calabria’s patron saint. With only eleven spacious, well-appointed rooms available, the hilltop property provides a sophisticated, private atmosphere even when fully booked. The clean, fresh air surrounding the villa is perfumed by gardens of bougainvillea, roses, oleander, and lavender, and the spectacularly serene pool seems suspended above the town below, offering an outstanding view overlooking the Tyrrhenian.

While perfect for a romantic getaway, Villa Paola isn’t meant for children under the age of 12. For families, check out its companion property, Villaggio Baia del Sole, located between Tropea and Capo Vaticano.

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Tropea Blues Festival

You probably wouldn’t expect to find a blues festival in the heart of southern Italy, but thanks to a group of impassioned young Calabrians, the Tropea Blues Festival has been a reality in Tropea since 2005, when it began as “Street of Blues.”

Every September, the Tropea Blues Festival features several international acts who perform in various scenic locations throughout the town. It has expanded from three nights in its earlier incarnation to six full days full of music and fun. In addition to concerts, the festival now includes related cultural events and a jam session. The same group also presents other blues events throughout the year, so if you’ll be in town, keep an eye on their website for announcements.