Travelling the north of Italy is incredible. However, if you are looking for ’the’ Italian experience, the stereotypes you have seen in films or read about in books.. well, you need to go South.
As much as each region has its own traditions, Southern Italy is for sure the place where these are still strongly respected and time seems to have stopped.
Discover now the 10 places and foods that will make you wish to visit Southern Italy
Enjoy Italy at a relaxed pace, be prepared to slow down, not being understood if not speaking Italian but also being truly welcome everywhere.
That will include strong portions of food and generous glasses of wines. Lots of food. And wine.
1. Naples, Capital of the South
Naples is a city that you either love or hate, often depicted as a dangerous place and avoided by Italians themselves.
It goes without saying that we truly love it and yes, you will need to stroll around carefully and avoid certain areas but this will never represent a valid reason not to go.
If you are here just for a stopover before exploring the ‘costiera’, one day will do to get the first glimpse of iconic streets in Spaccanapoli, the Maschio Angioino and the stunning Piazza del Plebiscito.
With a bit more time, you can explore residential areas like Posillipo and even get as far as the Vesuvio, the only active volcano in the Mediterranean region.
But of course, Naples and the whole region of Campania do face serious challenges and experience a high level of criminality.
A good read, if you wish to know more, is for sure Gomorrah, written by the young author Roberto Saviano.
The author has been living under strict security control as a response to the death threats he received after publishing the book.
Naples is serious about pizza so make sure you save some time for a proper one.
The traditional pizza was born here and it includes just a couple of fundamental ingredients like San Marzano tomato sauce, local mozzarella, fresh basil and good olive oil. It will be amazing almost everywhere but it is said that Gino Sorbillo is an excellent one.
Don’t forget to look around for street food. Naples is in fact the capital of street food, where the ‘cuoppo’ is the absolute king.
It is just a cone made out of paper and filled in with a mix of deep-fried delicacies like filled zucchini flowers, veggies, small mozzarella bites and small fishes.
It is also served as a traditional antipasto in restaurants, but those you get on the streets are the real heritage.
Capri is still famous all around the world even if it is now no longer attracting so much of the international jet set like it used to do in the past.
Easy to reach from Naples by boat, it is a gorgeous destination for a couple of days. Still very posh and filled with top brand shops, I do recommend you book a boat tour around the island to enjoy it at most, including a view into the famous Grotta Azzurra (a small cave with deep blue waters – you can enter by boat only).
But other than Capri, try and plan a bit more time in the area, get back to the continent and continue to explore the famous ‘costiera amalfitana’, which means the coastline stretching between Sorrento and Amalfi.
Featuring spots like Ravello and Positano, it is worth a week to spend, including visits to the Roman ruins at Pompei and Ercolano.
Sorrento is probably the best place and base point to stay, easy to reach from Naples via the ‘circumvesuviana’.
The coast up to Amalfi is well served by local buses, if you don’t want to rent a car.
4. The art of good coffee
More than a tradition, a good coffee is a ritual in Italy, however in Naples becomes closer to a religion.
In bars, they will serve it hot and with a glass of mineral water aside, to ensure you can fully appreciate the aroma.
But whilst barmen use professional machines behind the counter, at home Italian families still largely use a stove top coffee maker called moka or, if in Naples, a specific type of machine named ‘la napoletana’.
If you decide to buy a moka before leaving Italy, the secret for a good coffee is how much coffee you put in the machine before closing it.
And do not press the powder for a better result.
5. His majesty the Babà
What is the best way ever to finish your dinner after a good espresso? No doubt in Naples is to go for a babà, a small yeasted cake soaked in rhum. You will find it with or without custard and it will be the perfect dessert with that bit of booze to help you digest your cuoppo or pizza.
6. Pizza di Scarola at Christmas
Like any other tradition, Christmas is a big thing in Italy and particularly in Southern Italy.
Christmas means never-ending lunches and dinners with a specific menu that is religiously repeated every year.
Old recipes passed on from generations with grandmas coordinating daughters.
They will instruct their magic and unique secrets to their granddaughters.
In Naples, one of this traditions is the ‘pizza di scarole’. Despite the name, it is made with an unleavened dough and resembles a pie.
It is filled with escaroles, anchovies, mozzarella, capers and black olives.
Available all year round, it always holds a special place on Christmas tables in the capital of the South.
Matera is a small gem that has been only recently added to the map. And believe me, that is a treasure no one should miss.
Easy to reach by bus or train from Bari, Matera actually lies in a small canyon and its historical centre called ‘Sassi’ (Stones) is truly breath-taking.
One of the most ancient settlements still inhabited, the Sassi you will see are in fact habitations that had been dug into the rock.
After all the inhabitants had been moved in 1952 to the new residential area of Matera, the Sassi have remained abandoned for almost 30 years before the restoration started in the nineties.
For an unforgettable accommodation in the ‘Sassi’ have a look at Sextantio Hotel.
8. Mediterranean Flavours
If you happen to travel Italy entirely, from North to South, you will notice how different landscapes, people, dialects and food are.
And this is one of the most incredible things about such a small country. The diversity you can find in Italy is not comparable to anywhere else in the world. A series of journeys within the main journey, where experiencing the different regional flavours is a significant part of it.
The cuisine in the South has strong flavours and intense perfumes: ripe tomatoes, aubergines, olive oil, oregano, local meats and fish.
Simple but rich in taste as a result of the sunny and hot weather.
Try the immense variety of vegetables pickled in oil with rustic bread and local olive oil. Couple it with local cold meats and cheese and a bottle of strong red wine. This was the lunch I (Sara) had with a friend just arrived in Matera after a long travel. It lasted 3 hours. But it was so perfect, so removed from the daily routine you could barely remember what your reality is like.
Just enjoy the slow pace for those few days.
9. True blue in Sardinia
Italian regions are all different from each other.
In particular, two of them are a bit more special than others, for a simple reason: they are islands.
They are very different from each other and host various landscapes, heritage, dialects and tradition.
Including culinary ones of course.
Sardinia is the closest to Corse and the northern shore of Liguria.
Very savage in the interior, it possibly has the best beaches in the whole country, only competing with southern Apulia (the area called Salento).
We have not been so lucky to visit the whole island and have only been South of Sardinia.
Flying into Cagliari, cheap and on time buses can easily take you to the close beaches of Chia, Su Giudeu and Tuerredda.
Just bring along a good book and live the dream.
10. Spaghetti allo scoglio
If you are close to the sea in Italy, there will be an amazing dish to try: ‘spaghetti allo scoglio’.
It is basically a bowl of spaghetti ‘al dente’ with a sauce (generally tomato based) and fresh shellfish.
Pair it with a good bottle of chilled white wine (no ice in white wine!).
You will be in heaven for at least a couple of hours.