I love a travel bargain, especially when you least expect it, and the Italian region of Abruzzo is both an incredible and amazing bargain. How this gorgeous area isn’t overrun with visitors and high prices is a bit of a mystery to me, but I’m glad to take it as it is. I suspect you (and your wallet) will love it as much as I do.
Abruzzo is a region in south-central Italy, just east of Rome. It is made up of four provinces: L’Aquila, Teramo, Pescara and Chieti. There are many transport links from Rome, including trains, buses and even carpooling schemes. I was recently planning a trip and was pleasantly surprised that I could get to my destination for a fraction of the time and cost of the train using carpooling. I take it! You can also connect to Abruzzo via eastern Italy (there are trains from Venice and Bologna to Pescara) and the south (via direct buses from Naples). Abruzzo Airport, in Pescara, serves international flights and is increasingly popular with low-cost carriers such as Ryanair.
But Abruzzo is much more than its means of communication. The currency of the region is strong and kind, meaning “gentle and kind” and I think it captures the spirit of the area perfectly. Here are some of the reasons why Abruzzo will make you swoon.
1. It’s calm and quiet
Although I wouldn’t go so far as to describe Abruzzo as sleepy (after all, its immediate neighbor is Rome), it is a quiet region.
To be fair, Abruzzo has good-sized towns (Pescara is home to around 120,000 people), bustling seaports and bustling towns, but the general vibe is calm and tranquil, especially as you drive away from the coast and towards the rugged interior. The province of L’Aquila, with an average of 150 people per square mile, has one of the lowest population densities in all of Italy. In some areas, visitors may outnumber animals because…
2. Abruzzo is the European capital of nature
Abruzzo is the heart of unspoiled Italian nature. The area is home to foxes, porcupines, wild cats, wild boars, badgers, otters and even bears and wolves. It is also one of the few places to see the Pyrenean chamois. The chamois, a small reddish-brown goat-antelope, was once nearly hunted to extinction in order to make chamois leather, but has since recovered.
The animals of Abruzzo find refuge in the three national parks of the region, as well as in several regional parks and wildlife reserves. Together, these protected areas represent half of the territory of Abruzzo and the region is dubbed “the greenest region in Europe”.
3. There are spectacular national parks
Abruzzo, again, is home to three national parks: Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park (often referred to simply as Abruzzo National Park), Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park, and La Mayella.
Abruzzo National Park
The Abruzzo National Park, founded in 1922-23, provides essential protected habitat for several endangered species, including wolves, bears and chamois. It is an excellent place for birdwatching and is home to six breeding pairs of golden eagles. Visitors to the park enjoy downhill and cross-country skiing, hiking and horseback riding.
Gran Sasso National Park and Monti Della Laga
The Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park is home to Europe’s southernmost glacier, the Calderone. There are over 120 miles of trails dedicated to horseback riding, and the area is also famous for snow, skiing and mountaineering. When this relatively young park was designated in 1991, a number of small, centuries-old communities found themselves within the park’s boundaries. Today, the Gran Sasso is as popular for its village attractions as it is for its natural attractions.
Maiella National Park
Maiella National Park is a scientific marvel. From 1998 to 2005 it housed a major international geological research project known as TaskForceMajella, and in 2001 it was named a UNESCO Global Geopark. However, you don’t need to be a scientist to enjoy this magnificent destination. The park is home to over 300 miles of hiking trails and is a great place for cave exploration (and to see rock paintings!).
4. It’s also a hotspot for foodies
Is there any part of Italy that isn’t delicious? If there is, I haven’t found it. In a land of culinary dominance, Abruzzo cuisine really stands out. The emphasis is on goat and lamb, reflecting the region’s farming and ranching heritage. The region is Italy’s saffron capital, and the highly prized saffron crocus grows along the Navelli Plateau near L’Aquila. Abruzzo is also famous for liquorice, which has been harvested in the region since Roman times.
