Our south Italy itinerary, 7 days from Sicily to Apulia, is all about checking off the highlights that await at the sun-soaked southern end of the boot. There’s quite a mix of them, from pizzaiolo-staffed trattoria in the heart of Naples to idyllic towns that clutch the sides of soaring Mount Etna.
Over the course of a week, this guide will run through the must-sees and must-dos of the whole region. It will take you across from the largest isle in the Mediterranean – Sicily – to the untrodden reaches of Apulia, where white-stone villages sit on sheer-cut cliffs above the Adriatic Sea.
We think the whole thing is best done in the spring or autumn months. The winter won’t be great because the beaches here are some of the highlights. Summer is okay, but you should expect to pay more for the luxury and have to contend with some pretty big crowds between June and August.
Day 1: Sicily
Where else but Sicily to kick-start this south Italy itinerary? Begin with a flight into one of three main airports on the island: Catania, Palermo, Trapani. Any works, because you’ll be renting a car anyhow. Today is all about getting out and seeing the true beauty of the largest isle in the Med. We’ll assume that you’re starting in Catania on the east coast, since that’s got the biggest airport of the bunch. If not, no biggie – the drive over from the others is only around 2-3 hours.
First, head to the south coast and the UNESCO-tagged Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi). Home to the towering Temple of Concordia and the Temple of Juno, it’s arguably the most striking Greek historical dig outside of Greece itself, and offers just a clue to the long, long history of Sicily – the ruins here date back 2,500 years!
From there, cruise east to the amazing town of Ragusa. The part you want to explore is the steep-sided Ragusa Ibla, the old town. That’s a maze of small streets that occasionally opens to reveal gorgeous Baroque architecture. Lunch on the piazza facing the fancy façade of the Cathedral of San Giorgio is something you won’t forget.
From here, go east again to Syracuse. This onetime Greek colony buzzes with life. Its historic core is known as Ortigia. It’s actually a separate island reached via an ancient gate. Delve in there to find salt-washed swimming spots constructed on stilts above the Med.
For the evening, return to Catania’s center. There’s nowhere quite like that gritty mass of markets and crooked palazzos. Stay in the San Berillo area to be in the thick of it. The Habitat ($$) boutique hotel is one of our all-time favs.
Day 2: Taormina and Etna
Day 2 is about mountain and coast, in that order. First, head to the Parco dell’Etna. The drive up should take about an hour, no more. It creeps higher and higher towards the base station of the cable car at Funivia dell’Etna. That’s where you have a choice: Hike or ride. We recommend the latter because it will leave more time later on (plus, the hike up Etna is hardly the same jaw-dropping experience of the Italian Alps).
The cable car here whisks you right to the very tip of the mighty mountain that really defines the horizon on the island. At the top station, you’ll be able to survey the smoking Cratere del Laghetto and the steaming fumaroles of the Crateri Barbagallo. The views – clouds willing – are second to none. They look east to the Italian mainland, and south to the sprawl of Catania.
For the evening of day two, descend the mountain and settle into the charming town of Taormina. You have to see the ancient Theatre of Taormina there. It originally dates from the Greek era but was reconstructed by the Romans in the first century AD. It has views that gaze over Etna and the eastern shores of Sicily. The town also has some gorgeous pebble beaches and resort hotels like Hotel Metropole Taormina ($$$) – infinity pool, anyone?
Day 3: Calabria, Italy’s untrodden south
There’s a car train or just a normal passenger train that takes you from Sicily over to the mainland of Italy. They leave regularly from the port in Messina, connecting with Villa San Giovanni. Welcome to the region of Calabria, the earthy toe of the boot. This is an area that’s been much maligned for its historical levels of poverty and links with the mafia. But it’s also an area that’s downright gorgeous.
Bearing in mind that you only have a day here, we think you’ll need to pick: Mountains or beaches. If you go for the first, then head straight for the Aspromonte National Park. It’s a truly wonderful reserve that has hoodoo peaks and rolling slopes covered in stone pines and holm oaks, not to mention some of the last remaining populations of wolves in the country. You can drive north through all the way to the Sila National Park, where lakes hide in flat valleys below totally remote peaks.
