Planning a Trip Through Southern Italy: Days, Weeks, and Beyond
With 5 days in Southern Italy, you can start off in the capital of Rome, known as the “Eternal City.” In a few days there, you’ll be able to explore the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and neighborhoods like Trastevere. With a full week you’ll be able to venture down the coast to Naples, and spend a day driving on the legendary Amalfi Coast. If you budget your time in Rome, you can spend more time here, hiking up Mt. Vesuvius and seeing the ruined cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Two weeks will allow you to journey east, where you’ll check out coastal cities in Puglia like Bari, and make a stop in the town of Matera. In three weeks or more, you’ll be able to spend some time circumnavigating the island of Sicily, famed for its Greek ruins, vibrant cities like Catania and Palermo, pristine, nature reserves, and Mt. Etna. Throughout, make sure to take some time to try each area’s culinary specialties: you’ll be able to sample dishes you can’t get anywhere else.
Southern Italy in 5 Days
With up to 5 days in Rome, you can discover everything the capital of Italy has to offer, including ruins like the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, the Vatican, including the enduring Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. These major landmarks should occupy you for your first two days, but you a can spend another simply walking around. Many of Rome’s iconic sights are within easy walking distance of each other, including the Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain (make a wish to return to Rome!) and the Pantheon. On the fourth and fifth days, you can admire the ornate rooms of the Galleria Borghese and its accompanying gardens, take a boat tour of the Tiber River, or simply wander Rome’s hippest neighborhoods, including Trastevere, Monti, and San Lorenzo.
If you have time, you may want to supplement one of those days with a trip to Ostia, where locals go to the beach and enjoy seafood at waterside trattorias. It's also home to Ostia Antica, the ancient version of the modern city, where you can visit a museum full of statues and frescoes, an ancient amphitheater, public baths, and see the foundations of the city’s main street in ancient times, once lined with shops and arcades.
To get a sense of how to organize your time in Rome, see our article on How Many Days Should You Spend in Rome?
Southern Italy in 1 Week
With a full week in Southern Italy, you can spend 2-3 days in Rome, then drive or take the train down to the Amalfi Coast. This area has been a beloved seaside getaway for centuries, dating all the way back to Ancient Roman times, and you can choose to stay in Naples, the large and vibrant city, or Sorrento, a small, beautiful resort town.
In just a few days here, you can take in all the area has to offer, including a trip along the magnificent coastline, dotted with picturesque towns like Positano, with its colorful houses and lemon groves, and Ravello, with its grand Cathedral and tiny Coral Museum. The afternoon of your first day can also include a walk along the Path of the Gods, a well-known route that weaves through the hills above the Amalfi Coast and connects the villages of Bomerano and Nocelle.
On your second full day, delve into Roman history with a tour of Pompeii, the city destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE, and Herculaneum, its lesser-known neighbor. Both are like time capsules, caught unawares and frozen in the moment of their destruction, now treasure troves of preserved buildings, mosaics, and even plaster casts of its citizens. In an afternoon hike up the notorious volcano, you’ll be able to stop at a winery on its slopes and learn about viniculture in volcanic soil, and peer into the depths of its crater at the top.
On your third full day, journey by hydrofoil to the island of Capri, where ancient Romans built summer villas, and celebrities and socialites frolicked in the 1950s and ‘60s. In its main town, also called Capri, you can see the main harbors (Marina Grande and Marina Piccola) and stroll the Belvedere of Tragara (a villa-lined promenade with panoramic views).
The smaller town of Anacapri offers short hikes and visits to Villa San Michele, the 19th-century home of a Swedish physician built on the ruins of a much-older chapel. But without a doubt, the island’s highlights are the world-famous Grotta Azzura or Blue Grotto - a watery cave only accessible by boat - and the Faraglioni Rocks – three iconic rock formations, one with an arch at its center.
Consider this 8-day Italy itinerary that includes Rome and the Amalfi Coast. You'll take a day trip to Capri, taste wine on an Italian vineyard, tour the halls and basilicas of the Vatican, and spend time in Positano and Amalfi.
Southern Italy in 2 Weeks
With 2 weeks in Southern Italy, you can head west, to a lesser-visited area of Italy: the heel of the boot known as Puglia. Here is where medieval villages mingle with prehistoric caves, and you intersperse your explorations of Baroque architecture with relaxing days on equally stunning beaches. Start with the town of Alberobello, filled with 1,500 conical-roofed fairytale-like structures known as trulli, which are still in use today as homes, shops, and even some hotels. The most famous are the Trullo Sovrano, a trullo with a raised floor, and the Church of St. Anthony, now a museum.
