Salerno and La Spezia

Unjustly Overlooked Italian Cities

Peter Stanton
10 min readDec 22, 2023

My wife and I traveled around Italy in late April and early May this year.

It was my first time in Italy, and we tried to find a balance between doing too much and too little: We wanted to visit multiple regions and see major highlights of the country, while also not feeling like we were in too much of a rush from place to place. Ultimately, we spent three nights in Rome, two in Naples, two in Salerno, three in Bologna, two in La Spezia, and a final night back in Rome.

the map my wife and I used to plan our April-May 2023 trip to Italy

I’m sure many travelers would still find this itinerary too rushed, and would judge that we didn’t give the cities and regions we visited all the time they deserved. On the other hand, I know plenty of travel itineraries that squeeze more places into a trip than we did, or do just as much as we did in a shorter amount of time. I think we struck a good balance, especially for my first time in the country. Whenever we get the chance to go back to Italy, I expect we will select only one or two regions to explore, and will spend much more time there.

After taking this tour of Italy, there are two places we visited that I’d really like to highlight — Salerno and La Spezia.

Salerno and La Spezia are over 300 miles apart, in very different regions of Italy. Salerno is in Campagnia, in southern Italy, while La Spezia is in Liguria, in northern Italy. Nonetheless, they are incredibly similar cities, and they are similarly overlooked in travel blogs, videos, and guidebooks. Salerno and La Spezia were, in fact, the two places I most enjoyed spending time on our trip. I think they are unjustly overlooked.

Salerno and La Spezia on the Italian peninsula

Salerno and La Spezia are smaller-sized Italian cities, with populations of 132,000 and 92,000 people, respectively, making them #30 and #53 in this list of Italy’s largest cities. While Salerno is southern and La Spezia northern, they are both port cities on Italy’s west coast, Salerno on the Tyrrhenian Sea and La Spezia on the Ligurian Sea. (Both seas are smaller parts of the Mediterranean, of course.)

The cities have some remarkable similarities in their orientation and amenities: Both face largely southward toward the sea. Both have extensive pedestrianized or mostly-pedestrianized streets offering a great variety of shopping and dining that caters to locals and visitors alike. Both even have historic castles overlooking the cities.

maps of Salerno (left) and La Spezia (right), two smaller and unjustly overlooked cities on the west coast of Italy

But let’s cut to the chase: The reason that Salerno and La Spezia get overlooked is because travel writers and visitors generally treat these cities only as jumping-off points for more famous coastal areas, not as destinations in their own right. If Salerno gets mentioned at all in travel guides, it is only as a place to get transportation to the Amalfi Coast. When La Spezia gets mentioned, it’s only because it’s the primary city used to access the Cinque Terre.

Naturally, these are the original reasons why my wife and I spent two nights in Salerno and two nights in La Spezia in the first place. We knew the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre were renowned destinations, but we also wanted to save money and trouble by not staying in one of the towns of the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre themselves, so we planned to stay in the nearby hub cities instead.

As it turned out, we loved the hub cities more than the world-famous destination areas.

Now, the purpose of this article is not to disparage the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre. We appreciated how beautiful the mountainous coastal landscapes of these areas were, and the picturesque little towns built along them. However, we were also disappointed by how crowded these areas were, which definitely lessened our experience.

Monterosso al Mare, the largest and northernmost of the towns of the Cinque Terre, has a population of around 1,500 people.

I understand that early May is certainly not the “low season” or even a “shoulder season” for tourism in Italy. The weather is great, and plenty of people clearly had the same idea we did that spring is a perfect time to visit. But, given what these areas were like in early May, I found it difficult to imagine how crowded the boats, buses, and trains traveling to the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre would be in June and July — not to mention the hotels, restaurants, and streets of the towns themselves.

By contrast, Salerno and La Spezia did not have such problems with crowding. And — despite being paid so little attention in guidebooks — it wasn’t for lack of people. There were plenty of tourists passing through Salerno and La Spezia — especially La Spezia. Both are cruise ship ports: There was at least one smaller cruise ship in Salerno while we were there, and two larger ships were in port the day we left La Spezia.

Here are two cruise ships at La Spezia. They dock a comfortable distance away from the city center, leaving plenty of space for tourists to trickle into the town slowly.

The key to the issue isn’t the number of people, but the capacity communities have to accommodate those people. The famous towns of the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre are quite small: The largest towns on the Amalfi Coast, Maiori and Amalfi, have just over 5,000 residents each. The five towns of the Cinque Terre, meanwhile, have populations ranging from around 150 to little over 1,500. Bear in mind that my own town of Ketchikan, Alaska often seems overwhelmed by visitors, but Ketchikan has a summer population of around 15,000—three times larger than the largest town on the Amalfi Coast, and ten times larger than the largest of the Cinque Terre.

Towns and villages this small have narrow streets and limited amenities, even when tourism drives demand for such amenities sky-high. The very mountainous landscapes that make these communities so beautiful and famous limit the amount of space available for tourists to fill.

Salerno and La Spezia, meanwhile, have plenty of space. They are, after all, cities that already have populations of around 100,000 people each. A few hundred visitors arriving at once can make a town like Amalfi or Monterosso al Mare feel swamped, but a few thousand visitors coming off a cruise ship can be fully accommodated in Salerno and La Spezia.

A panorama looking out across central Salerno: You can tell that the smaller-sized cruise ship in port (on the right) has relatively little impact on this substantial city.

