Italy’s Best Islands
Travellers often overlook visiting the spectacular small islands that dot Italy’s glorious coastline and majestic lakes and lagoons. Trips to Sardinia and Sicily, the two largest islands in the Mediterranean Sea, instead of heading straight to Rome, Venice, or the Amalfi Coast, are more likely. However, even though Italy’s main cities and attractions are unequivocally worthwhile, visiting one of the 456 small islands will forever influence the way you see, feel, and remember Italy. Each island overflows with exquisite natural beauty, fascinating underlying history, and the potential for an unforgettable, atypical, and absolutely unique island experience.
Italy’s Big Islands
Best for Food and Culture: Sicily
As Italy’s and the Mediterranean’s biggest island, Sicily has an expansive history and vibrant culture. It has beautiful beaches, but also city life, especially in the capital of Palermo, with its breathtaking cathedral, stunning churches, lively outdoor markets, and a delicious, authentic cuisine of fish, fried specialities like ‘arancine,’ and sweets like ‘cannoli.’ Sicily is also home to the tallest active volcano in Europe, Mount. Etna.
Best for Beach Diversity: Sardinia
The second biggest of the Mediterranean, Sardinia is ideal for beach lovers. The beaches range from wild and secluded ones with spectacular sea caves and sand dunes, to chic spots with glowing white sand lined with luxury resorts, to others full of locals and families with bright umbrellas ready for a full day of swimming, sunbathing, and walking along the sparkling shore.
Italy’s Best Small Islands
Best for a Smaller Sardinian Feel: La Maddalena
|La Maddalena Island
The largest island of the Sardinian Archipelago, a group of islands between France’s Corsica and the northeast of Sardinia, La Maddalena has magnificent beaches with white sand and clear turquoise seawater surrounded by rugged rocks. Nowadays, the main town, also called Maddalena, is alive with shops, restaurants, and bars. There is an unsurpassable standard of tourism at the few hotels and ‘trattorie’ or traditional restaurants, because of a desire to attract visitors who often choose to visit Sardinia instead. Even more than Sardinia, it is a haven for wildlife and is part of the national park, ‘Parco Nazionale Arcipelago di La Maddalena.’ There are fewer people on the beaches where walking, swimming, snorkeling, and sailing are perfect activities. To get to the island, take a twenty minute ferry from the Sardinia port of Palau. Use a boat to explore the rest of the Sardinian Archipelago too.
Best for City People: Ortygia
If you are not really an island person, this one is for you. Situated on the southeast side of Sicily, it is only separated from the city of Syracuse on “mainland” Sicily by a small strip of water and two bridges that connect the two. Syracuse and Ortygia have an interesting history entwined with the ancient Greeks and other cultures. This little island is bursting with beautiful baroque architecture and Greek temples from the time when Syracuse was a close competitor to flourishing Athens. Walk though ‘Piazza del Duomo’ to see the captivating cathedral, which is the oldest in Europe, and find your way through the winding streets spotting gorgeous temples, churches, castles, and other buildings along the way. Make sure to visit Ortygia’s outdoor market and sample the fresh produce, tasty cheese, and local fish.
Best for Sea Life: Lampedusa
As the largest of the Pelagie Islands, Lampedusa is famous for its colorful marine life. Being only a little over 100 kilometers away from Tunisia and Italy’s southern most island, the wildlife and vegetation is similar to North Africa’s. An endangered species of sea turtle continues to lay its precious eggs on Lampedusa. Manatees, dolphins, whales, and sharks flourish in the waters. Take a boat trip to see the cheerful dolphins play. Nearby a tiny island called ‘Isola dei Conigli’ or Rabbit Island holds one of the most divine beaches with crystal clear turquoise waters and white sand lined with rocky cliffs. It is a swimmers, snorkelers, and scuba divers paradise. Other incredible beaches include ‘Cala Croce,’ ‘Cala Madonna,’ ‘Cala Greca,’ and ‘Cala Galera.’ For a little local flavor, head to the main street, ‘Via Romana.’ In the evenings it lights up with restaurants and bars. Fly to Lampedusa from Rome, Milan, or Sicily.
