From top to toe, Italy is filled with spectacular scenery and beautiful towns. So beautiful that it can be difficult to decide where to visit next! While Puglia is at times overlooked internationally, Italians have long followed the sea and sun to this southeastern region that is the heel of the peninsula’s posh boot.   

Travelers new to the region might wonder: is Puglia worth visiting? We’re here to answer with a resounding yes! 

Here’s why you should visit Puglia: 

The beaches   

With roughly 800 kilometers of coastline, it’s no surprise that Puglia has some of the best beaches in all of Italy. A peninsula within a peninsula, visitors can enjoy pristine beaches on the Ionian and Adriatic coasts. And they truly are pristine – Puglia’s beaches regularly win the Blue Flag, an international eco-label given to the cleanest, most environmentally sustainable beaches. From the “Maldives of Salento” to the views of the “Two Sisters” sea stack, visitors looking to mix cultural touring with the ease of the sea have dozens of gorgeous options to choose from in Puglia. 

Read more about the Best Beaches in Puglia

The trulli   

A village of the unique trulli houses in Puglia with white walls and conical roofs
Visit Puglia to tour the distinctive trulli in Alberobello. Image by Jacques Savoye from Pixabay

There is little more unique to Puglia than its famous trulli houses. These traditional Pugliese homes are ingenious conical structures built with entirely local materials. Unique to Puglia, the trulli are built without any mortar and are devised to be quick to build and quick to dismantle. They maintain a cool interior and the conical roofs lead to a central cistern, usually located under the house, to catch what little water Puglia gets.    

You can find them throughout the Itria Valley, but only in Alberobello can you find more than 1,500 trulli, many in use today and almost all in perfect condition. Today, Alberobello is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an “exceptional Historic Urban Landscape.”   

The lifestyle   

Visit Puglia to tap into the slow, easy days of southern Italy. Puglia isn’t stuck in the past; it has simply maintained the healthiest aspects of a slower pace of life. Take a cue from the Pugliese and learn to linger over a meal, enjoy the warmth of the sun, gather friends or family around, and soak in a less frenetic atmosphere. It’s the perfect destination for travelers looking to travel slow. Relax and reconnect with nature with the freedom to explore and enjoy some of the most beautiful landscapes in Italy.   

The towns   

The beautiful beach in Polignano al Mare, Puglia

Puglia has a diverse geography and a unique history, both visible in its gorgeous towns and cities. Visit the quaint villages in the Itria Valley, including the trulli of Alberobello, nearby Locorotondo, Cisternino, and lively Martina Franca. There’s the atmospheric town of Polignano a Mare clinging to a rocky cliff over the Adriatic Sea and nearby Monopoli, the whitewashed city of Ostuni, Otranto on the Adriatic coast, and Gallipoli on the Ionian Sea.  

Visit Lecce, Salento’s historical and artistic center, and another UNESCO World Heritage site for its beautiful baroque architecture. And though Bari hasn’t traditionally been on the tourist trail, the recently renovated old town, burgeoning cultural spaces and lively nightlife have put the port city back on the map for many travelers.   

The food   

As in all of Italy, the food in Puglia is incredible.    

Known as the breadbasket of Italy thanks to its large production of durum wheat, Puglia’s pasta and bread are gastronomical staples. Most visitors have heard of the ubiquitous Pugliese orecchiette pasta, fresh pasta shaped like “little ears.” But there is so much more to Pugliese food than that!    

A little-known tradition is the “fornello pronto” in the Valle d’Itria, that is, butcher shops where you can order your meat and have them cook it for you on sight. Other street-food options throughout Puglia include the focaccia barese, fried panzerotto, or the rustico leccese, a puff pastry filled with mozzarella, bechamel sauce, tomato, and black pepper.   

Pugliese cuisine is historically very poor. In the past few could afford meat. Luckily, vegetables abound in this sun-kissed, fertile land. Here you can get fava and chicory prepared in a dozen different ways. Or simply ripe tomatoes with a fresh Pugliese burrata or simple grilled vegetables – all drizzled, of course, with Puglia’s famous olive oil.    

The olive oil   

Visit Puglia to see century-old olive trees

With approximately 60 million olive trees, there are more olive trees in Puglia than there are Italians in Italy. In the Valle d’Itria in particular, travelers can see hundreds of olive trees, including some more than 2,000 years old! Besides a liberal use of the delicious oil during meals, visitors can tour through the olive groves. Today, most of these ancient, millenarian olive trees can be found in the area between Monopoli, Ostuni, and Carovigno. Tour by car or, even better, hike or bike among the olive groves, moving from one town to another.  

The masserie   

Puglia’s cuisine and culture change as you move away from the coastline. In the countryside, the cuisine changes from the fresh fish of the coast and more to meat and vegetables. There, we can also find a treasure unique to the region: the masserie. Ancient structures dating from the 16th century, these farmhouses used to be the home of the massaro, or farmer. Today these masserie range from rustic, renovated farmhouses to luxury hotels. Traditionally agricultural, you can visit to stay the night or simply go for a traditional, kilometer-zero meal. Agriturismi can be found throughout Italy, but only in Puglia can you find them in the traditional style of a Pugliese masseria.    

The history  

Like much of southern Italy, Puglia was conquered by dozens of different civilizations. Its fertile land and strategic and commercial importance attracted the Greeks, Romans, Ostrogoths, and Byzantine Empire; the Normans, Frederick II, the Kingdom of Naples, the Aragonese, the Habsburgs, and … you get the idea.    

This unique and eclectic history left an imprint on Puglia that we can still see today. The Greeks founded Taranto. The Romans brought the long history of wheat, olive oil, and wine production to the region to feed the legions. Gallipoli is fortified thanks to the Byzantines. The Normans brought the relics of San Nicola to Bari and built the Basilica di San Nicola and the French created what is known today as Bari Vecchia. Each new kingdom deeply affected the peninsula’s architectural, agricultural and cultural landscape.    

The nature   

a view of cactus and the seaside in Salento, Puglia

Those looking to explore the natural beauty of Puglia have plenty to choose from even beyond the attractive beaches. Don’t miss the Grotte di Castellana. The longest cave network in Italy with approximately 3 kilometers of underground caves, it is widely considered the most spectacular in Italy as well.    

Visit the stunning islands of the Tremiti Archipelago. Protected by a marine reserve, the only archipelago of Puglia is the pinnacle of natural beauty. Go to explore the wild beaches, snorkel or dive in the pristine water, or enjoy a day on the sea by boat.    

Visitors to the plateau of the Alta Murgia National Park will find a unique mix of nature, archeology, and history. With beautiful flora and fauna year-round, the Alta Murgia is also filled with masserie, jazzi, and poste, or dry-stone buildings used by shepherds to protect their animals. Most notable, however, is the 13th-century Castel del Monte. Built by the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II, the UNESCO World Heritage Site fortification is a mysterious geometric structure built with perfect octagonal walls and eight octagonal towers.  

Finally, those with time to spare can head all the way to the southernmost tip of Puglia in Santa Maria di Leuca to see the place where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas meet, and explore the nearby caves, beaches, and nature reserves of the Salento Peninsula.   

Visit Puglia to tour the traditional trulli, travel along the picturesque Adriatic coast and cook with an Italian nonna on our Mediterranean Escape to Puglia and the Amalfi Coast. 

  

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Each Italian region is unique. For such a small peninsula, the diversity of history, art, culture, and cuisine from region to region is remarkable. At first glance, Umbria and Tuscany seem to have a lot in common. Both are celebrated for their hilltop towns, spectacular scenery, and delicious rustic meals; but don’t be fooled: each has its own charms, atmosphere, and traditions.

How to choose between Umbria and Tuscany

When designing an Italian adventure, it can be difficult to choose which of Italy’s breathtaking regions to visit. The travel experts at Ciao Andiamo love every pocket and corner of Italy for reasons unique from one area to the next, and this is why the authentic journeys we design are always individually tailored with our travelers in mind. We’ve written this guide to help you learn more about the acclaim of Tuscany and allure of Umbria so that you can decide for your next visit: Umbria or Tuscany (or both!)?

