10 Secret Islands in Italy That Have All of the Beauty and None of the Tourists
Everyone’s heard of Sicily, Sardinia, and fashionable Capri, but when it comes to enchanting islands, Italy has much more to offer than the usual headline acts. And few people realize that the country’s coastline is actually peppered with over 350 idyllic islands, from picture-perfect Favignana to car-free Panarea to rugged Marettimo.
Some of these islands are quite remote and hard to reach, while others require less effort; some are chic, and others are laid-back and rustic. One word of warning, though: The Italians adore their islands and make a beeline for them during their summer holidays. So, if you don’t want to share your slice of paradise with lots of others, avoid traveling there in July and August. If true solitude is what you’re seeking, visit during the winter months — you may be the only visitor.
Lying an hour’s ferry ride from the western coast of Sicily, craggy Favignana is the largest and most popular of the three Egadi Islands, a butterfly-shaped mass of land fringed by a jagged coastline interspersed with sandy beaches (Cala Rossa and Cala Azzurra are among the best) and small, secret coves. You’ll find the impossibly clear, azure waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea dotted with dinghies, sailing boats, and yachts gliding silently along the rocky coast. Stock up on picnic essentials and head to the port to hire a small boat with or without a skipper (Capitan Sinagra is a good bet) and spend the day swimming, snorkeling, and sipping cold beer.
Pro Tip: Scooter is by far the best way to get around on land — rent one from Brezza Marina.
Where to Stay: The west-facing Dimora dell’Olivastro is a small, stylish guest house in an utterly peaceful setting among olive groves and dry stone walls.
Where to Eat: Bright, rustic Osteria del Sotto Sale is a good place to sample the local cuisine, including peppery mussel soup, tuna tartare with capers and mint, and tuna steak.
Getting There: Ferries and hydrofoils from Trapani on Sicily’s west coast are run by Siremar and Liberty Lines.
The charm of tiny, nearly traffic-free Marettimo — the most remote of the Egadi Islands — lies in its simplicity. Relative inaccessibility and a lack of hotels have kept things here largely rustic. Habitués come and stay a while, renting simple rooms and apartments in the only town, a tumble of whitewashed, blue-shuttered buildings clustered around a delightfully shabby port. They spend their time exploring sea caves and grottoes, swimming off the rocky shore, lingering over morning cappuccinos, and retreating to shady terraces with a book before feasting on local lobster soup in one of the simple trattorias. It’s the ultimate wind-down destination, but if you have the energy, the walking trails through the scented macchia are well worth exploring — you may see peregrine falcons or even an eagle along the way.
Pro Tip: The diving and snorkeling is spectacular in the protected waters surrounding Marettimo — contact Voglia di Mare.
Where to Stay: Marettimo Residence is an eco-friendly hotel residence with self-catering apartments and wonderful views.
Where to Eat: You can eat in or take out at La Cambusa, a fabulous deli and wine shop selling a tempting array of prepared dishes, sandwiches, cheeses, and charcuterie. It’s perfect for a picnic on the beach.
Getting There: Ferries and hydrofoils from Trapani on Sicily’s west coast are run by Siremar and Liberty Lines.
The middle of the seven Aeolian Islands, sleepy, verdant Salina was formed from two extinct volcanoes. Lying off northern Sicily, it’s now famous for its production of sweet Malvasia wine and capers. Small, whitewashed towns and villages can be found along the coastline; Santa Marina is the port and main hub, where you can hire a boat for exploring by sea (the best way). There’s not much else to do on Salina except swimming in limpid waters off pebbly beaches, feasting on marvelously fresh fish and seafood, and drinking in the magnificent views. But that’s precisely the point.
Pro Tip: The best lemon granita on the island (and arguably in the world) is served at bar Da Alfredo in Lingua.
Where to Stay: The sublime, whitewashed Capofaro Locanda & Malvasia has its own lighthouse and an excellent gourmet restaurant. Plus, it’s set among vineyards and boasts far-reaching sea views.
Where to Eat: Laid out on several dreamy terraces overlooking the harbor, elegant Porto Bello offers some unique dishes, like spaghetti with clams and truffles and swordfish in a pistachio crust, as well as the Sicilian standards.
Getting There: Ferries run to Salina from Milazzo via Lipari, and the journey takes about 90 minutes.