Best for Secluded Beaches: San Domino
Off the coast of Puglia in southern Italy, San Domino is one of the five small islands in the Tremiti Archipelago which are part of Gargano National Park. Only two, San Domino and San Nicola are inhabited. The other three are beautifully preserved and accessible by boat from San Domino. There will be fewer oversea visitors here and the beaches are perfect for a quieter holiday. ‘Cala delle Arene’ has lovely soft white sand and turquoise waters. Experienced scuba divers can venture out to a Roman shipwreck not far from the shore.
Best for Sea Caves: Capri
|Cave Near Capri Island
Perfectly situated in the Bay of Naples and not far from the world renowned Amalfi Coast, Capri is one of Italy’s most stunning and popular islands. Not only is it bursting with natural beauty, including exquisite beaches and glowing sea caves, but it exudes elegance with chic boutiques, charming cafes, and extravagant villas. Throughout history and up until now, Capri has been a popular destination for the rich and famous. Take a boat tour of ‘Grotto Azzura,’ Capri’s most magnificent sea cave that lights up with sun reflecting off the white sandy seafloor through the cool blue water. On land explore ‘Villa Jovis’ or one of the many other Roman villas.
Best for Mountain People: Ischia
Ischia, the biggest island in the Bay of Naples, impressively houses an almost 800 meter high volcano, Mount Epomeo. Catch a ferry from Naples and arrive in the main town, ‘Ischia Porto.’ Nearby, there is a medieval castle, ’Castell Aragonese’ and tower ‘Guervera,’ both of which were built in the 15th century. This picturesque mountainous island also has lovely sandy beaches, such as ‘Spiaggia dei Maronti,’ and renowned natural hot springs. Feel rejuvenated at ‘Casamicciola Terme,’ one of the oldest natural spas in Europe. Visit the botanical gardens, ‘Giardini Ravino’ to see an impressive collection of cacti and succulents.
Best for Rural Charm: Procida
Smaller, but more authentic and less crowded than its neighbors, Capri and Ischia, Procida glows with authentic charm. There are fewer attractions to see than on the other two, but it is ideal for a relaxing holiday by the sea. Picture cheerful sailboats, pastel colored buildings, tiny restaurants serving the catch of the day, and warm sandy beaches with a handful of sunbathers and swimmers. The best places to stay are the main ports, ‘Marina di Chiaiolella’ and ‘Marina Grande.’ Hotels are smaller and more basic, but you will be enthralled by the tanned locals, wise fisherman, and plentiful beaches that are easily accessible and have plenty of towel space.
Best for an Out-of-Rome Adventure: Ponza
After soaking up centuries of history and numerous iconic landmarks in the many diverse neighborhoods of Rome, you will need a relaxing trip to the Pontine Islands or ‘Isole Ponziane.’ Off the coast of Lazio, they are only a short ferry ride from Naples or Formia. Romans have been escaping to Ponza, the largest of the six, for centuries. Nowadays, you might spot an Italian celebrity’s yacht moored just off the coast or run into a famous athlete or actor in the main piazza, ‘Piazza Carlo Pisacane’ which is lined with fashionable shops and restaurants. Despite the glamour, this crescent shaped island is also perfect for an adventurous vacation. Go snorkeling or scuba diving amongst the maze of impressive granite sea caves. Rent a kayak at ‘Cala Feola’ and glide by the Parata inlet and the many beaches. Take a boat ride and see the red rocked cliffs of ‘Chiaia di Luna’ on the south side of the island.
Best for Scuba Diving: Ventotene
Of the two inhabited Pontine Islands, Ponza and Ventotene, the second largest Ventotene is more modest and relaxed. Also a popular summer escape for Romans, Ventotene actually feels more like the smaller unpopulated four. Cars are not allowed on the island, so it is wonderfully quiet and tranquil. The delightful natural environment attracts throngs of scuba divers who rave about the luscious water and sun-kissed beachgoers who relax on the island’s two beaches, ‘Cala Rossano’ and ‘Cala Nave.’
