Finding the Best Small Town in Northern Italy


Northern Italy isn’t just about Rome or Venice.  As a seasoned traveler (and lover of all things Italian), I’ve stumbled upon countless charming small towns, each a hidden gem in its own right. There’s magic to these places, far away from the tourist crowds.

Forget about finding the single best small town in Northern Italy.  Instead, let’s discover the perfect town for YOU.  From fairytale-like villages tucked into rolling hills to vibrant art hubs and vineyards overflowing with the best wine you’ve ever tasted, Northern Italy has a town for every kind of adventurer.

Matching your interests with a dream town

For the history buff

Northern Italy is a treasure trove for history enthusiasts, with charming small towns that whisper stories of bygone eras. Here are a few of my favorites that will transport you back in time:

Soave: a fairytale walled town

Picture this: a medieval castle perched atop a hill, surrounded by vineyards and a perfectly preserved walled town. That’s Soave for you. I felt like I’d stepped into a storybook the moment I arrived.

  • Must-See: The Soave Castle is the star of the show, offering stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Explore its courtyards, towers, and ramparts for a glimpse into medieval life. Don’t miss the town’s well-preserved walls and gates, which date back to the 14th century.
  • Tip: Time your visit for the annual Soave Medieval Festival in June, a colorful celebration of history with parades, jousting, and traditional crafts. It’s an absolute blast!

Bardi: a hilltop town with a storied past

Bardi, nestled in the hills of Emilia-Romagna, is another favorite of mine. The imposing Bardi Castle dominates the skyline, and the historic center is a maze of narrow streets and charming squares.

  • Explore: The castle is a must-visit. It’s one of the best-preserved medieval fortresses in Italy, with a museum showcasing artifacts and armor from its long history. Wander through the town’s old quarter, where you’ll find churches, palaces, and quaint shops.
  • Local Treat: Bardi is known for its Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, produced in the surrounding area. Visit a local dairy farm to see how it’s made and sample some of the freshest cheese you’ll ever taste.

Orvieto: an etruscan cave city 

Orvieto is a unique and fascinating town built atop an ancient Etruscan cave city. It’s a place where history and modern life seamlessly blend.

  • Underground Adventure: Venture beneath Orvieto to explore the intricate network of Etruscan caves. You’ll find ancient wells, tunnels, and even underground olive presses. It’s a truly unforgettable experience.
  • Above Ground: Don’t miss the majestic Orvieto Cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Its facade is a dazzling display of mosaics and sculptures. The town also has a lively atmosphere, with shops, cafes, and restaurants lining its charming streets.
  • Travel Tip: Orvieto is easily accessible by train from Rome or Florence, making it a great day trip option.

These are just a few of the many historically rich small towns waiting to be discovered in Northern Italy. Whether you’re exploring ancient ruins, wandering through medieval streets, or learning about local traditions, each town offers a unique journey through time.

Insider Tip: Many small towns have local guides who offer walking tours or themed excursions. These are a great way to delve deeper into the history and culture of the place. Ask at the local tourist office or your accommodation for recommendations.


For the art lover

If you’re an art enthusiast like me, you’ll find Northern Italy’s small towns to be inspiring havens of creativity. Here are a few that have captured my artistic heart:

Treviso: a medieval town with artistic flair

Treviso is a hidden gem that often gets overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, Venice. But this charming town has its own unique artistic charm, with medieval architecture, tranquil canals, and a vibrant art scene.

  • Stroll and Admire: Lose yourself in Treviso’s picturesque historic center. Wander along the canals, admire the frescoed houses, and soak up the artistic atmosphere.
  • Artistic Encounters: Keep an eye out for street art and small galleries tucked away in unexpected corners. You never know what creative treasures you might stumble upon.
  • Tip: Treviso is known for its radicchio, a slightly bitter leafy vegetable. Try it in a salad or risotto at one of the many traditional restaurants. It’s a taste of the local culture!

Urbino: Raphael’s birthplace and an artistic haven

Urbino, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a Renaissance masterpiece. It’s the birthplace of the renowned painter Raphael, and its historic center is a showcase of stunning architecture and artistic treasures.

  • Palazzo Ducale: This grand palace is now home to the National Gallery of the Marche, which houses an impressive collection of Renaissance art, including works by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, and Titian. It’s a must-visit for any art lover.
  • Raphael’s House: Explore the house where Raphael was born and spent his early years. It’s now a museum dedicated to his life and work.
  • Art and Culture: Urbino is also home to a vibrant university, which contributes to its lively cultural scene. There are often art exhibitions, concerts, and other cultural events happening throughout the year.

Bassano del Grappa: museums and ceramic delights

Bassano del Grappa is a picturesque town nestled at the foot of the Alps, famous for its grappa distilleries and its long tradition of ceramic production.

