Southern Italy itinerary: A dream vacation in the South of Italy

When thinking of Italy’s national heritage it’s easy to stop at Rome, eyes set on the Colosseum, one hand grasped around a trapizzino sandwich, perfectly satisfied with the capital’s array of art, architecture and food. But slip your toes further into this timeless Versace boot and you’ll see there’s more to this nation outside of its better-known cities. Saunter your way down the Southern Italy coast for an authentic break flanked by both sea and verdant countryside, stopping at historic wineries and medieval towns en route to vibrant second cities surely worth a second day. Join us on our itinerary for southern Italy, for a dream road trip, from Naples to Taranto.

Tailor-Made Journey

Tailor-Made Italy

On a privately guided journey that reveals Italy's splendours at their most compelling, enjoy a special early entrance to the Vatican, view the artistic treasures of Florence, learn about an art restoration project and sample Italian cuisine with tastings in Tuscany and a food tour in Venice.

Capri | Photo: Bilal EL-Daou

Best time to visit Southern Italy

When planning a South Italy itinerary, bear in mind that there will be some climate variation caused by the nation’s long, narrow shape. While you’re right in thinking that Italy benefits from generally warm weather year-round thanks to its Mediterranean surroundings, it’s also true that some seasons are better than others, particularly if trying to avoid the crowds and hottest temperatures.

In summer, much of Italy comes hot and dry, while, in winter, it’s mild and wet. Spring and fall tend to fall in between the two, making for some incredible (and affordable) off-season breaks. As you go south, luckily the weather gets warmer, with possible exceptions atop the snowy peaks of the Apennine Mountains that runs south from the centre of the country. Stay low however and you’re likely to stay warm and dry, especially so on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily which see average August temperatures of around 30°C (though this number is often exceeded). Given these numbers, summer on the south coast is sure to be crowded, particularly in August when Europeans take to the beaches for their summer holidays. A good way around this would be to travel early in the season (May-June) before crowds and costs rise exponentially.

To reduce your Italy trip cost, base yourself in lesser cities and consider travelling in spring and fall when the weather still allows for beach days, accommodation is cheaper and crowds are fewer.

Photo: Marvin Meyer

Sorrento | Photo: Tom Podmore

Southern Italy itinerary

When life gives you Amalfi lemons, surely you should sip lemonade on the coast. Likewise, when life gives you Capri tomatoes, why not chow down on a Capri pizza overlooking the Tyrrhenian? The beauty of touring Southern Italy is that you need not choose; instead see it all, travelling through the best Southern Italian cities, towns and rural parts in between, savouring all the joys of the south, wine, cheese and pasta included. As well as foodie wonders, the southern half of the country is packed with arts, architecture, history and nature, all starting in Naples, the regional capital. At a bare minimum, we recommend taking 3 days in Naples, branching out with added time to explore the region surrounding (including historic towns such as Pompeii) before heading down the Amalfi Coast, with an optional jaunt on the island of Capri, before ending in Puglia, in Italy’s heel. Read on for a breakdown of what to do and see in each destination.

Photo: Daniele Colucci

1. Naples

A bustling South Italy city set on the Mediterranean Coast with Mount Vesuvius in the background, there are certainly less beautiful cities than Naples. Aesthetically appealing it may be with a trendy lot of locals to populate, Naples also happens to be the birthplace of Italian pizza and host site of the famed catacombs that run under the city. Above ground, Naples’ castles, main squares and royal palaces give a glimpse of the wealthy city of old, alongside ancient ruins painted with some of Christianity’s oldest frescoes. Find this and more on your first two days roaming the city, historians spending time at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (for Pompeiian frescoes and mosaics) and art lovers at the Pio Monte della Misericordia, Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano and Museo di Capodimonte (for Caravaggio masterpieces). The museums’ baroque architecture could be enough to keep you amused the whole day, but so too can the eerie skulls of Cimitero delle Fontanelle.

