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What are the best hidden gems in Italy?

5 min read

What are the best hidden gems in Italy?
Do you want to visit a less well-known spot while you're in Italy? We'll take you through four of the best hidden gems that you can find in the country
Italy's delectable cuisine, rich history and gorgeous architecture make it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, with almost 50 million tourists visiting the country in 2022. But if you fancy seeing some sights that aren't heaving with other visitors, you might have to travel a bit further off the beaten path than the likes of The Colosseum or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Here, you can check out our recommendations of four of the best hidden gems that Italy has to offer.

1. Chioggia, Venetian Lagoon

Canal Vena in Chioggia filled with boats, surrounded by pastel-coloured buildings
At the southern end of the Venetian Lagoon is what appears, at first, to be a miniature version of its famous city. Arranged across five islands, Chioggia, too, is bewitchingly spliced by beautiful canals, full of hopelessly narrow streets and rich in crooked, colonnaded palazzos of various pastel shades.
Look more closely, though, and you’ll begin noticing some differences. There’s more salt in the air, and less English on locals’ tongues; unlike Venice, this isn’t a place which revolves around tourism. Fishing vessels replace gondolas.
"Unlike Venice, this isn't a place which revolves around tourism. Fishing vessels replace gondolas"
Even so, there’s ample reason to visit. In terms of sights, you’ve got Torre di Sant’Andrea and its blue watch face, which dates from at least 1386 and might well be the world’s oldest working clock tower, plus the graceful Ponte di Vigo, a white-marble bridge on the square atop aperitivo bar and shop-lined main street Corso del Popolo, where there are often market stalls.
The adjoined town of Sottomarina, across a causeway, throws in a six-mile sandy beach whose iodine-rich air is said to be good for thyroids. Further south are more beaches plus empty riversides lovely for cycling—which, unlike Venice, one can also do in Chioggia—between radicchio fields.
A marina filled with boats, with the town of Sottamarina just visible in the background
The 90-minute journey to La Serenissima is long-winded, but doable for day-trippers. A ferry sails across the lagoon to rake-thin Pellestrina. You then board a bus which motors up this pretty island, boards a car ferry, and then skips along Lido island, past beach huts and stilted houses, to its main port—from where numerous vaporetti splash off towards Venice.

2. Borromini’s Perspective, Rome

Chances are that, if you have heard of Palazzo Spada, it’s thanks to an art gallery championing the likes of Rubens, Caravaggio and Titian. But there’s a far more beguiling reason to visit this impressive Centro Storico palace.
On its first floor, find a peaceful orange tree courtyard and look down the colonnaded gallery whose distant statue of Mars is about 35 metres away. Except it isn’t. In fact, the passage is actually only eight metres long, and its god of war just 60 piffling centimetres high. Not that you’ll believe it until stepping forward.
A statue of the god Mars is about 35 metres away, across a courtyard with marble pillars
Enabled by a rising floor, a descending ceiling and shrinking lateral columns—part of a wider technique known as “forced perspective”—this optical illusion was conceived in 1635 by one Francesco Borromini. Upon commissioning the architect, Cardinal Spada asked that his flamboyant stucco property be redesigned to look bigger; in cahoots with Giovanni Maria da Bitonto, a monk and mathematical wizz, Borromini found an ingenious solution.
"This optical illusion was enabled by a rising floor, a descending ceiling and shrinking lateral columns"
But just who was this free thinker? A tortured genius, as all the best ones are, Borromini was born inside the Swiss Confederacy before later moving to Rome. Though his imaginative, illusory works earned increasing renown, the architect suffered from anger, hallucinations and a severe outrage at sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, his better-known contemporary. Other works by Borromini still litter Rome, but none are as engrossing as this piece of deceptive design.

3. San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, Venice

According to the film critic Roger Ebert, Nicolas Roeg utilised Venice “as well as she's ever been used in a movie" during his atmospheric thriller Don’t Look Now—which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023.  Consciously avoiding tourist traps, Roeg instead presented an eerier, edgier Venice than is normally seen.
One key filming location was Dorsoduro’s San Nicolò dei Mendicoli church. Situated on the sestiere’s south-eastern fringes, and well removed from La Serenissima’s headline sights, this is the building that John (Donald Sutherland) is tasked with restoring.
Inside the San Nicolò dei Mendicoli church, with statues, marble columns and oil paintings
Mendicoli translates from Venetian to “beggars”; this area once housed poor fishermen and the church’s portico used to shelter paupers and lepers. While a seventh-century structure once stood here, the current building’s oldest parts date to the 1300s. Outside it, canals flank two sides of a typically pretty campo (plaza).
Beyond set-jetting, further incentive to visit is provided by some superb Renaissance ceiling frescos and, to the left of an old organ, Palma il Giovane's celebrated Resurrection of Christ oil painting. Look out, too, for Corinthian-like columns and a statue of titular Saint Nicholas holding three golden spheres; these represent donations made in his legend in order to rescue three girls from prostitution.
"The building's oldest parts date to the 1300s"
Other parts of Venice glimpsed in Don’t Look Now include Calle de Mezzo, the hemmed-in alley along which John pursues a red-hooded figure, and, still open, the Grand Canal-side Ristorante Roma.

4. Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy, Florence

Chemist’s shops and sightseeing rarely go together, except in cases of blister plasters. In Florence, visiting one particular apothecary is a must.
That’s partly because the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (to use its full name) is thought to be the world’s oldest pharmacy. And partly because it’s rather more beautiful than your average Boots branch.
The pharmacy's interior, consisting of a painted ceiling, chequered floor, and wooden desk and glass cabinets
The establishment began operation, of a sort, in 1221. That’s when Dominican friars—long prone for their ailment-curing alchemy, including dousing themselves in vinegar blends to ward off the plague—arrived in Florence and immediately founded a pharmacy. This was stocked with balms and tinctures made using medicinal herbs from their monastic gardens.
An ever-improving reputation led to the store concocting, on request, Acqua della Regina (the Queen’s Water)—a special scent that would forever remind Catherine de’ Medici of the city as she left Florence in 1533 to marry Henry II of France. It was one of the world’s first alcohol-based perfumes. Global fame now ensued and, in 1612, the store opened to the public. A spectacular renovation that wrought intricate wooden detailing, frescoed ceilings, stucco and chandeliers to this former chapel followed in the 18th century.
"The store opened to the public in 1612, and pharmacy entry is free"
Today, while admission to the neighbouring, tremendous basilica costs €7.50, pharmacy entry is free. Friendly staff will guide you through handmade soaps, lotions, potpourri and fragrances including Acqua della Regina (now called Acqua di Santa Maria Novella) made according to centuries-old recipes, or point visitors towards a mini-museum showcasing antique pharmaceutical instruments.
Banner photo: Chioggia, pictured here, and other hidden gems in Italy (credit: Richard Mellor)
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