Best for History Buffs: Elba
The largest of the Tuscan Archipelago, this island is famously known for holding Napoleon captive during his 1814 exile after his Waterloo defeat. It is also Italy’s third largest island, next to Sicily and Sardinia, so it offers a large variety of outdoor activities from hiking to kayaking to scuba diving. After a visit to Florence, fly to the airport in ‘Marina di Campo’ which has the most popular beach resorts or ride the ferry from Piombino to Portoferraio, the main town, Rio Marina, or Porto Azzurro. A few of the many spectacular beaches include the soft sanded ‘Procchio,’ the pebbled ‘Capo Bianco,’ and the bright blue waters of ‘Fetovia.’ Hike up Mount Capanne, looking for shining gemstones and crystals along the way. Visit ‘Museo Villa Napoleonica’ where Napoleon was confined and graciously given the title “Emperor of Elba.” After only a year, he escaped and when he was captured, was exiled to the more secluded island, Saint Helena.
Best for Art Lovers: Giudecca
The largest island in the Venetian Lagoon, Giudecca is a well-known escape for Venetians, some of whom live on the landlocked island. Tourists crowd into Venice throughout the year, but they usually miss Giudecca. Do not avoid a walking and boat tour through the extensive canals, but for a truly authentic Venice experience, stay on this magical island full of grand Gothic apartments, small art spaces, and a captivating, refined, but utterly Bohemian vibe. In recent decades, it has been transformed from an industrial area to a popular destination for Venetians and art lovers, curators, and collectors to frequent. Walk through the island’s impressive domed churches, ‘Il Redentore’ and ‘Le Zitelle.’ Then peruse the streets for galleries and artists’ studios, such as ‘Galleria Michela Rizzo’ and look out for installations by Venice’s own artist, Fabrizio Plessi who lives above this gallery. Revel in the light open space of ‘La Casa Dei Tre Oci,’ an exquisite exhibition space converted to display contemporary art and photography.
Best for Villas and Gardens: “The Sisters”
“The Sisters” are the ideal way to counterbalance a trip to the fast-paced, fashion-forward city of Milan. Nearby in northern Italy lies ‘Lago Maggiore’ and the stunning ‘Isole Borromee’ which are made up of three large islands including ‘Isola Bella’ and ‘Isola Madre’ known as “The Sisters” and two smaller ones. Catch a ferry to Isola Bella from Stresa on the lake’s shore. Owned by the aristocratic Borromeo family since the 17th century, “The Sisters” both have epic palaces with immaculate landscaping and attractive, well-manicured gardens. On Isola Bella enjoy the family’s impressive 17th century ‘Palazzo Borromeo’ and the neatly trimmed gardens. On Isola Madre waltz through the famed botanical garden which has many rare plants. Admire the beautiful 18th century villa that boasts precious porcelain, fine art, and a collection of exotic birds, including parrots, pheasants, and peacocks, that roam freely. Surrounded by mainland Italy rising and falling on the horizon and the calm lake, the scenic views from these sister islands are beyond depiction.
Best for a Tuscan Escape: Giglio
A short ferry ride from the Tuscan coast, Giglio is a hidden gem of fantastic beaches with crystal clear turquoise water. It is a haven for swimmers, snorkelers, and scuba divers who flock to the beaches ‘Campese,’ ‘Cannelle,’ and ‘Arenella.’ Be sure not to miss the glorious sunset from Campese. The ferry brings you to ‘Giglio Porto’ where you can wander through the shops, restaurants, and two lighthouses in this colorful village. Explore the winding streets lined with original stone walls in the medieval village of ‘Giglio Castello.’ From the magnificent ‘Chiese di San Pietro,’ drink in an outstanding view of the entire island.
Best Island Group: The Aeolian Islands
|The Aeolian Islands
Written by: Becky Heeley