The smartest travellers know the golden rule of travel: Go where the locals go. And in Italy, in the summer, that means the sea. But not just any beach. They’re headed to ones where the Mediterranean is at its best. Where the air smells like lemons. Where the piazzas are blindingly white and the water is cerulean blue. And the spaghetti alle vongole renders you speechless. We spoke to a few Italians, got them to reveal their summer-vacation secrets, and rounded up the three places that have made an art out of dolce far niente—the sweetness of doing nothing. Choose your destination, and learn to vacation like an Italian. There’s a refreshing Peroni & Campari soda waiting for you.
La Maddalena, off of northern Sardinia, is one of the most secluded archipelagos in Italy. It’s not easy to get to, but if you make it, you will be rewarded with clean, sandy beaches; water as warm and blue as a bathtub (some claim it’s the cleanest in the world); and people-watching to rival Milan’s poshest neighborhoods. The main island of La Maddalena is the most developed—not skyscraper-developed, but developed in the sense that you can find excellent pasta. And it could still be Italy’s best-kept secret. There aren’t that many attractions to explore in the town itself; this is the place where Italians truly come to unwind. On the southwest side of the island is Cala Francese, a stunning bay marked by a granite quarry from the nineteenth century. The beach here is small, but there are hidden pockets between rocks where you can find some tranquility. At the end of the day, head near the main piazza for an afternoon of shopping along Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, a pretty street lined with restaurants, cafés, and local boutiques.
Cefalù doesn’t have the name recognition of Palermo, but its food, history, and beauty are every bit as inspiring as the Sicilian capital’s. There’s a little bit of everything in this ancient fishing town—but the crashing waves and stunning architecture top the list of reasons to come. Start at the Duomo di Cefalù (covered shoulders and no bare legs, per favore). From the stairs of the cathedral, wander down to Corso Ruggero for wandering and shopping and eating panelle (mashed, fried chickpeas). Afterward, head down the narrow side street and spend the afternoon at the Museo Mandralisca, a small and eclectic museum. Below the town is Cefalù’s long, beautiful beach—you’ll see the bright fishing boats coming and going and bringing in dinner. But before the sun sets: Get a table on the terrace of Al Porticciolo and order fried mullets, prawns, bucatini with sardines, and whatever else the fishermen brought in that afternoon.
Hotel Il Pellicano is arguably one of the most iconic—and certainly one of the most luxurious—hotels in the world, and if you’re staying there, well, lucky you. Now, while everyone dashes off to Porto Ercole, you will want to steer away from the tourists and follow the well-heeled locals to Porto Santo Stefano in Monte Argentario. This is where the wealthy Italian aristocrats come—by yacht, by Maserati—to tuck away in secluded villas.
(If you do make it to Porto Ercole, head to Gelateria Creola for a few scoops of stracciatella—there’s a reason this place is always crowded.)
Like so many beaches in this corner of the world, the beaches on Monte Argentario are hard to get to but worth the effort. Cala Piccola is the most family-friendly and can be reached by road, but true Italians would probably hire a boat with a skipper who can help find a more private cove. Just saying.