A collection of wonderful alternative and unusual things to do in Italy. From surprises to new ways at looking at the classics.
How do you narrow down the place that gave us Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo and Michelangelo? The country that invented pizza, pasta and gelato (thank you!) amid impossibly beautiful piazzas and romantic villas and canals? The place with more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than anywhere else in the world.
What if you're you're looking for more unusual things to do in Italy? To get off the beaten track? To do something unique?
Well, you check out this non-touristy list of things to do in Italy! All tried and tested with my own fair hands. Even the crazy mountaineering one (well, I was younger and bendier back then...)
UNUSUAL THINGS TO DO IN ITALY
Recommended reading: How to Spend 10 Days in Italy and Other Handcrafted Itineraries
Visit Glittering Trieste
High in the north, over to the east, Trieste dazzles with its waterfront and horrifies with its history. Name-checked in Churchill's famous Iron Curtain speech, the 20th century saw Trieste switch from the Austro-Hungarian Empire into the Italian fold.
The result is a fascinating city with a mix of architecture and great food (think sauerkraut and pasta, and that's just for starters.)
But that's not all. Trieste offers so many things to do, from drinking hot chocolate in the footsteps of James Joyce to wandering around tourist-free canals.
Top tip: visit Caffe Tommaseo for great coffee, a touch of Irish literature, and an interesting glimpse into Italian history.
Swap Tuscany for Umbria
Everyone and his wife (or her husband) knows about Tuscany. Those trees that stand tall and pierce the sky. Those rolling hills. That appearance in Gladiator. Florence, Pisa, San Gimignano.
What many people miss is just how beautiful Umbria is, and she only lives next door.
Look for slow food, the gardens of Assisi and Etruscan remains that are older than ancient Rome. And you'll discover plenty of things to do in Umbria.
Try an unsual dish in Umbria: taste roasted goose and fried perch fillets in Lake Trasimeno
Dance til Dawn at a Folk Festival
Carpino overlooks the twinkling Lake Varano, which spills on down through the olive groves to the popular beach resorts of the Gargano National Park.
And every year, this village of 5000 welcomes back its travelling sons and daughters, those who left to find work. What began as a family sing-song and long stories told over deep red bottles of wine has evolved into the region’s biggest folk festival, attracting crowds from all around.
The multi-generation spirit remains, though, as grandmas and grandpas (nonnas and nonnis) take to the stage belting out haunting melodies and giving accordions a good work out as darkness falls.
Insider tip: hire a car from Barri Airport and enjoy drives through the rich forests and sandy beaches near Carpino.
Climb the World's Oldest Via Ferrata
Via ferrata means “iron path” and it’s an adventure sport that began as a survival mechanism during the dubiously named Great War.
The bloody, icy dispute that straddled the Dolomites during the First World War left the Italians in trouble. Just a brief hike from the fashionable ski resort of Cortina, young men battled for their lives on the mountainous border between Austria and Italy.
While the Austrians excelled at mountaineering, Italy found itself with soldiers more used to the sun and sand of the south than the spiky peaks of the north. Their army included men who had never seen the snow, let alone knew how to climb mountains with a crippling load of ammunition on their backs.
Italy had a problem – and the solution was via ferrata.
Today, you can enjoy this soft adventure sport in the Dolomites around Cortina.
Insider tip: if you're a beginner, make sure to hire a qualified guide.
Leave Milan for the Mountains
Most people visit Chiavenna as a day trip from Milan, or as they're passing into Switzerland. But the Valtellina area deserves more time. Explore deserted mansions, ski slopes, cheese cellars and a network of caves that residents have turned into fine eateries.
Make sure to spend at least one day in Milan, though. The view of the birds fluttering in front of the Duomo is priceless, even if you don't manage to get tickets to see da Vinci's famous Last Supper.
Insider tip: try piping hot sciat with Valtellina wine. Perfection!
Visit Romeo and Juliet in Verona
Romeo and Juliet may not have been real but Verona is, and so is capitalism.
A balcony studded with love padlocks "imagines" what Juliet's home would have been like in Verona, and people can't help but come and have a look.
It helps, of course, that Verona itself is pretty dazzling: the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its Roman amphitheatre and picturesque streets make the Shakespeare visit worthwhile.
