Summer is the most popular time of year to visit Italy and for good reason. The weather is warm, the water is sparkling, and the piazzas are practically meant for al fresco dining. Of course, popularity breeds crowds, and when it comes to Italy’s most famous cities, it’s hard to avoid the masses in the summer months. So save the iconic cities for the off-season. Take the summer to visit smaller, less trafficked destinations where you’ll find equally appealing Italian culture, food, and picturesque beaches, without the hordes of people.
Venice’s canals are lovely in the spring and fall, but in the summer, throngs of tourists mean you’ll walk at barely a shuffle along the narrow streets. Better to visit Ravenna (a port city on the eastern coast), which makes up for its lack of canals with remarkable mosaics. Venice is famous for the Byzantine domes and mosaics of St. Mark’s Basilica, but Ravenna is actually known for having the best Byzantine mosaics outside of Istanbul. You’ll see them in nearly every building, but visit the Basilica of San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galle Placida for some of the finest examples. Like Venice, Ravenna is also filled with music, and the Ravenna Music Festival runs from May through July every year. If you’re still hoping for waterways, head to the Marina di Ravenna, a seaside resort on the coast where you can dine on fresh fish while watching regattas.
Instead of Florence: Parma and Padua
Florence is known as the “cradle of the Renaissance” and also for meaty dishes like tripe and Bistecca alla Fiorentina. In the summer, crowds huddle around Michelangelo’s statue of David, file through the Uffizi Gallery, and struggle to get reservations at the best restaurants. Luckily, two nearby cities can satisfy cultural and carnivorous cravings without the masses. Parma and Padua are college towns, like Florence, and accessible by train. Visit Parma for the food and Padua for the art–or take a few days and do both. Parmesan cheese and Parma ham come from Parma, and you can try the best of both at the restaurant Ai Due Platani. Bike through quiet piazzas and streets lined with boutiques and wine bars. Don’t miss the ornate cathedral and its baptistery–considered one of the country’s most important medieval monuments for its inclusion of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture (especially pretty during sunset, when its pink hue really shines). In Padua, visit the Scrovegni Chapel for frescoes by Giotto. Renaissance artwork decorates the walls of almost every church, and the Basilica of Saint Anthony is filled with famous paintings and sculptures as well. Have an aperitivo in the main square, Prato della Valle, which has a small island encircled with a moat and lined with statues.
Capri is Italy’s most glamorous island–its blue grotto and upscale hotels draw both stars like Beyoncé and tourists from around the world. Ponza is equally beautiful and has its own Grotte di Pilato—a collection of pools and tunnels—yet is far less pretentious. The island has been a favorite among Romans forever but remains something of a secret among foreign tourists. From Rome, drive or take the train to Formia-Gaeta or Anzio, then take a ferry to Ponza. Live like a local and spend a day on a rented boat, swimming in the enchanting turquoise waters and lazing in the sun until it’s time for a spritzer. For sunset views over fried squid and seafood pasta, grab a table at Il Tramonto. Stop at Bar Pizzeria Nautilus for your morning coffee and cornetto fix. Fun fact: Legend has it that Circe seduced Odysseus in the spot where Ponza’s rugged cliffs meet the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Yes, the Amalfi Coast is as picture-perfect as it looks in every Instagram photo you’ve seen. (You know the ones: pastel-colored houses perched on cliffs plunging into deep blue waters.) What you don’t see in the photos are the cars congesting the highway and the people pouring into the piazzas over the summer. Enter Tropea. This small town on the coast of Calabria doesn’t have the colored houses, but it does have a castle, a beach with stunningly clear water (the coast is nicknamed “the coast of the gods”), and wonderful regional food. It can get a bit crowded during the summer, but almost all of the tourists are Italian, and Tropea remains much more affordable than anywhere along the Amalfi Coast. There’s a cove tucked under the cliffside (watch where the locals swim from the main beach to find it), and here you can join in with people jumping off rocks or relaxing in the stone-made shade. There are Airbnb options aplenty, a great choice for those hoping to stay more than a few days and cook with the local produce. Tropea is known for sweet red onions, which you’ll find in everything from arancini to gelato–try it all.
Instead of Lake Como: Lake Iseo
It’s no wonder George and Amal Clooney have a house in the Italian Lakes Region—it’s an idyllic retreat from Italy’s cities and especially lovely in the summer. While others are enjoying pricey (and busy) Lake Como and Lake Garda, make your way to Lake Iseo, the quietest of the lakes and especially enjoyable for outdoorsy travelers. Stay in a guesthouse in Iseo, or camp in one of the many campsites nearby. Take a day to visit Monte Isola by ferry from Sulzano. The largest lake island in Europe doesn’t allow cars, making it a peaceful spot to bike through fishing villages and castle ruins. Back on the mainland, make sure to try franciacorta, the local sparkling wine produced in the hills between Lake Iseo and Brescia. To reach Lake Iseo, take a train from Brescia or fly into Milan and rent a car for the two-hour drive.
We have to be honest: Nowhere else in Italy compares to the grandeur and ancient history of Rome. That said, the city gets extremely hot in the summer, sights like the Colosseum are packed, and many of the more authentic restaurants and shops close in August, meaning you’ll be left in a city full of tourists with touristy spots to frequent. But if you’re hoping for ruins, don’t despair. Ostia Antica was the port city for ancient Rome and has many ruins that date to the 4th century B.C.E., including remnants of mansions, baths, and walkways. Stay in the resort town of Lido di Ostia and you can mix ruins with a day on the beach. If splendor and romance are what you’re after, visit Verona. The city on the Adige River is quiet in the summer but home to a very well-preserved Roman arena, not unlike the Colosseum. See an opera (more pleasant than a gladiator fight, no?) and take a peek at Juliet’s House, where Romeo called his lover to the 14th-century balcony for secret rendezvous.