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5 Italian Small-Town Gems

Enjoy these lovely, hassle-free Italian destinations beyond the tourist hubs


spinner image People shopping at a famous Market Square in the old town in Bolzano, Italy
Britta und Ralph Hoppe

Six years ago I came to Florence from my home in Boston for a short stay that turned permanent after I fell in love with my now-husband, a Florentine named Rami. I was in love with the country, too, and can say that after all this time, I still find it truly breathtaking.

Unfortunately the beauty isn't the only thing that makes me gasp here. Sometimes it's the physical effort needed to get around — while climbing up and down the steep streets in the hill towns of Tuscany, scaling palaces and towers without elevators, or navigating the throngs of tourists in ancient cities.

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But if you explore beyond those crowded, difficult-to-navigate destinations, you'll find quiet villages with unique personalities. It feels like discovering the real Italy (especially in the off-season). These are five of my favorite easy getaways in central and northern Italy, places where just getting around doesn't wear me out.

spinner image Shops and cafes on Strada Farini in the historic city centre, Parma, Emilia Romagna, Italy
Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo

Parma

Parma is a small town in the Po Valley, just two hours north of Florence (between Bologna and Milan), that in winter is often enveloped in a lovely velvet fog. It's famous for its cuisine: Having a plate of freshly sliced Parma ham and Parmesan cheese is a heavenly decadence that I haven't been able to replicate anywhere else. My favorite piazza, Piazza del Duomo, holds the cathedral of Parma, dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In addition to its lavish frescoes and Romanesque sculpture, the cathedral has a beautiful octagonal baptistry — a perfect example of medieval architecture, in stunning pink marble. The peaceful streets are easy to stroll; the city, set in the valley, is extremely flat and nicely paved.

spinner image panoramic view of Greve in Chianti (Tuscany, Italy)
clodio

Greve in Chianti

Just under an hour's drive outside Florence, Greve in Chianti is in the heart of the land of wine. Set in a small Tuscan valley surrounded by vineyards, this tiny town thrives principally off of wine culture, and it's where you want to be if you're looking for hearty Tuscan cuisine topped off with a glass of Chianti. Then you can stroll uncrowded streets, peering into shops under the arches of Piazza Matteotti. If you come in early September you might catch the annual wine festival, an unforgettable experience.

spinner image Display of at the outdoor market of Bolzano, Italy
Andrea Magugliani / Alamy Stock Photo

Bolzano

When we're craving würstel, beer and an Alpine experience, we come to Bolzano in the South Tyrol region. Its Italian-style pastel houses and gorgeous setting, nestled in a valley by the Austrian border, give the mountain town a fairy-tale feel. It turns especially magical during the holiday season, when the piazzas transform into a sprawling Christmas market — wooden stalls overflowing with handcrafted ornaments, knitted mittens and hot mulled wine, under gorgeously decorated Christmas trees.

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Because of its valley location, Bolzano, like Parma, allows you to walk around without having to contend with steeply inclined streets. And you don't have to go on a hike to get a better view of the region from above; just take a cable car for a panoramic overlook of the town and nearby mountains.

spinner image View on the houses, vineyards and hills of the historic Italian village of Cossignano in the province of Ascoli Piceno in the Marche region
Michael de Groot / Alamy Stock Photo

Ascoli Piceno

Three hours northeast of Rome in Italy's central Marche region, Ascoli is surrounded by mountains, two rivers and vineyards on its neighboring slopes. It's home to a must-see 13th-century palace (Palazzo dei Capitani) and the Gothic-style Church of San Francesco in its lovely Piazza del Popolo, which on weekends is often filled with a festival or performance. Don't leave without trying the town's famed olive all'ascolana (veal-stuffed fried olives); I don't think I will ever taste anything more delectable.

spinner image piazza and the Cathedral of Orvieto
Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Orvieto

Less than 90 minutes north of Rome in Umbria, Orvieto is surrounded by fields of sunflowers and perched on top of a plateau of volcanic tufa stone. Still titled a hill town, it is relatively flat once you reach the medieval area at the summit; you'll leave your car at the base, where the new town is located, and take the funicular up. My favorite destination here is the Cathedral of Orvieto (Duomo di Orvieto), a gorgeous, 14th-century structure that glitters in the sun and is decorated in vibrant mosaics and columns. Full of treasures, including Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli's huge frescoes of the Last Judgment, it also offers an enchanting view over the surrounding fields and cypress trees in the valley below.

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