Italy independent travel itinerary
This itinerary is based on a trip I made in late May/early June. As you travel south along Italy’s coast you pass through several regions and you can feel the scenery and atmosphere changing as you head towards the sun. This is a good time of year for travelling to Calabria: although the weather is warm, it isn’t peak tourist season so you’ll find plenty of space on beaches which would be crowded in August, and cheaper rates at hotels.
Italy itineraries – see my other suggested Italy travel itineraries
Highlights of this trip include the Greek temples at Paestum, beautiful coastal scenery, a chic hotel in the picturesque seaside hilltown of Maratea, beaches below historic Tropea, getting off the tourist trail in smaller towns and then soaking up the sunshine and variety of the Aeolian Islands, where you can climb an active volcano or see dolphins.
Sticking to the itinerary as described here, the best option is to fly into Naples Airport and fly out of Lamezia Terme Airport or – if you are continuing to the Aeolian Islands or Sicily – Catania Airport. Rome airports are further away, but still feasible, and if you’re prepared to make the return journey up the coast, you could fly out of Rome or Naples.
Travel, accommodation and food
This trip – apart from the optional island extension – can be accomplished using the cheap regional trains which run along the Tyrrhenian coast. Most legs of this journey are short, and train tickets cost just a few euros. There is also a coastal road for those who prefer to drive.
Hotels in southern Italy can be sparse and old-fashioned, but I found some good hotels for overnight stops on this tour, some of which were rather special. In this part of Italy, and out of the peak July-August season, you’ll find some good rates without the premium you’d pay in more well-known destinations.
Several of the destinations pride themselves on culinary specialities, and you’ll eat well at affordable prices in each place on the tour, starting with local buffalo mozzarella in Paestum and continuing with wines, figs, swordfish, red onions and the chocolate truffle ice-cream of Pizzo in Calabria. If you’re interested in food, this trip can become a culinary odyssey.
The most convenient airport for this holiday is Naples, served by a good range of international flights. A frequent bus service connects Naples Airport with the railway station. Direct regional trains links Naples Stazione Centrale with Paestum; the journey takes approximately an hour and a half. From Rome, catch a fast Eurostar train south to Naples or Salerno, where you change to a local train stopping at Paestum (3 to 4 hours).
Paestum is an enchanting spot where Greek temples stand in the middle of the countryside. There is a museum and a scattering of cafes, shops and hotels by the archaeological site. I stayed at the comfortable Granaio dei Casabella, a long but manageable walk from the station, where we enjoyed a lovely evening meal. Before dinner, enjoy an aperitivo by the archaeological area at sunset. In the morning, visit the ruins and the museum.
> Hotel Granaio dei Casabella
Travel by regional train from Paestum to Pisciotta station – check the timetable and buy a ticket in advance; either in Naples or at a useful shop by the archaeological site. The train journey takes 40 minutes. Catch a bus or a taxi along the coast to Palinuro.
On this tour we stayed for two nights in Palinuro, a pleasant but unremarkable seaside resort next to a large attractive headland, Capo Palinuro. I wouldn’t say this is an essential stop on this tour, but we enjoyed it. At Palinuro there are beaches and boat trips, and the possibility of interesting excursions if you have a hire car.
> Best Western La Conchiglia
Returning to Pisciotta station, catch a train to Maratea. There’s a travel agency in Palinuro where you can buy train tickets. The journey takes under an hour on a direct regional service, but check times as services are approximately 2-hourly and some require a change. From Maratea station, arrange a lift to your hotel, or catch the local bus service described on our Maratea page.
Maratea is a real highlight of this tour. It’s a picturesque little hilltown packed with churches situated high above the sea. Staying in the stylish Locanda delle Donne Monache, a former convent which is now a smart hotel with a swimming pool and garden, made this stopover a wonderful interlude. You can get around nearby settlements, coves and beaches by public buses or by car. There are possibilities for walking, sea-bathing and boating close by.
> Locanda delle Donne Monache
Another straightforward train journey from Maratea to Amantea in Calabria. Note that Maratea station ticket office has limited opening times and you should consider buying your ticket in advance. Different categories of train run on this route; regional trains are cheapest, take two hours, and generally require a change at Paola. Intercity trains (including a convenient early afternoon service) take an hour. Amantea station is by the beach, and very close to our recommended hotel.
Moving south into the region of Calabria, our next stop on the route south was at Amantea, an interesting and little-known town with a historic centre on a hill, a modern town by the sea and a long stretch of beach.
> Mediterraneo Palace Hotel
Following the main north-south railway line from Amantea to Lamezia Terme (where there is an airport served by Ryanair), then changing to a branchline, will take you along the Costa degli Dei, the ‘coast of the gods’. The busiest and prettiest resort here is Tropea; others can be visited as excursions by train. Amantea to Tropea, with a change at Lamezia, takes 2 hours by train. There are rare, quicker, direct services.
Tropea is a mellow and pleasant historic town, with an attractive old centre up on cliffs above sandy beaches. We stayed for four nights at the Villa Antica Tropea, a short walk from the railway station. Good excursions include Pizzo and Scilla.
> Hotel Villa Antica Tropea
At this point there are various options. I travelled from Tropea to Reggio Calabria, visited the archaeological museum and then continued onwards to the Aeolian Islands in one long day (hydrofoil from Reggio Calabria to Lipari, or ferry to Messina, bus to Milazzo and then ferry to Lipari). Other travellers may prefer to stay in Reggio, or in Scilla, a lovely fishing village between Tropea and Reggio. Tropea to Reggio – listed on the railway website as Reggio di Calabria Centrale – takes two hours by train, with a change at Rosarno.
At this stage of the trip you could catch a train back north to Lamezia Terme or take a fast service all the way to Naples or Rome for your flight home. Or you could cross the Strait of Messina to Sicily and continue your tour on that island, perhaps visiting Taormina and then flying home from Catania.
After lengthy travels, I spent several glorious days relaxing on Lipari, the largest of the Aeolian Islands. There’s a fair amount to do and see, such as boat trips to the other islands, including an evening cruise to watch the eruptions of Stromboli.
> Residence Alberghiero Eolie – comfortable Lipari accommodation with self-catering options
The islands are connected by frequent ferries to Milazzo, in Sicily. From Milazzo port there are bus services to Catania Airport; a few are direct services, others require a change in Messina. There are also seasonal long-distance ferries from the Aeolian Islands to Naples.
Options and alternatives
Northern extension: If you are flying into Rome, instead of catching a train all the way to Salerno, you could break your journey in one of the resorts between Rome and Naples, such as Sperlonga or Terracina, both of which boast Roman ruins and sandy beaches.
It is very useful to remember that in Italy you can buy train tickets online and also in travel agencies. Many of the stations on this journey do not have functioning or full-time ticket offices, so it is a good idea to buy your tickets in advance. If you are of retirement age, ask about discounts – on our travels we found that over-65s travelled half-price on regional trains within Calabria. It is also advisable to check train timetables in advance and print out any information you might want to take with you. Shortly before your holiday, check if there are any transport strikes scheduled, and either book on ‘guaranteed’ train services or – ideally – rearrange your plans to avoid travelling on that day.
English is not spoken as widely in the south of Italy as it is in the big tourist cities, so it’s helpful to brush up on few phrases before you go, and to take a phrasebook or dictionary. Don’t be nervous of asking for advice or help; in places which aren’t geared up for tourists, friendly hotel receptionists or locals are often your best source of information. Be prepared for awkward opening times and ‘closed for restoration’ signs to inconvenience your explorations.