Southern Italy is one of the most beautiful regions of the Mediterranean. The culture here is distinctly different from that which you will find in the central and northern parts of the country.
Indeed, many people, Italians included, will tell you that Southern Italy is more comparable to Greece than it is to say, Venice, or Rome. Unfortunately, the Italian south is also largely misunderstood and underrated.
Falling in Love with Southern Italy
The southern part of Italy is known as the “Mezzogiorno” (midday) region. Far fewer international tourists venture here than they do to other parts of the country. The only exceptions to this are perhaps the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre.
Whispers of Mafia activity and a more ¨chaotic¨ pace of life in Southern Italy can sound intimidating. This shouldn´t be a deterrent.
Your reward for venturing here is a stunning region with a fraction of the crowds of ¨popular¨ Italian travel destinations. Only in Southern Italy can you have stunning stretches of coastlines, and charming villages, virtually all to yourself without other tourists to share them with.
A Little History of Southern Italy
Once upon a time, Italy was made up of two different countries. The North and South were not only separate, but they also had two different flags!
Southern Italy is one of the oldest, continually-inhabited regions in Europe. People have lived here for more than 8,000 years!
In the 7th century BC, the region became an important centre of Greek civilisation. The Greeks colonised a lot of the region’s coastal areas and islands.
Cumae was the earliest Greek colony on the Italian mainland. Cities such as Syracuse in Sicily followed and became extremely important trading hubs for the Greeks.
¨Magna Graecia¨ (The Greek colony) may have prevailed here early on. However, the Roman Empire, which grew from a small agricultural community in Rome, soon proved to be a threat.
Sicily was the first region to fall under Roman control in the 3rd century BC. Shortly thereafter, the entirety of Southern Italy fell under Roman control.
This region has been conquered and occupied by various civilisations throughout the millennia. Each of them has left its mark on the region’s culture, cuisine, and architecture. The Goths, the Franks, the Arabs, and the Normans have all fought and lived here.
Places to Visit in Southern Italy
Naples & the Wider Campania Region
Naples is the gritty capital of Italy’s Campania region, famed as being the birthplace of pizza. The renowned Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba dates back to 1738 and is widely regarded as being the world’s very first pizza shop.
Their ricotta cheese pizzas are not to be missed. Interestingly, their pizzas are cooked in ovens lined with lava from Mount Vesuvius!
Naples is often overlooked. However, the city is home to many cultural and historical gems. Within the confines of the city, you will find two royal palaces, three castles, and a plethora of centuries-old churches whose interiors are laden with breathtaking frescoes.
The wider Campania region is gorgeous too. Day trips from Naples take you out to scenic vineyards on the slopes of Vesuvius, Greco-Roman ruins, and the ruined city of Pompeii.
Recommended Naples Tours
Opting to tour Naples and its surroundings is a good way to get your bearings in a new place. Doing so also means that you have a local Catania expert on hand to ask about the best places to eat, drink, and hang out in Naples and Southern Italy.
- Naples street food tour with a local guide
- Naples: Underground tour entrance ticket and guide
- Tour of Downtown Naples and Veiled Christ entry
- Make your own Neapolitan pizza workshop
- Sorrento: Five-hour food tastings tour
Alberobello is a small town in Puglia, Southern Italy. It is famous for its ¨trulli¨: small white-washed homes that have been constructed in peculiar cone shapes.
Alberobello is arguably one of the most famous, postcard images of Italy. For the complete Puglia experience, opt to stay in one of the guesthouses set in a converted trulli.
You only need to stay a day or two here. The main activity is strolling through the narrow, cobbled streets admiring all of the trulli as you go. However, there are some interesting museums in the area, in addition to some excellent restaurant options.
Recommended Alberobello and Puglia tours
- Alberobello: two hour guided trulli tour
- Bari: Alberobello and Matera day tour
- Bari walking street food tour
- From Bari: Pasta experience walking tour
- Half-day sailing tour along the Pugliese coast
Syracuse & Ortigia Island
Syracuse is a coastal town in Eastern city. Once upon a time, it was also one of the most important settlements in the Greek empire. The Roman Orator Cicero was famously quoted as saying that Syracuse was ¨the most beautiful of them all”
Modern Syracuse and adjacent Ortigia are among the most upscale, glamorous places in Sicily and Southern Italy. Here, elegant dining options serve a well-heeled crowd who tuck into Mediterranean delicacies as live bands play out classics from Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
Don´t miss the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, one of Sicily’s greatest archaeological sites. The Piazza del Duomo is essentially the town´s central square, encompassed by excellent coffee shops and touristic cafes serving cannoli and breakfast treats.
