Last Updated on October 8, 2023
Estimated reading time: 18 minutes
By Jim Ferri
I love Italian hill towns because most are tranquil, and they get me away from the crowds in Rome, Venice, Florence, and all the other Italian tourist hot spots.
But there’s more to loving a place than just because you pretty much have it all to yourself.
In them, I find another way of life, a simpler existence where we wake, eat, and go about our business to a different clock than elsewhere. I find it in many other countries, as well.
I’ll take a hill town over any city, time, or place. Life in the hills is slower and more straightforward and provides a more intimate view of life as it was in these old towns and villages centuries ago.
With my love of Italian hill towns laid out on the table, you’ll likely be surprised to learn that one of the hill towns noted here isn’t even in Italy, but you’ll love it nevertheless. In fact, I’d bet if you’re ever in the neighborhood, you’ll also visit it; it’s just that good.
And another note about these hill towns: although some authors include Cinque Terre in articles about Italian hill towns, I do not. Although Cinque Terre is well worth visiting, only one of its five towns is on a hillside. The rest sit on the seaside, only a bit expanding into the hills.
Also, a shorter version of this article, focusing on three Italian hill towns, appeared in Never Stop Traveling several years ago. We’ve updated the article to include ten more for 13 exceptional hill towns. The following hill towns are organized by region, with directions from one of the closest large cities you’re likely to visit.
Table of Contents
- – Umbria –
- Trevi, an Italian Hill Town Near Rome
- Assisi, Beautiful and Charming
- – Basilicata –
- Matera, Home of the Bizarre Sassi
- Maratea, A Beautiful and Unknown Italian Hill Town
- Beautiful Tuscany
- Siena, the Loveliest Medieval City
- Vinci, Hometown of Leonardo
- – Sicily –
- Taormina, the Most Popular Destination in Sicily
- Erice, An Italian Hill Town Like No Other
- Ragusa Ibla, An Exceptional Italian Hill Town
- – Compagna –
- Ravello, Amalfi’s Sophisticated Side
- – And Little San Marino
- San Marino…Not Quite An Italian Hill Town
– Umbria –
Trevi, an Italian Hill Town Near Rome
Trevi is a quiet little Italian hill town perched on a hillside. Few people ever visit it, which is why I chose to.
About a 2½ -hours drive north of Rome, I spent my mornings in Trevi sitting in a small outdoor café. I indulged in one of my great pleasures: sipping my morning coffee while watching people open and do their business. I got to know them well after a day or two, if only from afar across the square.
In that same town, one evening, my wife and I and two friends took a stroll along a quiet little street near the entrance to town. Not far off in the distance, we could hear the pealing of the church bell that greeted us every morning.
As the last rays of the setting sun glistened off its steeple and the evening haze began to creep across the olive groves, we were greeted with a beautiful view out over the valley where 300,000 olive trees clothed every hill with their soft leaves. It was an incredible, serene feeling.
Strolling back to our hotel, we passed an outdoor café where people had stopped for an espresso or aperitivo during their passeggiata, the customary Italian evening walk. Of course, we joined them.
How to get to Trevi from Rome:
Car: approximately 90 miles north of Rome, a two-hour drive
Train: 1¾ hours from Rome Termini. Fare: approximately $13
Assisi, Beautiful and Charming
Beautiful Assisi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an excellent Italian hill town. Visit, and you’ll quickly realize it’s a town whose history – both past and present – is deeply intertwined with religion. You’ll also know it’s one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the world.
The town, as you might expect even before you arrive, is dominated by the spectacular 13th-century Basilica of St. Francis. You find many basilicas in Italy, of course. But Assisi’s St. Francis is home to such a remarkable number of frescoes and paintings that it’s said to rival some art museums.
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Many people find Assisi to be one of the most charming towns in Umbria, and rightfully so. Its warren of cobblestone streets is home to numerous equally lovely shops and restaurants.
Occupying the highest point in the city is the 14th-century Rocca Maggiore castle in Assisi. Since Assisi is a hilly town, it’s an excellent point to begin any tour since, from there, you’ll be mainly walking downhill on the cobblestone streets.