Visit Umbria and Tuscany for the impressive cathedrals

Orvieto Cathedral, Umbria
Each region boasts beautiful cathedrals, like this one in Orvieto, Umbria. Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Brunelleschi’s Duomo of Florence is an architectural masterpiece and must-see for visitors to the region, while the Duomo complex of nearby Siena, in Tuscany, merits a full tour inside, out…and up, as visitors can now explore the eaves of the magnificent cathedral.

In Umbria, finding striking basilicas in small town settings–like Orvieto’s magnificent cathedral–is all the more impressive. The sensational gothic cathedral stands out against Orvieto’s austere city center. Inside, frescoes that rival those in Rome grace the walls. Then there is the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular destination for religious pilgrims, the cathedral boasts massive paintings and frescoes by Cimabue, Lorenzetti, and the school of Giotto.

Art and architecture are on full display in the many basilicas, cathedrals, and chapels of Tuscany and Umbria.

Umbria and Tuscany are great for nature lovers

Active travelers can find outdoor fun in both regions. Visitors to Umbria and Tuscany can hike and bike, mountaineer, and horseback ride. Each region has multiple national and regional parks to explore. Kayak and sail along the coast in Tuscany or spelunk, raft, and kayak in Umbria. For a new perspective in either region, take to the air to paraglide or hang glide over the breathtaking landscapes, or take it slow with a hot-air balloon ride.

Visit Tuscany for the unmatched art

exterior of Uffizi Gallery
Florence’s famous Uffizi Gallery holds priceless Medieval and Renaissance art

The explosion of art and architecture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance derived in part from the historic rivalries between towns. Though there were frequent wars, outdoing your neighbor in artistic wealth and architectural feats was just as important as a victory on the battlefield. The various cities in Tuscany and Umbria spent centuries trying to outdo one another, much to the benefit of visitors today.

Great art abounds in Umbria, with artists such as Perugino, Giotto, Cimabue and Pisano leaving their mark in cities from Città di Castello and Terni to Orvieto and Assisi. The Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia’s beautiful Palazzo dei Priori holds work by one of Umbria’s most famous locals: Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino, who was also the teacher of Raphael.

That said, the sheer quantity of Tuscany’s Medieval and Renaissance art is unparalleled. The Uffizi Gallery alone holds some of the world’s most priceless art. There, you can find masterpieces by Raphael, Lippi, Caravaggio, as well as the Birth of Venus and the Primavera of Botticelli, to name a few. No matter where you are in Tuscany, you’re sure to find some world-class art.

Visit Umbria for a unique food experience

a butcher shop in Umbria
You can get high-quality cured meat in Umbria and Tuscany, but only Umbria enjoys the fame of these norcinerie. Image by GBSurf from Pixabay

You may be familiar with the olive oil, fresh pasta, and steaks of Tuscany, but know less about the specialties of Umbria. In many respects, Umbrian and Tuscan cuisine is quite similar. Both are born of a cucina povera tradition, and feature myriad vegetables and legumes, rustic flavors from game meat like wild boar and rabbit, and homegrown olive oil.

But only Umbria has the highly-prized tartufo nero. May to August is black truffle season, but you can get this pungent delicacy shaved over your pasta or omelet or simmered in a gravy sauce any time of year.

Also worth noting are Umbria’s renowned norcinerie–high-quality pork butcher shops from Norcia–whose butchers take the art of processing pork to an art form. Try it for yourself with a roast porchetta panino or an appetizer of affettati (sliced meats) including the classic Norcia prosciutto.

Visit Tuscany for some of the most famous wines, and Umbria for smaller producers and wines of equal stature

vineyards in Umbria and Tuscany
Image by alohamalakhov from Pixabay

Tuscany is home to some of the world’s most well-known wines and wine regions. From Chianti to Montalcino, Montepulciano to Bolgheri, Tuscany’s winemaking prowess is proven. Here you can taste Brunello and Chianti, Rosso di Montalcino and a wealth of Super Tuscans. For a white wine, try the Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

Although Tuscan wines may enjoy more worldwide fame, Umbria’s vineyards have equally noteworthy, delectable options. Try the Orvieto DOC white wine made with the region’s star white grape or the Rosso di Montefalco, a dark red made with Sangiovese grapes.

The king of Umbrian wines, however, is the ancient Sagrantino di Montefalco. A DOCG red wine made with the eponymous grape, Sagrantino is 100% native, aged in oak barrels and, when cellared correctly, can be kept for up to 30 years.

Visit Umbria for cashmere and Tuscany for leather

There’s no better souvenir than a genuine “Made in Italy” product, and the gifted craftsmen of Tuscany and Umbria produce myriad artisanal goods. Artisans in both regions work with gold and precious stones, wood, marble, oil paints, and watercolors, and, of course, various fabrics and textiles. When shopping for clothes and accessories in central Italy, get your leather in Tuscany, and fine cashmere in Umbria.

Leathercraft has been practiced in Tuscany for centuries and the tradition continues today. Get the perfect fit with a pair of tailor-made shoes or go simple with a quality belt, purse, or wallet. Before purchasing anything, be sure to verify that it is truly made in Italy or, better yet, go straight to the artisan’s studios!

Umbria is where you can purchase a beautiful sweater, warm scarf, or elegant purse directly from local cashmere producers. In some cases, you can even visit the cashmere workshops, which are clustered in and around Montefalco, Bevagna, and Marsciano.

Visit Tuscany if you want a seaside vacation

a view of the sea in Tuscany
Visit the Tuscan archipelago for a seaside vacation like this one in Isola d’Elba. Image by DanieleFiaschi from Pixabay

Tuscany is the only option of the two for those looking for a Mediterranean seaside vacation. There, visitors can enjoy beaches along the coast or head off shore to explore the Tuscan Archipelago with its beautiful islands like Elba and Giglio.

Umbria might be Italy’s only landlocked region, but it still enjoys some bodies of water. There are mountain springs in the Foligno area, thermal springs north of Orvieto, and prominent lakes, including Lago di Piediluco near the border with Lazio, and Lago di Trasimeno, the largest lake in central and southern Italy.

For those visiting Umbria but still looking to include a visit to the sea, the new tunnels carved into the Apennines can bring travelers from Umbria’s Spello area to the Adriatic Sea in about 30 minutes for an easy seaside day trip.

Visit Umbria for small-town charm 

In general, Tuscany is the perfect place to explore iconic city centers, while Umbria is ideal for soaking in the Italian experience.

It’s true that Tuscany also has small towns that feel less “discovered,” but Umbria has more, and it’s generally easier to escape the crowds in the region known as Italy’s “green heart”.

With only two true cities – Perugia, the region’s capital, and Terni, its industrial powerhouse – Umbria is a region of villages and towns. Of course, Perugia, Assisi, and Orvieto are all must-visits, but we recommend you go beyond the most famous cities to tap into Umbria’s charming small-town ambience. Visit Gubbio, considered the oldest village in Umbria, Spello with its narrow walls and enchanting balconies, or the butcher shop-lined streets of Norcia. Explore the islands on Lago di Trasimeno, the small town of Narni, with its recently excavated underground, or the less-visited village of Bevagna. Tour the ancient streets of Spoleto and enjoy panoramic views from Montefalco.

In Umbria, you can find that authentic Italian spirit, untarnished by international influences. The pace of life is slower and the travel richer with local experiences. In Tuscany, you can live out a scene straight from an iconic film, but you’ll have to share the set. In Umbria, the set is yours!

Small town in Umbria from above
Castelluccio is just one of the many tiny towns that dot the Umbrian countryside. Image by Alberto Agostini from Pixabay

Still can’t decide? Visit both! Venture through the heart of the Italian countryside on our Food, Wine and the Rolling Hills insider journey exploring Umbria and Tuscany through the eyes of locals.

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Matera is a remarkable city in Basilicata, a little-visited region in Italy’s extreme south.

A visit to Matera steeps travelers into a unique world of art, history, culture, folklore and the slow pace of Italy’s Mezzogiorno. Matera is famous for its cave dwellings located in the Sassi neighborhoods; homes carved into the soft tufa rock that have been inhabited since the Paleolithic period. It’s ancient on another level, and yet also a working, modern city.

