If you love Rome, try Turin, Matera or Bergamo

Aerial view of Turin City, Italy. Despite more people being more familiar with Rome, Turin was Italy's first capital city in 1861.

Italy has got to be on everyone's must-visit list, but don't forget the country's smaller cities, which offer a fantastico Italian experience (without the crowds or big price tags).

By Bron Mandile

Rome has always been a popular destination, but right now it’s heaving. Tourists are tussling around the Trevi Fountain, packed into the Pantheon and crammed into the Colosseum… you know things are bad when even the gigantic amphitheatre feels crowded. 

Here’s the thing, you’re always going to want to visit Rome, no doubt about it. So schedule your time to the absolute max (book St Peter’s Basilica, Sistine Chapel, Colosseum, Forum and Pantheon well in advance) and get up with the sun to enjoy the city without the hordes.

Then book a train ticket to one of these three destinations to experience the ‘real’ Italy.

Grandeur and grub in Turin

Despite the list-ticking that happens in Rome, it’s not the ancient monuments that make Italy Italy. It’s la bella vita, also known as the food, the pace, the people, the food and the food. Turin, the capital of Piedmont in northwest Italy, has all of this in abundance.

Firstly, it’s surprising how rarely Turin hits the tourist radar. After all, it’s Italy’s fourth largest city behind Rome, Milan and Naples and its set at the base of the breathtaking Italian Alps. It’s also a beautiful city in its own right, filled with grand baroque boulevards, ornate palaces and churches, world-class museums and monuments.

Next, Turin is a chocolate lovers paradise. It’s home to Ferrero Rocher and Nutella – in fact, anything hazelnut and chocolate probably originated here (the hazelnut-chocolate blend is known as gianduja and it originated in the days of Napolean). 

Turin is basically foodie heaven on every level and it’s much cheaper to dine here than in Rome. Historic cafe’s that are worth a visit include Turin’s oldest Caffè Al Bicerin, Baratti e Milano which is located in the wonderful Piazza Castello, and the opulent Caffè San Carlo. You can also indulge in wines from the Piedmont region and enjoy gelato at its birthplace, Caffè Fiorio, another of Turin’s storied eateries. 

Piazza Castello, Turin

All of this culminates in Turin’s devotion to aperitivo. Order a glass of vermouth and spend the night sampling from the buffet of bite-size food that comes with your drink. European dining doesn’t get more accessible than that.  

Caves and churches in Matera

The southern city of Matera is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and perhaps the least-known of Italy’s historic cities. Which is surprising considering it’s the third oldest continually-inhabited city in the world after Jericho and Aleppo – in fact, it’s over 9000 years old! 

The ancient city of Matera, Italy at dusk

Naturally, with age comes an abundance of must-see historic sites, dating from as early as the Palaeolithic period. Of particular importance is Sassi di Matera, the labyrinth of inhabited caves carved into the calcarenite rock on which Matera is built. While once home to locals, most of the ancient dwellings are now filled with unique hotels and eateries.

View of Sassi di'Matera through calcerenite cave.

Perched at the very top of the rock is Convento di Sant'Agostino, an Augustine convent founded in 1591 but rebuilt in the Baroque style after an earthquake felled the original church. You can see for miles across the region of Basilicata from this vantage point, and something else you’ll notice is just how many stone churches Matera boasts – over 150 churches!

You could spend your whole visit happily exploring them all but do set aside time for visiting the rest of Basilicata and Puglia. The ancient Greek ruins of Metaponto, the awe-inspiring Lucanian Dolomites, the ancient Roman colony of Grumento Nova and the picturesque truilli of Alberobello are all within an hour or so drive from Matea.

Truilli of Alberobello. The truili are limestone dwellings constructed by using a prehistoric building technique still used in this region. They usually have conical or domed roofs like those seen above.

Street life and sunsets in Bergamo

Bergamo has long been touted as “Italy’s best-kept secret”, but somehow the crowds still stay away from this UNESCO World Heritage-listed city. It’s everything you love about Rome, only quieter and friendlier.

Bergamo is a tale of two cities. Città Alta, or upper town, is the medieval heart of the city and strolling the perfectly preserved walls (built in 1561 by the Republic of Venice) is a romantic way to watch exquisite Lombardy sunsets. The upper town drips in history and the ornate Venetian touch is everywhere. Piazza Vecchia showcases this best, with elaborate fountains and grand palazzos guarded by fierce lions. The square particularly brims with life every evening when locals gather for la passeggiata and aperitivo.

Fountains in Piazza Vecchia, Bergamo

The same is true in the piazzas of Città Bassa (the lower town). Bergamasques are a friendly bunch and the evening ritual is sacred. While this part of town is known as the ‘modern’ section, the city first began spilling down the hill as early as the 17th century. So Città Bassa contains a diversity of buildings and monuments that should not be missed.

While the architecture is splendid, it’s the local life that will keep you coming back to Bergamo. This charming place is ideal for people watching, whether you park yourself in the upper or lower town. The young, the old, families and friends all live their lives loudly and proudly throughout the pretty streets. Close observation may yet reveal the true secret to the Italian la bella vita.

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