In terms of vibe, picture-perfect Panarea (one of the easternmost of the Aeolian Islands) is about as far from Salina as you could possibly get. The epitome of barefoot luxury, the destination became popular in the 1960s, and today, celebs like Beyonce, Bill Gates, and Uma Thurman count as regulars. They anchor their smart yachts and shimmy ashore in linen, cashmere, and bejeweled sandals to hang out and sip Negronis at the see-and-be-seen Bar del Porto. There are no cars on the island (locals drive golf carts or three-wheeler Apes), so if you want to get anywhere, you’ll need to walk.
Pro Tip: Rent a traditional wooden boat from charter company Sea Panarea to explore caves, coves, and the two micro-islands of Basiluzzo and Lisca.
Where to Stay: Tumbling, terraced Hotel Raya has been the top place to stay on the island since the 1960s. Cocktails on the rooftop bar and party-till-dawn sessions at the nightclub are legendary.
Where to Eat: Family-run Hycesia serves up elegant fish and seafood dishes, some with a creative twist.
Getting There: You can catch an overnight ferry or a faster hydrofoil from Naples, or a ferry or hydrofoil from Milazzo.
This remote lump of black volcanic rock, relentlessly buffeted by warm, sirocco winds, is closer to Tunisia than Italy. Arab invaders left their mark in the vernacular dammusi, dwellings built of local black stone with domed roofs and two-meter-thick walls to keep out the heat. Publicity-shy celebs like Giorgio Armani and Luca Zingaretti (Inspector Montalbano) have villas here, but the island remains far removed from the jet-set (or any other) circuit. There may be no beaches, but Pantelleria is rich in volcanic activity; expect fumaroles, mud baths, and natural saunas, and don’t leave without trying the honeyed local dessert wine, Zibibbo.
Pro Tip: Climb up past prickly pears to the Grotta del Bagno Asciutto, a kind of natural sauna in a cave where heat rises from the bowels of the island, thanks to geothermal activity.
Where to Stay: Sikelia is built around a group of typical dammusi with terraces looking out to the sea. The spa offers mud treatments, and the restaurant serves up an exotic fusion of southern Italian, North African, and Arab cuisines.
Where to Eat: On a lovely terrace overlooking the sea, La Nicchia in Scauri offers local dishes such as caponata and swordfish steaks served with tomatoes, black olives, and capers.
Getting There: There are flights from Palermo and Trapani, which take between 30 and 45 minutes.
Most travelers venture to Vulcano to climb its active volcano or to bathe in its famous mud baths just a short stroll from the ferry dock. Devotees slather themselves in the therapeutic mud from an open-air pool, then jump in the sea to rinse it all off. But there’s more to do if you can stand the sulphuric stench. Rent a Mehari and explore the lush, green interior, where goats roam the volcanic mountainside. Take the winding road down to the black-sand beach at Gelso where you’ll find a clutch of buildings and a superb waterside restaurant, Trattoria Da Pina.
Pro Tip: If you want to peer into the depths of the Gran Cratere (a fairly easy two-hour climb from the port), wear sturdy shoes and a sunhat. Set off in the early morning or late afternoon as there is no shade.
Where to Stay: The coastal Therasia Resort is located near Vulcanello, the island’s smaller extinct volcano. Choose a suite for added privacy and full sea views.
Where to Eat: Effort is required to reach Trattoria Da Pina, a simple terrace restaurant on an isolated beach at Gelso, but the reward is fantastically good. Feast on couscous with baby squid, marinated anchovies, pasta with clams, stuffed calamari, and seared tuna.
Getting There: Ferries run from Milazzo, and the journey takes about one hour.
The largest of the Pontine Islands — mere clumps of rock dropped in the Tyrrhenian Sea between Rome and Naples — Ponza has an otherworldly feel and is shrouded in ancient myth and legend (the witch, Circe, used it as her summer pad). In-the-know Romans flock here, but the destination doesn’t see many international visitors. Clinging to steep cliffs, the brightly painted houses in the main town overlook the harbor packed with bobbing boats. Take the local bus to explore the island (it’s too hilly for bicycles) and follow the walking trails through the scented vegetation down to hidden bays and secret coves.
Pro Tip: Ponza’s top beach is Spiaggia di Frontone, a curve of pebbly sand lapped by clear water and framed by rocks. For easy access, hop on a taxi boat from the port and stick around for a sunset Campari spritz.
