You’ve decided to travel internationally, and you want to try backpacking. As any smart person would do, you sit down to research possible destinations. You see many people are recommending backpacking in countries like Thailand, Nepal, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines.
As a backpacker who isn’t very experienced, some of these places sound daunting. Sure, they look gorgeous, but it seems like too much to tackle for one of the first times, if not the first time, backpacking overseas.
The travel time to some of these destinations is well over a day, and the cost is quite high. You may also find yourself in unfamiliar territory, unable to speak the local language and without anyone around who speaks English. Plus, the culture seems very foreign, and you don’t know what would be appropriate and what wouldn’t be.
What should you do? We suggest you look to Europe, more specifically Italy. Italy is one of the more popular tourist destinations in the world for Westerners and for good reason. It has a lot of ancient history and is famous for the cuisine and art.
What you may not realize is that it’s also a great destination for backpacking. Despite Italy only being about the size of the state of Arizona, there are many national parks, mountains, and beaches to enjoy. Northern Italy is generally the more popular tourist destination and is definitely worth seeing. Milan, Venice, and Florence are beautiful, and you can hike through part of the Alps.
But for several reasons you’ll see below, we recommend you plan a trip around southern Italy. Here is a beginner’s guide to backpacking through southern Italy.
Why Backpack in Southern Italy?
If more people backpack in northern Italy, why go to the southern part? There are a few compelling reasons.
First, fewer tourists visit the south, and that’s a good thing! That means most places won’t be overcrowded with tourists. It also means you will be able to better experience local southern Italian culture. And since there is less demand for everything, prices will be much lower!
Traveling around parts of Italy can be very expensive, but you can take a much more affordable trip if you stay in the southern part of the country. Rome, Naples, and Pompei may be crowded depending on the time of year, but once you get outside of those places, you’ll find mostly peace and quiet.
Second, southern Italy is full of national parks and amazing places to visit. You don’t need to travel to places like Milan, Florence, and Venice to see fascinating architecture and art, hike some breathtaking trails, and experience Italian culture. You can accomplish the same things in the southern part of the country. There are ancient churches and ruins everywhere as well as several historic landmarks. And, as mentioned above, it will be less crowded and less expensive.
Other reasons to head south include amazing beaches, delicious food, and see Europe’s largest active volcano. Maybe you’re not convinced. Keep reading to take a deeper dive into what southern Italy has to offer.
How to Backpack Affordably in Rome
Rome is the best place to fly into if you’re traveling internationally and wanting to see the southern part of Italy.
Rome is the capital of Italy and the most populous area of the country. You might be anxious to see the national parks and experience the quieter parts of Italy, but it’s definitely worth spending a few days here. The history, people, and culture are special. If you can travel in the offseason, you will avoid some of the crowds.
Even if you’re not a history buff or art major, some of the sites here are breathtaking. One of the first places you will want to see is the Colosseum. It’s located in central Rome and is well worth the time and money. Make sure you get tickets in advance, so you don’t have to wait for hours.
Near there is the Imperial Forum (Fori Imperiali), Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon, which has been around since 125 AD. All are famous and absolutely amazing to see in person. You could do these first four sites in a day if it’s not too crowded.
Depending on your interests, you can spend the next day seeing extravagant churches or art museums or take a guided tour. Two churches to ensure you see are the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli.
For your third day, head just a little northwest, and spend the day in Vatican City. You can experience the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Peter’s Square, and a lot of church history.
You could easily spend several more days there, and if you have the time, you should do it. There is so much to do! There are other historic places, beaches, parks, and a lot of delicious food!
Rome can be a very expensive place to stay, but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of ways you can backpack in Rome without breaking the bank. Campsites and inexpensive hostels are plentiful. Make sure you experience as much of the local cuisine as possible.
You should be fine using public transportation or walking to get around. Here are some suggested hikes if you want to get out of the city. Once you’ve made the most of your time in the capital, you can move on to Naples, which is only an hour away by train.
Of course, it’s important to make sure all of your travel plans are protected in the event of the unexpected. We recommend always traveling with international medical coverage, as well as trip cancelation coverage which can even assist with things like lost baggage, or canceled flights and trains. Check out the video below to learn more about trip cancelation coverage before moving onto backpacking through Naples!
