12 alternative places to visit in Italy when you want to get off the beaten path

Editor’s Note:

Story highlights

Ischia is Capri's sister island, without the VIP status. It's more real, more genuine

Mantova contains a "city within a city" -- the 34,000-square-meter home of a powerful Renaissance family

Ventotene is a small isle close to Rome and a former jail center for lustful Roman noble women and later anti-Fascists

CNN  — 

Tired of Rome? Done Milan? Kids start crying whenever you suggest another EM Forster tour of Florence?

Italy’s big cities are no doubt worthy and its popular regions are popular for good reason. But some of the country’s lesser known towns and villages are equally, or more, impressive. Here are 12 of our favorites.

(Scroll down towards the middle of the article for a map of all locations.)

1. Ischia, Campania

Lying in the Gulf of Naples, Ischia is Capri’s sister island, without the VIP status. It’s more real, more genuine.

It’s famous for its thermal baths (built by the Romans) and diving spots and features four-star luxury hotels with great prices year round.

Cheap but delicious fish restaurants lie along the harbor of Ischia Porto and the island is one of the few to make limoncello, that moreish lemon juice liqueur.

Visitors can opt for long strolls in the lush vegetation, or take a cab, bus or boat to tour the island. A must see is the majestic Aragonese Castle hanging on top of an isle-cliff, connected to the old hamlet of Ponte Ischia.

The Guevara Tower and Royal Palace (www.comuneischia.it) are worth a look for history fans, while at Fumarole beach you can see geysers of water vapor both underwater and above the ground.

With a temperature of up to 95 C, may want to test the water before diving in.

From the harbor ferries head for the neighboring fishermen island of Procida. Bellezza, one of the oldest restaurants on the island, also offers the best taste of the local cuisine.

The popular Kiwi Jam bar offers fantastic finger foods and happy-hour menus.

There’s a huge choice of hotels, but we love hotel Casa Sofia, located in the southern village of St.Angelo, where cars don’t run.

2. Caltagirone, Catania

Forget Palermo’s hellish traffic and Taormina’s designer boutiques – this is the heart of the real, wild Sicily famous for its artisan ceramics and the best slushies in Italy.

Getting here requires rolling across the desolate Erei hills. The top attraction is the monumental, flowery 142-step staircase of the Santa Maria del Monte, built in the 17th century, featuring hand-decorated majolica from different periods.

Once at the top the city’s streets and piazzas unravel before you, showing off the lively piazza.

Must-sees include the ceramics museum, the Borbonic jail and the crèche museum, showcasing the best of the Sicilian tradition (www.comune.caltagirone.ct.it).

The best way to savor the city is to walk along the artisans’ boutiques, which show off beautifully hand-made ceramics of live-size Christmas trees, Phoenician merchants’ faces, gigantic green, red and blue pinewoods but also miniature ceramic owls and snails.

A day of shopping can be concluded with a slushie served inside a warm brioche. The Bronte pistachio, figs and almond flavors at the central bar facing the staircase are the best.

Restaurant Il Locandiere (+39 (0)9335 8292) offers a typical lunch while B&B Tre Metri Sopra il Cielo offers a cozy stay at the top of the staircase.

The best way to discover Lecce is to walk the narrow alleys.

3. Lecce, Apulia

Dubbed the Florence of South Italy, Lecce can surprise even Italians. This is one of the country’s poorest regions, where sheep graze among old olive trees and stone walls line the roads.

Like a Western movie, the countryside clashes with the city’s luxurious Baroque, Roman and Renaissance elements.

The churches, like Santa Croce basilica, have golden-stone facades. Elegant fountains are scattered around. There’s the Duomo, the 72-meter-tall bell tower and the vibrant Sant’Oronzo square, the city’s pulsing heart.

Different architectural styles congregate, the most striking being the Roman column and amphitheater (www.infolecce.it). Here lies the center of the city’s lively nightlife too; for evening aperitifs and happy hours there’s the Caffè dell’Anfiteatro, right in front of the ruins.

Le Quattro Spezierie cocktail bar offers great finger foods on a stylish terrace overlooking the Baroque buildings.