Visit Matera to see this beautiful panorama by night

Foto di blank76 da Pixabay

Rural and remote, Matera isn’t the easiest place to reach, which is likely why it hasn’t long been on the radar of many international travelers. But after gaining UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1993 and being declared the European Capital of Culture in 2019 the city is finally starting to get the mentions it deserves.

Today many visitors travel hundreds of kilometers to see this ancient city made contemporary. With one-of-a-kind accommodations complete with modern amenities, travelers are ready to see Italy’s magical city of stone.

Here’s why you should visit Matera on your next trip to Italy:

To walk the stone streets of one of the oldest cities in the world

Matera is counted as one of the three oldest cities in the entire world. It’s been inhabited since the Paleolithic period, the earliest period of human development, as troglodytes carved cave dwellings into the steep rock. Though estimates on the exact dates of Matera’s first occupation vary, evidence from the Neolithic period and even earlier has been found. Today it’s one of the few locations this ancient that is also so comfortable to our modern tastes. Where else can you sleep in accommodation first used 9,000 years ago?

To visit one of the most unique destinations in the world

Visit the Sassi in Matera, Italy
Photo by  Tomas Turek from Pixabay

Matera is one of the most unique destinations on earth, and certainly one of the most unique in Italy thanks to its infamous Sassi districts. In the Sassi, hundreds of cave dwellings spot the steep landscape. Here you can step back in time to walk along ancestral roads and staircases, to rupestrian (carved in rock) churches, and elaborate cave systems-turned-houses or wine cellars or hotels

The Sassi of Matera were a splendor of history, but by the 1950s they were little more than squalid hovels, unacceptable to today’s standards. The caves had barely changed or improved from hundreds of years earlier and the squalor and unsanitary conditions in the town were declared the “vergogna nazionale” or the national disgrace. The citizens were forcibly moved out and relocated to modern houses in a village atop the nearby plateau, leaving Matera abandoned.

In the 1980s interest in the Sassi returned, and many residents began moving back to the area to renovate the old cave houses, eventually turning the empty shell of a town into a fascinating urban center set in an ancient landscape. In fact, UNESCO declared the entire town a World Heritage Site for being the “most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.”

Today, Matera’s cave-dwellings are elegant and comfortable, complete with spas, gyms, restaurants, and wifi.

To marvel at the underground architecture

Though the caves might seem like simple dugouts, they’re actually intricate structures that can be quite complex architecturally. Elaborate renovations were made during the Renaissance when many caves gained new façades, vaulted ceilings or complicated staircases connecting arches, attics, balconies, and cantinas. The Sassi have dozens of tunnels connecting them, proving that what we see is just a scratch under the surface of this elaborate cave system.

Besides the caves, head underground to see the wonders of ancient technology in the Palombaro Lungo, the largest of the Palombari water collection tank system. The Palombaro Lungo is a giant cistern carved into the rock, as large as an underground cathedral, that has supplied water to Materans as far back as the 16th-century. Ingenious and state-of-the-art for the time, the system located under Piazza Vittorio Veneto is one of the best-conserved examples of historical hydraulics and architecture in the world.

To follow the faith across centuries

A view of San Pietro Caveoso Church in beautiful Matera
Photo by chatst2 from Pixabay

Matera is a land with a strong faith going back centuries. There are at least 21 parishes and several churches that have been carved into or out of the rock, as well as others built aboveground on the Piano (plateau) above the town. Then there are the more than 150 churches in the Sassi district itself along with the Murgia National Park.

Though it might be impossible to properly see them all on one trip, the town’s churches are a fundamental part of its history and truly a must-see. Start with the Romanesque Cathedral, whose privileged position atop Civitas hill gives breathtaking views overlooking the Sassi Barisano. Other favorites include the death-themed Chiesa del Purgatorio, the Lecce-inspired San Francesco d’Assisi, the simple interior of Materdomini and the great views from Sant’Agostino.

To see the rupestrian churches of the Murgia National Park

The Park of the Murgia Materana overlooks Matera from gorges and caves beyond the Gravina ravine. A UNESCO World Heritage site along with the Sassi of Matera, here you’ll find more than 150 rock churches to explore.

These rock churches, known as rupestrian churches, were mostly constructed in the Byzantine Empire of the 8th and 9th centuries. Though many are not so well conserved, some of the cave churches still have faded Byzantine frescoes inside. A favorite rupestrian visit is Santa Maria de Idris. Partly carved into the rock and partly built, this 12th-century church is connected by tunnel to the rock crypt of St. John in Monterrone.

Though they were created as religious places of worship, over the years many of the rupestrian churches became multi-use, serving as homes or stables for animals, including the popular Crypt of Original Sin, considered the Sistine Chapel of rupestrian art for its magnificent 8th-century frescoes.

To experience a real-life movie set

Ancient and enchanting, Matera is the perfect setting for historical films and TV series. Though there are older settlements in the Middle East that film crews could use, few are as easy to access with as comfortable accommodations and amenities as Matera.

Approximately 90 movies have been filmed in Matera, from documentaries to neorealism pieces to TV fiction. Film buffs who want to catch a glimpse of Matera’s majestic backdrops can rent Nel Mezzogiorno Qualcosa È Cambiato, a documentary on the plight of Matera in the 1950s; Gli Anni Ruggenti, a comedy about an insurance salesman caught in a misunderstanding in the South; L’Uomo delle Stelle, which is set in Sicily but shot in Matera; or of course, The Passion by Mel Gibson, a story of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life.

To view modern art in the world’s only ancient cave museum

A city carved into the rock, Matera is innately a city of sculpture. Though the ancient sculpture is the town itself, more contemporary fare is still available. Matera’s Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, or MUSMA, is the only cave-museum in the world. Housed in the underground of Palazzo Pomarici, the story of Italian and international sculpture is told through 500 different pieces.

After all, what more delightful place to view contemporary sculpture art than in a remarkably ancient town carved by cavemen themselves?

To celebrate the Festa della Bruna

Visit Matera during the Festa della Bruna to see these wonderful lights
Photo by Fabio Eramo via Festa della Bruna Gruppo Ufficiale Facebook Page.

The Festa della Bruna is the principal event in Matera’s calendar, truly the Materans’ New Year’s Day. Though it’s celebrated for an entire week, the culmination is on July 2nd when time stops in Matera to celebrate the town’s patron saint. Dating back to the 14th century and in remembrance of the Madonna, the festival is far from solely religious, going from sunrise into the dead of night.

The entire town is illuminated by bright lights and decorations. Market stalls and town bands set the atmosphere and a procession of shepherds “wake up” the town at the crack of dawn on the day of the event. Later, the statue of Madonna della Bruna is carried through the town streets on a parade float to the Duomo. Once there, the crowd attacks the float, destroying it piece by piece – a piece of the float is thought to bring luck. The entire event concludes with a huge firework display on the other side of the ravine in the Murgia Park.

A festival for locals by locals, it’s a dramatic event for tourists who, if prepared, can witness the excitement, passion, and euphoria of the event.

Travelers to Matera experience a unique destination, taste the city’s distinctive slow pace and step into a world unto itself. And that’s reason enough to visit!

Visit this one-of-a-kind city with Ciao Andiamo’s expert guide on our Mediterranean Escape trip

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Umbria is Italy’s only land-locked region, but it’s not complaining.  

Known as Italy’s green heart, vibrant Umbria is a nature-lover’s paradise. Though it lacks a coastline, the mountains and hills of Umbria are still awash in water thanks to the Tevere River and the Lago di Trasimeno, the largest lake in central and southern Italy.  

Spello, Umbria (Photo by Ken Sandberg)

Though long overlooked for its popular neighbors of Tuscany and Lazio – that’s a huge part of Umbria’s charm. Sometimes called “Tuscany without the tourists,” it’s true that in Umbria you can still get off-the-beaten path with ease. A bit more rustic, more natural than its neighbors, Umbria nevertheless has delicious, high-quality food products, a long history and excellent Medieval and Renaissance art, all while maintaining an atmosphere of peace and serenity. Not to mention enchanting hill towns that you can’t believe you haven’t yet explored!  