Recommended Syracuse Tours
- Private Ortigia boat tour with marine grotto
- Syracuse: Ortigia and Neapolis guided walking tour
- Syracuse: Guided Velobike tour
- From Catania: Syracuse and Noto culture and history tour
Things to Know Before Travelling to Southern Italy
This Southern Italy travel guide discusses a few interesting facts and considerations to know before visiting this region. Some may help you to prepare for your trip. Others are simply fun to learn!
There is a Distinct Cultural Difference between Northern and Southern Italy
The culture in the north of Italy versus the south is significantly different. Italians themselves will tell you that it is almost like the two are completely different countries.
The North is known for being more glamorous, chic, and orderly. Meanwhile, the south is more relaxed and laid back.
In Southern Italy, nobody really has any airs and graces. People are generally not so concerned about fancy clothes and cars. Fashion and lifestyle here are both much more casual.
Italians Can Easily Identify Where Other Italians are From
Italians can easily distinguish between someone from the South of Italy, and someone from the North. You could compare this to how British people could easily notice the difference between someone from London and someone from Liverpool.
It is not just the people’s mannerisms and the way that they dress that are different. It is their entire persona, their accents, and even the type of Italian that they speak.
Fewer People Speak English in Southern Italy
In more touristic Italian travel destinations like Rome or Milan, you can get away without knowing any Italian. In the larger Southern Italian/Sicilian cities like Naples, Palermo, and Catania you can just about manage it.
Venture just the slightest bit off the beaten path in Southern Italy though and you will find that people in smaller towns and villages can’t speak a word of English. It is prudent to try and learn a handful of Italian phrases before adventuring to Southern Italy.
You don’t have to worry about being conversational. Even if you can just order food and coffee, it will go a long way.
Don’t worry about the different regional dialects either. “standard” formal Italian is widely spoken and understood. Just cram a phrasebook into your suitcase and download the Google translate app onto your phone.
Attempts to Speak Italian Are Always Appreciated
“Posso usare il bagno per favore?”
The Italian waiter looked at me with such pride and bewilderment as I utilised one of my four memorised phrases of Italian. Though a lot of people in Southern Italy cannot speak much English, most are willing to help you.
Small fforts to speak Italian go a long way. This is regardless of how badly you speak it!
Ma cche staje facenn’? ‘O ppane?
“What are you doing? Making bread?” [What’s taking you so long?]
Different regions of Italy have different dialects and phrases. Neapolitan is practically a different language in itself!
It is not just that the Southern Italian language has a few small differences. However, often Italians will speak in idiomatic expressions (like the above).
These are confusing to understand as a foreigner because the literal translations to English can sound weird. As if conjugating the various Italian verbs wasn’t enough. Allora!
Travelling Southern Italy by Public Transport Requires a LOT of Patience
If you are going to travel to Southern Italy, you are going to need a lot of patience. Tons of it.
Transportation schedules here are more of a “guideline” than something that is stringently followed. Don’t expect trains and buses to run on time.
If you are travelling in Southern Italy and your bus/train still hasn’t arrived 45 minutes after it was scheduled to do so, don´t fret. It is probably just that your driver stopped for a smoke or an espresso somewhere along the way.
Things Move a Lot Slower Around Here
There is no sense of urgency in Southern Italy. Does not compute.
If you are waiting to be seen at a Pharmacy or a Bank or wherever else, you may catch the eye of the guy behind the counter. As he sees you, you walk forward in anticipation.
However, you must first wait for him to eat his apple, go and get himself a coffee, and show his colleague a funny meme on his PC. Then maybe just maybe he is ready to think about serving you…. but only maybe.
Italian Public Transport is a Great Way to Admire the Scenery
Travelling Southern Italy by public transport is a particularly nice way to admire the scenery as you adventure around. That is in spite of the occasional inconveniences and schedule problems.
Trains speed through adorable villages, and past beautiful nature that you may not have otherwise seen. Travelling through Southern Italy in this way also takes a lot of stress out of attempting to rent a car and navigate the hectic roads.
Lovely scenery aside, Italian trains are pretty comfortable. There are a few different train services that operate in Italy.
Trenitalia and Frecciarossa are the main providers but all Italian train companies are generally very good. The tickets are affordable and the seats are spacious and comfortable, even in economy class.