  • Museums Galore: The town boasts several interesting museums. Don’t miss the Museo Civico, which houses a collection of art and historical artifacts, and the Museo della Ceramica, dedicated to the town’s ceramic heritage.
  • Ceramic Shopping: Bassano is a great place to shop for beautiful ceramics. You’ll find everything from traditional pieces to modern designs.
  • Local Spirit: While you’re there, be sure to sample some of the local grappa, a strong brandy made from grape pomace. It’s a true taste of the region.
  • Travel Tip: If you’re visiting during the summer, take a dip in the Brenta River, which flows through the town. It’s a refreshing way to cool off on a hot day.

Each of these towns offers a unique artistic experience, from exploring Renaissance masterpieces to discovering hidden galleries and admiring traditional crafts. It’s no wonder that Northern Italy has been a source of inspiration for artists for centuries.

For the foodie and wine enthusiast

Northern Italy is a food lover’s paradise, and its small towns offer some of the most authentic and delicious culinary experiences you’ll find anywhere. Get ready to indulge your taste buds!

Alba: the truffle capital of italy

Calling all truffle lovers! Alba, located in the Piedmont region, is your dream destination. This charming town is famous for its white truffles, considered the most prized culinary treasure in the world.

  • Truffle Season: If you visit during autumn (October-November), you’ll be in for a treat. The town comes alive with the annual Alba White Truffle Fair, a celebration of all things truffle.
  • Truffle Hunting: Join a truffle hunt with a local expert and their trusty truffle dog. It’s a unique and fascinating experience, and you might even get to taste some freshly unearthed treasures.
  • Truffle Tasting: Indulge in truffle-infused dishes at the many restaurants and osterias in town. From simple pasta dishes to elaborate tasting menus, there are endless ways to enjoy this delicacy.
  • Tip: Truffles are expensive, but many restaurants offer affordable truffle-themed dishes during the fair. It’s a great way to experience the flavor without breaking the bank.

Barolo: where wine reigns supreme

Barolo, a small village nestled in the Langhe hills, is synonymous with its namesake wine, Barolo. This bold, complex red wine is often referred to as the “King of Wines,” and a visit to Barolo is a must for any wine enthusiast.

  • Wine Tasting: Explore the numerous wineries in and around Barolo. Many offer tours and tastings, where you can learn about the winemaking process and sample a variety of Barolos.

  • Charming Scenery: The landscape around Barolo is simply stunning, with rolling hills covered in vineyards. Take a leisurely hike or bike ride through the countryside to soak up the views.
  • Food Pairings: Pair your Barolo with traditional Piedmontese cuisine, such as tajarin (thin egg noodles) with butter and sage or brasato al Barolo (beef braised in Barolo wine).
  • Travel Tip: Barolo is a popular destination, especially during harvest season (September-October). Book your accommodation and winery tours well in advance to avoid disappointment.

Lake Garda Towns: fresh flavors and local specialties

The towns along Lake Garda offer a diverse culinary scene, influenced by the lake’s bounty of fresh fish and the region’s rich agricultural traditions.

  • Sirmione: This charming town on a peninsula jutting into the lake is known for its fresh seafood dishes, such as grilled lake trout and risotto with lake fish.
  • Bardolino: Wine lovers will enjoy exploring the Bardolino wine region, known for its light, fruity red wines.
  • Local Markets: Visit the local markets in any of the Lake Garda towns to sample and purchase local products, such as olive oil, honey, cheese, and cured meats.
  • Cooking Classes: Many towns offer cooking classes where you can learn to prepare traditional dishes using local ingredients. It’s a fun and interactive way to immerse yourself in the region’s food culture.

Whether you’re a truffle aficionado, a wine connoisseur, or simply someone who loves good food, Northern Italy’s small towns are sure to satisfy your culinary cravings.

For the nature lover

Northern Italy’s natural beauty is truly breathtaking, and its small towns often serve as gateways to incredible outdoor adventures. Here are a few of my favorites for nature lovers:

Cortina d’Ampezzo: a mountain paradise

Cortina d’Ampezzo, nestled in the heart of the Dolomites, is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. With its dramatic peaks, crystal-clear lakes, and lush meadows, it’s easy to see why it’s called the “Queen of the Dolomites.”

  • Hiking Trails: Lace up your boots and hit the trails! Cortina offers a vast network of hiking paths, ranging from easy strolls to challenging climbs. The Tre Cime di Lavaredo loop is a classic, offering stunning views of these iconic peaks.
  • Alpine Adventures: In winter, Cortina transforms into a world-class ski resort, attracting skiers and snowboarders from around the globe. Summertime offers opportunities for rock climbing, mountain biking, and even paragliding for the truly adventurous.
  • Tranquil Retreat: Even if you’re not an adrenaline junkie, you can simply relax and soak up the scenery. Take a leisurely walk around Lake Misurina, enjoy a picnic in a meadow, or simply sit back and admire the majestic mountain views.
  • Travel Tip: Cortina is a popular destination, so book your accommodation well in advance, especially during peak seasons.

