Why Tropea is the most beautiful Italian town you’ve never heard of

Villa Paola
Former 16th-century convent Villa Paola is a few minutes from the centre of Tropea

On balmy summer evenings in the southern Italian town of Tropea – the “Pearl of Calabria” – a crowd gathers beside the 17th-century cannon in the eponymous Piazza del Cannone, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.

As the sun dips, the sky turns the shade of a Calabrian clementine, and all gazes are drawn to the glowing sandstone walls of Santa Maria dell’Isola, a sixth-century Benedictine monastery that’s had several makeovers thanks to earthquakes.

It sits atop a rocky outlet as the pin-up for Tropea tourism, but on clear days, it’s the ever-smoking volcanic Aeolian Island of Stromboli that steals the show, 35 miles across the water.

Tropea is probably the most beautiful Italian town you’ve never heard of, even taking Italy’s much-coveted Borgo dei Borghi (“Village of Villages”) crown in 2021. And yet, its relative remoteness – perched almost at the toe of Italy’s boot – has kept it off the well-beaten tourist trail.

Visit in summer, and you’ll be mostly in the company of northern Italian holidaymakers (who help to keep standards high – no overcooked pasta or soggy-bottomed pizza here), though it is in spring, when local businesses raise their shutters after the long winter, and autumn that the town is at its loveliest (and still a pleasant 22C, on average).

It is a place defined in every sense by the sea which surrounds it. Viewed from a distance (best done by boat), imposing pink and apricot-hued stone residences rise from 70m-high granite cliffs, throwing shadows on to spearmint blue water.

This rugged coastline is known as the Costa degli Dei (Coast of the Gods), and Tropea is thought to take its name from the Greek word tropaia, meaning trophies, or from tropis, meaning ship’s hull (sailors say that, glimpsed through swirling sea mists, it is this that the town resembles).

Villa Paola is a dreamy blackcurrant-hued 16th-century convent, now a boutique hotel where toiletries smell of incense and nights are lit by candlelight.

Tropea in Calabria
Tropea is 'a place defined in every sense by the sea which surrounds it' - Getty Images

At its Michelin-recommended Ristorante De’ Minimi, contemporary, seasonally sensitive Calabrian cuisine from Chef Emanuele Pucci can be served either inside or al fresco on the terrace, shaded by the vast umbrella-like canopy of a 400-year-old Mediterranean pine.

Myth has it that Hercules – having completed his 12 labours – came dripping from the sea to establish the town, which he called Forum Herculis (locals like to joke that he was their first tourist). The first traces of human settlement here date from the Neolithic period, and in the third century BC the Romans snatched Tropea from the Greeks, who had colonised Calabria in the eighth and seventh centuries BC.

The town gained its autonomy from the Spanish when residents clubbed together to buy it in 1615. Take a wander with local archaeologist Dario Godano through Tropea’s oldest quarter, beginning at the striking Norman cathedral built at the end of the 11th century, popping in to see the two undetonated bombs which could have wiped out the town during the Second World War (credited with dodging that disaster is the patron saint Our Lady of Romania).

From here, it’s a jumble of lanes lined with grand palazzi built in the 18th century, when 80 noble families rubbed shoulders here. Look out for the grotesques sculpted over doors, intended to ward off evil (and unwanted neighbours).

The best snorkelling spots in all Italy are found in the crystalline waters under the cliffs of Capo Vaticano, seven kilometres along the coast. Sea Sports Tropea can whisk you there and to sea-licked caves and powder-soft sandy coves, accessible only by boat.

The town’s public beach has a pleasingly 1950s feel, with men strutting in Speedos, women in floral swim hats striking out into crystal-clear water, and families hunched around picnics of arancini alla ’nduja, made with Calabria’s famous spicy sausage and sweet Tropea onion.

Tropea's beach
Tropea's beach is nostalgic and relaxed - John Peabody/Getty Images

Back on the clifftop lies the small (though soon to be expanding) and slightly eccentric Museum of the Sea, located in a corner of Santa Chiara Convent. Treasures within include the world’s most complete skeleton of a Metaxytherium (an extinct genus of the dugong), and the planet’s second-oldest shark tooth.

When it’s time to stop for a glass of local Greco di Bianco, head for the terrace of the family-run Il Marchese – a perfect spot from which to watch local life trickle by below over a plate of fileja (chewy pasta).

Dessert should be saved for Gelateria Nonna Rosa, where experts shape mandarin and pistachio ice cream into wave-like peaks. In Tropea, all things truly do begin and end with the sea.


Kate Wickers was a guest of Villa Paola (villapaolatropea.it), which has rooms from £285, B&B, and can also book guests on to the walking tour (€50 [£43] per couple), onion experience (€40 [£34] per person) and private boat tour (from €350 [£300] for up to three people).

Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from London to the regional airport Lamezia twice weekly, from £50 return.