You Can Cross between Sicily and the Mainland by Train
Trains cross between Reggio Calabria and Messina, thus attaching Sicily to the mainland. This is a super convenient way to cross between the two if you are hoping to combine your exploration of the Italian south with a Sicily itinerary.
Alternatively, you can take ferries between the mainland and Sicily from Naples. Expect a slightly long, overnight trip if travelling by boat.
Street Food is Prominent in Southern Italian Culture
Italian food is not just pizza and pasta. Eating out doesn’t have to break the bank either. This is particularly the case in the south where street food is a prominent part of the food culture.
Here, a meal can be enjoyed for as little as $2. In Sicily, be sure to fill up on arancini balls, panino con panelle, and granita. In Naples, the street food of choice is the cuoppo or fried/folded pizza (pizza a portafoglio).
“Everything Tastes Good Fried, Even the Soles of Shoes”
Southern Italian street food is delicious. However, most of it isn’t designed for those who are watching their waistlines.
Practically everything here is fried. Yes, even things that you thought that you couldn’t fry, OR which are already unhealthy yet are still deep-fried for extra indulgence.
There is actually a Neapolitan phrase that states “everything tastes good fried, even the soles of your shoes!” While that statement is up for debate, it clearly seems to be the local mantra for preparing street food!
When travelling through the Campania region, order yourself a “cuoppo”. This is pretty much the symbol of Neapolitan street food.
A “cuoppo” is essentially just a paper cone filled with a weird and wonderful array of deep-fried treats. You can find everything from meat-filled potato croquettes to deep-fried anchovies.
There is a Large Difference between the Food in Different Regions of Italy
Different Italian regions are renowned for different dishes. In the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, the cities are famous for their tortellini, risotto, and egg-pasta dishes. In Southern Italy, people historically had less money and prepared most of their dishes with hard pasta.
A lot of the pasta dishes in the south use non-egg-based pasta or gnocchi. Don’t miss the Neapolitan classic pasta alla Genovese (pasta with a beef-based meat sauce).
Another local favourite is gnocchi alla Sorrentina. This is gnocchi prepared with tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmesan, and basil.
There is Much More Beauty than just the Amalfi Coast
The mention of Southern Italy is almost synonymous with the idea of travelling the Amalfi Coast and the Cinque Terre. While the Amalfi Coast is incredibly beautiful, it definitely suffers from the effects of over-tourism and it certainly isn’t the only breathtaking spot in the region.
The funny thing is that while all of the tourists flock to the Amalfi Coast during their Italy itineraries, the Italians go to the beach towns on the other side of Naples. For instance, they head to the beach town of Bacoli or sail out to the islands of Ischia and Procida.
By all means, stop by the Amalfi Coast and cross it off your bucket list, but try and keep your schedule and your mind open to discovering other wonderful, more underrated areas of Southern Italy.
The coastal town of Lecce is stunning, as is the settlement of Gallipoli and many of the medieval hilltop settlements in Puglia. These spots are well worth adding to your radar when planning a trip to Italy.
Nobody Really Cares if You Order a Cappuccino After 11 am
Italians don’t really drink cappuccinos after midday. They are considered more of a breakfast drink.
That said, nobody really cares if you want to order a cappuccino at 9 am 1 pm, 11 pm, etc. Honestly, no one gives a damn.
Italy travel blog posts are always warning tourists that not following the correct cappuccino etiquette is a major faux pas. This is major BS.
What do these people think is going to happen? The waiter drops his dishes in shock as the entire cafe gasps and falls silent? No.
For the most part, Italians are used to tourists ordering cappuccinos at all hours of the day. Aside from that, sometimes even locals just fancy a milky, frothy cappuccino in the middle of the afternoon. No big deal.
Siestas are a Big Part of the Daily Routine
Siestas take place in Southern Italy. During this time, most local stores and businesses close their shutters for an afternoon break. In larger cities like Palermo and Naples, not everyone participates in the siesta and shops are often still open.
In smaller towns and villages though, sometimes it can even feel a little creepy to wander around while everything is closed. No one is outside, and the atmosphere is like a ghost town.
Siesta runs between 12-4 or 1-5 or even 12-5 depending on the business. However, remember again that this is Southern Italy, and rules and schedules are just “guidelines”.
Places are often late opening up again. Alternatively, they sometimes never re-open again as planned.
It is as though the shop owner has thought “forget it!” and hasn’t opened again for the rest of the day. Who needs to make a living anyway?
