It was on a layover leaving Colombia and heading back to Canada that I encountered two Italians who were living in Canada. We had coffee together and proceeded to share stories of our travels. Though Canadian through and through, they had Italian roots. Roots that were from Calabria. A fairly well-traveled adventurer, I had never heard of Calabria, Italy. My curious soul went on high alert.
I picked up a travel magazine at the airport and by chance — or was it? — there was a glossy article on Calabria. I went back in search of my Italians and we studied the article together.
They spoke with deep passion about their region of Italy and pointed out striking places in the photographs that I should visit.
Calabria is off-the-beaten-path Italy at its best. It is a very popular summer destination for Italians, but you won’t find too many North Americans that have been to Calabria. That, in itself, held a lot of appeal for me.
Where is Calabria? Calabria is literally at the toe of Italy’s boot. Calabria’s landscape is stunning. If you are an ocean lover, the 500 miles of coastline is sure to be appealing. The area borders the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west and faces the Ionian Sea to the east. At the very toe of the boot, Calabria meets the Strait of Messina with Sicily just a short ferry ride away.
If you are a mountain person, the verdant green of the soaring Apennines will tug at your heart.
Calabria’s long history adds to the richness of a visit here. Once a colony of Greece (Magna Graecia) from the 8th to the 5th centuries B.C., its culture has also been shaped over time by Spanish, Arabic, and Norman influences.
Here’s why you’re going to fall in love with Calabria, Italy, just as I did.
1. Tropea, Italy
Tropea’s stretch of breathtaking coastline is not called the “Coast of the Gods” for nothing. Legend has it that Hercules founded the town. Tropea’s white sandy beaches dotted with colorful parasols and the turquoise clear water of the Tyrrhenian Sea make Tropea a beach lover’s paradise. Houses cling to the imposing rocky cliffs which provide a backdrop to the remarkable beaches. Follow the staircase down to the beach, rent a parasol, eat seafood pasta dishes on the beach, and marvel at the beautiful rock formations.
Perched on an island is the Sanctuary of Maria dell’ Isola, which has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries. Visit the Sanctuary and spend a little time in its garden amidst fig and olive trees taking in the breathtaking views over the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Aeolian Islands. Can you spot the Stromboli Volcano?
The main street in Tropea, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele leads straight to a stunning view of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The maze of cobbled streets in this old section of town is full of cafés and ancient buildings. Sit at a café in Piazza Ercole, named after Hercules, and observe local life. The convivial interactions among the locals and the relaxed rhythm of life provide the ultimate glimpse into the Calabrian lifestyle.
- Tropea gets quite busy in August with vacationing Italians.
- Tropea is about a one hour drive from the Lamezia Terme airport.
- Follow the stairs down to the beach in Tropea but after relaxing by the sea, save some energy to climb the approximately 150 steps back up. Taxis are available, if needed.
2. The Opportunity To Slow Down
Do not arrive in Calabria, Italy, with a list of things to do. Calabria demands that you slow down. Slow your step. Breathe the sea air. Take a riposo in the afternoon when all the shops are closed. Speak to the locals. People watch.
You’re stepping back in time in Calabria. Your phone data will work sporadically. Maybe just turn it off. You’ve arrived in a corner of Italy where time seems to have stood still. Embrace it.
3. The Calabrians
When you slow down, it invites conversation and curiosity. It was in this manner that I managed to meet Calabrians. Sometimes it was through sign language that we communicated and other times, thankfully, the Calabrians spoke English. They were warm and welcoming and so proud to talk about the region, eager to help out lost strangers and wondering what had brought me to Calabria.
Pro Tip: I found that it was easy to strike up conversations with the market vendors at the Scilla market and in Scilla’s town square. Often the shopkeepers and servers at restaurants were happy to engage in conversation.
4. The Culinary Traditions Of Calabria
Highlights from a trip to Italy always include tales of gastronomic adventures. Calabria is no exception! Here’s what to try:
Tropea Calabria is revered worldwide for its sweet, mild red onions. Yes, sweet onions. It’s the only place in the world that produces them. You’ll find cipolle appearing in a variety of ways on menus in Calabria and even find onion-flavored gelato! Pop a jar of cipolle marmalade in your bag to bring home!