In the region of Basilicata not too far from Alberobello, the town of Matera has become more and more popular in the last few years, as visitors discover its strange and beautiful caves, known as the sassi. This collection of caves, churches, and staircases carved out of volcanic rock were once homes for some of Matera’s poorest residents. Today, they are an otherworldly second city within Matera, and some are even home to hotels and restaurants. While in Matera, be sure to check out MUSMA, the city’s dynamic Museum of Contemporary Sculptures of Matera, and the nearby Murgia National Park.
The city of Lecce, on the Ionian Sea coast, has a distinctly Greek feel to its architecture. You can spend a couple of days here, touring famed structures like the 17th-century Duomo cathedral and Basilica di Santa Croce, the Roman Amphitheater, and the colorful, Moorish-inspired Villa Sticchi, in nearby Santa Cesarea Terme.
A wealth of museums trace the history of this city and the surrounding region, including the Archaeological Museum, the Provincial Museum, and the Palazzo Taurino, now a museum of Jewish history and culture in the old Jewish quarter. This is also a great place to take a cooking class or a food tour: Pugliese cuisine isn’t quite so well-known outside Italy, but it includes wonderful antipasti, local cheeses (including Burrata, now a favorite outside Italy), and semolina pasta.
On your last day, you can wander the coastal city of Bari, known for its old town district Barivecchia, the city center during ancient Roman times, still laid out according to its Medieval plan. This city is also a great one for architecture, with grand religious buildings like Bari Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Church, and venues for the arts like the Petruzelli Theater, the Castello Svevo museum, and the Margherita Theater, now also a museum.
To get an idea of what you can do with a week in Puglia, check out this itinerary. It takes you from medieval Trulli to prehistoric caves, then to the sunny beaches of Lecce and Bari's 12th-century churches.
Southern Italy in 3 Weeks
The island of Sicily can very often seem like its own country, and your last week in Southern Italy is a perfect amount of time to explore it. On the other hand, it’s big and rich enough that even 2 weeks would have you still only scratching the surface, so if you choose to, you could replace Puglia with a second week there. A one-week itinerary will allow you to catch many of its must-see sights, while two weeks will allow you a more leisurely pace as you circumnavigate the island.
If you base yourself in Catania and Palermo, you’ll be able to split your time between the southeast and northwest halves of the island. From Catania, you’ll be able to visit Syracuse, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that preserves a Greek powerhouse metropolis from the ancient world. You can view its ancient ruins at the Neapolis Archeaological Park, and wander the old town of Ortygia, where winding streets concealing 19th-century architectural treasures like the Palazzo Impellizzeri, the Temple of Apollo in Piazza Pancali, or the subterranean San Giovanni Crypt and Catacombs. You can spend another day at the nearby ancient resort town of Taormina, known for its intact Ancient Greek amphitheater, still used for live performances, and a hike up Mt. Etna, inland Europe’s largest active volcano.
As you circumnavigate the coast to head up to Palermo, make a stop of several hours in Agrigento, home of the so-called Valley of the Temples. This magnificent site is home to several Greek temple ruins, and a guided tour of a few hours will give you an in-depth glimpse at the civilization that built them. You can also make a stop in Erice, famed for its winding streets, 14th-century Duomo cathedral, and 12th-century Castello di Venere, a Norman fortress with the remains of an earlier Roman spa and temple.
You’ll reach Palermo at night, and wake up refreshed and ready to get your bearings the next morning. A walking tour of the city will help you make sense of this bustling, vibrant place, taking in the pedestrianized Via Maqueda, the Baroque fountain Fontana Pretoria, and the grand square Piazza Pretoria. On your second day here, a comprehensive food tour will allow you to get a sense of all the flavors of Siciliy in a nutshell. You’ll visit lively markets, sample pizzas and pastries, and try local delicacies like panelle (chickpea fritters) and arancini (fried rice balls stuffed with meat and veggies). Top it all off with gelato and sweet Sicilian wine with cannoli, and you’ll have a full meal fit for a king.
With any remaining time, link up with a guide or rent a car to do a self-driving tour up into the mountains to see tiny villages, or along the coast to locate some of Palermo province’s best beaches. This part of Italy is still the “old country” in many ways, and you will encounter fewer tourists and far more age-old traditions than anywhere else.
See here for a 7-day highlights tour of Sicily—you'll begin in Palermo and head to the Baroque gem of Catania, where en route you'll stop at Greco-Roman ruins and medieval fortress towns guarding long stretches of postcard beaches.