How to Backpack in Naples
If you’re in a hurry to get to Naples, the train is the way to go. But if you want to take the more scenic route, you can take a bus or ride in a car. You should make it in around two and a half to three hours. You probably only need to stay a couple days in Naples before you move on to Pompei and hike up Mount Vesuvius.
Most of the historical and cultural attractions are on the western part of the city. It might take you two days to see everything. One place to be sure to visit is the Royal Palace, which is inexpensive. There are several squares (piazza) that are fun to walk around to get a better feel of the culture. One we recommend is the Piazza del Plebiscito.
If you like museums, you have quite a few choices. The most famous one is the National Archaeological Museum, which is home to many fine treasures. Another option is to see the San Severo Chapel Museum where you can see the Veiled Christ. There are also plenty of art museums for all you art enthusiasts.
There are several ancient churches and basilicas, including the Naples Cathedral, but if you spent time seeing them in Rome, you should use your time here to explore the underground tunnels. They’re unlike anything you have ever seen before.
Don’t forget to try some of the amazing pizza and street food in Naples. Here are some recommended places to stay while you’re there. Once you’re done seeing Naples, you’ll want to keep heading south.
Where to Backpack Around Pompei
If you’re short on time, you can try to see Mount Vesuvius and Pompei in one day, but take two days if you can. Here are some helpful tips to seeing both places.
Before making your way down to Pompei, make sure you set aside time to see Mount Vesuvius. You might be tempted to hike the entire way up, but it’s incredibly difficult and not always possible. It’s best to take transportation part of the way up and then walk the rest of the way. Check out this guide for more information.
Once you’ve made it to Pompei, you’ll find there is plenty to do. Here are just a few sites you could see there:
- Large Odeon (theater) and Quadriporticus
- Forum at Pompei
- Temple of Isis
- Street of Tombs
- A plethora of temples, monuments, and ancient sites
Many of these sites are from the first century and have been preserved because of the ash from when Mount Vesuvius erupted. It’s absolutely incredible to witness the history in this place.
If you have time, you can check out the ruins of Herculaneum. It was also affected by the eruption and is one of the best-preserved places in the world.
After you finish in Pompei, keep heading south and spend a couple days backpacking along the Amalfi Coast. There are so many wonderful little spots in this area, so it’s difficult to recommend specific places. It’s hard to go wrong. Travel as far west as time allows, then start working your way back east along the southern coast.
You will see some unique towns with beautiful architecture, get to ride ferries or boats, enjoy some amazing beaches, and experience a fun part of Italian culture.
There are many great hikes along this route. The most famous is the Path of the Gods. It’s not too difficult of a hike, but it’s pretty amazing. This site has some great information about the experience. Check out these other worthwhile hikes if you have time.
Bari, Matera and Other Places in Southern Italy
Finally, it’s time to get into the quieter part of the trip. If you’re not planning to go all the way down to Sicily, then you can head straight to Bari. If you have time to make it to Sicily, then you can hit Bari on your way back north on your way to catch your return flight home out of Rome.
Bari isn’t a very famous tourist place, but there are some interesting things to see here. The old town (Bari Vecchia) is one of the highlights and gives you a good taste of the history and culture. Some other possibilities are the Basilica of San Nicola, Castello Normanno-Svevo, Lungomare Prominade, and Lido San Fransesco (beach). Don’t forget to enjoy the local food, especially the fresh seafood, which Bari is famous for.
If you have an extra day or two, we highly recommend you make a stop in Matera either before or after Bari. Matera is known both as “The City of Caves” and “The Stone City.”
If you like history, you’ll enjoy Matera. It is the third oldest continuously inhabited city in the world! There are plenty of old churches and houses to explore. There are also over 1,000 old homes located in two districts known as Sassi of Matera.
Two other intriguing sites include Palombaro Lungo, an underground cistern, and Murgia National Park, where you can explore caves and enjoy other hikes.. Speaking of national parks, southern Italy is full of them. We provide a brief guide below.