The hot chili pepper — peperoncino — grows well in Calabria and finds its way into all kinds of dishes. You’ll even find it on the table, dry, fresh, or resting in oil to add even more zest to your meal! Another great gift to bring home.
Framed by the seas, it is no surprise that Calabrian menus are jammed with seafood. Pesce spada (swordfish) is a delicious local delicacy to savor. Pasta dishes served with clams (a la vongole) and mussels (con le cozze) will leave you asking for more!
But where’s the pizza? Calabria has outstanding pizza cooked in wood-fired ovens. Mmm. Again, don’t miss out and take a gastronomic risk by ordering it with local toppings!
You’ll find tartufo on the menus throughout Calabria. This decadent frozen delight originates from Pizzo, Calabria. The round ball of hazelnut and vanilla ice cream dusted with cocoa powder is appealing in itself, but the melted chocolate hidden in the center makes this frozen treat one for the record books!
It is common in Italy to have a “digestif” after a meal, so while in Calabria, why not try one of the many local ones? The best known one from Calabria is Vecchio Amaro del Capo. Make sure it is served very, very cold and in a frozen glass. The icy cold temperature reveals the complex flavors of mint, aniseed, orange, and licorice.
5. Chianalea In Scilla
Scilla (pronounced Sheila) is a small fishing village with a castle. You’ll wish you’d planned to stay longer. Scilla Calabria tests your ability to slow down. Saunter to the beach, strike up a conversation with a Calabrian in the main square, stare at Sicily (or reach out and touch it) and the Ionian Islands but don’t miss Chianalea. Known as the Venice of the South, this small neighborhood of Scilla charms instantly. It’s a jumble of tiny streets, houses falling into the sea, colorful laundry flapping in the breeze and curious cats lazing in the sun. The perfect image of an ethnic Italian neighborhood.
In Scilla, be sure to investigate the tall towers on the fishing boats which tell of the age-old tradition of fishing for swordfish in the Strait of Medina.
6. Sunsets Over The Tyrrhenian Sea
Every night at the viewpoint at the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Tropea, a gathering of locals and tourists come to witness the spectacular sunsets. Glorious hues of orange and red light up the sky, framing the Stromboli volcano immersed in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It’s unforgettable.
7. The Capo Vaticano Lighthouse (Il Faro)
Just 4 miles south of Tropea is Capo Vaticano. Make the drive for the remarkable views from the lookout. Mother Nature has outdone herself. Steep cliffs drop into the green-blue sea and secluded beaches call to be explored. If you’re up for a hike to explore the coastline, follow the narrow path. It is steep and rocky so be sure to wear runners or proper hiking footwear. Bring plenty of water.
How To Get To Calabria, Italy
Calabria is served by two small airports, Lamezia Terme Airport and Reggio Calabria. Lamezia Terme is the main airport with service from many European cities. Check out Easyjet and Ryanair schedules. There are also direct flights from Toronto (scheduled for spring 2022).
How To Travel Around Calabria Italy
Having a rental car allows you to explore and go exactly where you want to while exploring Calabria. There are plenty of car rentals available at the Lamezia Terme airport. Book in advance. I highly recommend having a detailed map of southern Italy and not relying on GPS. I made this mistake and became very lost.
There is a coastal train service in Calabria but this will not provide as much flexibility with your itinerary. Trains run from Lamezia Terme to Tropea multiple times a day. There is a shuttle bus between the airport and the train station.
Where To Eat In Calabria
In Tropea: Set in the historic heart of Tropea, Il Convivio was my favorite. The ambiance, the service, the delectable food, and the exquisite bergamot sorbet made it worth returning to.
Incipit Restaurant is also outstanding. Book a table outdoors.
In Scilla: In the charming district of Chianalea, find Ristorante Bleu de Toi where the tables are sitting by the sea and the food is incredible. I returned a second evening as the charming server and chef made the evenings so memorable.
Where To Stay In Calabria
In Tropea: Try Bella Tropea Accommodation. This family-run bed and breakfast, a few minutes walk from the old town, is a charmer and the owners go out of their way to ensure your stay is perfect.
There’s also A Casa di Alessandro. Located in the historic center of Tropea, this bed and breakfast is a great place to relax after a day exploring Tropea.
In Scilla: Casa Vacanze Panorama is an apartment with breathtaking views of the sea.