Where to Go

Perugia 

Photo by tonixjesse from Pixabay

Umbria’s largest city and the capital of the region, Perugia has a lot to offer visitors. The historical city center is small, but packs a lot of history. There are different ways you can get atop the hill to visit the city center, but perhaps the most suggestive way is with the escalators in the Rocca Paolina. Technically a fort, it feels like an entire a 16th-century city preserved under today’s Perugia. Once in the city center, head to Piazza IV Novembre to dive right in to most of Perugia’s tourist sites: the beautiful 13-century Fontana Maggiore, the unfinished San Lorenzo Cathedral, Palazzo dei Priori and the adjacent Sala dei Notari.  

Home to the oldest university in the region, Perugia isn’t just an ancient city on a hill, but is lived and lively, with actual locals along with the students and visitors (something that some big-hitting Italian towns are starting to lack). Equidistant from Florence and Rome, Perugia is easy-to-reach and a great introduction to Umbria.  

Lake Trasimeno 

Lago di Trasimeno, near Perugia, is the largest lake in central and southern Italy and a veritable natural paradise. A popular vacation place for Umbrians and Tuscans nearby, there are several charming towns along the lake to explore. 

Castiglione del Lago sits above the ruins of Etruscan tombs. Tour the castle, the medieval walls of Palazzo Ducale and the nearby Rocca del Leone fortress. Visit Città del Pieve to walk down the narrowest alleyway in all of Italy and see several works by Pietro Vannucci (also known as the Perugino) who was born there. Or, take a boat to tour the three islands on the lake. Maggiore Island is the only one still inhabited. The largest island on the lake, Polvese, is used as a public park. 

Assisi 

Photo by Valter Cirillo from Pixabay

Assisi is known the world over thanks to St. Francis of Assisi, the city’s patron saint and one of two patron saints for all of Italy. Pilgrims have been visiting the Basilica since its construction in the 13th-century to pay homage to the saint. The gorgeous St. Francis Basilica with upper and lower levels truly is worth a visit, but you don’t need to be religious to visit Assisi. One of the best-preserved medieval cities in all of Italy, the entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Most of the major sites to visit are churches in Assisi – a testament to the city’s deep religious history – but there is also the Rocca Maggiore atop the hill, with views of Perugia to the North, Assisi below and the surrounding valleys beyond. Try visiting the city during the Christmas season. St. Francis is considered the first person to create a live nativity scene and today you can find nativity scenes throughout the city, as well as a living nativity scene with town participants and actors.  

Montefalco

Often called the “balcony of Umbria” for its position and panorama (from here you can see to Perugia, Assisi and even Spoleto), Montefalco is most celebrated for its wine. Città di vino, this tiny town is the home of the celebrated Sagrantino red, a DOCG wine whose dark and dense wine is unique to Umbria. The area’s extra virgin olive oil is nearly just as prized, thanks to its fresh yet intense flavor.

Besides excellent wine, Montefalco also produced six saints over the centuries. The town itself starts from five different gates located at five different parishes. Five lanes climb up the hill until reaching the central piazza and the town’s highest point.

Gubbio  

Photo by Giacomo Zanni from Pixabay

Located in northeastern Umbria, Gubbio is a gorgeous Medieval town filled with lengthy stories and quirky traditions – like an annual race up a mountain carrying enormous wooden prisms that weigh anywhere from 600-700 pounds.  

Known as the Festa dei Ceri, the race is held every year in May to celebrate St. Ubaldo, the patron saint of Gubbio, as well as St. George and St. Anthony. Participants run from the main square in front of Palazzo dei Consoli to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo, on the top of the mountain, all while carrying a statue of their saint on an enormous wooden prism. Maybe that’s why Gubbio is traditionally called the “città dei matti,” or city of crazy people!

Both locations are sights to see, race or no race. The massive, 14th-century Palazzo dei Consoli towers over the central square, Piazza della Signoria, one of the most beautiful in Umbria. Then, be sure to take the funicular from the Porta Romana to the beautiful St. Ubaldo Basilica to see the planks for the famous Ceri race as well as some of the best views of the town. 

Foligno

Foligno was severely bombed in World War II and suffered a powerful earthquake in 1997. Since then, much of the city has been rebuilt and today it is an industrial and commercial center in Umbria.

Visit the two-faced Duomo, with an official facade opening to Piazza del Duomo and another, perhaps more interesting, facade facing south on Piazza della Reppublica and be sure to tour the Trinci Palace, but the real draw is the city’s atmosphere. With a modern appearance and an important commercial background, Foligno is an active, lively city with great shopping, restaurants and aperitif spots and, of course, wine!

Spoleto

Spoleto is a stunning sight framed by the Apennines. Founded by the Umbri, it was quickly taken over by the Romans who built one of the most popular sights of the city: an aqueduct that became the foundation for the Ponte Delle Torri. A huge medieval bridge sitting over a deep gorge, it’s awe-inspiring even today. There’s also a nearly completely intact Roman amphitheater. Later, Spoleto changed hands again, to the Lombards, but its beauty and strategic location ensured that the town flourished. 

Today, it is best known for its three-week summer festival, the Festival Dei Due Mondi, featuring events in opera, dance, music and art.

Spello 

One of the ancient gates that still exist in Spello, Umbria. Photo bychatst2 from Pixabay

Build on a slope of Monte Subasio, The village of Spello is circled by remarkably intact fortified Roman walls that seem to drape around the centro storico. Originally a Roman settlement, the walls are a testament of Spello’s strategic position along the road to Perugia, but the magnificent gates to the village are just as impressive. Head to the west side of town to see the Porta Venere, a gate flanked by a pair of 12-sided towers. The Renaissance artist Pinturicchio had the biggest artistic impact on the town. It’s here that he painted the Madonna in Trono e Santi, his masterpiece for the altar in St. Andrew’s, as well as the colorful frescoes in the Baglioni Chapel inside Santa Maria Maggiore. 

Small Spello is the Italian village you’ve dreamed about with winding streets, stone houses and beautifully decorated balconies. In fact, it’s these floral balconies that have helped Spello officially win the title as il borgo più bello d’Italiaor one of the most beautiful villages of Italy. Flowers are also the star in the Infiorata del Corpus Domini, without a doubt the village’s biggest event of the year. Every summer, various cities throughout all of Italy decorate their streets with elaborate designs made of flower petals. Spello carpets more than a kilometer of road with flowers for the event. 

Norcia 

Located in southeastern Umbria, Norcia is known for its fresh air and spectacular scenery. Sitting under the high peaks of Mount Sibillini, many use the town as a base for mountaineering, hiking and other outdoor sports. It is also a popular hunting zone, especially for wild boar.

Those looking for a more relaxing visit can enjoy the cuisine as Norcia is especially known for its high-quality cured pork products. Norcia’s pork butchers have become so accomplished that they’ve been given their own title. In Norcia it’s not a butcher, macellaio, but a norcinoWherever a norcino goes he can open up a norcineria to sell the Umbrian wild boar and pork products famous throughout Italy. Today a norcineria has become a synonym in Italy for a place that sells prestigious salumi. 

Orvieto 

Orvieto is a tiny town with an oversized appeal. First and foremost, there’s the town’s impressive 14th-century Duomo, with its gold-plated Italian Gothic façade. Besides the pleasant town streets, there’s also a 7 km path that circles the entire city, a double-helix well dug deep into the town’s tufa rock and a veritable city underground.  

Orvieto is built atop soft tufa rock made on an old volcano neck. Easy to dig, over the centuries the entire town has essentially been carved out into cellars and basements, offices, bomb shelters and pigeon breeding rooms. Today you can take a tour underground to visit just some of the approximately 1,200 various caves, tunnels and cisterns carved under the streets and buildings of Orvieto. Come while you can – nearly entirely hollowed out, the fate of the town is clear, just not the when!

What to Do

Umbria is filled with festivals. You can find food festivals, music festivals, sports events and more. From local, traditional events to international affairs, it seems there’s something to do year-round.  

Music aficionados will enjoy the Umbria Jazz Fest, held twice a year. Nearly a week-long event of jazz concerts and encounters, it’s held in Perugia in the summer and Orvieto in the winter.   