Cinque Terre Villages: cliffside charm and coastal trails

The Cinque Terre, a string of five colorful villages perched on the cliffs of the Ligurian coastline, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a hiker’s paradise.

  • Scenic Hiking: The Cinque Terre hiking trail connects all five villages, offering breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea and the rugged coastline. The trail is well-maintained, but be prepared for some steep sections and stairs.
  • Village Hopping: Take a scenic train ride or boat trip to explore each of the five villages. Each has its own unique charm and character. Don’t miss Manarola, with its colorful houses clinging to the cliffs, and Vernazza, with its picturesque harbor.
  • Local Cuisine: Seafood lovers will be in heaven here. Sample fresh catches of the day, like anchovies, mussels, and octopus, prepared in traditional Ligurian style.
  • Tip: The Cinque Terre can get crowded, especially during peak season. Consider visiting in the shoulder seasons (spring or autumn) for a more tranquil experience.

Lake Como Towns: lakeside beauty and outdoor activities

Lake Como, with its deep blue waters and surrounding mountains, is a picture-perfect destination for nature lovers.

  • Bellagio: This charming town, often called the “Pearl of Lake Como,” offers stunning views and a relaxed atmosphere. Take a ferry to explore other lakeside villages or rent a kayak to paddle around the lake.
  • Varenna: Known for its colorful houses and beautiful gardens, Varenna is a great base for hiking. The Sentiero del Viandante is a scenic trail that follows the eastern shore of the lake, offering breathtaking views.
  • Villa Carlotta: Visit this historic villa and its stunning botanical gardens, filled with exotic plants and flowers.
  • Travel Tip: Consider getting a ferry pass, which allows you unlimited travel on the lake’s ferry network. It’s a convenient and affordable way to explore the different towns and villages around Lake Como.

Whether you’re seeking adventure in the mountains, exploring coastal trails, or simply relaxing by a lake, Northern Italy’s natural wonders are sure to leave you feeling refreshed and inspired.


Planning your small-town adventure

Researching your perfect match

I know the feeling – Northern Italy offers so many charming options, it can be a bit overwhelming to choose! But don’t worry, with a bit of research, you’ll find the perfect town that aligns with your interests and travel style. Here are my top tips:

  1. Define Your Interests: What are you most passionate about? History? Art? Food and wine? Nature? Identifying your main interests will help you narrow down your search.
  2. Explore Online Resources:
  • Travel Blogs: Travel blogs (like this one!) are a fantastic way to get firsthand accounts and recommendations from fellow travellers. You’ll find personal stories, photos, and tips that can give you valuable insights into different towns.
  • Regional Tourism Websites: Each region in Northern Italy has its own tourism website, which usually lists the main attractions, events, and accommodations in the area.
  • Local Town Websites: Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, check out the websites of specific towns. They often have detailed information about local history, cultural events, restaurants, and outdoor activities.
  1. Utilise Social Media: Instagram and Pinterest are visual platforms where you can find inspiring photos and stories about Northern Italy’s small towns. Search for hashtags like #smalltownitaly, #hiddenitaly, or the names of specific towns to see what others have experienced.
  2. Ask for Recommendations: Don’t hesitate to ask for advice from friends, family, or online travel communities. I’ve discovered some of my favorite hidden gems through word-of-mouth recommendations.
  3. Consider Practicalities:
  • Transportation: How will you get to your chosen town? Is it easily accessible by train, bus, or car? If you plan to rely on public transportation, check the schedules and routes to ensure they fit your itinerary.
  • Accommodation: Research the types of accommodation available in the town. Do you prefer hotels, guesthouses, or perhaps a cosy Airbnb in the historic center?
  • Budget: Set a realistic budget for your trip, taking into account transportation, accommodation, food, activities, and any souvenirs you might want to buy.

Remember, the best small town in Northern Italy is the one that speaks to your heart and matches your individual interests. Take your time, explore your options, and trust your instincts. I’m certain you’ll find the perfect town to create unforgettable memories.


Finding your ideal accommodation

One of the joys of exploring small towns in Northern Italy is the unique variety of accommodation options you’ll find. From charming boutique hotels steeped in history to cosy bed and breakfasts run by friendly locals, there’s something for everyone.