Restaurants Arte dei Sapori and Rifugio della Buona Stella serve traditional menus at good prices (don’t miss special pasta called “orecchiette”).

A great place to stay is B&B Palazzo Bernardini in the center, an historic and elegantly restyled accommodation.

4. Mantova, Lombardy

Mantova (or Mantua) was the hometown of Rome’s most celebrated poet, Virgil. The pearl of the rich Lombardy region, it’s loaded with artistic heritage and has been inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Splendid buildings and a great skyline echo the grandeur of the Gonzaga, a powerful Renaissance family that helped make the city a rich power and trade center.

Dubbed “Tuscany’s angel in the north,” Palazzo Ducale, the Gonzaga’s historic residence, is a city within the city: 34,000 square meters of masterpieces by artists including Rubens and Raffaello (www.turismo.mantova.it).

Guided tours offer a chance to see the frescoed Palazzo Te and the Bibien scientific theater, a baroque venue that hosted in 1769 the performance of a young Mozart.

The 1472 Clock Tower’s internal mechanism still works.

Art mingles with nature. The foggy Mincio river and lakes create an ideal habitat for many bird species.

Food is a lifestyle here. The pumpkin “tortelli” (a tortellini variant), zafran risotto and pike served with polenta at Antica Osteria della Fragoletta or La Cucina are superb.

Caffé Modì (+39 (0)37618 10111) has the best aperitifs, while the central Rechigi Hotel showcases a permanent contemporary art collection.

5. Matera, Basilicata

Matera is a prehistoric “underground” stone village in the middle of a desolate southern region of Basilicata.

But it’s worth driving for hours to see it.

It is one of the world’s most ancient cities, provided part of the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and its ‘sassi’ (settlements cut out of the stone) and rupestrian churches are inscribed on UNESCO’s World heritage List.

Along the streets you can’t help notice the various layers on which the town was built over the centuries: Christian, Byzantine, Greek-Roman and the Metal Ages all feature.

Some 155 stone churches have been carved out of the rocks – frescoed ashrams and crypts lie close to cathedrals and medieval and Renaissance buildings (www.comune.matera.it).

The road that circles the town, suspended above a deep gorge, provides a view of the many holes carved into the mountain on the other side.

For centuries up to the 1950s, farmers lived and worked in these caves while bandits took refuge there from the authorities. No cars are allowed in and there’s a magical “Lord of the Rings” atmosphere.

Traditional restaurants Alle Fornaci and Trattoria Lucana both serve rich menus.

It’s really worth spending the night here for the scenery: the famous Sassi Hotel, woven inside the city’s fabric, is a restyled 18th-century building.

But if you prefer to sleep in ancient cave-houses, hotel Le Grotte della Cavita offers rooms with breakfast served in a rupestral church (www.sextantio.it/grotte-civita).

6. Narni, Umbria

This Umbrian village was built 3,000 years ago on top of a rocky hilltop above a yawning canyon, cut through by a black river.

Conquered by the Romans who called it Narnia, the dominating Albornoz fortress and lion statue, the symbol of the town, apparently inspired C.S. Lewis in his “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

It’s worth visiting the impressive Augustus bridge, built in Roman times, and the city museum showcasing Renaissance masterpieces (www.comune.narni.tr.it).

June is the best time to visit, when a traditional festival transforms the town into a medieval carnival with horses and dressed-up warriors.

And if you’re looking for something spooky but exciting, don’t miss Narni’s Holy Inquisition underground tunnels, featuring spectacular prison cells covered in graffiti, Masonic symbols and alchemic formulas, and the guided tours in the 700-meter long Formina Roman aqueduct, one of the few open to the public in Italy (www.narnisotterranea.it).

Part of Narni’s mystical status comes from its location: right at the geographical center of Italy.

B&B Podere del Cardinale offers accommodation in a former estate of Pope Giulio II, who commissioned Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

Il Gattamelata restaurant (+39 (0)74420 717245) facing the sculpted Cathedral has great wild boar and delicious porcini mushrooms.

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7. Pienza, Tuscany

Set in Val D’Orcia, Tuscany’s most charming area, Pienza is a tiny je