Each year, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee convenes to discuss which cultural and natural sites around the world merit recognition for their “outstanding value to humanity,” a status that affords them greater protections. Italy boasts a whopping 51 World Heritage sites—more than any other country in the world.
Italy’s most celebrated UNESCO sites—Rome, Florence, Venice, and the Amalfi Coast—need no introduction. But Italy’s charm lies beyond these obvious places, which are saturated by visitors year-round.
Here are seven of Italy’s lesser known, but still unmissable, UNESCO World Heritage sites.
1. The Dolomites: Sublime Nature
The Dolomites are a mountain range in the northern Italian Alps, which extend along the region of Trentino-Alto Adige. The area was part of Austria until World War I and feels distinctly different from the rest of the country.
The majestic mountains are described by many as the most spectacular in Europe. UNESCO added the Dolomites to its World Heritage sites for their exceptional natural beauty and geological diversity. From world-class ski resorts in Val Gardena to mountain hiking trails, the Dolomites offer activities for every season. Madonna di Campiglio, a resort in the Brenta Dolomites, is a good base to explore the region.
2. Urbino: A Splendid Renaissance Town
For most, the term "Renaissance" engenders thoughts of Florence, Tuscany, and Umbria, but evidence of the cultural movement can be found throughout Italy. The small hilltop town of Urbino—nestled in the Marche between the Apennine Mountains and Adriatic Sea—was one of the most significant cultural centers of the Renaissance in the 15th century.
The patron behind Urbino’s flourishing arts and culture scene was Federico da Montefeltro, a brilliant military leader, intellect, and lover of the arts. Montefeltro commissioned the magnificent Palazzo Ducale, one of the most beautiful examples of Renaissance palaces in Italy. The palace has since been converted into the National Gallery of the Marche and houses the works of Renaissance artists.
Palazzo Ducale is the main attraction in town, but a visit is not complete without seeing the birthplace of one of the most celebrated painters and architects of the High Renaissance, Raphael. The home’s interior is bare but quaint.
3. Alberobello: A Fairy-Tale Village
This magical town is situated among the picturesque olive groves and vineyards of Puglia. Alberobello was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 for its trulli, whitewashed dwellings capped with conical roofs. Historians aren’t certain why trulli were built this way, but one theory suggests that the simple drywall structure was designed so it could be easily dismantled in order to evade property taxes.
Over a thousand of these limestone structures stand throughout Alberobello and remain functional as houses and shops. The Piazza del Popolo is a good starting point to explore this historical town. Also consider a stop at hilltop towns such as Locorotondo and Ostuni. The latter is drenched with whitewashed houses, earning it the nickname La Città Bianca (the White City).
4. Matera: Cavemen of the Sassi
Situated in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, the Sassi, Italian for “stones,” has been continuously occupied by human settlements from the Paleolithic age to present day.
This ancient district sits on the edge of a ravine where stacked houses, churches, and monasteries were carved into the natural terrain. In the 1950s, dangerous living conditions, poor sanitation, and disease forced residents to abandon the Sassi. The city’s impoverished conditions and atmosphere of hopelessness prompted artist Carlo Levi to compare Matera to Dante’s Inferno in his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli.
After a prolonged effort to restore the town, its former residents started returning in the 1980s, renovating the caves under the supervision of conservationists. The Sassi was declared a World Heritage site in 1993, and a modest tourism industry, complete with chic “cave hotels,” soon followed. Matera’s unique landscape has even attracted filmmakers, including Mel Gibson, who shot most of The Passion of the Christ in this location.
5. Piedmont: The Wine Region
On the western side of the Alps lies the wine region of Piedmont, comprising five wine-growing areas and the Castle of Grinzane Cavour. The region was inscribed as a World Heritage site for its ancient and authentic tradition of winemaking in the beautifully cultivated lands. In addition to a wide selection of mouthwatering wines, Piedmont is an exquisite gastronomic region believed to be the birthplace of the slow food movement, which encourages local production.
To the north of Piedmont, skiing is a popular winter activity in Valle d'Aosta. The Skyway Monte Bianco is a cable car that transports winter wanderers from Courmayeur, Italy, to Chamonix, France. Monte Cervino, also known as the Matterhorn, is another ski resort from which visitors can ski into Switzerland for the day.
6. Vicenza: Spectacular Palladian Architecture
The Veneto region of northeast Italy is the country’s most culturally diverse region. Most tourists head to the floating city of Venice or the trading city of Verona, made famous by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Many overlook the neighboring Vicenza, a city of splendid art and architecture.
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UNESCO added Vicenza to its World Heritage sites in 1994 for its magnificent villas designed by 16th-century Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Inspired by Roman architecture, Palladio designed many extraordinary palazzi for noblemen as well as the Teatro Olimpico, the oldest existing theater in Europe.
The Palladian style inspired an architectural movement that can be seen throughout Europe and North America, including Thomas Jefferson’s celebrated Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.
7. Val di Noto: Risen From the Ruins
While many tourists flock to Taormina and Palermo while in Sicily, the quiet region of Val di Noto in the southeast, popularized by the Italian television series Inspector Montalbano, combines a modern gastronomic scene and sophisticated boutique hotels with an air of old-world charm.
In 2002 UNESCO inscribed the eight towns of Val di Noto (Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa, and Scicli) on the World Heritage list. The towns, constructed after a 1693 earthquake devastated the area, are treasured for their splendid late baroque-style architecture and innovative city planning.
The town of Modica is known for its glorious views, which can be enjoyed from a lookout point reached by a set of narrow alleys and hundreds of stairs. Gourmands can also indulge their taste buds with delectable chocolates inspired by the ancient recipes of the Aztecs.
Noto, arguably the most crowded of the Val di Noto towns, is also the grandest. The city was constructed in an orderly, linear fashion—a prime example of late baroque city planning. Ragusa and Scicli are small but exquisite towns where soft ocher-hued buildings are built on the hills.