We’d plump for the coast in Calabria though. The reason? Tropea. This town is a fantastic place. Soaring on a steep cliff by the Tyrrhenian Sea, it’s known for its dashes of ivory pebbles and uber-clear seas. It’s a bit of a secret – notice how the Italians themselves holiday in Tropea!
Day 4: The Amalfi Coast
Day 4 opens up one of the undisputed jewels of southern Italy. Cue the Amalfi Coast. Cruising around the hairpin bends of this amazing stretch of shoreline will leave you feeling like a true James Bond. It runs roughly from Salerno all the way to Sorrento over about 25 miles. But that 25 miles is sheer beauty – think cascading vineyards, crumpled limestone peaks, and beaches dotted with tanning bodies.
The towns of the Amalfi Coast are about as charming as they come. The best of them include Amalfi itself, which clutches a cliff face above a series of boat-bobbing marinas, and Positano, which some say is the most romantic town in all of Europe. Stops in those are a must. Optional extras could be a hike along the eye-watering Path of the Gods or a session tasting Limoncello, one of the region’s delicacies.
If time allows, you could also hop on a ferry to cross to the jet-setter isle of Capri. That’s been an R&R escape since the days of the emperor Tiberius. His villa complex still crowns a central hillside there, but we think you might be more interested in the Michelin-attested seafood restaurants that sit near the ports.
Day 5: Naples
Get ready for the grit and energy of Naples, the largest city in the south of Italy. No trip to this corner of the country could possibly skip out on this one. Thing is, though, the main draw isn’t actually in Naples itself but just outside…
Pompeii sits about midway around the Bay of Naples when you travel up north from the end of the Amalfi Coast. It’s hailed by historians as the single most impressive Roman archaeology site outside of Rome itself. You’ll see why the moment you step in. The place was basically frozen in time back in 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius (that colossal volcano you see next door) erupted. Everything from villas to amphitheaters to brothels are still visible.
Take a morning over that and then make for the heart of Naples itself. This is the home of pizza, don’t you know? Of course you knew. There are two pizza joints that stand out from the crowd: Gino e Toto Sorbillo, famed for its local ingredients, and the L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, said to be the original. Both are incredible. Both ALWAYS have queues.
After your fix of the local pie, dive into the Spaccanapoli area to see the tos and fros of life in the town. Naples is a people-watching mecca, with churches and hidden cafeterias around every nook and cranny.
Day 6: Gargano National Park
For the last two days of this trip, you’ll transport yourself over to the eastern side of Italy. We think that the Gargano National Park is just about the perfect antidote to the energy and hubbub of Naples city. It begins the coast of the region of Apulia in grand style and offers a chance to slow down and relax between pine-studded coves and coastal olive groves.
We’d say that the very best beaches here are around the small towns of Baia delle Zagare (great for couples) and Lido di Portonuovo (better for families). Most are easy to reach by car, though there are also plenty of long coastal hiking paths to get stuck into. Those who prefer towns to sandy shores can stick to the immersive village of Vieste, which has a great mineral museum and some seriously pretty neighborhoods perched on high ridges above the Adriatic.
Day 7: Bari to Lecce – the best of Apulia
The finale of our South Italy itinerary, 7 days from Sicily to Apulia, ends with a jaunt down the heel of the boot. Start out in the lovely old town of Bari. It’s usually overlooked by tourists because it’s best-known as a port, but there are actually ancient streets to tread, topped by churches that date back over 500 years.
From there, it’s an easy trip to the village of Polignano a Mare. That has one of southern Italy’s most iconic urban swimming spots. It’s also a great spot for a long seafood lunch overlooking the glistening waters of the Adriatic – we recommend the terrace at Morus Sapori & Sentori.
Bend inland again to the small town of Alberobello. This is a surprising UNESCO site that plays host to the iconic Trulli houses of the south. They are cone-topped cottages built with rough stone, all lining up to create handsome village landscapes that are a photographer’s dream come true.
Talking of a photographer’s dream come true…Lecce is the climax of your Apulia romp. The city is one of the greatest Baroque achievements in Europe (sorry, Vienna). Honey-hued churches loom above the piazzas, wine bars dot the side streets, and you’ll see grand and gilded gateways that date back centuries.