9 Cities to Visit in Southern Italy
Glorious vistas, delicious foods, stunning works of art– Italy is overflowing with culture. To top it off, each city can feel like its own world: some have their own languages or dialects, art styles, and foods. Even the people can look different in neighboring cities. We like to think of Italy as one country with a history that stretches to the ancient years. In reality, that history stretches beyond imagination. Italy is only one country, but it’s a gorgeous amalgamation of Greek, Roman, Arab, and Turkish cultures, to name a few.
This cultural melting pot is present today through each city’s cuisine, art, and citizens. Working your way from the southernmost tip, here are the top cities to visit in southern Italy.
9 Cities to Visit in Southern Italy
Sicily is a world of its own in comparison to mainland Italy, and even more unique is its capital: Palermo. Souks line the streets leading up to baroque churches. Byzantine mosaics are coupled with Arab domes. There’s a lingering presence of Sicily’s history in every nook and cranny of this city to visit in southern Italy.
Not everything about Palermo seems foreign to Italian culture. The city prides itself in its world-renowned cuisine. You may even stumble across, oh I don’t know… the largest opera house in all of Italy. Not to mention the Palermo Cathedral. This towering duomo accumulates the architectural styles of centuries past. It even houses a solar observatory from the late 1600s. What a wonderful mix of science and religion.
TIP: Take a day trip Cefalù: a city perfect for lounging on the beach and slowly exploring shops along its cobbled streets.
2. Aeolian Islands
Inching towards the mainland of southern Italy, the Aeolian Islands are a beautiful volcanic archipelago at the northern tip of Sicily. Nature lovers and adventurers rejoice, this is the place for you. The sapphire sea beckons you to swim among its soft waves, kayak around each island, and dive down to see a bustling world of sea life.
For those that are attracted to nature but want to forgo the exercise, don’t fret. Beautifully relaxing resorts and vacation spots can be found on these islands. You can be surrounded by the island’s natural with a glass of local wine in hand.
Ahh Lecce. It’s not called the Florence of the South for nothing! This city to visit located in the heel of southern Italy’s boot is rich in baroque architecture. In fact, it even has its own style: Lecce baroque. It’s crowning glory is the Basilica di Santa Croce. The exterior of this glorious basilica is completely covered in gargoyles, dodos, sheep–essentially strange beasts and animals.
While wandering the streets, you’re sure to find several papier-mâché artisans and shops. It may seem a bit strange at first since Italy isn’t particularly known for this type of craft. However, Lecce has been crafting papier-mâché statues for a few hundred years. This unique type of export started because artisans could make their products look like marble without spending the big bucks. The city has kept the tradition alive, and while your eye might not be fooled, the craft can still be appreciated.
Heading north along the Adriatic coast of southern Italy’s heel, you’ll find yourself in the bustling city of Bari. Bari is often skipped over by travelers in favor of Lecce, however these two cities couldn’t be more different. Bari is full of life, and modern life at that. Yes, you’ll find centuries-old palazzi and basilicas. But you’ll also find a bustling night life, an incredible street food scene, and beautiful sandy beaches. Bari is the perfect city to stop in for a breath of modernity in a country so full of history.
Speaking of basilicas, a must-see is the Basilica di San Nicola which holds the bones of Saint Nicholas. The spirit of Santa might be at the North Pole, but his body is in Italy!
TIP: From Bari, you can take a day trip to Alberobello to see the peculiar trulli. These small, cone-shaped homes look like they’ve been plucked from a fantasy novel.
Heading back to the old world and then some is where we find Matera. Physically, it’s not too far inland from Bari in southern Italy. Measured on a timeline, it’s millennia earlier than (probably) any other city in Italy, dating to the Paleolithic Period. That is crazy old.
The draw of Matera for archeologists and travelers alike is the sassi. These are cave dwellings along an ancient river that are reminiscent of those found along the Grand Canyon. The more interesting part, though, is that these dwellings were inhabited by people up through the 1950s. Imagine living in a house built 6000 years ago.
6. Amalfi Coast
Now this is the vision of Italy most travelers have. The Amalfi Coast is a stretch of coastline along the Tyrrhenian Sea dotted with towns and cities to visit in southern Italy. Places like Positano, Amalfi, and Sorrento. No matter which place you choose, you can find the following: Easter egg-colored houses, cobblestone streets, clifftops with impossible views over the seas, and sandy beaches with prosecco in reach.
TIP: You could consider renting a car or taking a driving tour to see each of these seaside cities in one day.
7. Pompeii & Herculaneum
We all know the tragic (yet exciting) story of Pompeii: destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and frozen it time. It’s a sad, wonderful, tragic, and exciting city to visit in southern Italy. Wandering the somewhat-recently excavated streets does feeling like stepping back in time for a snapshot of the ancient world.
Lesser known but equally interesting, if not more so, is the nearby Herculaneum. It’s the same story: a city buried under the ash and debris of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption. However, if it was much a much wealthier place (most likely a vacation town) than Pompeii, albeit smaller.
TIP: You can take a short trip by train or car down to Paestum to continue this archaeological adventure of southern Italy. It’s home to three of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples in the world.
The well-known resort island of Capri has been calling visitors and vacationers since the Roman Republic. Here is where you’ll find higher-end accommodations, pricier drinks, and a very comfortable Mediterranean stay.
Capri can also be seen on a budget, so don’t let the $10 spritzes scare you off. Capri offers lush landscapes for the nature lovers to explore. It also claims one of the absolute must-see attractions in all of southern Italy: The Blue Grotto. Sunlight is reflected through an underwater cavity that lights up this cave in a glowing, blue tint. Seriously, come for this if nothing else.
Similar to Sicily, Naples is a world of its own. Even though it’s on the main land, Naples actually has its own language. That’s a little insane seeing as how it’s a little over an hour away from Rome. The locals like to say that Naples is not part of southern Italy–or Italy as a whole, for that matter–it is a place of its own. These claims give you the sense of pride (possibly arrogance) that you’ll find in this city to visit.
Besides this, Naples is home to some of Christianity’s oldest frescoes and the world’s finest collection of Pompeiian mosaics. There are masterpieces of art and architecture to be found on every street. If you’ve seen all you need to see art-wise, then look toward the city’s culinary scene. Naples is the birthplace of pizza and has more Michelin-star restaurants than any other Italian city. It sounds like no matter where you eat, you cannot go wrong.
These cities to visit in southern Italy have been hand-picked based on their variety and culture, but there is still so much to see. Whether you add the cities mentioned to your itinerary or use this list to create your own itinerary for southern Italy, let us know in the comments below.
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