Calabria is the new Puglia. Get there soon before everyone else does. The toe of Italy still remains something of a secret carefully guarded by Italians. Boasting brilliant beaches, atmospheric hilltop towns, pristine national parks, and fantastic food and wine, Calabria is begging to be explored and it’s brilliant all year around.
If you’re heading to Europe this spring or summer and Calabria is not on your Italy itinerary, then you need to revisit that. Italy’s last tourist frontier, Calabria is the new Puglia, and I know I’ve been saying this for more years than I care to remember, but trust me on this: now is the time to get to Calabria.
Narrow roads snake through pristine pine forest to remote turquoise-coloured mountain lakes. Atmospheric hilltop towns are crowned by handsome stone castles, with sumptuous churches secreted on quiet cobbled lanes.
Colourful seaside villages are perched in improbable cliff-top locations. Unspoilt beaches are skirted by crystal clear water. The fish is the freshest you’ll find and the food can be seriously spicy. Everywhere there’s a low-key vibe and the people are Italy’s most laid-back locals.
These are just some of the things about Italy’s southern region of Calabria that have captivated us since our first trip to Calabria.
We became smitten with mysterious Calabria way back in 2008 when we spent some months there crisscrossing the region by car, researching and writing the first English travel guidebook to Calabria, now out of print.
“Calabria is the new Puglia!” I wrote on my old blog soon after the book’s release and I wrote it again in 2016 when I first published this post, and I’m still saying it now in spring 2023: Calabria is the new Puglia, people! Make this the year you get there.
Calabria is the New Puglia – Italy’s Last Frontier for Travellers
Back in 2008 I predicted that once our Calabria travel guidebook was published, with Terence’s beautiful images of the region, that more English language travel guidebooks to Calabria would quickly follow, that travel writers would soon be making a beeline for the undiscovered region, and intrepid travellers would start exploring the alluring mountains, enchanting hilltop towns, and stunning coast of Calabria.
Instead, they flocked to Puglia. Now don’t get us wrong, we adore Puglia. But the region that’s famous for its whitewashed conical trulli, fairytale town of Alberobello, and its beloved orecchiette, has featured in every travel magazine and on every travel blog for the last ten years. Surely Puglia has had enough coverage and it’s finally Calabria’s turn?
The most southern part of mainland Italy, Calabria forms the ankle to toe of Italy’s ‘boot’. A rugged peninsula of legend since Homer’s time, it’s been an enviable prize for invaders and provided a safe haven for settlers – all adding to the intriguing mix of architecture, cuisines, and accents. There are dialects in Calabria that even Calabrians don’t understand.
Calabria really is Italy’s last frontier when it comes to travel and tourism, with beaches, towns, cities, and mountains rarely visited by foreigners. Italians, on the other hand, have long been in on the local secret. Not every Italian goes to the Italian Lakes in August.
When to Go to Calabria
During the European summer, Calabria’s beaches, resorts, holiday houses, and camping grounds are crammed with holidaying Italians. The weather is absolutely glorious and the beaches and towns gorgeous in the golden light. It really is the best time of year to go, as long as you don’t want to stay on the beach.
Italian holidaymakers will be booking accommodation slap-back on the beach, so you can still find plenty of rooms up in the towns and villages in charming hotels set in historic houses, grand lodgings in medieval palaces, and airy rooms in bright new boutique hotels.
For example, while updating our Tropea post, I recently found lovely rooms with sea views in the Tropea Boutique Hotel, Solmaris Tropea and Bonsai Tropea for between US$60-100 a night over coming months, prices that are unheard of during high season in many parts of Europe.
Come September, things start to quieten right down. Autumn is lovely with the colours of the changing season on display and naturally it’s warmer than the north. Winter in Calabria is also wonderful, when there is a clarity to the light that can’t be compared, and Spring is dazzling when wildflowers blanket the mountains.
That Calabria is such a great year-round destination is a big part of its appeal. This month you can swim in its crystal clear waters, in autumn you can enjoy beautiful national parks, and in winter you can snowboard and ski in the mountains, and go hiking or horse riding as the snow abates – all with barely a tourist bus in sight.