Perugia is also home to the annual EuroChocolate Festival (no wonder, with its roots in chocolate production) as well as the International Journalism Festival for journalists and media members.  

In Spoleto, you can find the Festival dei Due Mondi in June and July, when the city becomes the busiest town in central Italy. The festival is an immersion of music, dance, theater and literature in a picture-perfect setting. 

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Photo by crilaman from Pixabay

Nature-lovers can visit the Marmore Waterfalls near Terni; hike, cycle or horseback ride in the Monte Subasio Natural Park; or fish in Lake Trasimeno. The more adventurous can go on an excursion in an underground cave on Monte Cucco

Finally, deep-dive into the Umbrian culture with a traditional festival like the aforementioned Festival of the Ceri in Gubbio

What to Eat 

The food in Umbria is generally simple, rustic fare, but the high-quality pork from Norcia and the legendary black truffles of the area elevate the cuisine to something well-worth tasting. In fact, Norcia and its surroundings are perhaps the true birthplace of Umbrian cuisine, but the fish-based meals from Lake Trasimeno offer something different to the rich dishes of the land-locked country.  

Remember, Italian food is entirely regional. So when in Umbria, here’s what to eat:  

Zuppa

A classic minestrone (vegetable soup) with the addition of farroa local grain. Soups in general are popular in Umbria, especially with legumes and beans like the fagiolina from Trasimeno, lentils or chickpeas.  

Black Truffle 

The prized black truffle of Umbria is a must-try while in the region. With a strong, earthy taste, these delicacies are hometown heroes. Choosy about where they grow and difficult to find, they’re perhaps the most sought-after delicacy in Europe and they grow naturally in the Umbrian countryside! More abundant here than anywhere else in Italy, black truffles are integral to Umbrian cuisine. Try them shaved fresh on top of homemade pasta, eggs or risotto.  

Go on an authentic, private truffle hunt in the countryside of Umbria with a local truffle hunter and his trained dog. Then follow your outing with a truffle tasting (along with pasta, bruschette and wine) on a private Ciao Andiamo tour. 

Pasta alla Norcina 

Pasta made with a black truffle sauce with anchovies or else with sausage and cream. Be sure to ask which sauce you’ll have before ordering as both dishes go by the same name. 

Strangozzi  

A long, curved pasta strand, this pasta gets its name in a rather unique way. When Spoleto was under the papal rule the citizens who didn’t pay their taxes were given fines by esattari, or collectors, sent from the pope. Angry, they often plotted to strangle these collectors with a long leather cord called a strangozzo and supposedly that’s how the similarly-shaped pasta got its name.  

Norcino 

Photo by GBSurf from Pixabay

The cured pork from Norcia, known as norcinois so delicious that it’s worth mentioning twice…or even more. You can enjoy the norcino in a ragù, but perhaps the best way to really appreciate the meat is with an appetizer plate or in a simple sandwich. Two favorites to try are guanciale (for pasta dishes) and coppa for sandwiches.    

Polombacci 

This is wild pigeon, sometimes served with grapes or a sauce called la ghiotta, meaning the gluttonous, made with cooking juices, olive oil, vinegar, anchovies, olives, lemon, safe, salt and pepper. In a fight with the Vatican, Orvieto was completely surrounded and cut off from the outside world. To survive, the town dug a well for water (the famous double helix well) and bred pigeons, the only animal that could fly off to feed itself and return to roost, and the meat has been on menus ever since.  

Anguilla and perch  

Eel from Lake Trasimeno served grilled or braised in wine, tomatoes, onion and garlic. Try also fish stock, risotto with fish or freshly grilled perch fillets. Every year in September the area hosts the festival of fish. Said to have the largest frying pan in the world, they fry up to two tons of fish per hour. If you’re not there during the festival, try tegamaccio, a stew of carp, pike, trout and other fish straight from the lake.  

Sagrantino Wine

When in Italy, drink as the Italians do – with delicious, local wines. In the hills around Montefalco the celebrated Sagrantino wine is made. There are two different Montefalco Sagrantino’s with DOCG status: the Montefalco Sagrantino Secco, a dry wine, and the Montefalco Sagrantino Passito, a sweet, dessert wine. The Secco is aged for at least 30 months, 12 of which are in oak barrels, producing a rich, full-bodied red with high tannin levels. It pairs perfectly with meat, game or with the regions infamous black truffle! 

Perugina chocolate 

Photo by timothy green from Pixabay

Perugia is famous for its chocolate production and home of the Perugina chocolate factory. Travelers to the city can tour the factory, but anyone can enjoy a decadent Perugina chocolate. Similar in idea to the American Hershey Kiss, a Baci Perugina is made slightly richer with the addition of hazelnut and wrapped in notable silver and blue wrapping, each with a romantic message tucked inside.  

In general when eating in Umbria you want to look for specific ingredients rather than specific dishes, such as black truffle, sheep cheese, lentils (those from Castelluccio are considered the best in all of Italy), mushrooms and farro, an ancient but popular local grain. 

How to Get There and Around 

Get there fast, then take it slow. Photo byMarco Pomella from Pixabay

The closest airports to Umbria are Rome, Pisa, and Florence. Perugia also has a small airport with flights coming from other parts of Italy and Europe.  

It is easy to take a train from Rome or Florence to major cities in Umbria such as Perugia or Orvieto. Unfortunately moving from town to town in Umbria by public transport is a bit more complicated.

Though there are trains, they only connect between major cities and sometimes you’ll have to change trains multiple times.  

The absolute best way to get around Umbria is with a private car. With a private driver it’s easier to take in the beauty of Umbria: the winding roads, country scenery and improbable Umbrian towns. Or, let us take care of the transportation for you!

Wine-taste in Montefalco, cook in an agriturismo in Assisi, tour the medieval town of Spoleto and get a pizza inside the ancient Roman walls of Spello on our Food, Wine and the Rolling Hills trip in Umbria and Tuscany!

 

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How about visiting a region with wild mountain landscapes, ancient stone towns and miles and miles of beaches, all without the tourist crowds?

Tucked between the rolling hills of Tuscany, the green heart of Umbria and the twinkling Adriatic Sea, Le Marche is the place for you. The region is warm, inviting and nearly unknown to international visitors.

 

Le Marche sits between the Appenines and the Adriatic Coast, and has all the beauty of each! Photo by Eirien
Overlooked by its neighbors to the west, Le Marche is a region all its own, with a unique landscape, history and cuisine. Slow down and follow winding country roads past wildflower fields, from Renaissance towns to sparkling white beaches. Less crowded and less expensive than most of Italy, here you can enjoy small-town Italy in the true Italian countryside and beaches that still feel untrammeled. 
Le Marche is slow-travel, authentic Italy at its finest! 

Where to Go 

The landscape of Le Marche is split between the tiny Medieval hilltop towns dotted among the Appenines, Italy’s mountain range that runs the country like a spinal cord, and the old seaside resorts found along the region’s more than 100 miles of coastline. Where you go depends on what you prefer. The region’s charm is in its variety!

Urbino

Urbino, Le Marche
Photo by Luca Boldrini
A brick hilltown, Urbino’s the most famed and historic of Le Marche’s towns. It was Raphael’s hometown and a booming destination in the 15th century. Ruled for years by Duke Federico da Montefeltro, its his palace that dominates the town. The town flourished under his rule in the 15th century, becoming a sort of ground zero for artists, scholars and veritable Renaissance-men in that time. Today the city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Palazzo Ducale houses a Renaissance art museum with work by Piero della Francesca, Uccello and Raphael. 
The past would be it for Urbino if it weren’t for the university located there, saving the town from being frozen in time and bringing life to the tiny city center. 

Pesaro

Le Marche, Italy
Photo by Peter Leth
A big-hitter in northern Le Marche, Pesaro is a favorite among families and European travelers for its wide, sandy beaches. The biggest draw is definitely the beach, but the centro storico still deserves some exploration. A popular resort town, it’s nevertheless smaller and less chaotic than Rimini, 25 miles up the same stretch of coast.

