Italians are adamant about recognizing and protecting their heritage. There are consortiums that protect regional products like Parmigiano Reggiano, organizations that preserve the country’s artistic and architectural treasures, and even official designations for the country’s most beautiful villages. I Borghi più belli d’Italia is an association founded in 2001 to valorize and promote the historic, cultural, and artistic heritage of Italy’s villages.
According to the association, “A borgo (plural: borghi) is a fascinating small Italian town, generally fortified and dating back to the period from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It usually rises around a castle or a noble palace and is often surrounded by defensive walls and towers.”
There are currently 313 villages recognized as the borghi più belli d’Italia, and each one proudly displays the association’s logo. From north to south, here are our picks of the 12 most beautiful small towns in Italy.
- Location: Lombardia, 90 minutes from Milan
Poised on the western shores of Lake Como, this enchanting town is home to some beautiful 18th-century villas. One of the finest is Villa Carlotta, which is open to the public as a museum, with manicured gardens full of citrus trees, English roses, camellias, and many other plants. A five-minute walk away is the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, which has stood as an Art Nouveau icon for more than a century. With its floating pool, spa, and cuisine that upholds the legacy of the late legendary chef Gualtiero Marchesi, this family-run hotel is one of the best in Italy.
- Location: Piedmont, one hour from Turin
This village in the Langhe hills of Piedmont shares its name with the region’s famous fine wine. Pretty much everything here revolves around the stuff: The countryside surrounding the town is covered in vines that grow the Nebbiolo grapes used for prized Barolo wines and a visit to the area would be incomplete without doing a tasting at wineries like Cantine Damilano and Gaja. Even the 10th-century castle in the center of town now houses WiMu, the Wine Museum in Barolo. A bottle pairs well with local specialties like agnolotti al plin (meat-stuffed ravioli) or tajarin (a type of long pasta) topped with white truffle foraged in the nearby woods.
- Location: Liguria, 50 minutes from La Spezia
One of the five hamlets that make up the famed Cinque Terre, Vernazza might just be the most picturesque. It’s characterized by a promontory that curls around its harbor, which doubles as a small sandy beach. Surrounding the harbor stand the pastel-painted buildings that made this part of Liguria so famous. Towering over the port is the Church of Santa Margherita with its octagonal tower. And the castle overlooking the town? That’s Doria Castle, a fortress dating back to the 11th century.
- Location: Tuscany, 90 minutes from Siena
The southernmost municipality in Tuscany, this medieval village became a favorite vacation spot for Italy’s elite intellectuals and politicians, including philosopher Umberto Eco and former president Giorgio Napolitano in the latter half of the 20th century. The historic center, which is perched high on a hill and characterized by winding cobblestone lanes and houses, is about a 20-minute drive from the coast. About 15 minutes by car is the Tarot Garden by Niki de Saint Phalle, a massive park full of monumental sculptures depicting the figures of the tarot deck, inspired by Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona and the Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo in nearby Lazio.
5. Civita di Bagnoregio
- Location: Lazio, two hours from Rome
This village a couple of hours north of Rome stands isolated on a tuff hill due to erosion, which has made it rise like an island in the center of a valley. A long, narrow bridge that’s nearly 1,000 feet long connects the medieval part of town to the rest of Bagnoregio. No cars are allowed in the historic center, which makes walking through the narrow cobblestone streets seem all the more like stepping back in time. Stone buildings along the streets house shops and restaurants, which serve local specialties like fresh pasta with wild boar ragù or black truffle.
- Location: Lazio, two hours from Rome
The emperor Tiberius had a villa in this coastal town halfway between Rome and Naples, and it’s still a favorite summer destination for Romans. The historic center is perched on a rocky crag overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Sperlonga’s beaches are awarded with a Blue Flag by nonprofit Foundation for Environmental Education for their cleanliness and sustainability, while the town’s whitewashed buildings house restaurants, bars, and shops. On summer evenings, the streets come alive with people taking a passeggiata (a leisurely stroll), visiting the shops, and enjoying an aperitivo or dinner on the restaurant terraces.
- Location: Abruzzo, 40 minutes from Pescara
Located in Abruzzo, between Majella National Park and the Trabocchi Coast, this town became known as a center for artisans, especially forgers who work with cast iron. Nowadays there are still shops selling items made from the material, and you can even watch a demo by one of the town’s remaining forgers. Stroll through the village and admire the collegiate church of Santa Maria Maggiore flanked by a beautiful brick-covered corridor (known as a loggia). The town is also known for a pastry called sise delle monache—literally meaning “nun’s tits"—made of three domed sponge cakes filled with pastry cream.
- Location: Campania, 90 minutes from Naples
The next town over from Amalfi, this little hamlet doesn’t often register on the map for those flocking to more famous towns like Positano and Ravello. But take the panoramic road that ascends from Amalfi’s beach, and you’ll soon arrive in Atrani, which at 0.07-square-miles is one of the tiniest towns in Italy. Despite its diminutive size, it’s big on charm, with a beautiful beach and main square, Piazza Umberto I. In Atrani’s restaurants, expect to find fresh seafood and other local specialties like mozzarella di bufala and limoncello.
- Location: Puglia, one hour from Bari
This town in Puglia’s Itria Valley is famous for having the highest concentration of trulli (ancient limestone dwellings with whitewashed walls and conical roofs) in Italy. In fact, the town was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list because of them. Originally built as peasant dwellings and long forsaken by locals, many trulli in the town center and the surrounding countryside have been renovated and transformed into holiday homes or B&Bs, shops, and restaurants. You can even watch a cheesemaking demo and sample freshly made cheeses like mozzarella and burrata at Agriturismo Aglio Piccolo, a trullo-turned-agriturismo in the countryside just outside of town.
- Location: Puglia, one hour from Bari
Just a 25-minute drive from Alberobello, this town might be the epitome of a traditional southern Italian borgo. A clock tower watches over the main piazza, while narrow lanes with whitewashed buildings jut off from it. Residents decorate their homes and shops with beautiful flowers and potted plants that lend the village a sense of liveliness and Mediterranean air. In the summer, locals and visitors love to shop in the town’s boutiques, enjoy an aperitivo or dinner alfresco, and stroll around with a gelato in hand.
- Location: Calabria, one hour from Lamezia Terme
Sometimes called “the Pearl of the Tyrrhenian,” this town is perched high on a cliff overlooking the glittering sea below. It’s one of the most important villages on Calabria’s Coast of the Gods, a place full of myths—legend has it Tropea was founded by Hercules. Today it draws visitors to swim and relax on its beaches by day and flock to the historic center in the evenings. Plenty of shops sell summer clothes while restaurants and bars serve local specialties like ‘nduja (a spicy spreadable sausage), caciocavallo cheese, and jam made with prized Tropea onions.
- Location: Sardinia, two hours from Cagliari
The only town on the Isola di San Pietro, a little island just off the coast of Sardinia, Carloforte might be one of Italy’s best-kept secrets. Ligurian fishermen settled here in the 18th century, settling in the town’s pastel-colored buildings. Historically, the main industry was tuna fishing. To this day, just about every restaurant in town serves tuna in more ways than you can imagine—raw, smoked, cured, grilled, in pasta sauces, or on sandwiches. By its little coves are a handful of beaches, where you can find some of the most crystalline water in the Mediterranean.