Some of Italy’s prettiest and most uncrowded beaches are on the islands in the Mediterranean, Tyrrhenian, and Adriatic seas.
When Italians want a quiet getaway, they know to get off the busy mainland and head to the country’s best islands. From pristine Mediterranean coves to fishing villages near active volcanoes, these idyllic escapes off the coast of Italy can fulfill your vacation dreams, whether you’re in the market for a jet-set fantasy, homey beach vacation, or an off-the-grid digital detox.
Sicily and her satellites
With nearly 650 miles of coastline, Sicily is Italy’s biggest island, with some of the country’s most interesting and diverse culinary delights, exciting cities (like Palermo and Catania), and transporting hilltop hamlets and baroque towns. Sicily is also home to world-class archaeological sites, such as the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, the Greek Theater in Taormina, and the temples of Selinunte and Segesta. But when you want to find a quiet sdraio (sun bed), look to the small islands off Sicily.
Pantelleria, a tiny volcanic island 67 miles southwest of Sicily (and 37 miles east of Tunisia), has long been a favorite getaway for the reclusively chic, like Truman Capote, Giorgio Armani, and Sting. The glamorous allure of the turquoise water is offset by a rugged coastline of jagged lava-rock formations, steaming fumaroles, and mud baths. Reminders of the island’s millennia-long human history—from the Bronze Age, on through its Roman occupation, into its heyday as Arab outpost Bent el-Rhia, and to its inclusion in the Kingdom of Italy—are revealed in its ruins, historic architecture, and even its language. Some of Pantelleria’s dammusi (the island’s iconic white-washed lava-rock houses) have been transformed into luxury resorts like Sikelia, the most coveted. Italians love Pantelleria not only for its remoteness but also for its world-renowned capers and for Passito di Pantelleria, a sweet wine made from zibibbo grapes. This variety of muscat grapes was introduced by the Phoenicians, and its cultivation has been honored by UNESCO by inclusion on its list of instances of intangible cultural heritage.
The Aeolian Islands
Just off the northeastern coast of Sicily are the UNESCO-protected Aeolian Islands. The rich green landscapes of the seven-island archipelago—Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi, and Alicudi—are punctuated by smoking volcanic peaks, making them the perfect setting for lost-at-sea fantasies. Of the seven, Vulcano and Stromboli have active volcanoes, which can provide epic backdrops for nature lovers whether hiking, kayaking, or diving. Lipari is the liveliest and most easily accessible of the Aeolian Islands, while Panarea is the most exclusive: Limited to pedestrian traffic, it’s a perfect place to tune out and recharge. Can’t pick one? No problem: Island-hop via ferries that run between all seven islands. Insiders stay at Salina’s sea-facing Principe di Salina.
Second in size to Sicily and in the middle of the Mediterranean, Sardinia is also Italy’s second best-known island. Its most popular destination, Costa Smeralda, the northeastern “emerald coast,” is an enclave for the rich and famous, but the island offers more than a berth for mega-yachts. Sardinia’s distinctive personality—insular and a bit secretive—makes the destination fun and filled with surprises to explore. In addition to white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, the landscape includes Gola di Gorropu, the largest canyon in Europe; UNESCO-protected Su Nuraxi di Barumini, a defensive structure from the second millennium B.C.E.; and the Dunes of Piscinas, sand dunes that reach 200 feet in height. Two diverse off-island adventures are also available: From the north coast, the seven-island Maddalena Archipelago offers beaches, lagoons, and uninhabited islets. And off Sardinia’s southwestern coast, tiny San Pietro is a throwback to 19th-century island living at the charming fishing town of Carloforte and the lighthouse at Capo Sandalo.
The Tuscan Archipelago
Yes, Tuscany has islands. Along with novel- and movie-inspiring villages, the province has its own collection of gorgeous islands where smart Italians dock their boats during the summer holidays.
Six miles off the Tuscan coast, Elba is the most recognized of the Tuscan islands thanks to Napoleon, who lived here in exile in 1814. Back then, Elba was a quiet place, but today its beaches are busy from June through September with vacationers. Away from the sand, Elba has a lot to discover, including the largest protected marine park in Europe, perfect for underwater exploration, plus mountain biking, trekking, and hiking.
