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Most visitors to Italy make a beeline for Rome, Venice, Florence and the like. Trade in crowded piazzas for the real dolce vita in these gelato-toned coastal idylls, picturesque hamlets and vine-carpeted countryside escapes. Found in South Tyrol, Puglia and beyond, these are our favourite unspoiled pockets of Italian charm.

1. Atrani, Amalfi Coast

Bypassed in favour of the headline towns such as Positano and Amalfi, Atrani is the Amalfi Coast’s best-kept secret. Nestled between two cliffs, it’s the smallest hamlet in southern Italy and one where, along steep alleys and peeling paintwork, you can sink into the laid-back vibe. Sorbet-hued dwellings cluster around the medieval piazza, from where a passageway leads to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Attractions include the 10th-century Church of San Salvatore de’ Birecto and the Grotto of the Saints, a natural cave decorated with Byzantine frescoes.

2. Castelmezzano, Basilicata

With a population hovering around 800, this cliffside village ringed by the Lucanian Dolomites is among the most otherworldly places you’ve never heard of. Enter via a tunnel carved into the rock to explore narrow streets, sample local, farm-fresh food and knock back regional wines in family-run trattorie. Visit Pietrapertosa on the opposite side of the valley to take the Volo dell’Angelo – “Flight of the Angel” – zipwire back to Castelmezzano.

3. Civita di Bagnoregio, Lazio

Once connected to surrounding towns by road, Civita di Bagnoregio is today accessible by a solitary footbridge thanks to 2,500 years of land erosion and earthquakes. Nicknamed “la città che muore” – the dying city – and with a population that doesn’t reach double figures, the town rises from the mists as if in a fairy tale. Wander the Renaissance palazzi and explore the 3,000-year-old Etruscan caves, one of which serves as a chapel.

4. Alberobello, Puglia

An hour’s drive from Bari, this Unesco World Heritage Site is famed for its 1,500 trulli. These whitewashed, conical-roofed buildings date from the 1500s when the ruling Acquaviva family ordered locals to build their homes without mortar – in the event of a royal inspection, structures could be taken down and they could avoid paying royal taxes. Today, the trulli serve mainly as souvenir shops, restaurants and accommodation for visitors. Head to the Piazza del Popolo, where the Belvedere Trulli offers spectacular views across the town.

5. Corricella, Procida Island, Campania

A patchwork of sun-bleached buildings, Procida’s oldest fishing village is a haven of south Italian charm – Il Postino and The Talented Mr Ripley were filmed here. Wooden boats line the 17th-century Marina Corricella, which buzzes with fishermen and vendors. Grab a table on the waterfront for an Aperol spritz and Corricella’s signature plate of sea urchin spaghetti. The Fortress Terra Murata, a former prison, offers great views over the Gulf of Naples.

6. Manarola, Cinque Terre, Liguria

A rainbow of houses hugging the rugged Ligurian coast, this ancient borgo is the oldest and most romantic of the five hamlets that comprise the Cinque Terre. Enclosed by steep terraces, lemon groves and vineyards, it’s best reached by foot, via the scenic Lovers’ Lane which connects to neighbouring Riomaggiore. Meander the warren of alleys which climb to medieval watchtowers before kicking back with a glass of sweet Sciacchetrà wine.

7. Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Just 20km from Siena, this fortified citadel makes visitors feel as if stepping into a bygone medieval era. Encircled by 13th-century walls, Monteriggioni started its life as a castle – Dante compared its 14 imposing watchtowers to “horrific giants” in his Divine Comedy. Enter through the Porta Franca gate and visit the Romanesque Church of Santa Maria Assunta or the Armoury Museum. Nearby Borgo Stomennano is a 17th-century hamlet-turned-hotel with vistas across Chianti’s vineyard-strewn landscapes.

8. Castelluccio, Umbria

Some 5,000ft above sea level, Castellucio is the highest village in the Apennine Mountain Range – and arguably the most charming too. Located in Monti Sibillini National Park, its lush, fertile plains backdropped by dramatic snow-dusted mountains are ideal for trekking. Visit in spring during La Fioritura – The Flowering – when blooming poppies, violets and rapeseed decorate the valley.

9. Orta San Giulio, Piedmont

Lake Orta is known among the Milanese as La Cenerentola – Cinderella – so much is it considered the discreetly superior sister to the more showy lakes of Como and Maggiore. Jutting out from its eastern bank, Orta San Giulio is unspoiled by tourism and a favourite destination among writers such as Nietzsche, Byron and Carol Ann Duffy. Follow a tangle of narrow streets to the lakeside Piazza Motta, where village life plays out among faded ochre buildings, or visit Sacro Monte, a Unesco-protected site of religious pilgrimage.

10. Badia, South Tyrol

Val Badia is among the most enchanting pockets of the Dolomites; its mythical landscapes inspired the fantasies of JRR Tolkien. Here, the comune of Badia is so far north that it’s a far cry from what most would expect from an Italian village – most residents speak either the local dialect of Ladin or German. In winter the surrounding massifs make this a hotspot for skiers; come summer cyclists zip through the town en route to Passo Valparola.

11. Porto Ercole, Tuscany

On the southern side of the Monte Argentario peninsula, Porto Ercole is a popular staycation spot for wealthy Romans and the site where, in 1610, baroque painter Caravaggio died of malaria. Stroll the network of narrow streets or worship the sun like an Italian along the sandy Feniglia beach or in one of many natural coves. Once frequented by the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Slim Aarons and Sophia Loren, Il Pellicano is among the area’s stand-out hotels, with timeless charm, sublime food and unending coastal views.

12. Belluno, Veneto

An hour’s drive from mainland Venice, this charming small town of Renaissance-era buildings, palazzi and Romanesque churches is backdropped by the peaks of Gusela del Vescovà, Mount Serva and Monte Talvena. Perched above the Piave River, it’s the perfect launchpad for exploring the surrounding mountains. Fuel up for hikes with noteworthy Italian cheeses: flaky Malga Bellunese and Schiz, a semi-soft cheese often served fried in butter.

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