Italy is packed with the most amazing treasures. If you talk to a person who's been, you can expect to hear of the art packed in Florence, or the Roman ruins pock-marking Rome.
And there's no question they are spectacular.
But here's the thing: The Romans were all over the place. In the hinterlands they left amazing constructions. The ruins are romantic; you have to use your imagination to figure out exactly what was going on. Since nobody takes the time to let their imaginations run wild any more, the ruins aren't seen to have commercial value, so are usually seen free of charge, which makes them all the more romantic.
Pilgrims grouped together for safety and made travel safe for merchants. The rich pilgrims left hospices and inns for the poor, in hopes it would get them into heaven. Along the pilgrimage trails a wealth of interesting art was left carved into Romanesque churches and other buildings. Along these routes the most interesting and artistic cities of Italy were born--and they thrived with the travelers.
So here is a current list of our favorite places to spend a week or more exploring.
The Via Francigena is the 10th century "Frankish route" from Canturbury to Rome. Bishop Sigeric did the route in 990 and kept detailed maps. For our purposes, the route starts in Aosta, which is a fine city in the Italian Alps just south of the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Along the route are art cities well worth visiting, in a car or on foot (or even by train if you wish). See:Via Francigena Map and Guide.
The Via Traiana is a coastal extension of the Via Appia from Benevento to Brindisi. You'll find Benevento a fine town, but further down along the coast lies a number of fine places to stay, many near beaches. Lots of Roman ruins along the route, and a great site at Egnazia near a golf course (!). At a town you've probably never hear of called Bitonto, you can visit the Romanesque Cathedral to see the masterful stone-carving, then descend into the paleochristian church that the Cathedral was built over--and there's a spectacular place to stay in town as well. Explore more:Via Traiana Map and Travel Guide
Surely you know the Cinque Terre, the five lands of Liguria. A sleepy backwater until they carved out a bunch of tunnels and the train finally rumbled through, the area was made famous(er) by Rick Steves, and now has become a hard-to-maintain park groaning under the hiking boots of an ever-growing number of walkers and gawkers. But they've come because there are things to see and experience--so despite the storm and tourist damage, if you go in the off season you'll likely enjoy it, and if you go on the lesser known and higher trails, you might really like it. We have a map of both.Cinque Terre Hiking Trail Map
What are those petroglyph people on the right side of the picture doing? Fighting? Making love? Ah, you get to study them and try to figure it out...
If the Cinque Terre is too crowded for you, don't worry, there are other fascinating places that hardly anyone visits. Despite being Italy's very first site to hit UNESCO's World Heritage List, the hidden valley is a masterpiece of eye candy and rock engravings from long ago. And just about anywhere you settle down, you can find a trail to hike.Valcamonica Map and Guide
One of the most beautiful valleys you'll come across is the Metauro valley in the north of the region. It's not just eye candy; there are roman villas, fantastic market towns with artisan food producers, interesting festivals (especially around Easter) and more. Spend at least a week along this itinerary, then head for the Adriatic beaches when you're finished.Metauro Valley Map and Guide
From the sea to the mountaintop to the ancient forest called the foresta umbra and on to a famous pilgrimage spot, here is a what you can do to have a fantastic week in Puglia.Gargano Itinerary
Sure, there are museums all over Italy. But these are worth a special trip. You'll have to have a car, but you can see one of the most amazing ethnographic museums I've ever experienced (no, it's a "forest of ideas!" our guide admonished), you can see a tomato museum where you'll learn how the fruit changed Italy and Italian cuisine, and you'll see a wonderful medieval pilgrimage complex and get to stroll along the Taro river. Yes, all in a day.