If you’ve visited Italy’s top cities or you just want to get away from the top tourist sites, here are 5 of my favorite smaller cities. While they can be visited as day trips, they are great places to spend a few days taking in local life, strolling through the center, and sitting in a square for your coffee or apertivo (often without an extra service charge). These cities can be reached by train but also have parking near the historic center (where traffic is restricted) for those arriving by car.
Aosta is in a beautiful setting in the mountainous Aosta Valley, Italy’s smallest region, near Monte Bianco and the French border. Aosta has a huge central piazza, lots of Roman remains, medieval buildings, a main pedestrian street lined with shops, and plenty of cafes. You can take a cable car up the mountain to Pila for skiing, summer hiking and views. Several castles are nearby.
Bassano del Grappa, named for nearby Monte Grappa, is a pretty medieval town to the northwest of Venice in northern Italy’s Veneto region. Bassano del Grappa is known for grappa distilleries, ceramics, and the Alpini Bridge, a wooden bridge crossing the Brenta River that was designed by Renaissance architect Palladio. In town are an 18th century astronomical clock, lively squares, 12th – 16th century churches and palaces, and a tree-lined street with views of Monte Grappa.
Sulmona, a gem in central Italy’s Abruzzo region, makes a great place to discover the region’s food and culture. Piazza Garibaldi, the large main square that sits below a 12th century aqueduct, is a great place for a drink and people watching, especially when the square becomes a big marketplace on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Corso Ovido, the main street, is a great place to stroll, do a little shopping, and see the Baroque Church of Saint Annunziata. Set in a picturesque position below the mountains, Sulmona is near places of natural beauty and picturesque small towns that can be visited as day trips.
Ascoli Piceno, in the southern part of central Italy’s Marche region, is a beautiful town enclosed by rivers. Ascoli Piceno has one of Italy’s prettiest main squares and a good historic center. La Quintana, held the first Sunday in August, is a medieval jousting tournament and big parade that’s one of the best medieval festivals in the Marche. You can visit pretty villages near the city or hike in the mountains.
Lecce is a city filled with Baroque monuments in the southern Italian Puglia region. It’s the gateway to the Salento Peninsula, the heel of the boot. Lecce’s historic center has several good Baroque monuments, museums, and even Roman ruins.The city is a center for traditional paper mache crafts, cartapesta, which you’ll see in many shops along the main street.