How to get to Assisi from Perugia:
Car: 15 miles south of Perugia, a half-hour drive
Bus: approximately 50 minutes. Fare approximately $4-24
– Basilicata –
Accettura, the Italian Hill Town of My Ancestors
In Accettura, an Italian hill town in Basilicata far to the south, just a week later, my wife and I sat outside a small café sipping our wine, watching the passeggiata unfurl before us, as people walked down the middle of the street now totally given over to the evening ritual. We had come to this hill town to learn more about my ancestors. I remember sitting there thinking how comfortable it all seemed, knowing they had likely enjoyed their passeggiata here centuries ago.
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Solitude draws many of us to these hill towns and our desire to connect with earlier, simpler times. Times when you could stand silently, watching lights twinkle far below or quietly watch the setting sun caress an olive grove.
Or, for some of us, being able to join people taking their evening passeggiata in the middle of the street, just like our ancestors did.
How to get to Accettura from Naples:
Car: 125 miles, a 2½ hour-drive
Train: 3½ hours from Napoli Centrale. Fare $15-30
Matera, Home of the Bizarre Sassi
Matera is an interesting city in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, about a three-hour drive south of Naples. It’s divided into an active upper district typical of many Italian towns and the lower silent Sassi.
The latter area, the Sassi, lures travelers (and movie crews) to the city. It’s an old cave hill town (the word “sassi” means “caves”) plunked right in the middle of the larger city. People had been living in the Sassi from Paleolithic times until the 1950s.
However, in the ’50s, a book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, revealed that Sassi was a malaria-ridden slum and one of the most poverty-ridden areas of southern Italy. It became such a national embarrassment that the Italian government moved all its residents out to new apartments on the outskirts of Matera.
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When we visited, we stood on the rim of the ravine, looking across the sea of buildings before us. They were stone houses, stores, churches, and everything imaginable, all scooped out of the rock for centuries. It was both haunting and beautiful, as well as one of the more bizarre places you’ll find in Italy.
But because of its historical significance, the Sassi was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, along with the rock-hewn churches of Matera. A few years later, the bizarre cityscape also began to draw the attention of filmmakers. Scores of movies have been produced, from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to the James Bond movie No Time to Die. In fact, it became so popular that it began to be referred to as “Sassiwood.”
How to get to Matera from Naples:
Car: 150 miles, a three-hour drive
Train: 4 ½ hours from Napoli Centrale. Fare $19 – 74
Maratea, A Beautiful and Unknown Italian Hill Town
First of all, don’t confuse Maratea with Matera. Maratea is a charming Italian hill town high above the sea on Italy’s southern Tyrrhenian coast. Although the city itself is in the hills high above the sea, in Italy Maratea is better known for its 20+ beaches.
Maratea is a charming town known by relatively few travelers, and it provides a taste of “old Italy.” Our hotel, for example, was an old, wonderful place with high ceilings and shutters on the windows. We often opened the shutters to watch village life on the street below. And we enjoyed our breakfast on a small terrace overlooking the rooftops of the village.
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One evening, we dined at Taverna Rovita. It’s a great little restaurant with wood-beamed ceilings and hidden up an alleyway in the old village. It was a great and delicious place where we enjoyed specialties created from ancient recipes. Like most other places where we ate or wandered, we were the only non-Italians in the restaurant.
How to get to Maratea from Naples:
Car: 126 miles, a 2½ hour-drive
Train: 2¾ hours from Napoli Centrale. Fare 13 – 65
Siena, the Loveliest Medieval City
Siena is considered by many to be Italy’s loveliest medieval city. Since that’s quite a boast, one day during a week in Tuscany, we decided to see for ourselves. We spent a day in this remarkable Italian hill town and didn’t want to leave. It’s just that captivating. Oh, and we also bought a large painting there, so we’d never forget the place.
Nestled in the hills of Chianti, Siena is spectacular, with palaces, towers, and churches about everywhere you look. The difference here is that many are made of brick, not the marble you see in Florence and other cities. It gives the city a totally different look from others around Italy and accentuates it’s Medieval feel.