For dinner, Naples is bound to please, offering some of Italy’s best pizza, pasta and espresso, all of which can be found across the city’s wonderful street markets and celebrated restaurants. Try the spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with garlic clams), simple ragù (meat in tomato sauce) or parmigiana di melanzane (baked eggplant layered with cheese and tomato sauce) for a taste of the local specialties.

Naples | Photo: Victor Malyushev

Photo: Kenzie Kraft

2. Pompeii & Mt Vesuvius

After three or so days in Naples, a day trip to Pompeii is surely brewing, allowing you to discover first-hand the damage Mount Vesuvius wreaked on this ancient town, a place now frozen in time by lava. A Pompeii day trip is easy to achieve from either Sorrento or Naples, taking just 30 minutes by car (and only slightly longer by train) from both cities.

Book in advance and leave base early to avoid the crowds at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, its status earned thanks to the town’s complete preservation, buried by Vesuvius’ eruptions in 79AD and rediscovered in the mid-18th century. Today, millions of visitors flock here each year to walk through the once-buried roads, homes and buildings, eerily hosted by the mummified remains of past residents. If you don’t have the whole day, save at least 3 to 4 hours to roam the site, prioritising key builds such as the Foro, Teatro Grande, Terme Stabiane and Casa del Fauno. Lesser-known archaeological sites to consider include Boscoreale, Herculaneum (Ercolano), Oplontis and Stabia, which – though smaller – are just as worthy for their ruins perfectly preserved for centuries under volcanic ash.

Pompeii | Photo: Canmandawe

Pompeii | Photo: Photo Mahdiye

3. Amalfi Coast

With some historic ruins under our travel belts, it’s time to zoom along the Amalfi Coast, possibly cruising to the island of Capri and coming to rest in Amalfi town. The drive from Naples to Amalfi Coast (arriving at Amalfi Town) is 70 kilometres (1 hour 25 minutes by car) and you won’t begrudge even a second as you trace the glittering Tyrrhenian coastline, hugging the cliffside to pass secluded bays, cliffside villages and colourful towns redolent of a bygone Italy. The sheer and winding roads may have you gripping the steering wheel in terror but luckily there are plenty of picturesque places to rest along the way, including the villages of Praiano, Ravello and Positano, all oozing old-world sophistication and panoramic sea views. Instead of arriving too early in Amalfi, stop at Praiano’s San Gennaro Church, chill at Villa Rufolo gardens in Ravello and bathe with beauties on Positano’s Spiaggia Grande (Large Beach), saving an afternoon to walk one or two of Italy’s best hiking trails, one of the more affordable activities in the region.

Amalfi | Photo: Tom Podmore

Mr. Hudson highlight image

The drive from Naples to Amalfi is 70 kilometres and you won’t begrudge even a second as you trace the glittering Tyrrhenian coastline, hugging the cliffside to pass secluded bays, cliffside villages and colourful towns redolent of a bygone Italy

Take your time on the road, optionally returning to Sorrento, the gateway town to Amalfi Coast beaches, in order to allow yourself a rest day of museums and shopping among lively piazzas. Remember that your final destination town of Amalfi is on the small side, walkable in about 20 minutes, due to a landslide that saw most of the town slip into the ocean after an earthquake back in 1343. What’s left of Amalfi retains cultural and historic weight, by way of its vast Byzantine-influenced cathedral and quaint Paper Museum, serving a modest population of around 5,000. With time, enjoy a meal at a rustic Amalfi restaurant (comparing the Amalfi pizza to its Neapolitan rival), also checking out the view from around the headlands in the neighbouring village of Atrani.

For longer road trips, you might also go from Rome to Amalfi Coast via the inland E45 route, passing through Naples on the way. From there, you can even take the car on a ferry from Naples to Capri (or drive around the bay for a jaunt in Pompeii before catching the ferry from Sorrento to Capri). Of the top things to do once you arrive in Capri, getting the chairlift up Mount Solaro and dining at a traditional Capri restaurant in the Piazzetta (main square) are both absolute musts.