Macerata

Macerata is a slow-paced university town located in Le Marche’s sparsely populated interior. Built of soft pale brick, much of the town and surrounding area was destroyed in the 2016 earthquake. Though signs of the devastation are still visible, the town’s famed annual opera event is still on. Macerata is home to the Arena Sferisterio, a Roman open-air opera theater that rivals that of Verona. Travelers can enjoy the operas hosted there throughout July and August. 

Loreto

Loreto is known throughout as the current home of the Holy House of Loreto, the house of the Virgin Mary. Originally in Nazareth, this is said to be the home where Mary lived, conceived and raised Jesus. How it got to Loreto depends on who you ask — Catholic tradition has it that angels miraculously brought the house to Loreto to save it from invasions, whereas historians cite an aristocratic family with the last name Angelo as the patrons of the house’s move. Today, the house is inside a massive basilica in the small town of Loreto and millions of spiritual pilgrims come to visit it every year.  

Ancona

Ancona, Le Marche, Italy
The port of Ancona. Photo by Enrico Matteucci
This coastal city knows its share of strife: bombed repeatedly during WWII, the region’s earthquakes have shaken loose what was left. Ancona has the classic feel of a port town, a bit gritty, a bit transient (ferries from Croatia, Albania and Greece come and go) but it’s worth visiting for its history alone. 
Ancona was founded as a port-city, when the ancient Greeks opened an outpost there from Syracuse, Sicily. You can still see the second-century Trajan’s Arch in the port and it was a major hub during the Crusades in the Middle Ages.
Today Ancona is still a convenient transportation hub for the region, though now for cargo and tourists. The Falconara airport is just 10 km from the city, there are also regular ferries and decent train connections to much of Le Marche, but otherwise the city is worth just a quick tour to research the region’s maritime history.  

Ascoli Piceno

Struck by the devastating earthquake in 2016, Le Marche’s second most important city is happily up and running again, and still a hidden treasure of the region. The small center is surrounded by walls but filled with grand architecture and one of the most beautiful piazze in Italy, Piazza del Popolo. Built in the city’s classic white travertine stone, the piazza feels like the living room of kings, and has more or less functioned as one since Roman times. Stop at a charming sidewalk cafè and enjoy the view.

Conero Riviera

Portonovo, Le Marche
Photo by Antonio Castagna

Just south of Ancona is perhaps the best coastline of Le Marche. Here you’ll find tiny pebble beaches and dramatic limestone cliffs plunging into the sea, like the namesake Monte Conero. Portonovo, Sirolo and Numana are favored beaches, but all the seaside villages have beach resorts and a laid-back charm. Beyond the beach, explore the walking trails that crisscross the nearly 700 square foot Parco Regionale del Conero. 

San Marino

San Marino is actually an independent nation-state located inside of Italy, but it deserves a mention as a unique side trip for travelers in le Marche. At roughly 700 square feet, San Marino is a bit of a political oddity. It is the fifth-smallest country, the world’s oldest surviving sovereign state and its oldest republic. Born out of Italy’s nation-state history, its capital city is also UNESCO World Heritage Site!

Get Outside

Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini

monti sibillini national park le marche italy
The Monti Sibillini Park in the Appenines is an ideal destination for nature-lovers. Photo by Steve Slater
Probably the most beautiful stretch of the central Appenines, the rugged Monti Sibillini Park spreads across roughly 173,000 acres of the Marche-Umbrian Border. Hiking and mountain biking are the two biggest draws to this beautiful and wild national park. There are a ton of paths, but those looking for a real adventure can try the Grande Anello dei Sibillini (The Great Sibylline Ring), a nine-day, 75-mile loop through the park. You can base yourself in one of the villages in the Sibillini foothills to explore the park, but its best to have your own transportation. 

Frassasi Caves

Le Grotte di Frasassi is the largest karst cave system in Europe. Visitable with a guide only, you’ll tour caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites, as well as the Ancona Abyss, a room so large that Milan’s Duomo (the world’s largest Gothic cathedral) could fit inside. You’ll also visit a crystallized lake, a Grand Canyon, and a room filled with formations that resemble candles. It’s the perfect way to really get in touch with the region’s outdoors, even if you’re technically underground.

What to Eat 

Le Marche’s food is enriched by its landscape: with mountains, hills and the seaside, its deeply traditional cuisine is rich and varied. The region’s rural background is reflected in the food with simple grilled meats, game such as rabbit and duck and solid fish soups along the coast. The region produces wines that hold their own against Tuscan vineyards and uses the celebrated black truffle of central Italy in many of its most popular dishes.

Olive Ascolane

From Ascoli Piceno, these green olives are pitted, stuffed with a filling of meat and cheese then breaded and fried to perfection. Served as an appetizer or a snack, you can get them from street vendors to eat on the go as well. 
Le marche food
Any meat you choose is grilled over a wood-fire grill (often olive tree), giving it a smokey flavor with the tangy sweet smell of olives. Photo by Pug Girl (flickr)

Cured Meats

In a region known for its pork and other grazing meats, you can expect some excellent salumi. Try the ciauscolo, a pork-based spread, or the delicious and protected prosciutto di Carpegna (DOP).

Brodetto di Pesce

Throughout the region you’ll find fish soup on the menu, but be careful, the recipe various from town to town. Perhaps the most known is Ascoli’s fish soup, flavored with saffron. Others include Pesaro and Ancona’s red fish soup, made with tomatoes. Either way, expect nearly 14 different fish in your brodetto and a ton of flavor. 

Vincigrassi

This epic lasagna is made with dozens of layers of the soft noodle and a meat sauce made from veal, chicken liver or other offal, cheese and a classic béchamel sauce. Though you can find it throughou the region, the town of Macerata is most noted for a simple vincigrassi

Rosso Piceno and Rosso Conaro

wine in le marche
Though most think of Tuscan vineyards, Le Marche is full of vineyards growing famous reds and whites. Photo by Steve Slater
Two of the region’s most famous reds, these are rarely known outside of Italy. The Rosso Piceno from the Ascoli Piceno area is fruity red wine made from a blend of local Sangiovese and Montepulciano grapes. While the Rosso Conaro is a full-bodied red grown along its namesake peninsula made from the same Montepulciano grape as Chianti. 

Verdicchio

A region with seafood as well as game needs a solid white wine as well, and Le Marche has it. Verdicchio gets its name from the green-gold color of this white wine, perfect with fish and the various fritti misti of the region. 

How to Get There

Photo by Luca Boldrini
By far the best way to get around Le Marche is by car, and it’s the only way if you want to visit some of Le Marche’s smallest towns and parks. The A14 highway runs from Bologna to Taranto and follows all of Le Marche’s coastline. From there take state routes inland to visit Le Marche’s hill towns. 
For those not up for the drive, there is a railway that runs between Milan and Lecce, Puglia, but it’s only stop in Le Marche is Ancona as well as an airport and port in Ancona. 

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What if you could explore Italy without the stress of reservations, tickets or travel planning? What if you had an automatic “in” to the culture, people and language?

A small group tour is one of the best ways to really get to know Italy.

small group tour

On our small group tours you explore Italy with a local Italian guide and a group of eight people or fewer, visiting the kitchens, homes and family businesses of real Italians. Each experience is authentic, off-the-beaten-path and carefully curated by a dedicated tour leader. We like to say our small group tours give travelers the greatest insider access at the greatest value.

But it’s not just us who think so – we asked our clients to share what they loved about their small group tour experience. Each traveler’s story was different, but the same five themes kept coming up again and again.

Here’s why you should choose a small group tour:

1. Small Groups are Fun and Friendly

Our small group tours are capped at eight travelers total. “When they say ‘small group,’ they mean small,” said fellow traveler Sarah. And there’s nothing like traveling together to spark friendship. Linda said her group touring the Amalfi Coast and Puglia was “the envy of other travelers, even Italians! We bonded with our fellow travelers immediately and laughed almost all the time that we weren’t eating.” Other travelers, including Svetlana, ended up liking their group so much, they traveled together again the following year!