What to Eat and Drink in Calabria
All year long in Calabria, you can explore hilltop towns and do road trips through breathtaking countryside, as well as eat and drink your way around the region. While you’ll often have to pinch yourself as you travel around Calabria to remind yourself you’re still in Italy, once the food and wine arrive, there’ll be no doubt.
Food and wine make Italy one of the most rewarding European countries to visit and Calabria is no exception. Expect a rustic cuisine distinguished by home-made sausages, including the spicy spreadable n’duja, freshly picked mushrooms, strong cheeses, preserves of all persuasions, and robust wines.
While grapes, figs and olives grow easily, the dry heat of summer and the cold of winter have forced those who have chosen to settle here to be self-sufficient. Not to mention the threat of invasion. Over the centuries, a continual stream of aggressors saw locals literally heading for the hills to create new communities on precarious precipices, making conquest difficult and life hard.
How to Get Around Calabria
The fact that Calabria has endured assorted invasions, earthquakes, and other disasters speaks volumes about the resilience of the people. And it’s the things that ensured Calabria’s survival over the centuries, that resilience, self-sufficiency, the remoteness of its many towns and villages, and its ability to turn adversity into an asset, that make the region special.
All of that means that Calabria is a region you need to actively explore in order to get the most out of it and getting around isn’t always easy. We highly recommend you hire a car and plan a series of Calabria road trips with breaks in between staying at some of Calabria’s most beautiful villages. See our Calabria itineraries below for ideas. The rewards are great if you’re willing to take the time to truly discover Italy’s last travel frontier.
Calabria Highlights – Places to See and Things to Do in Calabria
Our Calabria highlights include charming seaside towns, atmospheric hilltop villages, stunning beaches, freshest fish and spicy food, and the most rewarding road trips.
Calabria Road Trips
As travel guidebook writers who authored guidebooks to Italy and chapters in Italy guidebooks, we’ve criss-crossed Italy countless times by car for work and pleasure. But some of our favourite parts of Italy to drive are in Calabria. These Calabria road trips are those that take us through bucolic countryside and wild rugged landscapes to remote villages and atmospheric hilltop towns. The best thing about travelling in Calabria is that it doesn’t take long before you’re off the beaten track
With its pastel coloured palazzos perched atop sheer chalky cliffs facing a crystal clear aquamarine sea and white-sand beach, easily one of Calabria’s best beaches, Tropea is Calabria’s most beautiful seaside town. Two years ago, Italians voted Tropea Italy’s most beautiful village, or ‘village of villages’.
Boasting an elegant piazza lined with gelaterias selling Pizzo’s famous tartuffo ice-cream and an enchanting old town of narrow alleyways, Pizzo is our next favourite destination after Tropea.
On one side of Scilla’s castle-topped headland, pictured above, lies a long wide white-sand beach backed by seafood tavernas (it’s easily one of Calabria’s best beaches), on the other faded palazzi suspended over the sea. Scilla, above, is just gorgeous.
Calabria’s Hilltop Towns
Calabria is blessed with countless atmospheric hilltop towns and ramshackle villages such as Altomonte and Belmonte sprawl charmingly across hilltops and delightfully tumble down mountains.
Cattolica di Stilo
La Cattolica di Silo is a splendid ninth century Byzantine church that clings to the slopes of craggy Mount Consolino, part of the Serre Calabresi range, in the Valley of the Stilaro in southwest Calabria.
A little Alpine-like mountain town, Camigliatello Silano is a gastronomic paradise and a centre for grand-touring, walking, horse riding, skiing and fishing.
Aspromonte National Park
The highlight of Calabria’s pristine national parks, Aspromonte National Park may only be a short drive from the regional capital Reggio di Calabria, but this beautiful mountain area with its thick wooded forests seems world’s away.
The narrow alleyways of Calabria’s most dramatically situated and most splendidly preserved medieval hilltop town are a delight to explore – only competing with the enchanting vistas of the town itself.
An elegant old town clings prettily to the mountain above a lively modern town, while the wide beach nearby buzzes in summer.
Calabrian Food and Wine
The region’s rich, spicy and rustic cuisine is well-matched by its honest and robust wines, the best from Ciro Marina.
The Museo Nazionale
The handsome Bronzi di Riace statues steal the show here, but Calabria’s National Archaeological Museum has a wealth of other fascinating finds on display.
Published 19 August 2016; Updated and Republished 3 May 2023