Cinque Terre, Amalfi Coast, Sardinia, Cápri (not Caprí, as british people pronounce it; the accent is on the “a”): the beach hotspots for foreign tourism. More recently the Salento area, the tip of the “heel” of Italy, has become another very popular destination thanks to excellent marketing campaigns: Madonna, Macron and Trump are going to be some of the guest stars visiting this year (well.. two out three are stars). Gallipoli is a picturesque town in Salento also known as “the pearl of Ionian Sea”: it is beautiful, but it is also overcrowded during summer especially after it was promoted as a party town with great clubs and cocktail bars.We have all been there once in our life: 38°C, a crowded beach, 20 minute queue to order a cold drink, sweaty bodied bouncing around you. Too hot, too busy: get me out of here!
So…is it still possible to have an authentic Italian beach holiday? YES.
Just avoid the destinations you have heard about, because if you have heard about it, many others have too. Where to go? Let me give you some ideas.1 – Calabria
It’s the tip of the Italian boot, way south. Only Italians visit this beautiful region even if the coast here is just stunning. It could be quite a long drive, depending on where you land. Visit Paola, Scilla, Tropea, Scalea, Squillace for more luxurious stays. In San Nicola Arcella you can swim under the stunning natural arc called Arco Magno, that will take your breath away. Go to Capo Rizzuto to find hidden rocky and sandy beaches surrounded by mediterranean woodlands of bushes and trees. Or drive to Capo Spulico to visit a castle on a cliff on the sea.
Calabria is not the typical touristy location with beach bars and clubs: Italians prefer to buy focaccia or freshly made panini in a local market and take them to the beach as a packed lunch.
If you are visiting Calabria, you should definitely try nduja (the local spreadable spicy sausage), the arancini and the focaccia topped with the world famous cipolla rossa di tropea (red onion from Tropea Village).
2 – Gargano (Puglia)
Salento is the area in Puglia known to most of us. But have you ever heard about Gargano? It’s the “spur” on the Italian heel and it’s a mix of stunning white cliffs and soft sandy beaches. Like a scenery from Game of Thrones, you can swim under white, Jurassic rock arches or spend a day exploring the “Foresta Umbra” national park. Again, a packed lunch is recommended for a day out, especially if you are aiming to the most hidden (and less touristy) beaches. You can also take a ferry to the Tremity Islands and spend few days on this stunning arcipelagus.
Unmissable on your table should be burrata and stracciatella: two creamy, heavenly soft mozzarella-like cheeses, so rich in flavour that you’ll never eat mozzarella again elsewhere. And the focaccia, quite different from the one you’d try in Calabria, but still divine.
3 – Sicily
Sicily is a known location among foreigners, however tourists don’t travel here often and prefer to head to the more popular Amalfi Coast. Why? It is a bit of a mystery to me. Sicily is an historical melting pot, being the crossroads of ancient naval pathways. Vikings, Arabs, Turks, Greeks and many other civilisations conquered the island in different times, and the result is a beautiful combination of traditions, architecture and food. In Agrigento, in the southern part of Sicily, there is a Valley of Temples with greek temples better preserved than the ones in Athens. Not far from Agrigento it’s worth a visit to the Scala dei Turchi beach, with cliffs and steps of white limestone and chalk that locals use as beauty masks. In Siracusa, in the eastern part of Sicily, there are many small beaches with emerald waters, where you can just sunbathe, snorkel or be more adventurous and go for an unforgettable dive to the Plemmirio marine protected area. Visit the small villages all around the island (Aci Trezza, Aci Castello, Noto, to name only few). Climb the Etna Volcano or even take a ferry from Messina or Milazzo to the Lipari Islands. Climb on a donkey 2000 steps on Alicudi Island to reach the top of a volcanic crater and experience what a place without modern noise feels like: there are no cars, no shopping centres, no real restaurants…there is only a restaurant and two small grocery shops. More authentic than this?