Tourism is not the raison d’être of Salerno or La Spezia. While they both have cruise ship docks, they also both have industrial shipping ports, and La Spezia has a major naval base. The cities exist as sizeable, thriving communities regardless of whether foreign visitors know about them or not. I appreciate that.

That also means that, when you walk the streets of Salerno and La Spezia, or enter a restaurant, grocery store, or shop, there is no immediate assumption that you are a tourist (unless you make it really obvious, I suppose). During most of the time my wife and I spent in these cities, we were mostly among Italians. The major exception was the day we left La Spezia, when two cruise ships had arrived in port and major numbers of Germans, Americans, and others streamed into the pedestrian areas. Even then, however, there were still plenty of locals going to the same restaurants and walking the same streets.

One surprise we had in Salerno was seeing this group walk the streets playing medieval-style music. Presumably, the group wasn’t playing for the benefit of tourists, but was just doing a fun local activity.

Even at Arechi Castle above Salerno, where all the other visitors at the time I was there were foreign (Dutch and Spanish, as far as I could tell), it seemed the castle was still in large part geared toward welcoming locals and other Italians. Some of the displays in the castle museum were not translated into English, and there were advertisements for events clearly meant for locals.

My point in writing this article is not to say that travelers should skip the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre entirely and spend all their time in Salerno and La Spezia instead. The Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre are unique and beautiful areas, rightly celebrated by many. However, would-be visitors should be well aware that these areas will be crowded any time outside of the off season, and eating, sleeping, and shopping there will be noticeably more expensive than elsewhere.

a view from the water of Maiori, the largest town on the Amalfi Coast

I think the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre still deserve to be visited through day trips from Salerno and La Spezia. However, paying to stay in any of the small towns there for one or more nights may not be worth your money, trouble, or time. Like Venice, the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre may soon reach breaking points of overtourism when communities will need to place limits on how visitors travel there, or how many people can visit at a time.

In the meantime, Salerno and La Spezia should continue to have plenty of capacity for visitors for a long time to come. They are robust communities in their own right, largely independent of tourism, with strong transportation connections, and affordable food and lodging. There’s plenty of interest in both places — beaches, forest, art, architecture, and history. And, perhaps most importantly, they are authentic urban communities that give visitors plenty of opportunity to experience how many Italians really live.

Corso Vittorio Emanuele is the main pedestrianized shopping street in Salernno. As far as I could tell, everyone seemed to be a local. I don’t think a lot of Italians from other places would have been visiting the city, espeically since there was a lot of partying going on in nearby Naples at the time.

Getting to Salerno or La Spezia is quite easy through the Italian train network, and most hotels or apartment rentals will be a short (mostly flat) walk away from the central train stations. Staying in a town on the Amalfi Coast or one of the towns of Cinque Terre, meanwhile, will require more transportation (a taxi, bus, or boat for the Amalfi Coast, or a boat or another train for Cinque Terre), and a lot more lugging around of luggage. Not to mention, those locations will almost certainly cost a great deal more. The apartment we stayed in in La Spezia was the largest we stayed in during our entire trip (a two-bedroom), and one of the most affordable. Our apartment in Salerno was the second most spacious, and similarly affordable.

The biggest difference between Salerno and La Spezia I can think of is their history. While both areas have been inhabited since ancient times, Salerno has been a major community for a much longer period, as the Normans who ruled southern Italy in the middle ages made it their capital. It’s incredible to think that back in 1050 A.D., Salerno was the second-largest community in Italy, more populated than Rome and only smaller than Venice. La Spezia, meanwhile, did not come to prominence as a community until the age of Italian unification in the nineteenth century, because of the naval base built there. Nonetheless, both Salerno and La Spezia have plenty of culture and charm, even if Salerno was more significant in centuries past.

If I had to pick a single favorite moment from my entire trip to Italy, it might well be exploring Castle Arechi and the surrounding forest. I met some sheep, goats, and herding dogs, spent time contemplating the history of Byzantine and Norman rule in the region, and loved looking out at gorgeous views of Salerno — a truly authentic Italian city — from numerous viewpoints.

a collection of photos from the marvelous moments I had visiting Castle Arechi above Salerno

The only reason I knew about the castle and the amazing views it offers was because of a vlog on YouTube, not made by a typical travel vlogger, but rather by a South African man living in Italy who was merely taking a day trip to the city. If I’d only paid attention to standard travel websites, I wouldn’t have realized I should go to Castle Arechi, or known much about Salerno at all.

The next time my wife and I get the chance to visit Italy, we likely won’t range across the country from south to north, but will choose one or two regions to spend more time in. We might want to revisit Salerno or La Spezia, but we likely won’t see both in the same trip.

If you’re planning your own trip to Italy, I’d encourage you to look for places a little off the beaten path. Or, find places that are on the beaten path, but don’t receive the attention and credit they deserve as communities worth visiting in their own right. That’s what I think Salerno and La Spezia are — beautiful and authentic Italian cities overlooked because of the more famous tourist destinations nearby.

Instead of just passing through, consider staying there a while!

Do you prefer to spend time in smaller towns geared toward tourists, or larger communities filled with locals? Leave a comment below with your own thoughts and travel experiences.



Peter Stanton

I’m an Alaskan history teacher in Ketchikan writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. I also write regularly about language, reading, travel, and politics.