Italy's peeling, sun-bleached south is the country at its most ancient, soulful and sensual. Down here, the ruins are older, the lunches longer, and the landscapes wilder and more intense.
At the crossroads of civilisations for millennia, southern Italy is littered with the detritus of diverse and gilded ages, from Greek and Roman to Saracen, Norman and Spanish. Every carved stone and every frescoed palace tells a story, from fiery Carthaginian invasions and power-hungry kings, to the humble hopes of Roman slaves and gladiators. Here, ancient Greek temples are older than Rome, Byzantine mosaics attest to cosmopolitan encounters and royal palaces outsize Versailles. Southern Italy is home to no less than 13 Unesco World Heritage cultural sites, each laced with tales of victory, failure and ever-relevant humanity.
Italy's fertile south is a mouth-watering, belt-busting feast: bubbling, wood-fired pizza and potent espresso in Naples; long, lazy lunches at vine-framed Pugliese farmhouses; just-caught sardines on a Tyrrhenian island; luscious cannoli at a Taormina pasticceria. Should you go mushroom hunting in the wilds of Calabria? Taste-test your first red eggplant (aubergine) at an heirloom trattoria in Basilicata? Feast on fresh sea urchin on an Adriatic beach? Or just kick back with a glass of low-intervention Etna red as you debate who has the creamiest buffalo mozzarella: Caserta, Paestum or Foggia?
A Warm Benvenuto
You'll rarely be short of a conversation south of Rome. Southern Italians are naturally curious, famously affable and quick to share their opinion. Family and friends are sacred, and time spent laughing, arguing or gossiping is as integral to southern life as lavish Sunday lunches and long, sizzling summers. One minute you're picking produce at a street market, the next you're in the middle of a feverish discussion about who grows Italy's sweetest pomodori (tomatoes) – Sicily or Campania? No one is a stranger for long, and a casual chiacchiera (chat) could easily land you at the dining table of your new best friend.
Rugged mountains, fiery volcanoes and electric-blue grottoes – southern Italy feels like a giant adventure playground waiting to be tackled. Crank up the heart rate rafting down Calabria's river Lao, scaling Europe's most active volcano, Stromboli, or diving into prehistoric sea caves on Puglia's Promontorio del Gargano. If you need to bring it down a notch, consider slow pedalling across Puglia's gentle countryside, sailing along the Amalfi Coast or simply soaking in Vulcano's healing geothermal mud. The options may be many, but there is one constant: a landscape that is beautiful, diverse and just a little ethereal.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southern Italy.
Naples' National Archaeological Museum serves up one of the world’s finest collections of Graeco-Roman artefacts. Originally a cavalry barracks and later seat of the city’s university, the museum was established by the Bourbon king Charles VII in the late 18th century to house the antiquities he inherited from his mother, Elisabetta Farnese, as well as treasures looted from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Star exhibits include the celebrated Toro Farnese (Farnese Bull) sculpture and awe-inspiring mosaics from Pompeii's Casa del Fauno.
Villa Romana del Casale is sumptuous, even by decadent Roman standards, and is thought to have been the country retreat of Marcus Aurelius Maximianus, Rome's co-emperor during the reign of Diocletian (AD 286–305). Certainly, the size of the complex – four interconnected groups of buildings spread over the hillside – and the 3535 sq metres of astoundingly well-preserved multicoloured floor mosaics suggest a palace of imperial standing.
Sicily's most enthralling archaeological site encompasses the ruined ancient city of Akragas, highlighted by the stunningly well-preserved Tempio della Concordia, one of several ridge-top temples that once served as beacons for homecoming sailors. The 13-sq-km park, 3km south of Agrigento, is split into eastern and western zones. Ticket offices with car parks are at the park's southwestern corner (the main Porta V entrance) and at the northeastern corner near the Temple of Hera (Eastern Entrance).
Originally designed as a hunting lodge for Charles VII of Bourbon, the monumental Palazzo di Capodimonte was begun in 1738 and took more than a century to complete. It's now home to the Museo di Capodimonte, southern Italy's largest and richest art gallery. Its vast collection – much of which Charles inherited from his mother, Elisabetta Farnese – was moved here in 1759 and ranges from exquisite 12th-century altarpieces to works by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Titian and Warhol.
It's in this Masonic-inspired baroque chapel that you'll find Giuseppe Sanmartino's incredible sculpture, Cristo velato (Veiled Christ), its marble veil so realistic that it's tempting to try to lift it and view Christ underneath. It's one of several artistic wonders that include Francesco Queirolo's sculpture Disinganno (Disillusion), Antonio Corradini's Pudicizia (Modesty) and riotously colourful frescoes by Francesco Maria Russo that have remained untouched since their creation in 1749.
Inspired by a vision of the Virgin and determined to outdo his grandfather Roger II, who was responsible for the cathedral in Cefalù and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, William II set about building the Cattedrale di Monreale, 8km southwest of Palermo. Incorporating Norman, Arab, Byzantine and classical elements, the cathedral is considered the finest example of Norman architecture in Sicily. It's also one of the most impressive architectural legacies of the Italian Middle Ages.
Designed by Roger II in 1130, this extraordinary chapel is Palermo's top tourist attraction. Located on the middle level of Palazzo dei Normanni's three-tiered loggia, its glittering gold mosaics are complemented by inlaid marble floors and a wooden muqarnas ceiling, the latter a masterpiece of Arabic-style honeycomb carving reflecting Norman Sicily's cultural complexity. Note that queues are likely, and you'll be refused entry if you're wearing shorts, a short skirt or a low-cut top.
Herculaneum harbours a wealth of archaeological finds, from ancient advertisements and stylish mosaics to carbonised furniture and terror-struck skeletons. Indeed, this superbly conserved Roman fishing town of 4000 inhabitants is easier to navigate than Pompeii, and can be explored with a map and highly recommended audio guide (€8).
The ghostly ruins of ancient Pompeii (Pompei in Italian) make for one of the world's most engrossing archaeological experiences. Much of the site's value lies in the fact that the town wasn't simply blown away by Vesuvius in AD 79 but buried under a layer of lapilli (burning fragments of pumice stone). The result is a remarkably well-preserved slice of ancient life, where visitors can walk down Roman streets and snoop around millennia-old houses, temples, shops, cafes, amphitheatres and even a brothel.