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Southern Italy’s Top Attractions




The vast majority of people going to Italy never get further south than Rome, which is a shame. There are a number of places in southern Italy that would be flooded with tourists if it had been further north. Sure, the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii are in southern Italy and both rank among the country’s most popular tourist destinations, but that’s just scratching the surface.

These seven attractions deserve more attention than they tend to get from travelers – some of them are all but unknown by most of the people who visit Italy every year. I’d like to see these spots get a little more tourist love, so here’s a brief introduction to places in the south of Italy that you may not have heard of but are well worth your time.

(And no, this is by no means a comprehensive list of the only places worth visiting in southern Italy. But you knew that, right? Right.)

There are affiliate links below, which means I get a little something if you book one of these tours – but it won’t cost you anything extra.

Sassi di Matera

Overlooking Matera || public domain photo by Jack78

Overlooking Matera || public domain photo by Jack78

The Basilicata city of Matera is home to a series of cave dwellings believed to have been inhabited as far back as 7000 BCE. They were used by residents of the town until the middle of the 20th century, when the people were forced to relocate. Today, many have been renovated to make them habitable, and some have been turned into unique hotels. The caves are called “sassi,” and the town of Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Alberobello Trulli

Alberobello trulli || creative commons photo by Eduard Marmet

Alberobello trulli || creative commons photo by Eduard Marmet

The pretty town of Alberobello in Puglia is best known for its unique houses – cylindrical white structures with conical gray roofs called “trulli.” The buildings serve as homes, shops, restaurants, and – now – even hotels. These traditional structures are found in other parts of Puglia, too, but the most popular place to see them is Alberobello.

Blue Grotto

Inside the Blue Grotto || creative commons photo by Brad Coy

Inside the Blue Grotto || creative commons photo by Brad Coy

The Blue Grotto on the island of Capri off the Amalfi Coast isn’t the only sea cave in which the water glows in an ethereal way, but it’s one of the best-known. Sunlight fills the mostly-underwater cavern from a place that, when you’re inside the cave, you can’t really see. The light filters up through the water, which makes it glow a brilliant blue color by what seems like magic. The cave’s entrance is only accessible if the tide is right, and even then only in a small rowboat.

Reggia di Caserta

Caserta Park and Palace || creative commons photo by Nicola

Caserta Park and Palace || creative commons photo by Nicola

Not far from Naples is a former royal palace with enormous manicured gardens. The palace known as the Reggia di Caserta is Italy’s answer to Versailles, built in the late 18th century for the Bourbon kings of Naples and now now open to the public. You can see the royal apartments, a gallery of fine paintings, and the expansive gardens on a day trip from Naples.

Paestum

Temples at Paestum || creative commons photo by Oliver-Bonjoch

Temples at Paestum || creative commons photo by Oliver-Bonjoch

The ruins of Paestum are not Roman, but Greek. The three ancient Greek temples on the site date from the 5th-6th centuries BCE, when Paestum was an important city in Magna Graecia. Other ruins uncovered include an amphitheater and Roman Forum that date from the 3rd century BCE, and an on-site museum contains many of the artifacts found during excavations. Today, this UNESCO site is an easy day trip from Salerno, but you can also visit on a day trip from Sorrento or Naples.

Valley of the Temples

Valley of the Temples || creative commons photo by Panegyrics of Granovetter

Valley of the Temples || creative commons photo by Panegyrics of Granovetter

More Greek ruins are on the island of Sicily in an area known as the Valley of the Temples, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. These temple ruins are some of the best-preserved ancient Greek ruins anywhere, with seven temples in various states of ruin that you can visit on a day trip from Taormina, Palermo, or nearby Agrigento. Don’t be confused by the geography, though, as the temples are on hills rather than the valley in the name.

Mt. Etna

Mt. Etna erupting in 2012 || creative commons photo by andrea

Mt. Etna erupting in 2012 || creative commons photo by andrea

The massive Mt. Etna volcano near the eastern coast of Sicily is Europe’s tallest active volcano, and – yes – it spits out fiery bursts of lava on a pretty regular basis, but there are still a number of towns and cities a short distance from the mountain (not to mention some extremely productive farmland on its slopes). In the summer, Etna is a fascinating spot for guided hikes (provided it’s not about to erupt), and in the winter it’s a popular local ski area. Foodies and wine lovers will appreciate the bounty surrounding the mountain, too.


10 responses to “Southern Italy’s Top Attractions”

  1. Greg Speck says:

    Some of the most beautiful sights in southern Italy. I have been fortunate enough to see all but Matera, This will be part of next years visit. Paestum is amazing and less traveled than Agrigento. If some one is ambitious enough to travel to Sicily via the Autostrada del Sole, it is a great stop over. The photo or Mt Etna by Andrea is spectacular!

  2. lee says:

    do you have a link for the train routes in sicily? i have the trentalia site but i need a route map

  3. All great suggestions. Matera is certainly enchanting. I first visited Matera on a day trip and then went back for a few days last year and slept in a hotel in the Sassi! I particularly love the ancient temples of Paestum and Agrigento. Of course, I’m partial to Calabria and I’d vote for the Bronzes of Riace in Reggio’s archeological museum, which is full of ancient wonders from the Greek period, but for lovers of temples, there’s only one full column still standing in the region and that’s in the town of Crotone.

  4. Rosa Moore says:

    Today’s Newsletter focused on Southern Italy couldn’t have been more perfectly timed! My husband and I traveled to Italy last month for the first time! We followed Italy Explained 2 week Itinerary for first time visitors to Italy and added a few side trips. Our trip included Rome, Florence (we rented a car and drove to San Gimignano, Volterra, Sienna, Pisa), Cinque Terra (I recommend at least 2 days here. This is a MUST for anyone), and Venice. We absolutely fell in love with Italy and are now planning a trip to Southern Italy next year. I have 2 questions that I didn’t see noted anywhere. First, which airport would you suggest flying into? Second, what’s the best time of year to travel to this region?

    • Jessica says:

      Oh, I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed your first Italy trip, and that my site was helpful! I love hearing that. 🙂 As for your next trip, the airport(s) you choose depends on your itinerary. Here’s a list of the major international airports in Italy by region. I still recommend open-jaw tickets, unless your itinerary turns out to be vaguely circular anyway. “Best time of year” is a bit subjective, too, depending on what types of activities are on your list. Personally, I shy away from the summer months (mostly because I don’t deal well with hot weather), but if you want to focus on beaches then you need warm weather. The average temperatures for Palermo are listed on my Italy weather page, to give you an idea of historic averages, but note that in recent years (since those numbers were compiled) the average highs have gone way up.

  5. Bernie says:

    What is an open jaw ticket?

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for the question, Bernie – I should probably define that in an article at some point. An “open-jaw” ticket simply means you fly into one city and out of another, rather than back-tracking to your arrival city for your departure.

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