Italy is always on a top five destination list for US travelers. And, because of school schedules, trips seem to coincide with summer vacations. Venice, Florence, Rome and the Amalfi Coast are just mobbed with people during summer, which translates to high prices and lots of crowds. I have two suggestions to combat this: If you want to see these remarkable cities, travel in the early fall, as weather is often much better and prices and crowds dissipate. But if summer is the only time you have available, another option is to choose an equally compelling spot in Italy that is a bit more under-the-radar.
Here are a few options:
I’m heading to the Dolomites with my family and some friends this summer. This is a great trip for people who both love the outdoors and are excited about the food and wine Italy offers. It has enough activity to keep big kids engaged - our kids are 12 and 15 - but still focuses on nature and getting away from Snapchat and Instagram. I would also highly recommend the Dolomites for a romantic getaway, as there are plenty of luxury resorts to deliver an active honeymoon or anniversary.
Fly into Venice - you can even spend a night or two there if you are so inclined - but plan to head north for about 3 hours. You can do this by train, however it’s often easier to arrange a private transfer to make the trip more direct, depending on which town you decide to make your home base.
photo courtesy of Villa Abbazia
We will be making a stop in Folina on the way to the Dolomites. This small, quaint town is located on the Strada del Prosecco, making it a great base for exploring the route lined with dozens of family-owned vineyards. You can bike from town to town, seeing spectacular countryside views and tasting wine along the way. We are staying at the charming Relais & Chateaux property of Villa Abbazia. The property can arrange visits to lesser-known wineries, organize a cooking class or map out a trail for an adventure on horseback.
Continue north another hour and you’ll reach one of the many villages that can serve as a base for your exploration in the Dolomites. These spectacular mountains with pristine lakes, rivers and charming small villages remain largely undiscovered and will introduce you to a distinct culture that, while rooted in Italy, takes influence from the surrounding cultures of Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia.
This area is not only known for endless miles of hiking routes, but also for rock climbing. The Dolomites has the largest limestone climbing areas in the Alps and a terrain for every experience level. An absolute beginner can learn to climb with experienced guides, or you can seek out more challenging multi-pitch climbs. All adventure sports and experience levels are well-represented. There are also low-cost adventure options for hiking hut-to-hut through some of the highest points, or very relaxed hiking through alpine meadows in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Road biking and mountain biking are also super popular.
But put this all as a backdrop to the region’s emphasis on food and wine. Its location and influences from neighboring countries introduce a wide range of specialties to the area. Even during a hut-to-hut hike, you can find Michelin-starred restaurants scattered across the region. Wines available in this part of the world are made from many relatively unknown varietals for Americans. Trentino Alto Adige DOC wine appellations feature beautiful wine that is often cultivated in difficult growing conditions, making them that much more compelling to drink.
Photo Courtesy of Villa Abbazia
We also know of fantastic properties and some great partners who can craft an adventure itinerary that is perfect for you. Options include larger properties with tons of activities like Cristallo, a Luxury Collection property or Terra, which is a property that only has a handful of rooms and is run by a remarkable chef and his sommelier sister. We are staying at Hotel Ciasa Salares, which features the youngest Italian chef to win a Michelin star. For the kids, there is also a Chocolate Room where they make their own chocolate and provide tours and tastings of the kitchen.
While most everyone has the Amalfi Coast on their bucket list (and for good reason), Puglia is almost the opposite. This region, located in the heel of Italy’s boot, is an undiscovered gem. There are beautiful beaches, white-washed, quaint towns and a very food-focused culture. Many Italians claim that Puglia has the best food in all of Italy. Purveyors value the importance of organic produce and take advantage of the bounty from the sea to prepare food in a way that highlights the ingredients - simple and fresh.
A trip to Puglia would start by flying in to either Bari or Brindisi (very inexpensive flights from other areas of Italy - or Europe for that matter) and rent a car. Hundreds of small, family-run inns and properties are scattered around that allow you to exist in a slower time. This is not like Rome, where must-see attractions fill your days. This is about taking a leisurely breakfast that highlights fruits from the region, visiting a local olive grower or winemaker, making a stop in the architectural jewel of Ostuni or simply taking long walks in this beautiful part of the country.
You also have plenty of fantastic beaches and small alcoves to spend the day enjoying the beautiful water. Many properties are located inland, but others are on the coast. Driving is relatively straightforward, so you can get to the coast easily no matter when you stay. You can choose from five-star accomodations like the Borgo Egnazia Resort, famous for hosting Justin Timberlake’s wedding, or a simple agriturismo that offers incredible value and wonderful hospitality. Villas are also a bit more reasonable here and there are many to choose from.
Now is the time to visit this area, as many of my colleagues warn that it will soon be discovered by everyone else, and then it will no longer feel as if you know better than the rest when you visit.
What I love so much about both of these destinations is that you will not be overwhelmed with people. Instead, you’ll find yourself enjoying the remarkable natural beauty of Italy and taking part in the food and wine that draws every visitor to the country, without the large crowds and high price tag.