Yes, the Mafia is Still Around. No, they Won’t Harm You.
The Mafia still exists throughout Italy, especially in the south. The largest and most notorious Mafia families are found in Naples (the Camorra), Sicily (Casa Nostra), and around Calabria (‘Ndrangheta).
Are they going to impact your travels in any way? Absolutely not!
It is said that you can’t really spend a week or two in Southern Italy without somehow giving money to the Mafia. However, they really aren’t looking to bother tourists.
It is the locals that need to worry about the Mafia. In a lot of parts of Sicily and Southern Italy, business owners still pay “pizzo”.
This is a monthly fee to the mafia. Those that have refused have often seen their businesses burned down.
Not every Southern Italian is involved with the Mafia and honestly, those that are are well-hidden within society. The best option is not to ask a lot of questions about it. It is offensive to assume that a lot of people are involved in organised crime.
Be Prepared for Shouts of “Ciao Bella!” and Breathy Mutterings of “Bellissima”
Take everything that Italian men say with a pinch of salt. Be prepared for shouts of “Ciao Bella” as you walk down the streets, and outlandish statements and declarations of love after a short period of time.
Italian men all over the country seem enamored with foreign women. However, this seems to be the case even more in southern Italy.
One thing that you will surely notice if you travel southern Italy as a woman is the breathy mutterings of “bellissima!” as you pass people by. It’s a little strange.
These men do not necessarily intend to approach you nor do they have any bad intentions. It is just their way of passing a compliment, just as if they are admiring a work of art.
Food is Serious Business
A wise traveller knows better than to joke with Italians about their food when they travel Southern Italy. Italian cuisine is UNESCO protected afterall.
Whether you are in Rome or Palermo, Naples or Bologna, one thing that all Italians have in common is pride in their food. Ask the locals for recommendations on what you should try in each region.
Naples is not as Dangerous as People Say
The Campania capital is one of the most underrated cities in the whole of Italy. Naples doesn’t have the best reputation, and is often referred to as being “too dangerous”.
Is Naples safe to travel to? Absolutely!
Bag snatchings, pick-pocketing and petty theft are often cited as reasons for Naples being dangerous. However, this kind of thing happens in cities all over Europe.
A study by the Italian authorities actually concluded that Rome and Milan see worse crime than Naples. That should be plenty of assurance that it is perfectly safe to travel in Campania.
Southern Italy is Significantly Less Touristy
Most visitors to Italy want to explore the beautiful places that they have seen depicted in magazines for years and that are well known. They want to admire the pastel-coloured houses of the Amalfi Coast and to sail through the romantic canals of Venice in a romantic gondola.
People are unaware of what options are available to them in Southern Italy and so they travel elsewhere. Add to that the fact that many people are worried about crime and the Mafia, and the lovely south gets skipped.
The South is one of the few places where you will not be met with hordes of tourists. Puglia, Lecce, and Campania are every bit as beautiful as more renowned destinations, but less crowded and cheaper.
Travel to Southern Italy in the Height of Summer is Best Avoided
It gets incredibly hot and humid in Southern Italy during the summer months (particularly July and August). Think temperatures that soar above 35 degrees celsius.
This isn’t really helped by the fact that most places do not have air conditioning, and sometimes not even a simple fan. Touristic areas like Capri, the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento, and Pompeii see most of their annual visitors during the summer months.
This also causes travel and accommodation prices to soar, and heaps of tourists flock to each site. Travel during the shoulder seasons if you can (Spring or Autumn).
Coffee Culture is Different Here
Coffee culture in Italy is a little different from what you may be accustomed to in the West. Most people in Italy venture inside coffee shops, order their drink and drink it quickly while standing at the bar.
That’s not to say that you can’t find sit-down places in Italy, but it’s not really the standard. A lot of places do not have tables, charge fees for sitting at tables or would frown at you if you were to sit at a coffee shop table with your laptop for hours.
Italians are Some of the Most Hospitable People in the World
Italians are some of the warmest, most welcoming people in the world. If you are fortunate enough to befriend Southern Italians, they will go out of their way to show you the best of their city. Within a short space of knowing them, they are likely to introduce you to all of their friends and family.
Travel Costs are Significantly Lower in Southern Italy
The costs of travelling in Southern Italy are significantly lower than in the north. That is, excluding super touristy areas like the Amalfi Coast.
In Southern Italy, it’s possible to enjoy a meal for 5 euros. That is practically unheard of when you go anywhere north of Rome. Street food dishes like arancini balls, panzerotti, and cuoppo will cost just a few euros and are perfectly filling.