2. Travel Like a Local, With a Local

Traveler Lindsay put it perfectly when she said Ciao Andiamo co-owner Max Brunelli “knows everyone in Italy.” As the leader for many of our small group tours, Max builds lasting relationships not only with the travelers, but with the local olive oil producers, cheese makers and guides. Sarah said the welcome her group received at each of their tour stops was “indescribable,” and the whole group was “made to feel like old friends” by the winery owners and chefs they visited on her tour of Umbria and Tuscany. Your tour leader isn’t just showing you Italy, they’re welcoming you into their way of life and giving you an inside-look into the lives of fellow Italians.

3. Deep Dive into the Culture

enjoying a cooking class on a small group tour

If you’re looking for an authentic, one-of-a-kind experience in Italy, small group tours are a great way to go. Your tour leader will take you off the beaten path to destinations you wouldn’t find on your own. “We felt like we were living like true Italians,” Meghan said, and Sarah enjoyed that there were few tourists or buses at their tour stops.

Some of our travelers favorite experiences include hands-on cooking classes led by local Italian chefs. In the town of Alberobello in Puglia, an Italian nonna will teach you to recreate recipes passed down by her family for generations inside a historic trullo home.

A cooking class in Umbria takes you inside one of the region’s first agriturismi (farmhouse restaurants), tucked in the hills between Spello and Assisi, where you’ll join the owner in preparing regional delicacies. In each room of the agriturismo, you’ll learn to make a different course, with the help of friendly chefs and local wine. Make pasta by hand, bake bread in a wood-burning stone oven and use fresh produce from the farm to complement your courses. You’ll experience the romance of country life as you feast on your artisanal creations in a rustic dining room with your newly-formed friends. 

4. Stress-Free Travel

All Ciao Andiamo trips are designed to give you a seamless experience, but small group tours take it a step further with a dedicated tour leader who is on-hand from the moment your tour begins. Your tour leader is there to take care of every detail – transportation, hotels, food and experiences – and give the group flexibility to enjoy each day to the fullest. Beyond being flexible, your tour leader will also spend time getting to know the group and can adjust the day’s activities based on your interests and preferred level of activity. Their goal is to give you the best day possible, every day of your trip.

As Svetlana says, “all we had to do is show up. From the time we  arrived, each day was seamlessly organized, full of surprises, incredible journeys, AMAZING FOOD!, well orchestrated schedules, and provided good balance of personal time and guided excursions through the unique hidden treasures of Italy.”

Our small group tours include accommodations, ground transportation throughout, daily culinary and/or cultural excursions, two meals per day (breakfast plus lunch or dinner) and pick-up/drop-off in a major city.

5. Travel Without Sacrificing Free Time

In addition to daily excursions, your group will have plenty of down time to relax or explore on your own – it’s your vacation! Elaine fondly remembers how Max “arranged free time for us to wander in quaint seaside towns” on her tour of the Amalfi Coast and Puglia, and gave the group “plenty of time to enjoy feasts overlooking breath-taking scenery with the backdrop of a beautiful sunset.”

small group tours

Ciao Andiamo’s Small Group Tours:

Now that you’re in love with the idea of a small group tour, check out the incredible experiences we have to offer!

Explore the beautiful regions of Tuscany and Umbria on a tour of Food, Wine & the Rolling Hills. You’ll taste wine in Montefalco and Montalcino, learn to cook with a hands-on class and tour charming hilltop towns, including Cortona (of “Under the Tuscan Sun” fame) and the medieval settings of Pienza and Spoleto.

For a visit to the Amalfi Coast and Puglia, join our tour of Southern Italy: Coast to Coast, where you’ll visit the unique city of Matera (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), take a cooking class inside a trullo home, visit the island of Capri, tour the ruins of Pompeii and more.

On our tour of Essential Tuscany, you’ll stay in the iconic Tuscan cities of Florence, Siena and Lucca, visit the marble quarries of Carrara, view the leaning tower of Pisa and explore the walled city of San Gimignano. Learn to cook in a winery in the Tuscan countryside, enjoy a cheese-making demonstration in Pienza and, of course, taste wine along the way. Winter travelers can also enjoy the region’s festive atmosphere on a special Tuscany for the Holidays tour.

Foodies will love Cooking in Italy’s Green Heart, with daily hands-on culinary experiences in the lush Umbrian countryside. Make pizza in a medieval village, craft pasta and gnocchi by hand, tour a cheese farm and create your own delicious gelato.  – all paired with delicious local wines.

Taste your way through Emilia-Romagna and relax on the Italian Riviera on a tour of Italy’s Finest: Cuisine to Coast. Balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto di Parma are all on the menu, and you’ll visit the iconic coastal villages of the Cinque Terre.

And, since your tour will start and end in a major city, it’s easy to add more traveling on your own before or after your tour. Some travelers, like Sarah, include a small group tour as just one leg of a longer trip. Ask the Ciao team for a recommendation for making the most of your time in Italy, we’re happy to help!

Don’t see a date that matches your vacation schedule? It never hurts to ask! New dates may open up, or we can recommend another trip based on your interests. If you already have a group of travelers, you can also ask us how to the trip private.

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My first visit to Sardinia felt like a dream. I was only 10 years old and visiting my cousins in the capital city of Cagliari. Their house was right on the beach, and my young cousins caught fish along the shore. The colors of the island are still vivid in my mind, the turquoise water against the white sand dunes. Ever since that first visit, my family returned every year to find the same unspoiled views.

Explore an Island of Myths & Culture

Sardinia is located in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. Like Sicily, the other major Italian island, the culture and history of Sardinia are very different from mainland Italy. Sardinia’s past is rich with legends and mythology, starting with the Nuragic civilization, which inhabited the island during the Bronze Age. Nuragic relics remain preserved on the island to this day, including distinct circular towers called Nuraghi and huge granite tombe dei giganti (giants’ tombs).

Due in part to its remote location, Sardinia feels like its own continent with unique traditions. Even the language is distinct – a dialect unfamiliar to mainland Italians. Sardinians celebrate their heritage with folk festivals and celebrations. Hundreds of Sardinians gather every May for two major cultural events, Cagliari Sant’Efisio Festival (May 1 in Cagliari) and Sardinian Cavalcade of Sassari (late May in Sassari). At these festivals, which each last several days, people from across Sardinia celebrate their culture with parades, horseback riding, traditional clothing and, of course, food.

Enjoy the Best of Mountains & Sea

Sardinia’s landscape is also unique. Sheep roam across the heart of the island, which is made up of rugged plateaus, plains and mountains. Centuries of strong winds and rains created a rugged coastline featuring amazing natural rock formations. Most famous of these formations is the Capo d’Orso, which resembles a bear sitting atop a hillside in Palau. From the Northern coast, you can also visit the Maddalena Archipelago, a national geo-marine park with an uncontaminated, paradisal feel.

The combination of coastline and mountains also lend themselves to an extraordinary food culture in Sardinia dominated by equally delicious seafood and meat. The sea yields fresh tuna, swordfish, mussels, prawns and sea bass, while the mountain cuisine features suckling pig, goat, beef, pork, rabbit and more. Both fish and meat are served with vegetables, local herbs and homemade pasta. Sardinia’s olive trees deliver a distinctly flavored olive oil that is fruity and slightly spicy. Wine drinkers will delight in the red Cannonau di Sardegna, the most famous producer being Sella & Mosca, and the white Vermentino, which pairs perfectly with fish.

Bask in Sunshine on the Emerald Coast

While parts of the island feels unspoiled and unexplored, the past fifty years have seen the Emerald Coast, Costa Smeralda,  become a hotspot for celebrities and European tourists. The popularity is well-deserved, as the Emerald Coast boasts white sand beaches and transparent water. Wild herbs such as thyme, rosemary and oregano fill in the air with their perfume, and the local dishes feature the region’s bright and delicious saffron. The Emerald Coast is also home to the Porto Cervo Wine Festival (May) and Food Festival (September).

Adventure Through Sardinia’s Great Outdoors

Adventurous travelers will delight in the possibilities afforded by both Sardinia’s mountains and the sea. Hike along picturesque coastal trails, bike down the inland mountains or climb the island’s sheer cliffs. Dive below the brilliant blue waves of the Mediterranean, kayak through pristine bays or kite surf across the waves.

