Generally unknown, not only to tourists but also to most North American travel agents, Italy’s national parks represent the true natural, scientific, cultural and historical heritage of the country. In Italy, there are 24 beautiful national parks located throughout the country for visitors to discover.
Located from north to south in Italy, the parks cover a total of more than 15,000 km2 or about 5% of the Italian territory. These are not demarcated territories with a unique logo a, and no one has to pay entrance fees. It even happens that tourists visit iconic places such as Cinque Terre or Vesuvius, without even knowing that they are in a National Park.
Italian national parks are very different from North American parks because of the human presence and economic activities taking place in the territories of these parks. Indeed, man is present everywhere in the Italian parks, either through historical monuments, medieval castles, alpine ski resorts, libraries or scientific activities, the production of extra virgin olive oil and cheeses or ancestral vineyards.
National parks represent a microcosm of Italy. At the same place, we find the three pillars of the Italian tourist offer: nature, culture and gastronomy.
In the Italian national parks, you can stay on site, taste local products, have fun, explore, do sports activities. In short, a stay of even a week may not be enough to see the main attractions of the parks.
Different surprising encounters and many activities are offered to North American tourists: hiking trails and bike tours of varying difficulty levels, seaside resorts, scuba diving centers, cooking classes and more. crafts, visits to cheese factories and vineyards, wildlife viewing, folk festivals will be combined with cultural and historical experience.
Most parks offer experienced guides in French and English. Parks can be visited in small groups or as one of the stages of your individual trip. Some parks can be visited while following popular tourist routes such as the cities of Florence (Foreste Casentinesi) or Turin (Gran Paradiso) or a particularly popular destination for North American tourists – the island of Sardinia (Asinara).
Many of the Italian national parks also allow you to discover less known regions for Canadian tourists such as Calabria, Puglia or some small islands. The parks are varied as some parks have medieval castles or archaeological sites, while others are home alpine peaks, cliffs, rare animals, beaches or amazing coastline.
Among the 24 national parks, we have chosen 10 that we will discover together: Gran Paradiso (regions of Piemonte and Val d’Aosta), Cinque Terre (Liguria), Asinara (Sardegna), Arcipelago Toscano (Toscana), Foresta Casentinesi Monte Falerona and Campigna (between the regions of Emilia Romagna and Toscana), Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga (Abruzzo, Molise and Lazio), Cilento and Vallo di Diano (Campania), Alta Murgia (Puglia), Pollino (Basilicata and Calabria), Sila (Calabria)
Discover Italy’s National Parks:
Asinara National Park:
Asinara is the third largest island of Sardinia and it is located at the northwestern tip of the region. Asinara was nicknamed “devil’s island” due to the contrast between its natural beauty and its dark history. During WW2, it was used as a quarantine island and as a prison camp. Throughout the 70s, it was used to imprison some of Italy’s high profile criminals until it was eventually re-established as a national park in 1997.
What to see:
Punto dello Scorno:
The Asinara coast is incredibly steep and rocky. Some rocks on the island have been found to be 950 million years old, making them Sardinia’s oldest rocks.
Cala d’Arena Beach:
Even if Asinara’s history is dark, the waters of its countless inlets offer some respite as they are the perfect location for swimming. Visitors can swim at Cala d’Areana and near other smaller inlets. When the island was used as a jail, the prisoners were allowed to swim at Cala d’Oliva, where they were watched over by guards.
Cala d’Oliva is recognized as the capital of the island and the National Park. The settlement is made up of a group of white structures which blend beautifully with the Mediterranean backdrop, the Aragonese watchtower and the remains of the Fornelli security jail.
Asinara’s Albino Donkeys:
Asinara’s famous donkeys known for their white pelt are indigenous to Asinara and are one of the greatest mysteries of Italian zoology. It is still unknown when they arrived on the island or why they are the colour they are. Today the wild donkeys live in small colonies near Santa Maria and at Trabuccato.
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Cilento, Vallo di Diano and Alburni National Park:
Founded in 1991, the Cilento, Vallo di Diano and Alburni National Park is located in the southernmost corner of the region of Campania in the Province of Salerno and stretches from the Tyrrhenian coast to the foot of the Apennines in Basilicata. The park is the second largest park in the country and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 in recognition of its natural, cultural and historical legacies.