The list of food for Sicily could be endless: from seafood to the granita al caffe’ (coffee ice-slush the local have for breakfast with a croissant) to the cassata siciliana and cannolo siciliano (sweet, wonderful cakes). Tate the world famous pistachios from Bronte, or have a sip of the sweet wine Passito di Pantelleria. You won’t get wrong when you order something to eat in Sicily.
4 – Sardinia
Sardinia is a quite renowned seaside destination, however tourists tend to concentrate in the north eastern part of the Island, where the celebrities have their stunning Villas: Porto Cervo, Porto Rotondo, Olbia. There are hundreds of small rocky or sandy beaches (called “cala” – beach) and they can get quite crowded in July and August, when the tourism peaks: Cala Brandinchi (known as little Tahiti), Cala Capo Coda Cavallo, Cala Suraccia, Cala Ginepro, to name only few. However, if you go a bit further away from the town of Olbia, there are still plenty of less busy hidden gems where you can spend a wonderful, quieter day at the beach, like at Cala Liberotto, Capo Comino, Cala Gonone.
A great way of exploring the east coast of the island is also getting on a ferry tour early in the morning from either Olbia or Orosei, and have a full day hopping from a hidden beach to another. There are day trips that take you to the Maddalena Island or to the Tavolara Island, or to the Orosei Gulf area where you can also explore caves.
If you are looking for a whole beach to enjoy by yourself, then West Sardinia is your destination. It’s a bit of a drive (roads in Sardinia are not the fastest), but any location between Algero and Oristano offers several places where to stay in local hotels or even go camping, and enjoy some quite time far away from the crowd.
The southern part of the island is more industrial and not really worth the visit if wonderful beaches are what you are looking for.
Sardinia is quite an oasis in terms of food, as it has not really been influenced by the Italian tradition: typical dishes are the porceddu (succulent roasted piglet), pecorino cheese (so peppery and spicy) and seafood. If you drive inland and visit some local farms, you can be lucky enough to meet a local farmer that would offer you a taste of the “illegal” casu marzu, formaggio coi vermi (cheese with maggots). It is cheese and it has real maggots in it, that digesting the hard cheese and create a creamy texture and a flavour more intense than blue cheese. If you are not bothered by the maggots (that you will eat with the cheese) then you should give it a try. Wonderful!
5 – Argentario peninsula and Maremma (Tuscany)
Tuscany is probably the most popular destination in Italy: wine, art, food…who doesn’t know Florence? However the coast is less popular to foreigners and when it is, they tend to go to large sandy beaches.
Argentario peninsula is a mountain along the coast of Tuscany. Originally it was an island, that gradually got connected to the mainland and nowadays two roads lead there. The beaches are rocky, sometimes impervious, but the water is crystal clear and there are some hidden, quiet spots where to spend some relaxing time. On a ferry you can also visit the more popular Giglio Island or the Elba Island, with some spectacular black or pink sand beaches made of volcanic rocks. On cloudy day you can visit the nearby Orbetello Lagoon to spot flamingos, or cycle through the Parco della Maremma, a natural park with wildlife and stunning sceneries. Or you can drive up to Talamone, a town built on a cliff with a couple of beautiful rocky beaches where you can easily spot starfish, octopus or even squid in the very shallow water.
Seafood, cheese, steaks, soups, cured meat…name a dish and in Tuscany you’ll find a local version that will blow your mind away. Always look for a place where a loud group are dining: they are Italians, so the place must be good!
These are just few of the many hidden beach spots of Italy. The best way to discover your favourite one is to get to a beach area in Italy, get on a car and follow a dirt track: it’ll most likely take you to a hidden spot where few dare going. And it is it a dead-end road? Turn back and take the next one. Sometimes you have to try a little harder if you want to discover a hidden treasure.
Looking for a relaxing, autentic holiday in Italy? Discover Umbria!