You’ve gondola-ed Venice, bicycled Tuscany, shopped Milan, art-walked Florence, and climbed the hills of Rome—that’s pretty much it for Italy, right?
Not by a long shot. Just look at the map. Italy’s a boot, not a shoe, and there are lots of treasures to be discovered down around the ankle and heel, in Southern Italy.
Here are five bucket-list worthy destinations in the regions of Puglia, Basilicata, and Campania:
Alberobello: Home of the Hobbit Houses
You can’t stop staring at the strange, conical houses called trulli, with their distinctive limestone gnome-hat roofs.
Theories abound regarding how these stone huts evolved in Italy’s Puglia (or Apulia) region. One tale: In the Middle Ages, local rulers demanded taxes from everyone inside Alberobello’s walls, and forbade construction beyond them. Olive farmers defied the duke and built simple structures out in the fields. (Building materials were readily available: the soil is chock-full of rocks.) When the tax collectors came calling, the trulli homeowners would quickly pull the keystone to collapse the roof, then head for the hills. Later they returned and rebuilt, tax-free.
Alberobello was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site for its collection of well-preserved trulli, now occupied by shops and restaurants. A delightful destination indeed.
Lecce: Embellishment Embodied
Dubbed the “Florence of the South,” the Baroque town of Lecce enchants visitors with its flair for elaborate adornment. The architects of Lecce’s many churches and palazzos never saw a blank space they couldn’t improve by adding a few curlicues and flourishes. Beguiling animal gargoyles stare down from the facade of the Basilica di Santa Croce, while fat little angels sing and dance all over the interior.
The streets of Lecce are fun to wander, too. Stroll and shop the cobbled lanes with gelato in hand, then stop for a rest in one of the town’s inviting piazzas. Best of all, people actually live and work here; it’s not a museum.
Bonus fact: Lecce was a candidate for selection as a 2019 European Capital of Culture, but it lost out to…
Matera: Gem of the Basilicata Region
Come around a corner of the modern city of Matera and suddenly, the ancient town appears like a mirage. Stone houses carved into the rock are piled higgledy-piggledy on top of each other, with stone stairways threading up and around between them, finally reaching the cathedral with its square-sided campanile at the top. Glowing with golden lights at night, the effect is magical.
Stay in one of the imaginatively renovated cave dwellings such as the Grotte della Civita (Caves of the Town) hotel, to get a feel for what it must have felt like to live in a troglodyte settlement. Get up before dawn and climb to the top of Matera’s old town to photograph the gray stones of the city turning pink and gold in the early morning sun, as photographer Massimo Bassano did for a Traveler feature story about the “towns that Italy forgot.”
Bonus fact: Matera looks like a stage set, which is probably why Mel Gibson chose to film The Passion of the Christ there.
Cisternino: Where Olive Oil Grows on Trees
Gnarled, wind-bent, silver-leaved olive trees crawl all over the sun-baked countryside of Puglia, flourishing for centuries in the region that now produces about 40 percent of Italy’s olive oil.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
See olive oil in the making by visiting family-owned Il Frantolio D’Amico Pietro near Cisternino, where owner Pietro D’Amico sells several extra-virgin varieties (you can order online) and offers tasting sessions. Stone masserias (fortified farmhouses)—several of which have been transformed into stylish hotels, including Masseria Torre Coccaro—stand guard on the hilltops overlooking the coast.
Paestum: Ancient Greece in Italy
If you like exploring archaeological sites, but aren’t a fan of crowds, skip Pompeii and you’ll have the spectacularly preserved fifth-century Greek temples of Paestum all to yourself. An excellent on-site museum displays ceramics, friezes, and other artifacts, providing a window on ancient Greece in Italy’s Campania region.
Tip: Don’t leave the area without stopping for a leisurely lunch in the gazebo at buffalo farm Agriturismo Seliano, where the fresh mozzarella melts in your mouth.
Marilyn Terrell is chief researcher for National Geographic Traveler magazine. She visited southern Italy with National Geographic Expeditions “Southern Italy and the Amalfi Coast.” Follow her on Twitter @Marilyn_Res.