  • Boutique Hotels: Many historic towns have beautifully restored palazzi or villas that have been converted into stylish hotels. These offer a touch of luxury and often have unique features like frescoed ceilings or rooftop terraces with stunning views.
  • Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs): For a more personal experience, consider staying at a B&B. You’ll get a taste of local hospitality, enjoy home-cooked breakfasts, and often receive insider tips from your hosts.
  • Unique Rentals: Look for unique rentals like converted farmhouses or apartments in historic buildings. These offer a chance to experience local life and often come with charming features like fireplaces or private gardens.
  • Location: Think about where you want to be based in the town. Do you want to be in the heart of the historic center, close to the main attractions, or do you prefer a quieter location on the outskirts?
  • Amenities: Consider what amenities are important to you. Do you need Wi-Fi, a swimming pool, or parking? Some accommodations offer additional services like bike rentals or cooking classes.
  • Budget: Set a budget for your accommodation and explore options that fit within your price range. Keep in mind that prices can vary depending on the season and the type of accommodation.

No matter what your preferences or budget, you’re sure to find the perfect place to rest your head in Northern Italy. I always recommend booking your accommodation in advance, especially during peak season, to avoid disappointment. And don’t forget to read reviews from other travellers to get an idea of what to expect.


Embracing the local pace

One of the most enchanting aspects of small-town Italy is the slower pace of life. Shops may close for a long lunch break, locals gather in the piazza for an evening passeggiata (stroll), and time seems to move just a little bit slower. Embrace it!

Here are a few tips for making the most of your small-town experience:

  • Leave Your Schedule Behind: Forget the packed itinerary and allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Get lost in the maze of cobblestone streets, discover hidden corners, and stumble upon unexpected delights.
  • Chat with the Locals: Italians are known for their warmth and hospitality. Strike up a conversation with a shopkeeper, ask a local for restaurant recommendations, or simply greet passersby with a friendly “buongiorno” (good morning). You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can make connections and learn about the town’s hidden treasures.
  • Dine Like a Local: Avoid the tourist traps and seek out the authentic trattorias and osterias where the locals dine. Ask for recommendations from your accommodation hosts or chat with people you meet. This is where you’ll find the most delicious and authentic dishes.
  • Take a Cooking Class: Learn the secrets of Italian cuisine by taking a cooking class. Many small towns offer classes where you can learn to make fresh pasta, pizza, or other regional specialties. It’s a fun and hands-on way to immerse yourself in the local culture.
  • Attend Local Festivals: Check to see if there are any local festivals or events happening during your visit. These can be a great way to experience the town’s traditions, sample local food and wine, and mingle with the residents.

Remember, the true charm of a small town lies in its everyday rhythms and the genuine warmth of its people. By slowing down and immersing yourself in the local way of life, you’ll create memories that will last a lifetime.

Personal Tip: I always try to learn a few basic Italian phrases before I travel. It shows respect for the local culture and makes it easier to connect with people. Plus, it’s fun to practice your language skills!

Boat in the river

Finding hidden gems on your own

While I’ve shared some of my favorite small towns in Northern Italy, the true adventure lies in discovering your own hidden gems. Trust me, the joy of stumbling upon a charming village that’s completely off the tourist radar is an experience like no other.

Here are a few tips for unearthing your own personal favorites:

  • Venture Off the Beaten Path: Take the scenic route instead of the motorway. Hop on a local train or bus and explore the countryside. You never know what charming villages or breathtaking views might be waiting around the next bend.
  • Follow Your Interests: If you have a specific passion, let it guide your search. Do you love cycling? Look for towns with scenic bike routes. Are you a keen hiker? Seek out areas with beautiful trails. Are you passionate about local crafts? Research towns known for their artisans.
  • Connect with Fellow Travellers: Join online travel forums or Facebook groups dedicated to Italy. Ask for recommendations from other travellers who share your interests. You might uncover some hidden gems that haven’t made it into the guidebooks yet.
  • Talk to the Locals: Once you’re in Italy, don’t be afraid to ask the locals for advice. They often know the best-kept secrets of their region and can point you towards off-the-beaten-path destinations that you might not find on your own.

Remember, the most memorable travel experiences often come from the unexpected. Be open to new discoveries, follow your curiosity, and embrace the serendipity of travel. The perfect small town is out there waiting for you to find it!

Alt Text: ponte-vecchio-in-florence-at-dawn

Wrapping up

So there you have it, my fellow adventurers! Discovering the best small town in Northern Italy isn’t about ticking off a checklist; it’s about finding the place that sparks your soul. Whether you’re drawn to medieval history, artistic treasures, culinary delights, or breathtaking landscapes, there’s a hidden gem waiting for you.

Let your passions guide your journey, and don’t be afraid to wander off the beaten path. Each cobblestone street, each sip of local wine, and each conversation with a friendly local is part of the magic. Use this guide as a starting point, but let your curiosity lead the way. Your very own Italian adventure is just a train ride away!

Make Your Trip Easier

I’m all about planning trips on your own and figuring your way around the local scene. But still, I don’t want to leave you like a fish out of water!

Here are some resources I regularly use whenever I travel (on my own or with other people):

xo, Alice


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