27 May 2021.
Clinging precariously to a line of rugged sandstone cliffs and wrapped in the mesmerising blue bays of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Tropea holds a striking position.
At its heart, the centro storico is a compact labyrinth of twisting laneways where timeworn buildings rise high above cobbled walkways, teal window frames checker the ochre facades and laundry draped from the upper levels dances in the breeze.
It’s a taste of quintessential Italy with a location that is as dramatic as it is enchanting and makes a fantastic introduction to the region of Calabria.
Like so many of Italy’s bite-sized towns, the best way to explore Tropea is on foot, wandering slowly and getting wonderfully lost as you duck down rambling alleyways and colourful mosaic staircases in search of hidden piazzas and hole-in-the-wall trattorias.
We visited in the middle of winter when the tail end of a storm was still lashing the peninsular leaving the seas rough and skies grey, but in summer Tropea is well known for the many beautiful beaches that speckle this wild stretch of coastline. Sun-drenched and brimming with life, it’s a particularly popular spot for Italians escaping the more touristed beach destinations further north.
Almost everything on this list can comfortably be fitted into one day, but if you plan on visiting the Aeolian Islands or whiling away an entire day or two discovering the area’s best beaches (definitely do this if you’re here in the warmer months!), I’d recommend adding an additional couple of days to your visit. If you’re exploring Calabria more widely, Tropea also makes an excellent jumping-off point from which to explore the region.
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Explore The Centro Storico, Tropea’s Rambling Old Town
Tropea may be short on key attractions, but simply strolling the charming old streets of the historic centre is the best way to get well-acquainted.
Set off down the tiny, twisting laneways, enjoy a gelato in the sunshine, climb the colourful stairs of Largo Rota, take in the spectacular ocean views, nurse an aperitif or two in a tucked away piazza and soak up every inch of this beautiful little Italian town.
Amongst the old town, you’ll also find a handful of churches and chapels of which the prettiest is the enormous Duomo di Tropea and Chiesa del Gesu.
Most impressive however is the iconic Santuario di Santa Maria dell’Isola which stands proudly on a rocky outcrop that juts into the bay. From up here, you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views along the coastline and the ancient buildings clinging desperately to Tropea’s craggy cliffs. Be sure to wander around the base of the promontory as well where you’ll find a large cave that fills with waves at high tide.
For the best ocean views, head to the three perfectly situated balconies that lie scattered along the edge of the old town. You’ll find these at the end of Via Independencia, Corso Vitoria Emanuele and Largo Galluppi.
Sample The Cipolla Rossa Di Tropea
Spend any amount of time in Italy, and you’ll realise that every region and most towns, no matter how tiny, have a local speciality, a signature ingredient or a timeless dish born from the ancestral way of life with closely guarded recipes that are passed down through the generations.
In Tropea, that thing is a variety of sweet red onion, one that you’ll find draped across the doorways of virtually every bottega and served up generously as the star ingredient of many dishes in town. Be sure to try it while you’re here or buy a bundle to take home.
Take In Sunset At Capo Vaticano
One of our favourite things to do in Tropea was catching the sunset from the chiselled cliffs of Capo Vaticano, the westernmost point of the peninsula.
From the viewpoint, follow the steep dusty trail through a sea of cacti downhill towards the water. To the right lies an impressive cave carved into the cliff face, or continue left where you’ll find a thread of gorgeous turquoise bays stretching into the distance.
You could easily spend an entire afternoon exploring the nooks and crags of this wild coastline, or sprawled out on the powdery shores, but the most beautiful time to visit is around sunset when the bay is illuminated in vibrant afternoon light.
Pack some nibbles and a bottle of vino and stroll across to the far end of Spiaggia Capo Vaticano or Spiaggia di Grotticelle for a perfect end to your day. In winter, all the tourist facilities here were closed, but in summer, beach chairs and parasols sprawl across the sand and there’s a bar serving up food and drinks.