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Its world-renowned Piazza del Campo is one of Italy’s most beautiful public squares. It’s in this half-moon of a square that the biannual Palio horse race takes place. It’s also a wonderful piazza to just walk about, viewing the people in numerous cafes and ristorantes.
We ambled about for some time before joining them for a fantastic Piazza del Campo lunch.
How to get to Siena from Florence:
Car: 45 miles, a 1-hour drive
Train: 1½ hours from Firenze S.M.N. Fare $8-15
Vinci, Hometown of Leonardo
Yes, this is the hometown of Leonardo da Vinci. It’s a pretty little Tuscan hilltop town where the locals pay homage to their famous native son in the Museo Leonardiano. The museum is in a 13th-century castle.
Although it’s a bit off the beaten track, located about halfway between Pisa and Florence, this unique European museum is well worth a half-day visit.
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Here, you’ll find models of many of Leonardo’s inventions, primarily based on his notebooks’ drawings. You are guaranteed to be wowed by his conceptions of a bicycle, an armored tank, and many other things, all conceived by him centuries before some of them became part of modern life.
While you can visit different museums dedicated to Leonardo – one in Florence, for example – at this one, at least you’ll know you’re at the source.
How to get to Vinci from Florence:
Car: 6 miles, a ½ hour-drive
Train and bus: about 2 hours from Firenze S.M.N. Fare $8-15. Take the train to Empoli and connect with Line 49 bus
– Sicily –
Taormina, the Most Popular Destination in Sicily
If you’re in Sicily, you’ll find Taormina, an easy one-hour drive north from Catania, the main airport on the island’s eastern end.
Once a colony of Syracuse, Taormina remains the most popular holiday destination in Sicily. It can trace that popularity back to the 19th century when it was a requisite stop on the Grand Tour of Europe, most likely thanks to its mountaintop location with superb sea, coastline, and Mt. Etna views. It’s still a very charming place.
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Little alleyways climb up and down the hills on both sides along the Corso Umberto, the main street of Taormina. You see nothing but shops, restaurants, gelaterias, and cafés everywhere you turn. Midway, at Piazza IX Aprile, the view of the sea and the coast is spectacular. Just as dramatic is the view of, and from, the 3rd-century BC Greek Theater.
If you visit Taormina don’t miss taking a tour to nearby Mt. Etna, where you can view the volcano from inside the caldera of a past eruption.
How to get to Taormina from Catania, Sicily:
Car: 35 miles, a 45-minute drive
Train: 1½ hours from Catania Centrale. Fare $11-15
Erice, An Italian Hill Town Like No Other
Erice is a little medieval village with its head in the clouds – literally.
Sitting on a mountaintop above Trapani in Sicily, you reach Erice by cable car (€9 round trip / €4 under 16) or via a severely winding road driving up the steep mountain. I chose the latter and found a crowded parking lot outside the city gate. I also found a village entirely enveloped in fog, with a temperature 14° lower than at sea level.
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Little Erice survives on tourism and a fledgling wine industry. Walk along its medieval stone streets, and you’ll be transported to another century.
When I visited, it felt ethereal in the fog and also a bit damp. Before heading back to my car, the dampness provided a good excuse for stopping in the popular Michelle’s pastry shop for some treats and a coffee.
How to get to Erice from Palermo:
Car: 68 miles, a 1½ – drive
Traveling by train or bus from Palermo to Erice can be complicated. I suggest you travel only by car.
Ragusa Ibla, An Exceptional Italian Hill Town
While driving to Ragusa, I fell in love with the countryside flecked with olive groves and vineyards, with stonewalls running across hillsides in every direction. There were flowers everywhere you looked. Although the country was rugged, everything seemed orderly, as if painted on canvas. It was not long after I also fell in love with Ragusa.
Ragusa sits on a broad limestone hill between two deep valleys. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is unique since it’s split into two distinct cities.
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Following a devastating 17th-century earthquake, some inhabitants decided to build a Baroque-style town on the plateau above the old. Others chose to stay put and rebuild the old town, now called Ragusa Ibla, the atmospheric city in the valley below. It’s a beautiful place to walk and climb around for an afternoon. Note that Ragusa Ibla is not just of interest to tourists – it’s an actual city where people live and work.
