So you're planning a trip to Italy but you don't want to just see the famous tourist traps. You long to experience genuine Italian culture. Yet everywhere you look for tips, be it from websites, travel agents, or your well-traveled friends, they only talk about the same old places: Rome, Venice, Florence...
Does the real Italy even exist any longer, you wonder?
Indeed it does, and it's in full magical display in the fairy-tale hilltop towns. The places where time has stopped, where secret pasta recipes are passed through generations. Where flowers adorn centuries-old stone houses, and where locals know each other by name.
Italy hides many hilltop towns like these, but the following ones are some of the most breathtaking:
1. Urbino, birthplace of Raphael, the prodigious painter
It's here that one of the superstar painters of the Renaissance era was born. Raphael would go on to vie for glory with none other than Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The town itself is a maze of tiny, steep alleys with great vistas from the top.
2. San Gimignano, a medieval Manhattan
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its 14 towers, the testament to the power struggles between the town's wealthy families in the medieval era. It's well-preserved streets, houses and the way of life will overwhelm you with their historic, authentic Italian feel.
3. Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis
St. Francis founded the Franciscan religious order in the 13th century and is one of the patron saints of Italy. The Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi is one of the most memorable sights when approaching this medieval hilltop town. It's a famous pilgrimage site, rocked by two earthquakes in 1997, but remarkably restored and open for visiting.
4. Orvieto, medieval gem built on a volcano tuff
This other-worldly place sits atop a volcanic tuff, with walls built at the edges of the abyss that surrounds it on all sides. You'll be amazed with its historic cobble stone streets, churches and stone houses, but nothing compares to its Duomo, the incredible cathedral that is visible from afar.
5. Civita di Bagnoregio, the classic Italian hilltop dream
This incredible place was built 2.5 millennia ago above the river Tiber, and thanks to its isolation at the top of a volcanic tuff, it did not surrender to modern civilization. It's in imminent danger of destruction, as parts of its hill erode over time, so try visiting sooner rather than later.
6. Cortona, the ancient jewel of Tuscany
A more than 2,700-year-old Etruscan town, it's famous for its hilltop views and cinematographic scenery. Its steep, tiny alleys lead up to the main Piazza Garibaldi, where you can enjoy the sweeping views and a perfect espresso. No wonder the movie "Under the Tuscan Sun" was filmed here.
7. Montepulciano, world-famous wine capital of Tuscany
Climb its steep cobble stone streets all the way to the top, and treat your eyes to some of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture with a backdrop of spectacular hilltop views. Then celebrate your ascent with a glass of Vino Nobile, considered one of Italy's best wines.
8. Sorano, perched atop a tuff rock
Its imposing castle tells tales of the turbulent times in the Renaissance era, set atop the maze of stone houses and winding alleys. It's located in one of the most dramatic settings of all hilltop towns, so make sure you enjoy the view as you approach this unique town perched on a volcanic tuff over the river Lente.
9. Spello, where stone houses are covered with flowers
This pretty hilltop town will charm you with its flowers, colors and scents, as locals compete to create the most beautiful flower-adorned facade or balcony. If your Italy trip is in May or June, you can't miss this town's key festival Infiorate (held on 9th Sunday after Easter), where locals will create whole carpets of flowers in the town.
10. Taormina, Sicily's awe-Inspiring crown jewel
Built on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Taormina is a mix of ancient ruins, spectacular views and the Sicilian way of life. Its highlight is Teatro Greco or 'Greek Theater' -- the ancient amphitheater still in use today. It offers views of the sea and the imposing Mount Etna, the picture-perfect active volcano of Sicily.
Imagine yourself stepping onto the centuries-old, cobbled stone square of one of these Italian hilltop towns. The views are amazing, the local kids play around you, their laughter echoing high above the bell towers. You sip a perfect espresso as you watch the stone houses covered in flowers. You smile, knowing in your heart you will forever remember this authentic Italian experience.