Visit The Blue Grotto in Capri
On the island of Capri in southern Italy, sunshine plays tricks with the mind. An underwater cavity allows sunlight to blast through the water in a sea cave, creating a beautiful, iridescent blue.
Get Off the Beaten Track in Venice
Venice may have trouble with crowds but it's still remarkably easy to slip away and find an untouched spot. The secret? You'll have to find out how to get off the beaten path in Venice here.
The Best Food in Italy
It's no secret that Italians love their food. But the tourist spots aren't always the best. Try taking a food tour or cooking lesson as often as you can to discover more about Italian cuisine. And don't forget street food: piping hot arancini while you walk is a real treat.
Learn How to Cook a Real Ragu
“This is the classic ragù that my grandmother taught me: a delicious, versatile sauce that can be used in many ways. ” Lella from Cuoche in Vacanza
Let's face it. Italian food tastes good. Really good. But only if you know how to make it well. And where better to learn than in Italy?
Don't just spend your time eating. Learn how to make a real ragu as well.
Visit the World's Oldest Republic
OK, so this is cheating a little because San Marino is a country in its own right. It just happens to be completely surrounded by Italy and is one of the smallest countries in Europe (and the world at large.)
It is also the world's oldest republic, having been independent since 301 AD and for that alone, it's worth a visit. It's capital is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, well, it's bursting with unusual things to do.
PRACTICAL TRAVEL TIPS FOR ITALY
Currency: Euro (EUR)
Best way of getting around: Independent driving, bus service or the train network. Occasionally internal flights. Ferries and hydrofoils go to the islands.
Highlight: The Amalfi Coast.
Travel tip: Make an effort with your appearance - and your manners.
Dress Code: Stylish but casual. When visiting religious sites, cover shoulders and bare legs.
Unusual highlight: Finding silence in the Ghetto in Venice.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN ITALY
The Colosseum, Rome
Ever since Russell Crowe snarled his way through his lines and made sandals sexy again, teens have studied the history of the ancient Roman Empire with more enthusiasm than before.
The city of Rome blends modern urban life with thousands of ancient artefacts but it is the colosseum which stands out as the most dramatic reminder of the past. Beyond the classics, you'll also find plenty of unusual things to do in Rome.
The Canals of Venice
Postcard-pretty Venice needs no introduction. The Bridge of Sighs, those bobbing gondolas. The lure of gelato. Often criticised for its supposed overtourism, it's surprisingly easy to get off the beaten track in Venice yourself.
The Renaissance in Florence
Beautiful Florence flaunts its art and architecture with all the grandiosity it can muster. And why not? It is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, after all. Home to Michelangelo's David and UNESCO World Heritage Site no less. A walking tour can help bind together the many threads of art history (and can also help you to skip the queues.)
Don't miss the panoramic view from Piazzale Michelangelo and the burnished red dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.
The Sistine Chapel, The Vatican
Yes, the Vatican is the world's smallest city-state. But for practical purposes, a visit combines with a visit to Rome. A visit to Vatican City and St Peter's while give you a whole new appreciation of art, religion and the relationship between the two, no matter your starting point.
The Beauty of the Amalfi Coast
Away from the cities, one of the best things to do in Italy involves hiking the Amalfi Coast. Its steep and rocky paths cling to the rugged coastline in colours of ochre and peach, while Vesuvius beckons nearby.
Head south to the steep, sunshine-flecked coast and, quite literally, walk the path of the gods. It runs between hot spots Amalfi and Sorrento yet provides solitude, authenticity and tourist-free eateries.
Swim in the sea at the start and end of the day and cap it all off with limoncello. In this region, this is authentic, and you'll walk surrounded by lemons.
It's UNESCO World Heritage Site time again with Cinque Terre, or the five lands. The five are Riomaggiore, Manrola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso and they make up a nightmare for those with vertigo but a paradise for everyone else as they cling to the cliffs in northwest Italy.
Planning a Trip to Italy?
- Don't miss our sample Italy itineraries (including the ever-popular 10 days in Italy itinerary.)
- Check out this collection of Unusual Things to do in Tuscany, from ghosts to flavours you won't find anywhere else.
- And who could forget the capital? Read Unusual Things to do in Rome.