National Parks and Hiking in Southern Italy
When you think about hiking in Italy, most people think about the northern part of the country. One of the best known parks is Stelvio National Park, which is on the border near Switzerland and touches the Alps. If you haven’t hiked in this part of the world, we strongly encourage you to do so.
However, southern Italy has quite a few beautiful parks and hikes as well. Here is a short list of a few of them. You can search a website like Alltrails.com to discover the best hiking trails in each place.
Gargano National Park – This very large park is located in southeast Italy, north of Bari. It has something for everyone. Explore the gorgeous coastline, go hiking in the dense forest, or visit the Tremiti Islands. You can go biking, horseback riding, and boating.
National Park of Abruzzo – About two hours east of Rome is where you’ll find this park. It’s made up of forest and mountains. Some of the best hiking trails in Italy are found here. It’s also home to wildlife like the Italian wolf and Marsician brown bear.
Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga – This park is also very large and is located about three hours northeast of Rome. There are also some amazing hikes here and several are not too difficult. It’s also home to castles, abbeys, and three mountain ranges.
Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park – You’ll find this park about two hours south of Naples. It’s another large park that has mountains, forest, and coastline. There’s also a significant amount of history within the park.
Majella National Park – Not far from the National Park of Abruzzo is another fascinating park. This mountainous region has great hiking trails, wildlife, and some unbelievable canyons.
Aspromonte National Park – On your way down to Sicily, plan to make a stop in this park. It’s also home to mountains, rivers, and trails. Around the park are some historic towns to explore.
There are many more parks to check out if you have the time. If your trip allows, one more place you may want to see is Sicily.
How to Backpack Around Sicily
Sicily is a unique place with its own dialect and culture. You could easily spend an entire week backpacking around this small peninsula. There are such a variety of things to do: beaches, mountains, national parks and preserves, ancient ruins, fun villages, and great food. But, if you only have a few days, here are some things to be sure to do.
Mount Etna is a must-see for all hikers. It’s more than twice as tall as Mount Vesuvius and is Europe’s most active volcano. You can get part way up the mountain by car or bus, and then you will find hiking routes of various levels of difficulty. If you make it to the top, you will see inside an active volcano.
Next, we recommend making your way around the coast to see beaches and several other great tourist attractions. It can be difficult to choose where to stop and spend your time.
Catania is the second largest city in Sicily and has several cathedrals, castles, and an ancient theater. Syracuse was one of the most important cities in the Greek world and contains an archaeological park and other historical landmarks. Agrigento is home to the Valley of Temples and many artifacts.
Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is full of things to do like ancient cathedrals, catacombs, museums, and inspiring architecture. You could also spend a day in Cefalu, which is a seaside town with a unique feel. You can climb up La Rocca to get a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean Sea. Finally, there are several small islands around Sicily you can explore, but you will need a boat to get there.
A couple of caveats about Sicily. If you don’t speak any Italian, you should stick to the main tourist destinations. Many locals in Sicily only speak Italian or the Sicilian dialect, not English. Sicily is also more laid back with businesses often closing for several hours in the afternoon for a rest. Click here for quite a few helpful tips on visiting Sicily.
That’s it! You’ve completed an immense backpacking trip around southern Italy. Now, you can make your way back to Rome to catch your return flight home.
Backpacking Beginner’s Biggest Mistake
We hope this guide to backpacking through southern Italy will help things go as smooth as possible, so you have an incredible experience. But no trip goes exactly according to plan. Especially if you are relatively new to backpacking, you will probably learn some valuable (but maybe hard) lessons along the way.
Before you go, we recommend learning from other experienced backpackers. There are many common mistakes beginner backpackers make. One of the biggest mistakes backpackers make is not being properly prepared. This can take many different forms such as carrying too much weight, forgetting something important, and not watching the weather closely.
One other costly mistake is to not purchase travel insurance before your trip. Travel medical insurance is a must for any backpacker—beginner or experienced. Your health insurance plan will not cover you overseas, and neither will the Italian national insurance policy. An injury while hiking, boating or traveling around the country could costs you tens thousands of dollars out of your pocket. But a travel insurance plan will cost you only about $2 per day.
Don’t make the rookie mistake of traveling uninsured. We wish you an amazing adventure and safe travels around Italy!