What to see:
San Lorenzo in Padula:
Built in 1306, the Charterhouse of St. Lorenzo in Padula is the largest Chartusian monastery in Europe, with 250,000 square meters of gardens and yards and over 320 rooms and halls to discover. Tours last about 1 hour and visitors can explore the beauty of the ornate charterhouse and visit one of the many monks’ cells.
Cala Bianca Beach:
Cala Bianca is considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Italy, in large part due to its secludedness and lack of mass tourism. The white pebble beach is approximately 70x30m and is located at the Bay of Pozzallo.
Located just south of Salerno and not far from Pompeii, you will find the largely unknown Paestum Archeological site. First settled by the Greeks in 650 BC, Paestum thrived as an ancient city under Greek rule until it was invaded by the Romans in 274 BC. The Temples built on the site are some of the most well preserved Greek temples in Italy, especially the Temple of Hera. Visits include guided tours through the temples and other ancient ruins as well as entrance to a museum on site.
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Cinque Terre National Park:
Cinque Terre National Park, the most renowned national park in Italy, is a protected territory located in the province of La Spezia, Liguria in northern Italy. It is the smallest national park in Italy with 4,300 acres, however it is the densest with 5,000 permanent inhabitants living amongst the five towns. The territory encompasses the towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare, as well as parts of the communes of Levanto and La Spezia. Cinque Terre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
What to see:
The Five Villages:
Riomaggiore is the first stop on many Cinque Terre visits. Peeling pastel buildings line down a steep ravine to a tiny harbour is one of Cinque Terre’s most romantic sights. A botanical garden and bird watching centre are also worth visiting in Riomaggiore
Manarola The grapevines that surround Manarola produce the Cinque Terre wine, Sciacchetrà. Punta Bonfiglio, which a short uphill hike from the town, has fabulous views on the Ligurian sea.
Corniglia Sitting atop a 100m-high rocky promontory surrounded by vineyards, Corniglia is the only village that lacks direct access to the sea. Its tranquil, tangled streets lead to a broad and breezy sea-facing terrace, where you can see all five villages at once.
Vernazza’s small harbour and it’s Piazza Marconi with its sea-facing amphitheatre of pastel houses are some of Cinque Terre’s most iconic sights.
Monterosso, which is the furthest north of the villages is where visitors looking to enjoy the beach flock to. The village is known for its lemon trees and plump anchovies served right off a boat
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Foreste Casentinesi, Monte Falterona and Campigna National Park:
Located along the Apennine mountain range between Romagna and Tuscany, the Foreste Casentinesi, Monte Falterona and Campigna National Park is one of Italy’s most important forested protected areas. Created in 1993, the park covers an area of about 368 square kilometres and is divided between the provinces of Forlì Cesena, Arezzo and Florence.
What to see:
Acquacheta Falls is one of the park’s most popular tourist attractions. The Acquacheta Falls, is an impressive 80m high waterfall surrounded by the lush nature of the surrounding forest. The base of the waterfall is the perfect place for a relaxing swim. Hike from the village of St. Benedetto in Alpe.
The Poppi Castle:
Built by the Guidi family, is a symbol of the park’s history. Built in 1274 as fortress in the area, it is now home to the splendid Rilliana Library. The medieval castle features ornate architecture and art to discover. Guided tours lasting 1 hour are offered daily.
The Local Fauna:
The biodiversity of the Park has played a huge role in reviving the populations of previously endangered species in the park. While exploring the park, visitors will encounter some of the area’s most popular animals including roe deer, venison, red fox, and fallow deer.
The Peaks of the Park:
The largest mountains of the Casentinesi Forests are located on the eastern side of the Park, an area entirely covered by beech trees. Peaks like Mount Falterona and Monte Penna provide amazing views of the entire park. Hike up to Mount Falterona mountain using the ring root departing from Castagno d’Andrea.