Other local favorites include confetti di Sulmona: candy-coated almonds that are often brightly colored and arranged to look like pretty flower petals. “Spaghetti on guitar” or spaghetti with chitarra is another characteristic of Abruzzo. It is named after the guitar-shaped device that cuts egg noodle spaghetti into a square shape instead of the rounded edges typical of traditional spaghetti.
5. Abruzzo is a wine master
Wines from Abruzzo don’t have the same buzz as those from, say, Tuscany, but they are absolutely beloved by oenophiles (and that lack of big-name recognition means tons of bargains). You may have tasted the best Abruzzo grapes before without even knowing it, as around two-thirds of the region’s annual wine harvest is actually sold to other Italian regions to supplement their own production.
The most famous wine from Abruzzo is the red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (not to be confused with a similar name found in Tuscany) and the white Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. Rosé lovers will want to try Cerasuolo, which is made from the Montepulciano grape in vineyards located in the mountainous interior of Abruzzo. These wines are usually a deep, bright cherry pink – unlike your usual rosé at home!
6. You can explore the cozy hill towns
One of my favorite things to do anywhere in Italy is to explore a hill town. These quaint destinations, ranging from small communities with limited amenities to bustling towns filled with tourist services, are always charming and fun to explore. Some notable places include:
Castel Del Monte
Castel del Monte means ‘Mountain Fortress’ and evidence of human habitation dates back to the 11th century BC. However, the city you see today, with its huge defensive walls, dates back to the 1500s and 1600s, when the powerful Medici family ruled. Today, the small hamlet of around 500 people has been recognized by I Borghi più belli d’Italia, the official Italian association for its most beautiful villages. It is also a Slow Food leader in cheese production and well known for its annual August festival in which the whole community takes part in a folktale re-enactment known as La Notte delle Streghe, or “The witches night”.
Santo Stefano di Sessanio
Located in the Gran Sasso National Park, just over 100 people live in this hilltop village. Like its neighbor Castel del Monte, Santo Stefano di Sessanio has been named one of the most beautiful villages in Italy and has been recognized by the Slow Food movement for its gourmet lentils. There is even a lentil festival every year! Every September, the Sagra delle Lenticchie celebrates the most famous kitchen in the village.
The hotel rooms here are unique. A program called albergo diffusion has a central check-in area, but the hotel rooms themselves are located in multiple locations within the community.
Also located in the Gran Sasso National Park, this community of around 1,300 people is famous for its maiolicas, a kind of decorative ceramic that was once a hit among European nobles. Castelli remains popular with ceramists and artists and is home to a ceramics museum (the Museo Delle Ceramiche) and a famous 17th century church, San Donato.
7. It’s an underrated archaeological hotspot
Some of Italy’s finest archaeological finds are found in Abruzzo, but the region tends to be overshadowed by more famous and rugged sites like Pompeii, Rome, and Tuscany. But the town of Chieti is home to a real archaeological gem, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale d’Abruzzo, and its precious treasure, the statue of the Warrior of Capestrano, which dates from the 6th century BC and is in excellent condition.
In the town of Teramo you will find the Cathedral of Teramo (whose construction began in 1158), an archaeological museum and a Roman theater. And in the town of L’Aquila is the Museo Nazionale d’Abruzzo, where exhibits include artifacts from Roman times, medieval and modern art, and even a giant skeleton of a Archidiskon meridionalis, a kind of prehistoric elephant. The museum was located in the 16th century Castello dell’Aquila, but had to be moved after a devastating earthquake in 2009 – and since May 2022 the Castello dell’Aquila itself is undergoing a full restoration treatment.
Not all of Abruzzo’s ancient history can be found in a museum. In fact, some of the region’s most important cultural practices still take place today, albeit in a more limited form. The most famous of all is the transhumance, a seasonal movement of flocks of sheep that dates back to the region’s earliest days as a pastoral area. The activity is still practiced today and is often celebrated at community festivals.