It’s impossible to choose just one word to describe Southern Italy: rugged, historic, enchanting, captivating, mysterious, unforgettable…are only a handful that come to mind.
It’s hard to believe sometimes that it’s still relatively unknown to many travelers outside of Italy. We know that the South of Italy has so much to offer travelers, and it’s finally starting to get more recognition as of late. Matera was awarded the title of the 2019 European Capital of Culture in Italy and Rough Guides named Calabria as one of their “Top 10 Regions: The Best Places to Visit in 2016”.
Southern Italy has been influenced by many civilizations over centuries that have left their mark on the architecture, dialect and cuisine of those regions. We’ve been a strong promoter of all things southern Italian for quite some time now and over the years we’ve learned about and discovered so many interesting places. Although it was super tough to narrow down, we’ve rounded up a list of six absolute must-see sites in Southern Italy.
1. Take a journey back in time at the Sassi of Matera (Basilicata)
In 1993, Matera was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cave dwellings carved directly into the rock that are believed to be home to some of the first human settlements in Italy going back to 15,000 BC. With more than 120 chiese rupestri, or rock-cut churches and buildings to explore, as well as numerous hotels and restaurants housed inside caves, Matera is a once-in-a-lifetime and often unforgettable experience for many travelers.
Fun fact: Mel Gibson’s famous film, The Passion of the Christ, filmed scenes in this ancient city.
2. Open a door to paradise with the Arco Magno in San Nicola Arcella (Calabria)
Located in the Gulf of Policastro, San Nicola Arcella, has an impressive coastline made up of inlets and coves and crystal clear and turquoise blue waters. Here you will find Arco Magno, a natural arch forming a doorway to paradise – a hidden sandy beach. There are two ways the Arco Magno can be accessed: by boat or on foot via a path carved into the rock wall behind the beach.
Travel Tip: After a long day at the beach grab a gelato and head to the belvedere (panoramic viewpoint) located at the end of Via Corso Umberto 1 for a spectacular view of the gulf.
3. A unique place of worship in La Chiesetta di Piedigrotta in Pizzo (Calabria)
Pizzo is a quaint and welcoming fishing village in Calabria that has an extraordinary church called La Chiesetta di Piedigrotta. According to a 17th-century legend, a group of sailors were caught in a storm just off of the coast of Pizzo. Fearing an imminent death, the captain gathered his crew and together they prayed to the Madonna. They along with the painting washed up to shore and the sailors decided to leave the painting in a grotto not far from where they originally shipwrecked. After they left, two more storms took place and the painting was recovered on the beach where the sailors originally swam to safety. It was decided that the Madonna would be moved to a cave on the very beach she initially washed up on. The church and altar are carved entirely in stone and over the years local artists and sculptors have added to the display. Light seeping into the cave from the overhead crevices and nearby ocean cast a dramatic glow on the statues.
Don’t miss this: Head to the historic centre to Bar Ercole and try Pizzo’s most famous frozen treat … Tartufo di Pizzo.
4. Walk among the dead in the Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Palermo (Sicily)
In Palermo, you can visit what was once burial crypts for Capuchin monks in the 16th century. Over time the catacombs became a fashionable place for the great and good to be mummified and laid to rest. Many of the bodies interred are friars, in varying states of preservation, but there are also sections for Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests and Professionals. The most recent addition was two year old Rosalia Lombardo, in 1920, who is almost perfectly preserved, apart from a yellowy tinge to her skin. Give yourself a couple hours to explore and take it all in and even if you aren’t spending much time in Palermo, we definitely think this site shouldn’t be left off your itinerary.
Travel Tip: It’s chilly underground, so don’t forget to bring a sweater.
5. Get swept away to the Aeolian Islands (Sicily)
Located off the northern coast of Sicily, the Aeolian Islands are a group of seven volcanic islands: Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Stromboli, Filicudi, Alicudi and Panarea. Each of the islands in this volcanic archipelago has its own unique beauty, ancient history rich with Greek myths and legends, and natural wonder – two of the islands are active volcanoes! It’s no surprise that the Aeolian Islands are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The great thing about the Aeolian Islands is that they are accessible from Sicily and Calabria and can be easily included into your travel plans.
Fun Fact: In Pollara, a small quiet town on the island of Salina, some of the famous Italian film “Il Postino” was filmed.
6. Feel like you’re in your favorite fairy tale with the Trulli Houses in Alberobello (Puglia)
This small town in the province of Bari is famous for its “trulli” houses. These unique limestone carved houses with cone-shaped roofs painted with white pagan-like symbols are like something out of a fairy tale. The most touristic and commercialized part of Alberobello is Rione Monti, home to around 1,000 trulli. Many of the trulli in this area have been converted into tourist shops, cafes and local artisan shops. The other part, Aia Piccola, is less commercialized and has only about 400 trulli however the quiet residential streets make for a wonderful experience.
Travel Tip: Make your way to the Church of Santa Lucia, located next to the main town square, Piazza del Popolo. From here you will get a fabulous view over the trulli.
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