Positano | Photo: Jakob Owens

Positano | Photo: Sander Crombach

4. Matera

Getting out of those salty headwinds means moving east inland to Matera, a journey of around 250 kilometres (approximately 3 hours by car). The jewel of the Basilicata region, Matera is one of the world’s longest continuously inhabited settlements, featuring a Palaeolithic cave network once lived in some 7,000 years ago and built upon with elaborate structures. Today, visitors to Matera can still look across the gorge to see these cave dwellings (known as the Sassi di Matera), staying on one of two sections of Old Matera – Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. On a ridge between the two, sits the town’s duomo (Maria Santissima della Bruna Cathedral); a focal point, recently restored and its walls hung with heritage artworks.

Wander the sloping alleys enjoying the ancient architecture of the town, joining a local tour to better understand the local culture both past and present. Otherwise, go your own way with a visit to the ancient Casa Noha mansion followed by the Museum of Peasant Civilization (both good for general information on the city’s past).

Matera | Photo: Victor Malyushev

Matera | Photo: Sterlinglanier Lanier

5. Bari, Puglia

After a day and night in Matera, it’s on to Bari in the Puglia region, around 110 kilometres away (1 hour 30 minutes by car). Another cathedral (San Sabino) awaits your inspection, this time demonstrating one of Southern Italy’s most important examples of Romanic style, with archaeological remains running underground. Other sites in town include the Aqueduct Building, Petruzzelli Theatre and Norman Castle, with all roads leading to the waterfront and Old Port for a rewarding afternoon stroll. The beaches in the area are also worth a gander, including Lido San Francesco, Lido Sun Beach, and Pane e Pomodoro Beach.

Though Bari is full of heritage and musty archaeology (including the bones of St Nicholas himself at the Basilica di San Nicola), you’ll be pleasantly surprised by its urban nightlife, centred on the town’s grand boulevards and enlivened by its university community. Many visitors will skip Bari on their way to Lecce, Puglia’s more famous big-hitter, but we’d argue to stick around in this bustling port town for at least the night.

Photo: Massimo Virgilio

Puglia | Photo: Eleonora Altomare

6. Explore further Puglia

We’re not done with Puglia yet on our South Italy tour, however, as we still have the whole of Italy’s heel to explore, where myriad fishing villages and heritage towns gather, edged by sandy beaches of both the Adriatic and Ionian Sea.

When weighing up where to go in the region besides the cities of Bari and Lecce, consider a heritage stay in one of Alberobello’s cone-shaped Trulli houses (1 hour by car from Bari), exploring the shops and churches of the UNESCO-listed town by day before moving on to Polignano a Mare (30 minutes towards the coast from Alberobello), a popular resort among locals and tourists for its crystal waters and scenic location.

7. Taranto

Last on our Southern Italy Itinerary is another Puglia gem, the city of Taranto, accessible by car in one hour from Bari. Fortified in the 15th century to protect this coastal city from invasion, though founded as a Greek colony way back in 706 BC Taranto has much medieval and ancient heritage to offer, most notably its Aragonese Castle (otherwise known as Sant’Angelo Castle) and the nearby iron bridge that connects the Greek-Spartan Old Town (once known as Taras) with the commercial New Town across the Mar Piccolo lagoon. For more historical insights from the Magna Grecia territory and the cultural heritage of Southern Italian people, you can head inside the National Archaeological Museum.

Before returning home via Salento Airport (1 hour from Taranto), end your vacation on a high with a 5-hour dolphin cruise, learning about local biodiversity and marine life from the experts at the Jonian Dolphin Conservation Centre.

Alberobello | Photo: Kirsten Velghe

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Positano | Photo: Sebastian Leonhardt

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