Where to Stay: The Grand Hotel Santa Domitilla is located in the main town; make sure to get a sea-facing room. Facilities include a beach club on Frontone beach.
Where to Eat: Located on the main waterfront drag with a terrace overlooking the busy port, upmarket Acquapazza serves up dishes like spaghetti with sea urchin, swordfish, and lobster.
Getting There: Laziomar operates ferry services to Ponza from Anzio, 25 miles north of Rome. The trip time is approximately one hour, 20 minutes.
Overshadowed by glam Capri and spa-crazy Ischia, the tiny, low-key island of Procida, famous for its lemons, is a delightful place to visit. Ferries dock side by side with fishing boats in bustling Marina Grande, where cafés and restaurants are strung out along the quayside. But for real island charm, head to the Instagram-worthy harbor of Corricella, a jumble of pastel-hued houses where scenes from “The Talented Mr. Ripley” were filmed. From here, climb up to the imposing, fortified Terra Murata for extraordinary sea views. The best way to explore the mainly flat island is by scooter or bicycle; you can hire both at Sprint near the port.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the typical Procida salad of chopped local lemons, fresh chili, and mint drizzled with olive oil for a burst of freshness on a boiling hot day.
Where to Eat: With a quayside terrace overlooking the marina at Chiaiolella, Da Mariano offers delicious local seafood dishes such as pasta with polipetti (baby octopus), seafood risotto, and fritto misto.
Where to Stay: La Casa sul Mare has 10 simple, airy rooms, all with wonderful views over the sea and Corricella.
Getting There: Ferries and hydrofoils run from Naples and Pozzuoli
The ferry crossing to the island of La Maddalena from Palau on the northeast coast of Sardinia takes just 20 minutes, but this peaceful spot is a world away from the overpriced kitsch of the nearby Costa Smeralda. This is the largest of the eponymous archipelago, a cluster of seven islands and outlying islets fringed by a pink-hued rocky shoreline. The only town on the island is a lively port with good shops, bars, and restaurants, but during the day, you’ll want to explore the dozens of glorious beaches and swim in the turquoise waters, which are among the cleanest in the Mediterranean.
Pro Tip: Italian military hero Giuseppe Garibaldi made the wild island of Caprera his home for the last 27 years of his life, partly in exile. Caprera is connected to the main island by a bridge; you can visit his former house, now the small Museo Garibaldino, then set off to explore the magnificent beaches.
Where to Stay: The Grand Hotel Resort Ma&Ma in the southwest part of the island makes a good base for exploring the archipelago, and after a tiring day, you can retreat to the excellent spa facilities.
Where to Eat: Feast on fregola with seafood, culurgiones (fried ravioli stuffed with potato, sheep’s cheese, and mint), porcheddu (roast suckling pig), and other local specialities at the cozy Sottovento near the main port.
Getting There: The ferry ride from Palau to La Maddalena is just 20 minutes.
Hardly under the radar, but big enough to absorb the droves of Italians that pile in for the summer holidays, Elba (the largest island in the Tuscan Archipelago) is a solid choice if you want some sightseeing and culture along with your beach holiday. Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled here in 1814-15, and you can visit both his villas. Other attractions include the remains of a first century B.C. Roman villa at Punta delle Grotte and Portoferraio’s iconic hilltop Forte Stella. For downtime, head to one of the world-class beaches, which range from great curving bays with fully-serviced lidos, like Biodola, to handkerchief-sized creeks accessible only by sea (boat rentals are available) or via a long trek on foot. And for an evening stroll and gelato, old Portoferraio and the towns of Marciana Marina and Capoliveri are a delight.
Pro Tip: Take the cable car (which is more like a cable basket for two) from Marciana Alta to the top of Monte Capanne for views that stretch all the way to Corsica.
Where to Stay: The boutique Hotel Ilio has 19 modern rooms and a pretty garden, and it lies just above the gorgeous beach at Sant’Andrea in the western part of the island. Try and book the standalone seafront suite for a romantic getaway.
Where to Eat: Osteria del Noce in Marciana Alta serves up Elban and Ligurian specialities (think spaghetti with mullet roe or pesto and oven-baked catch of the day with potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and black olives).
Getting There: Ferries run all year from Piombino on the Tuscan coast, and the journey takes about an hour.
By Nicky Swallow and Debbie Pappyn