You Have to Ban Yourself from the Patisseries
If you thought that the fried foods, the rich pasta dishes, and the arancini balls were unhealthy temptresses then wait until you hear about the desserts. Patisseries can be found on virtually every street corner in Southern Italy and sell some wonderful cakes and pastries.
Like savoury cuisine, different pastries are native to different areas of Italy. The classic in Napoli is Baba Rum.
This is a vanilla sponge cake soaked in syrup and pastry. Yum! You can also find variations of this that are filled with things like chocolate and praline.
In Sicily, the pastry of choice is cannoli. Cannolis are arguably one of the most renowned Italian desserts.
This consists of a deep-fried pastry dough filled with sweet ricotta cheese. It is every bit as sinful as it sounds.
Dining Next to Tourist Sites is a Major No-No
Avoid dining next to tourist sites in Southern Italy lest you want to be ripped off. This is a good rule to follow everywhere you go.
If you think that you are going to get a good meal next to Garibaldi station in Naples, or beside the ancient theatre in Taormina, you’ve got another thing coming. Locals don’t eat at these restaurants, they are just for the tourists.
Some snidey Restaurateurs often try and trick tourists with overpriced, low-quality food because they believe that tourists don’t know what “real” Italian food is like. Don’t let them!
Ask Locals for Their Food and Restaurant Recommendations
In line with the above, always ask locals or your hotel/airbnb contact to recommend you some good places to eat and drink. They will be able to advise you about their personal favourites, away from the tourist hordes.
This doesn’t mean having to venture miles out of the centre to find dinner, but it helps you uncover places that you would not have otherwise known about. Not only will the food be of better quality, but the whole dining experience will also be more authentic and interesting.
The Roads Are Every Bit as Crazy as You’ve Been Told
The roads are crazy in Southern Italy and road safety rules are often ignored in favour of speed and convenience. Lights at pedestrian crossings are more like cool aesthetic decorations than anything with a real purpose.
When driving or walking across roads in Southern Italy, remember:
Green means Go
Red means Go
Orange means Go
Superfast speed also implied and encouraged! Rent a car here at your peril.
Italians Always Applaud the Pilot
Italians always applaud when a plane lands safely at its destination. It’s quite cute really.
An Aperitivo is a Tradition You Don’t Want to Miss
An Italian aperitivo is a tradition that takes place all across the country and is definitely something that you want to experience. The aperitivo is essentially the country’s answer to “happy hour”. However, it is so much more than just discounted drinks.
An aperitivo typically takes place between the hours of 7 and 9 pm. The classic drink of choice is the Aperol spritz. Complimentary snacks and meze plates are usually served alongside your beverage.
Aperitivo originated in the north of Italy. However, it is something of a tradition all over the country. Aperitivos in Southern Italy are often relatively cheaper.
Be Prepared and Ready for Anything to Happen
The culture in the south of Italy is charming. This region is the perfect embodiment of the laid-back, Mediterranean lifestyle.
Things may not run as efficiently or in such an organised fashion as you are used to. Try and take everything with a pinch of salt and learn to relax and enjoy the ride.
When I took the train from Catania to Palermo in Sicily, the train broke down somewhere in the middle of Sicily. After waiting for several hours, our replacement bus arrived.
Somehow though, the bus driver got lost in the farms and fields of central Sicily and had to stop to ask several tractor drivers for help. This was annoying at the time since it ended up taking almost 12 hours to reach Palermo. However, it is a funny story in hindsight.
The Italians and Sicilians on board were just joking about how we had the opportunity to experience “agriturismo”. This perfectly sums up how laidback most of these people are.
Southern Italy is a Cash Society
It is worth noting that the preferred method of payment in Southern Italy is cash. This is a notable difference from Central and Northern Italy where credit and debit cards are more widely accepted.
ATMs can be found in most major towns and cities. However, card payments are seldom accepted in small independent shops and businesses. Even hotels usually prefer cash.
Just keep this in mind and never let yourself reach a point when you have only pocket change. In a way, it works out better for you too. Conversion and foreign transaction fees quickly accumulate if you keep using your bank cards abroad.
Do you have any questions about Southern Italy travel or planning a trip to Italy in general? I lived in Naples and Sicily and my heritage is Neapolitan.
Feel free to reach out to me via the comments below or via email with any questions/concerns that you may have! Safe travels, Melissa xo