What to Know Before You Go

Summer is undeniably a great time to visit, when you can enjoy a refreshing swim in the Mediterranean on a sunny day, though the Spring and early Autumn are also beautiful. In May, early June or September, visitors can enjoy all that Sardinia has to offer, minus the crowds.

Sardinia offers a range of beautiful accommodations, including both romantic and family-friendly options. Most high-end coastal hotels will have beach access with sun beds and umbrellas, and there are several quality spas.

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Planning a getaway to Italy? Whether it’s your first time to the bel paese or you’re a travel veteran, here are some pro tips to help you feel right at home in Italia.

1. Buongiorno Will Only Get You So Far (in the Day)

Your guidebook may have told you that boungiorno means “hello,” but Italians use it to mean “good morning.” Switch to buonasera (good evening) in the mid-afternoon, or, if you’re feeling ambitious, use buon pomeriggio to wish someone a good afternoonOnly say buona notte (good night) at the end of the night, when it’s time for bed!

2. Lunch and Siesta Like an Italian

Lunch is traditionally the biggest meal of the day, and an important social occasion when families get together. Meal times can vary by region; the further south you go, the later lunch typically begins. As a rule of thumb, restaurants won’t open for lunch before 12:30 pm, or 7:30 pm for dinner. Shops typically close between 1-4pm for siesta, especially in smaller, less touristic towns, so make like a local and relax after a big meal.

3. Say Arrivederci to Spaghetti and Meatballs

You won’t find spaghetti and meatballs or fettucine alfredo on any true Italian menu! Embrace la cucina Italiana and try some of the local cuisine, which can vary across the country. Each region features dishes that highlight its own local ingredients and unique cooking styles. In Rome, you’ll find cacio e pepe, pasta with pecorino cheese and peppercorns, and carciofi alla roman, Roman-style artichokes. Milan is famous for its risotto, and Tuscan cuisine features bistecca fiorentina, Florentine steak, and simple dishes like panzanella, bread salad.

4. When in Rome, Do as Romans Do

If you are seeking an experience that is authentic and off-the-beaten-path, look no further than the local Italian favorites. Some of the most authentic Italian jaunts may appear simple and nothing special from the outside, but they make for some of the richest and most delicious dining experiences you can find. These places are often unassuming and removed from the most heavily toured sites. For instance, if you want an authentic dining experience in Venice, you shouldn’t eat right in Piazza di San Marco. Be adventurous, and embrace the real local culture!

5. Visit the ‘Bar’ Morning, Noon and Night

In Italy, ‘bar’ has a different meaning – it’s a place where you can go to get a caffé (espresso) or cappuccino, or perhaps a little pastry or sandwich. Italians stand at the counter just long enough to drink an espresso and chat with the barista before heading on their way (for more, read our tips for navigating an Italian coffee bar). Italians often visit their favorite bar multiple times a day for a little caffeine boost, so be sure to taste your way through the menu of espresso options

6. Take a Break From Brunch

Italian breakfast is typically a lighter meal, with maybe some cereal and yogurt or toast with nutella or jam. If you are eating in a hotel, you can enjoy a buffet with these options and some cheeses and sliced meats. If you venture out to a coffee bar, order a cappuccino or espresso and pastry with chocolate, jam, or cream. Italians only really drink cappuccino in the morning, and never after lunch or dinner.

7. Take It Slow at the Table

In Italy, there is a standard order of Italian courses (antipasti, primi, secondi and contorni, dessert and espresso). You don’t have to eat a full 4-course meal every time, but this is the order in which they serve the different dishes. Primi are ‘first courses’: a pasta, soup or rice dish. Secondi are ‘second courses,’ being meat, fish or poultry. When dining, waiters typically won’t check on a table very frequently, as it is custom to let diners linger and enjoy pauses between courses without being disturbed. Instead, if you need your waiter, flag them down. Dining in Italy is a social experience, so take your time soaking in the amazing food and wine with family and friends!

8. Tip (or Don’t Tip) Like an Italian

If you come from a tipping culture, it can be tough to get used to the idea of not leaving tips for waiters, taxi drivers, and hotel service. But Italians do not tip. In a restaurant, locals will often leave nothing at all, or at most 2-5 Euro, regardless of the bill. If you can’t help yourself, a good rule of thumb is to leave the change from your bill or at most 5-10%.

9. Master Public Transportation

When riding the bus or train, don’t forget to get your ticket stamped before getting on board. Look for the little yellow machines at the train terminals or on the bus, where you can stick your ticket in to get it validated. In some places, like Venice, when riding on the public water taxi, tickets are electronic, and you can hold your ticket up to the machine for it to scan.

10. Get Behind the Wheel

Driving from town to town in the countryside or on the highway is often manageable, with easy-to-follow signs pointing the way towards different destinations. However, the arrival and departure from big cities can be harder to manage and very stressful, especially in cities like Rome where there are no rules, and lots of vespas weaving in and out of traffic aggressively. Don’t be intimidated by Italians’ reputation as aggressive drivers. Driving beyond the major cities and towns is sometimes the best way to discover the real Italy – all the local favorites and hidden gems Italia has to offer!

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Summer may seem like the obvious choice for vacation, and more travelers are embracing the shoulder season, but we’d like to make a case for the off-season: Italy in December. With its festive atmosphere and mild weather, the holiday season can be the best time to experience Italy.

Here are five reasons to add a December vacation to your wish list:

1. Festive Lights & Open Air Markets

December marks the season when cities and small villages throughout Italy shine brightly with Christmas lights. Locals flock to open air markets to buy holiday gifts and enjoy December nights with friends and family. Not only is it simply beautiful, it’s also a unique way to take part in the Italian experience.

Christmas lights and massive trees add to the festive atmosphere of December in Italy
Christmas lights and massive trees add to the festive atmosphere of December in Italy

2. Plenty to Do Outdoors

Italians spend the winter hiding inside. Besides the wonderful Christmas markets to explore, you’ll find outdoor ice rinks set up in most major cities during the holiday season – and they’re not just for the tourists! The rinks are filled with families, teenagers, and children enjoying the holiday cheer and a festive way to ward off the winter chill. If you’re not feeling up to lacing up your own skates, you can grab a cappuccino at a nearby cafe and people watch to your hearts desire. Cafés in Italy will often have outdoor tables available throughout the winter, with heat lamps, fires or even blankets to keep guests warm. Do like the locals do and find one during the day to soak in every ray of sun available. Beyond that you can ski in the mountains, go snow-shoe hiking, window shop and generally enjoy your time outside, no need to hide!

3. Sweet Treats Galore

In December, stores and markets throughout Italy are stocked with traditional Italian dessert breads – panettone and pandoro. Both are sweet yeast breads found only during this time of year. Pandoro, traditionally from Verona, means bread of gold and was a staple on the tables of the rich Venetians during Christmastime. Today it’s a Christmas classic for all Italians. 

Panettone is the Lombard answer. A tall loaf, panettone is filled with dried fruit and candied citrus and is a Milanese tradition. Of course at any Christmas market you can find a wealth of sweet treats, but it isn’t Christmas in Italy without one of these traditional sweet breads!

A shop window shoes row after row of traditional Italian panettone
You can only find this delicious Italian sweet bread in December.

4. The Weather is Just Right

Sure, you might need to pack a winter coat and scarf, but Italy in December is actually quite moderate and for many preferable than the scorching summer for touring. Temperatures in the north range from 25 – 45 degrees Fahrenheit (though the mountains have their own microclimate) while the south easily enjoys an average of 50 degrees and in Sicily it may get as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit in December. January and February run colder and November rainier, but December is a sweet small in-between. 

5. It’s Italy Without The Crowds

Plain and simple: December may be the best time to visit some of Italy’s most popular and heavily touristed destinations such as Venice or the Italian Riviera. Imagine all the picture-perfect beauty of Italy, but without the crowds and selfie sticks. It’s a whole different experience to stroll through the enchanted city’s winding side streets, walk through Piazza San Marco and overlook bridges and canals or hike one of the famed Cinque Terre trails when it feels like you have all of the city to yourself. 

The port in Camogli Italy
December in Italy means having small towns like Camogli all to yourself

Ready to experience the magic of Italia for yourself? Contact us to begin planning!

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