With more than 90 percent of its landscape covered by lush wild vegetation, Giglio is the Tuscan island for nature exploration. The hilly island’s highest peak reaches nearly 1,600 feet, and the seaside cliffs present dramatic descents to Giglio’s beaches and caves. For those looking to simply relax, the Tyrrhenian Sea views from Giglio are ideal for contemplation of the blue waters (expect dolphins and even whales to make an appearance). You can also gaze upon nearby Montecristo, the island made famous by Alexandre Dumas, who set his fictional prison fortress there in The Count of Monte Cristo. (Montecristo, now a nature preserve, can only be visited twice a year, by permit.)
Nine miles south of Giglio, the crescent-shaped Giannutri, at one-square mile, is the least populated island in the Tuscan Archipelago. Though swimming is restricted to certain areas, Italians head to Giannutri for diving and snorkeling—the sea floor presents a landscape of corals, meadows of Posidonia seagrass, and Roman- and Etruscan-era shipwrecks at Punta Scaletta and the Bay of Spalmatoio.
One of the most charming and least-known Italian islands is only an hour’s drive, plus a ferry ride, from Rome. Blissfully off the popular Italian travel circuit, Ponza has tiny, appealing villages and a charming harbor. You don’t have to be a local to participate in the island’s boating life–here you’ll want to rent a gommone (dinghy) to explore Ponza’s beaches and coves. Ponza happily is not overly fancy, but from among the smattering of cute bed-and-breakfasts, smart Romans choose to stay at Villa Laetitia, a B&B owned (and curated) by Anna Fendi Venturini, of the Fendi couture family.
The Campanian Archipelago
Most everybody knows Capri, the island beloved by the international jet set, but what if Capri were less, well, Capri? The Campanian Archipelago, dominated by the tourism powerhouse Capri, also includes Ischia and Procida, two delightful and much more laid-back islands.
Ischia, the largest of the archipelago, is by far the greenest of Italy’s volcanic islands. The by-products of this volcanic nature—lots of natural thermal springs along the coastline—have made Ischia a wellness-focused retreat; adventure-seekers, meanwhile, can find volcanic treks around the craters of Mount Epomeo. Ischia is also the name of the main city, notable for the Aragonese Castle and a modern port area with boutiques and restaurants. The island’s other outposts, like the picturesque town of Forio and the fishing village of Sant’Angelo, can be visited by water taxi or hired boat. Near Forio, the newly restored Mezzatorre is becoming the place to stay, while traditional favorite Regina Isabella retains its 1950s charm.
At two square miles, Procida is the tiniest island in the Campanian Archipelago and possibly the most picturesque, with pastel-hued fishing villages and small ports like Marina di Chiaiolella and Marina di Corrice (locations for such films as Il Postino and The Talented Mr. Ripley). Overlooking the island and the Bay of Naples, Terra Murata is the fortified historic village at the center of Procida. Whereas Ischia has fewer beaches and more rock promontories, Procida offers scenic stretches of sand like Chiaia and Chiaiolella. A perfect day-trip destination from Naples, Procida is a 40-minute hydrofoil ferry from the port and entirely walkable. Most importantly, Procida is known for spaghetti ai ricci di mare (spaghetti with sea urchin)–it’s best enjoyed with a sunset view.
The Tremiti Islands
Everyone forgets about the other coast of Italy. Over off Puglia’s gorgeous Adriatic coastline, right above the heel of Italy’s boot, is Italy’s most off-the-radar archipelago—the Tremiti Islands of San Domino, San Nicola, Capraia, Cretaccio, and Pianosa. The remote region long served as a penal colony: In 8 B.C.E., Emperor Augustus exiled his granddaughter Julia the Younger here for licentious behavior; in the 20th century, Mussolini interned homosexual men on San Domino. Today, even though there are a few hotels and restaurants, the Tremiti are a protected part of Gargano National Park. Visitors can expect rugged coasts, limestone cliffs, rocky beaches, caves, and small coves with clear water. The small islands are easy to explore by foot and best visited via boat—whether a personal rental, a water taxi, or a tour boat.
This article first appeared in AFAR, September 2019.