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Undertourism in Italy: Here are 5 alternatives to Venice

National Geographic logo National Geographic 11/1/2019 Vicky Hallett
a group of people standing in front of a castle: Bologna’s San Petronio Basilica offers views over the centrally located Piazza Maggiore. © Photograph by Cathrine Stukhard, laif/Redux

Bologna’s San Petronio Basilica offers views over the centrally located Piazza Maggiore.

Overtourism may be a new word, but the concept is familiar to any tourist who has had the misfortune of being nudged, elbowed, and crowded out while trying to visit one of the world’s coveted destinations. Among the flash points in overtourism is Venice, where some 30 million travelers throng each year. The influx floods waterways and overruns piazzas. In an effort to control tourist numbers, Venice has implemented a day-tripper tax, scheduled to go into effect July 1, 2020.

a view of a city with mountains in the background: In Turin, a hot air balloon soars close to the height of the Mole Antonelliana, once the tallest brick building in Europe. © Photograph by Alexander Pohl, NurPhoto/Getty Images

In Turin, a hot air balloon soars close to the height of the Mole Antonelliana, once the tallest brick building in Europe.

Venice is not the only city in Italy to contend with overwhelming crowds; Rome and Florence also suffer from too much visitation. But for every inundated icon there are dozens of other destinations with room for discovery. On your next trip to Italy, take a detour to these less-visited but amply rewarding cities. (To learn more about why overtourism matters—and what you can do about it—read this article.)

a group of people standing in front of a building: Via Clavature runs through the historic center of Bologna, whose porticoes are world renowned. © Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library, Nat Geo Image Collection

Via Clavature runs through the historic center of Bologna, whose porticoes are world renowned.


The coolest person in the world resides in the northeastern town of Bolzano. Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy, greets visitors at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, where his remains tell the fascinating story of an ancient murder in the mountains. Enjoy a more peaceful hike than he did by boarding one of the three cable cars that ascend into the surrounding peaks, which are blanketed by meadows, forests, and farms.

Back in town, find an architectural mash-up of fascist monuments and Bavarian baroque arcades. You’ll notice a similar Italian-German fusion in restaurants, many of which serve both spaghetti and spätzle, paired with local wines (start with a Hugo, a popular aperitivo made with prosecco and elderflower syrup).

Sustainable Travel Tip: At the annual Bolzano Christmas Market, a certified “green event” that runs from late November to early January, steaming beverages like mulled wine come in reusable mugs. Travelers can revel in more holiday spirit at nearby markets easily reached via public transportation.


From the panoramic terrace of the 550-foot-high Mole Antonelliana—once the tallest brick building in Europe—you can take in all of this elegant northwestern city, plus the soaring Alps next door. Here, leafy boulevards lead to boutiques brimming with gourmet chocolate and to the Juventus Football Club’s Allianz Stadium, where you can catch a game or take a behind-the-scenes tour.

Movie buffs shouldn’t miss the National Museum of Cinema (located inside the Mole) or the annual Torino Film Festival (held in November). To car lovers, Turin is the “Detroit of Italy,” home to Fiat and the National Automobile Museum, with its collection of more than 200 vehicles. Add in the world’s oldest Egyptian museum, spectacular palaces, and the first national park in Italy—the Gran Paradiso—and you may find yourself extending your stay.

Sustainable Travel Tip: Bici-t offers adorable tricycles built for three that you can pedal all over town. Book a tour accompanied by a “driver” and an audio guide (available in English, Italian, and French), or just rent the wheels to explore on your own.


Dubbed “The Florence of the South,” Lecce shares some architectural features with its more-crowded Tuscan cousin, namely ornate baroque structures built with prized local limestone. Smack in the center of Italy’s boot heel, the city is rich in history. Check out the remains of the Roman amphitheater in Piazza Sant’Oronzo and the fascinating Museo Faggiano, which was created when a man trying to fix a toilet stumbled across more than 2,000 years of archaeological treasures.

Whatever you do, start each day with a caffe Leccese (an iced espresso blended with almond milk) and end it with a glass of Primitivo or Negroamaro (local red wines).

Sustainable Travel Tip: Find exquisite examples of Lecce’s traditional papier-mâché at La Cartapesta di Claudio Riso. The shop offers sacred figures as well as ones inspired by local culture, such as a dancer doing the pizzica (Lecce’s version of the tarantella).


Each region of Italy has its foodie fans, but pretty much everyone agrees that if you can eat in only one city, it should be in Bologna, capital of the Emilia-Romagna region. Bring your appetite to the Mercato delle Erbe or Mercato di Mezzo for a belly-filling extravaganza, or wander into just about any trattoria to tuck into tortellini al brodo, mortadella, and tagliatelle in a slow-simmered ragu. (Savor 10 iconic Italian dishes, by the region.)

It’s just a short shuttle ride to FICO Eataly World, an entire theme park dedicated to Italian cooking, where you can learn how to make gelato, hunt for truffles, and hang out with cows. Walk off the calories in central Bologna, which has been a cool college town for about 1,000 years. Its historic porticoes act as covered sidewalks, making for comfortable strolls whatever the weather brings. If you’re up for a challenge, take an hour-long trek through the world’s longest portico to reach the hilltop Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.

Sustainable Travel Tip: Bologna’s central location means there are easy train connections to several nearby cities, including food-focused Modena (famed for its balsamic vinegar and Parmesan cheese) and bike-friendly Ferrara.


“Take the cannoli” is always wise advice in the Sicilian capital, a place where pastry is as ubiquitous as signs of its past. A crossroads of Western, Islamic, and Byzantine culture, the city has a UNESCO World Heritage-designated collection of sites that date back to the 12th century, including the Royal Palace, with its golden Palatine Chapel, and the Palermo cathedral, originally built as a mosque. From the cathedral’s roof, look out over the compact downtown, which radiates out from a bustling intersection known as the “Quattro Canti” (four corners).

For a memorable show, choose between Teatro Massimo—Italy’s largest opera house—and one of the puppet theaters, where swashbuckling marionettes continue a 200-year-old tradition. Or simply observe the spectacle that is the lively Ballarò market while sipping fresh-pressed pomegranate juice.

Sustainable Travel Tip: To visit the two UNESCO-recognized sites just outside of the city, hop on the 389 bus to the stunning mosaics of Monreale Cathedral, or take the train to Cefalu, where the twin towers of its cathedral overlook a sandy beach.

Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer and frequent gelato eater who’s based in Florence, Italy. Follow her adventures on Twitter.

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