21 of the Best and Most Unusual Things to do in Italy

Italy

Mar 22
Unusual things to do in Italy - Find unique and quirky things to do in Italy here, from secrets in Rome to ghosts in Tuscany, landscapes in Amalfi and beyond. #Italy #TravelItaly

A look at the best things to do in Italy, along with some of the most unusual things to do in the land of the boot. The list that's different to the rest.

What are the best things to do in Italy? 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.

Here's how. With this hand-tested guide to the best things to do Italy.

From the classics to the unusual, let the bucket list begin.

THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN ITALY

Let's talk about the main sights first. Then move on to more unusual things to do. Some of most iconic places in the world live in Italy. And they are...

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 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.

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. 

Insider tip: combine a walking trip with a look at Mount Vesuvius.

Cinque Terre

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.

PRACTICAL TRAVEL TIPS FOR ITALY

Currency: Euro (EUR)

Language: Italian

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.

UNUSUAL THINGS TO DO IN ITALY

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! All tried and tested with my own fair hands. Even the crazy mountaineering one (well, I was younger and bendier back then...)

Christmas lights in Trieste

VISIT GLITTERING TRIESTE AND DISCOVER ITALY'S ROLE IN THE IRON CURTAIN

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.

Gorgeous city of Assisi in Italy from @insidetravellab

Visiting the hidden crypts in the gorgeous city of Assisi is one of the best things to do in Umbria

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

Bagpipes at Carpino Folk Festival

Joining in local celebrations is one of the best things to do in Italy

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.

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. 

Via Ferrata in the Dolomites Italy

Via Ferrata was invented in the Dolomites in Italy

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.

FIND SILENCE IN THE GHETTO 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.

Statue on bridge in Chiavenna - an unusual thing to do in Italy

Chiavenna: same architect as the famous bridge in Prague

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

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. 

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.

  • Great list! I LOVED Trieste and the ghetto in Venice is spectacular!

    • Abi says:

      I absolutely loved Trieste too. I’m still so surprised by how off the radar it seems to be…Stunning place.

  • I’ve done none of these despite multiple trips to Italy! Must change that.

    • Abi says:

      Well, in a way that keeps me happy! At least they WERE unusual picks then! ;-)

  • Leah says:

    Well, as you know, I haven’t been to Europe yet but I’d love to do any one of these things when I finally get to Italy! I love the history behind Via Ferrata and I’m even more intrigued by it now that I know!

    • Abi says:

      It’s quite moving, retracing that first route. You can see a ruined hospital and the smoke from where the soldiers slept and hid in stone tunnels created in the mountains by dynamite…And yet the rest of the scenery is so stunningly beautiful. You do need quite a head for heights though…

  • Great list! We’d love to do the folk dancing! Not sure if this is considered unusual, but we would recommend going to see at least one Italian opera performance while in Italy. Tosca is my favorite!

    • Abi says:

      Ah…yes, I’m not sure if it “counts” as unusual but it certainly counts as “interesting” which is far more important after all. Any recommendations for where to see one?

      • Lisa says:

        Verona has a colosseum and has an outstanding opera season. Also Torre de Lago has an open air opera season

      • Abi King says:

        Ooh, yes. Love Verona – even though I only saw her in winter in the rain! Good suggestion.

  • I’d love to do the Via Ferrata. Sounds like a fantastic way to spend a few days followed by some good food and wine in the evenings.

    clementinebuttercup.blogspot.co.uk

    • Abi King says:

      Yes, it’s definitely the kind of activity that leaves you feeling that you’ve earned your relaxing evening!

  • This is such a cool list! I love the idea of exploring some of Italy’s lesser-known attractions. Your photo of the view from the road from Amalfi to Sorrento is absolutely gorgeous; it makes me eager to walk the road myself!

    • Abi King says:

      It’s one of the best walking routes I’ve done. Quite challenging (but not too much) and SO beautiful. Yet at the end of the day, you’re in an amazing Italian village with all the creature comforts you want. Perfect stuff.

  • Katrina Philippi says:

    My favorite place in Italy was Positano on the Amalfi Coast. If you want a real adventure, take what I refer to as the bus trip of death along the Amalfi Coast. It will make you glad to be alive when you arrive. Also, Pompeii is a great side trip. Especially when you see the destruction to the city.

    • Abi King says:

      Haha! The bus of death! Yes, I think I know what you mean. My knuckles actually did turn white. Unfortunately I never made it to Pompeii – I was still getting over some surgery and was advised that the walk was too far. So…it’s still on my list!

  • ishita says:

    I love this list! I esp loved Trieste, it turned out to be such a surprise :D Thanks for the rest of them. I miss Umbria!

    • Abi King says:

      Ah, yes, Trieste surprised me too! Fascinating place -and such a beautiful central square.

  • I’m excited to find this list! I’ve been to Italy and experienced all the typical locations, but it would be great to see Italy through unique experiences like these. I enjoyed your comparisons when describing Umbria and I loved your descriptions of the scents and sights of Italy. Taking a cooking class or experiencing a festival are awesome ways to explore any new place!

  • Feetouotofbed says:

    Watch Befana festival in Florence, January 6th!
    And what is definitely worthy is exploring Puglia!
    I adore this region!

    Thank you, Abi, for a nice article!
    And welcome to my blog as well :)

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