Whether you’re seeing Sicily by car or tour bus, it’s a must-stop.
How to get to Ragusa Ibla from Catania Fontanarossa Airport, Sicily:
Car: 64 miles, a 1½-hour drive
Bus: 1¾ hours from Catania Fontanarossa Airport. Fare $7-10
– Compagna –
Nocelle, An Italian Hill Town High Above the Amalfi Coast
Once, in the noisy high season on the Amalfi Coast, we stayed in Nocelle, a tiny village high up the hills about bustling Positano. It’s an almost secret village 1500+ feet (461m) above the coast. In addition to much-lower prices than in Positano and other Amalfi towns, it offers the most spectacular views of the Amalfi Coast all the way to Capri.
It’s unknown to most travelers, but there are B&Bs, a couple of restaurants, and serenity. I remember us standing on the terrace of our little B&B, enjoying our morning coffee and the magnificent view of the sun beginning to caress the shore far below.
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That evening, on the terrace of a little hillside restaurant, we stood entranced again, watching the lights twinkle on in Positano far below but not hearing a sound beyond the breeze in the trees all about us.
How to get to Nocelle from Salerno:
Car: 31 miles, a 1-hour drive
Taxi: 1 hour. Fare $60-75
Ravello, Amalfi’s Sophisticated Side
Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast, is another beautiful Italian hill town. Also, on the Tyrrhenian Sea, it’s about 100 miles north of Maratea and a 15-minute ferry ride ($6-22) south of Positano.
Unlike its famous neighbor Positano, however, Ravello is about 800 feet above the Tyrrhenian Sea on a cliff top. You reach it via 6 miles of serpentine road by either car or public bus (catch the latter in Amalfi).
Ravello is the most sophisticated of the Amalfi Coast towns. It’s renowned for its connection to Richard Wagner since it was where he composed part of his opera Parsifal. The Ravello Music Festival, Italy’s most significant musical event, usually occurs from April to October. Most of the popular performances take place in the summer months. Wagner stayed at the Villa Rufolo, where some performances take place.
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Another villa you should visit in Ravello is the beautiful 11th-century Villa Cimbrone. It’s only a 10-minute walk from the Piazza Duomo. Walk through its beautiful gardens to its dazzling terrace lined with classical-style busts and for stunning views of the coast.
The Villa is now a hotel whose guests have included such notables as Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, and Salvador Dali.
How to get to Ravello from Salerno:
Car: 19 miles, about a ½-hour drive
Ferry: ½ hour. Fare $7-10
Bus: 1 hour. Fare $2-3
– And Little San Marino
San Marino…Not Quite An Italian Hill Town
Finally, there is beautiful San Marino, which some travelers consider one of Italy’s most dazzling hill towns. The only issue, however, is that little San Marino isn’t even in Italy, although it is surrounded by it.
Only three million travelers visit it annually, ranking it at the bottom of the list for European tourist arrivals. And it doesn’t have an airport or a train station. Even worse, many people have no idea where it is or have never heard of it.
So what’s its allure? The little Republic of San Marino is a sovereign nation founded in AD 301. In fact, it’s the oldest constitutional Republic and oldest sovereign state in the world today.
In addition, it is small, covering less than 24 square miles of the European landscape. (Only its fellow micro-states of Monaco and the Vatican are smaller.) Much of those 24 square miles are on the plain. The area travelers come to visit is the hill town that sits on a 3,300-foot mountaintop.
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San Marino’s anonymity means you’ll likely not be in a crowd of fellow travelers. The single exception, as elsewhere in Europe, is during the August holidays when it overflows with tourists.
In addition, you don’t need to bring your passport since there’s no passport control. Nor do you need to change your money since the currency used is the Euro, even though San Marino is not a member of the European Union.
But the big draw for many is the shopping since the entire nation is duty-free. In fact, you can get a better deal on Italian goods in San Marino than you can in Italy.
How to get to San Marino from Rimini, Italy :
Car: 14 miles, a ½ hour-drive
Bus (Line 160): 40 minutes from Arco d’Augusto, Rimini. Fare $4-6