Think of visiting Italy and romantic visions of Rome, Venice, and Florence probably come to mind (and for good reason!). But travelers who venture to the bottom half of the “boot”—a.k.a. Southern Italy—will find a world of vibrant cities, coastal landscapes, unique cultures, and so much more to explore.
Whether you’ve already visited Italy’s classic cities or you want to spend your first trip checking out attractions in Southern Italy instead, our guide to Southern Italy will help you prepare for an unforgettable trip.
No matter what time of year you travel to Southern Italy, toss these essentials in your suitcase:
Located on the Bay of Naples, this high-energy city is the largest in Southern Italy. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, where Old World charm meets modern grit.
Visiting Naples is one of the best things to do in Southern Italy if you’re a traveler who loves art, architecture, and archaeology. You can get your fill of all three with stops at the Baroque, 16th-century Chiesa di San Gregorio Armeno; the Duomo di Napoli, a Roman Catholic cathedral whose construction began in the 13th century; the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli; and the splendid Museo Cappella Sansevero.
No matter how you spend your time on one of our tours of Naples, don’t leave without treating yourself to several slices of the city’s famous, wood-fired pizza Napoletana. (Or, why not have your own personal pie?) Don’t bother asking for pineapple or peppers here; authentic pizzerias top their perfectly chewy pies with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, olive oil, and nothing else.
Go there for: pizza, art, architecture—and and more pizza
About an hour drive south from Naples will take travelers to Sorrento, a seaside town perched on the Sorrentine Peninsula. Exploring Sorrento is one of the best things to do in Southern Italy for travelers who enjoy water activities, like fishing, diving, and cruising. Hiking trails crisscross the peninsula, so bring your boots if you feel like getting some steps in.
Best things to do: Sorrento is a convenient base for day tripping. Nearby options include the ultra-glam island of Capri and its otherworldly Blue Grotto. History buffs won’t want to miss a visit to Pompeii—site of the once-thriving city that was buried under feet of ash and pumice in 79 A.D., after the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Back in town, wind down after a busy day with dinner and people-watching in Piazza Tasso, Sorrento’s cafe-lined square.
Best drink to try: Sorrento is the birthplace of limoncello, a popular after-dinner liqueur, or digestif, made from lemons, sugar, and vodka. Enjoy the citrusy sipper straight, mixed with sparkling water, or shaken into a cocktail. (We think it tastes best when paired with sunset views.)
Go there for: outdoor adventure and limoncello
This 34-mile stretch of coastline in Southern Italy’s Campania region, is a UNESCO World Heritage site—and one of the most instantly recognizable places on the planet. That’s thanks to its pastel-painted, terraced villages and towns, its towering sea cliffs, and its winding, coastal roads, which are frequently featured in films, magazines, and social media feeds.
Best things to do: Among the dozen-plus towns that call the Amalfi Coast home, Positano is arguably the most famous. There, travelers can take boat tours along the coast, visit postcard-perfect beaches and ornate chiesas (that’s churches in Italian), browse chic boutiques, and take cooking classes—a quintessential Amalfi Coast experience.
For some of the best photo ops, head to lookout points like Il Sentiero Degli Dei (translation: path of the gods).
Go there for: coastal scenery and cooking classes
Situated in Southern Italy’s Basilicata region, near the “heel” of Italy’s boot, Matera is a spectacular town and UNESCO World Heritage site best known for the 9,000-year-old Sassi, or cave dwellings, and chiese rupestri, or rock churches, that were carved straight from the limestone hill on which they stand. Travelers can explore it all—and more of the town’s architectural marvels—on our Puglia & Southern Italy tour.
Best food to try: Visitors can get a taste of modern life in Matera, too. Some Sassi in the town now house hotels, shops, restaurants, and cafes. In the latter, keep an eye out for traditional and modern takes on Materan dishes and ingredients, such as crapiata (a warming legume soup), lagane (a tagliatelle-like fresh pasta), and cialledda (a bread-and-tomato salad). Two local breads to try are strazzata and the aptly named—and deeply symbolic—pane di Matera, or bread of Matera.
Best thing to do: Don’t leave Matera without paying a visit to its Cripta del Peccato Originale, or Crypt of Original Sin. Its thousand-year-old wall art earned it the nickname the Sistine Chapel of Rupestrian Art.
Go there for: history and unique architecture
This region in Southern Italy has risen in popularity over the past few years, and with its ancient towns, ornate churches, rolling olive groves, and miles of coastline, it’s no wonder why.
Best things to do: Several cities and towns in Puglia are worth visiting, but Lecce, nicknamed the Florence of the South for the number of 17th-century baroque buildings found there, is the region’s crowning jewel. While touring its treasures, ask your guide to point out those designed in the distinctive barocco leccese, or Lecce baroque, style. (Hint: Look for gargoyles and gremlins.)
Other cities to check out on tour in Puglia include Bari—the region’s seaside capital and a lively university city—and Ostuni, whose Old Town is packed with centuries-old white-washed abodes.
Best food to try: When it comes to food in Puglia, bread and pasta—especially any variety made with Puglia’s durum wheat—are practically required eating. Taralli—small, crispy rings made from bread dough and oil—are a satisfyingly crunchy snack, and orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) with broccoli rabe is an Apulian classic you’ll want to replicate when you return back home. And that’s just to name a few favorite from around the region.
Go there for: country landscapes, baroque architecture, and good food
Located just off the “toe” of Italy’s “boot,” Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. Its cultural mix includes Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, and Norman influences, and its topography includes mountains, beaches, vineyards—and three active volcanoes.
Best things to do: Several worthwhile cities—each with its own personality, cuisine, and rich history—call Sicily home. A few essential stops while visiting Sicily on tour include the Greek Theater and Ear of Dionysius, in Syracuse; the Capuchin Catacombs, in Palermo; and the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. For more to do around the island, check out The Go Ahead Travel Guide to Sicily.
Best foods to try: Dining is an exciting part of any visit to Sicily, as cuisine here bears influences of the many cultural groups whose presence shaped the island’s history. Must-try dishes include arancini (rice balls filled with ingredients like ragu, peas, mozzarella, or other ingredients, depending on the region), sfincione (a pizza-like dish with a thick crust that’s often topped with onions, anchovies, and cheese), and pasta con le sarde (bucatini or spaghetti cooked with sardines and other ingredients, like white fennel and pine nuts). They’re just some of the unforgettable flavors you’ll enjoy on a tour of Southern Italy.
Go there for: beaches, archaeological sites, and wine