A fairly well-traveled adventurer, I had never heard of the region of Calabria, Italy, until a layover when 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. Calabrian roots. Hearing their stories of Calabria, 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 new Italian friends, and we studied the article together.
The two men spoke with deep passion about Calabria and pointed out striking places in the photographs that I should visit. Less than a year later, I was there taking my own photos.
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 there. That, in itself, held a lot of appeal for me.
Where Is Calabria?
Calabria is at the toe of Italy’s boot. Its 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. It is composed of the provinces of Catanzaro, Cosenza, Crotone, Reggio Calabria, and Vibo Valentia. At the tippy-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 ancient Greek, Spanish, Arabic, and Norman influences.
Here’s why you’re going to fall in love with Calabria, Italy, just as I did.
1. The Opportunity To Slow Down
Do not arrive in Calabria with a long 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 stand still. Embrace it.
2. The Calabrian Locals
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 curious 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.
The Beaches Of Tropea
Tropea is a municipality in Calabria, Italy, and its 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 umbrellas, the turquoise-clear water of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and its Mediterranean climate make Tropea a beach lover’s paradise. Houses cling to the imposing rocky cliffs that provide a backdrop to the remarkable beaches. Follow a staircase down to the beach, rent an umbrella, marvel at the beautiful rock formations, and even eat seafood pasta dishes on the beach.
Sanctuary Of Maria Dell’ Isola
Perched on an outcrop 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 amid fig and olive trees, taking in the breathtaking views over the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Aeolian Islands. Can you spot the Stromboli Volcano rising from the sea?
Corso Vittorio Emmanuele
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 1-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.
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:
Cipolle In Tropea
Tropea 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 various ways on menus in Calabria, and even 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.
Pesce Spada, Vongole, And Cozze
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!
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
According to Statista, Calabria is the second-greatest producer of pressed olive oil. It offers three DOP olive oils. (DOP stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Protected Designation of Origin.) Look for a bottle of Lamtetia DOP extra-virgin olive oil, one of the finest in Italy.
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 digestif from Calabria is called 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, Scilla
Scilla (pronounced Sheila) is a small fishing village with an imposing castle perched on a rocky cliff. 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 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
The glorious sunsets in Calabria, Italy, are unforgettable. 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. Stunning hues of orange and red light up the sky, framing the Stromboli Volcano immersed in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
7. The Capo Vaticano Lighthouse (Il Faro)
The Capo Vaticano Lighthouse is a worthwhile stop on a road trip through Calabria. Just 4 miles south of Tropea, The Capo Vaticano Lighthouse harbors 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, follow the narrow path. It is steep and rocky, so be sure to wear runners or proper hiking footwear. Bring plenty of water.
8. La Sila National Park
La Sila National Park, also referred to as “The Forest of Giants,” is a vast nature reserve with remarkable landscapes. The forest, believed to have been planted in the 17th century, is a nature lover’s paradise with a wide variety of plant and animal species, including eagles and towering Calabrian pine trees. Wander through La Sila National Park along one of the well-marked walking routes. Alternately, mountain biking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing excursions are available.
Quaint villages are also part of the charming experience at La Sila National Park. Acri, known as “The Door to Sila,” contains the ruins of a castle and an ancient Capuchin Convent.
Getting To And Traveling Around Calabria
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. Coming directly from North America, airlines such as ITA Airways and Air Canada fly to Lamezia Terme with a layover in Rome.
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
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.
Another restaurant in Tropea, Incipit Restaurant is outstanding. Book a table outdoors.
Ristorante Bleu De Toi
In the charming district of Chianalea, find Ristorante Bleu de Toi, where the tables sit 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
Bella Tropea Accommodation
Try Bella Tropea Accommodation in Tropea. 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.
A Casa Di Alessandro
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, Italy.
B&B La Veduta
With its breathtaking views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, B&B La Veduta in Scilla comes highly recommended.