Not surprisingly I get asked what are my favourite places in Italy, or the most romantic, or the best to “la dolce vita” (the sweet life)…   So this week I’m going to share five of my favourite places to visit and explore off the beaten path when on your next trip to Italy.

Of course you do know it’s impossible to narrow it down to just five, and so clearly I had to make some tough choices!  And I’m sure you’re also aware that my best five may not be your best five, but I’ve endeavoured to cover my bases and give you insiders tips (where to stay, what to see and where to eat) in each location across a broad swath of Italy.

I have purposefully stayed away from the big name cities and towns that most of the world’s tourist visit so don’t be alarmed, you can thank me for it later.  🙂   You’re welcome!

So without further ado…

5.  Assisi (Perugia) – this is the home of the legendary Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi and definitely worth a visit.

  • Stay:   Nun Assisi Relais and Spa Museum – (Via Eremo delle Carceri 1A (Piazza Giacomo Matteotti) Assisi) Yes, it actually is a ex-nunnery with a roman Spa in the basement, and although fully renovated its still utilizes much of the Roman spa structure today.  An incredible place to stay – chock full of history!
  • See:  Tempio of Minerva – Assisi was a roman city and as such, much of the foundations to this incredible hilltop town were built in the time before Christ.  If you visit the Tempio of Minerva explore the basement as this was the original settlement layer.
  • Eat:  Nona Nini – (Via S. Rufino, 4, 06081 Assisi)  If you want, arguably the absolute best Gnocchi in Italy you have to eat at Nona Nini, open at 9:00 am for breakfast.  The coffee is awesome and the atmosphere right out of a movie set!

4. Orvieto (Umbria) – this is the ancient land of the Etruscans and has for millenia been at the crossroads of culture and history, laying equidistant between the two most powerful cities in Italy…Rome and Florence.

  • Stay:   La Badia di Orvieto – (Località La Badia, 8, 05019 Orvieto) I enjoyed a couple of nights in this exquisite renovated 11th century Abbey across the valley from Orvieto.  This picturesque hotel is set amongst the rolling Umbrian hills a mere 1 hour and 40 minutes north of Rome.
  • See:  Duomo di Orvieto – The Gothic façade of the Duomo is one of the great masterpieces of the Late Middle Ages, work began in 1290 but it wasn’t until 1534 that the structure was fully complete. Interestingly the town itself is built on a cave system which covers the entire plateau of Orvieto – definitely take a cave tour…it is amazing to see how the Etruscans lived below the current hilltop town.
  • Eat:  Trattoria di Palomba (16 Via Cipriano Menente, 05018 Orvieto) – for authentic local cuisine look no further than this warm, friendly and delicious restaurant.

3.  Cortona (Tuscany) – if you haven’t watched “Under the Tuscan Sun” with Diane Lane then you may struggle to understand the charm of this incredible town nestled squarely in the Tuscan hills, surrounded by vineyards and the dappled light of the most romantic region in Italy.

  • Stay:   Hotel San Michele (Via Guelfa 15, Cortona) – located in the center of town, the now restored Baldini Palace, is not to be missed, sumptuously decorated with super friendly staff only too happy to help you make the most of your stay in Cortona.  Incidentally they are the only hotel in the town to have its own private car park.
  • See: So many things... People watch while you enjoy your espresso or Latte from the Caffe Bar Signorelli in the Piazza del Repubblica, and then stroll the streets to explore the many shops and museums. In addition, Cortona is surrounded by vineyards and so a visit to Azienda Agricola Leuta is a definite must during your visit.  Another popular activity in Cortona is to attend a one day cooking school, which includes everything from buying your organic ingredients to cooking and eating your delicious meal.  A lovely and romantic adventure perfect for two!
  • Eat:  Trattoria Toscana (12, Via Dardano – 52044 Cortona) – Sarah and Enzo will be your generous and gracious hosts as they delight you with a host of local dishes.  Try the Chingale Ragu…simply to die for!

2.  Camogli (Liguria) – this quiet fishing village only 30 km south of Genova on the Ligurian coast is often considered to be one of the most beautiful seaside villages in all of Italy (yes, that’s a big statement!).  An imposing abbey build on the spit of land in the center of town is its focal point, especially as it connects to the vibrant boardwalk lined with cafes and restaurants.

  • Stay:  Hotel Cenobio Dei Dogi (Via Cuneo 34, 16032 Camogli)  The most prestigious hotel to stay while in Camogli, and adjacent to the boardwalk and local amenities, this genteel hotel is a definite must stay for your visit.
  • See: So many things... Portofino Vetta (National Park) is amazing for a hike, and if you really adventurous and wear good hiking shoes can hike to Portofino (3 – 4 hour hike), The Abbazia di San Fruttuoso (accessible only by boat) unless you hike via the park.  This stunning little abbey tucked into a cove is the perfect summers day trip from Camogli.
  • Eat: O Magazin of Camogli (Piazza Cristoforo Colombo, 14, 16032 Camogli) If you love ultra fresh seafood then this is the place for you.  There is an ever changing menu based on the day’s catch and time of year, and this gem will live on in your memory as the best seafood in all of Italy.
  1.  San Giovanni di Bellagio (Lombardy) – how could you not know that this is my absolute favourite?  I mean to say…after everything I’ve written over the years.  🙂  With close proximity to Bellagio, this medieval fishing village a mere two kilometers from the center of Bellagio and accessible by ferry – this is my go-to place, my sanctuary!
  • Stay: Apartments and Rooms II Vicolo (Via Sant’Abbondio 13, Bellagio)  It can be a bit tricky to find on your first visit but after my sixth or seventh visit I finally got the hang of it!  If this one is unavailable then there are a host of other locations in and around Bellagio run by the same family, with the same attention to ensuring you have an amazing visit.  My other favourite is across the Lake – and in the finest European traditions stay at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo – its one to the absolute best in the world!
  • See:  Take the Ferry to Lenno – then follow the signs for Villa del Balbianello.  This FAI estate (National Trust) is a must see on your visit, with incredible views of the lake and the scene of many movies including James Bond in Casino Royale.  Bellagio Water Sports (Via Sfondrati, 1, 22021 Pescallo, Bellagio) say hi to Mich for me and tell him I sent you.  He’ll take care of you while out on the water in one of the many kayaks or paddle boards.  Or just explore the lake by ferry…one of my favourite things to do!
  • Eat: Ristorante Darsene di Loppia (Via Melzi d’Eril, 22021 Loppia, Bellagio) has a charming patio/pergola to eat by the lake, situated between San Giovanni and Bellagio this is one of the areas best restaurants – both amazing food but also off the beaten path and away from the crowds of Bellagio.

So there you have it…   I know you’re going to ask what about the five that missed out, well that will have to wait but always happy to share my travel experiences and give you insider info.  Just ask!