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Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park:
Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park was established in 1991 and has an area of 2,014 square km (778 square mi). The terrain of the park is predominantly mountainous with alpine plains. The park is one of the largest protected areas in Europe and is also one of the most biologically diverse with over 2,600 different flora located in the park.
What to see:
Amiternum was an ancient Italic town founded by Sabines in the second century BC, whose ruins can be found today not far from L’Aquila in Abruzzo. There are considerable remains of an amphitheatre and a theatre which can be visited today
Rocca Calascio is a mountaintop fortress in the Province of L’Aquila in Abruzzo first built in the 10th century. At an elevation of 1,460 metres (4,790 ft), Rocca Calascio is the highest fortress in the Apennines. To reach the fortress, you can hike a trail from Santo Stefano di Sessanio.
Campo Imperatore translates to Emperor’s Field is an alpine meadow formed by a high basin shaped plateau located above the Gran Sasso massif, the largest plateau of the Apennine ridge. Known as “Little Tibet”, Campo Imperatore is the perfect area to discover by hike in the summer and skiing in the winter.
Calderone Glacier is the only glacier within Apennines mountain range, located in the Gran Sasso d’Italia mountain group. It lies just beneath the Corno Grande, the highest peak in the Apennines. “Il Calderone” is Europe’s southernmost glacier. The Calderone glacier should be ascended in late spring, from the end of May to the start of July, when there is winter snow.
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Pollino National Park:
Pollino National Park in southern Italy straddles the regions of Basilicata and Calabria. It is Italy’s largest national park, covering 1,925.65 square kilometers. The park includes the Pollino and Orsomarso massifs, which are part of the southern Apennine Mountains, reaching a high point of 2,267 meters at Serra Dolcedorme. The park’s symbol is the rare Bosnian pine tree, which grows exclusively in the park in Italy. The park is also home to the the oldest European tree, a Heldreich’s pine estimated to be 1,230 years old.
What to see:
Italy’s Albanian Communities:
Pollino National Park is the center of Italy’s Arberesh community with Italo-Albanian origins who arrived in the park during the 15th and 17th centuries from the Balkans and who now populate eight of the Park’s Municipalities. The villages San Paolo and San Constantino Albanese are perfect examples of the Arberesh way of life, who have maintained their own language and customs.
The Raganello Gorges:
The Raganello Gorges is a protected natural area established in 1987 in Calabria, in the province of Cosenza. It occupies an area of 1,600 hectares within the Pollino National Park. The gorges are 17 km in length and offer visitors the chance to hike or swim to discover its natural beauty.
The Romito Cave:
The Romito Cave is a natural limestone cave in the Lao Valley of Pollino National Park, near the town of Papasidero in Calabria, Italy. Scientists believe that there has been human activity in the cave dating back to the Upper Paleolithic 17,000 years ago. Four prehistoric skeletons along with cave drawings were found in the cave where visitors can have a guided tour.
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Sila National Park:
Located in the center of Calabria within southern Italy, Sila National Park is an important protected natural area which spans 3 of Calabria’s 5 provinces. The park is split up into 3 different sections: Sila Greca, Sila Grande and Sila Piccola; each with their own natural and cultural wonders to discover. The park is a year round attraction with something for tourists to enjoy in every season.
What to see:
Ampollino Lake is located within the park and spans across all three provinces. The reservoir was built in 1927 and was the first artificial lake in the Sila region. Even though the lake is artificial, it has fully integrated in Sila’s natural landscape and is now one of the park’s major attractions. The lake also has a strong archeological importance, with Bronze age artifacts having been found on site.
The Giant Pines of Sila Nature Reserve:
The Giant Pines of Sila Nature Reserve is a small state-run Fallistro Nature Reserve located within the park. It is an ancient pine forest believed to have been planted in the mid 17th century and now comprises 56 larch trees, some of which are estimated to be over 350 years old and stand 50 m tall. In fact, the trees are often compared to the North America sequoia trees
Badia Florence at San Giovanni Di Fiore:
This abbey founded in 1189 by Gioacchino da Fiore, is one of Calabria’s most important religious monuments and has served as a historical attraction in the area for hundred of years. Today, there is a church, a crypt and museums for tourists to visit.