You’ll find a large parking area at Capo Vaticano and the area is surrounded by many quiet streets with ample parking, but I suspect in summer this would be a prime beach spot in the region so don’t leave it too late in the day to arrive. You can also drive directly to Spiaggia di Grotticelle if you don’t fancy the walk but parking here can be rather pricey.
SOAK UP SOME SUN AT THE MAGNIFICENT BEACHES OF TROPEA
With an impressive coastline, shimmering aqua seas and countless secluded bays, this striking pocket of Italy has certainly earned its title as the ‘Coast of the Gods’!
While the winter chill meant daily dips were not quite on the cards for our visit, the beaches surrounding Tropea are simply gorgeous, boasting vast golden shores, impossibly blue water and fewer crowds than you’ll experience in the overwhelmingly busy tourist hotspots that exist elsewhere in Italy.
That said, it is a popular beach destination for locals escaping the inflated summer rates and immense crowds that descend elsewhere in the country during the warmer months so don’t expect to have the place all to yourself.
Nestled beneath the cliffs that carry Tropea’s centro storico, Mare Piccolo is a convenient choice of beach with easy access via a staircase that zigzags between Via Libertad and Via Lungomare, the road that wraps around the beachfront. It’s also another excellent place to catch the sunset against the silhouette of Stromboli on the horizon.
For a wilder and more remote option, head to the beaches of Capo Vaticano where you’ll find a number of pretty bays peppered around the cliffs as mentioned above.
Tour The Aeolian Islands
From Tropea’s sublime clifftop perch, gaze across the ocean and you’ll notice the stark silhouettes of the Aeolian Islands, a string of distant peaks emitting slow tendrils of smoke.
Though the wild storm swell meant this wasn’t an option on our trip, it looks like a fun day out with numerous tour options available.
This highly rated Aeolian Island Day Tour includes stops at Vulkano, Lipari and Stromboli where you’ll be given the chance to experience the colourful villages, bathe in the hot springs and climb to some fantastic viewpoints that overlook the islands. Check rates and availability here.
Another top-rated option is the Stromboli Night Tour which brings you directly to the charming fishing village of Vincenzo where you can enjoy the black sand beach and dinner while watching the sunset, before travelling to the quieter side of the island to witness the ‘Sciara del Fuoco‘, the frequent firey eruptions that billow from Stromboli and are clearly visible at night. Check rates and availability here.
As a town with such a remarkable setting, it is well worth trying to secure accommodation located along the cliffs of the old town where you’ll be welcomed with spectacular ocean views at all hours, if it’s within your budget of course. Otherwise, you’ll find a range of options outside the old town that are within walking distance of all the main sights. Prices fluctuate enormously between peak and low seasons so be sure to shop around and book well in advance.
Parking can also be something of a challenge in Tropea so I’d definitely recommend scouting out accommodation that offers secure parking, either on site or nearby, as part of the deal.
Il Terrazzino | We stayed at this lovely Airbnb over the Christmas period and honestly couldn’t have chosen a better spot.
The apartment was homely, comfortable and clean, had a fully equipped kitchen with everything we needed to whip up a complete Christmas feast, and included secure parking a short walk from the property. The host Francesca was also incredibly helpful and made a number of excellent recommendations of restaurants and places to visit in town.
The best part, however, was the view overlooking the beach and Sanctuary of Saint Mary Church. A perfect spot to enjoy breakfast or the sunset with an aperitif in hand. Check rates and availability here.
Residenza Arena | Located a 10-minute walk from the old town, Arena is one of the best-rated guesthouses in Tropea. Rooms are cosy and bright with access to the rooftop terrace that offers ocean views. Some rooms are equipped with a kitchen for those looking to self-cater and parking is available on site. Check rates and availability here.
B&B Chez Moi | Friendly and helpful hosts, clean modern rooms and a location just outside the old town make this one of the best-rated options in Tropea. They also have a number of COVID-safe measures in place for guests and offer free onsite parking. Check rates and availability here.
La Dolce Vita a Tropea | Bright airy rooms, spacious private balconies, a sumptuous breakfast and modern Mediterranean vibes make this luxurious 4-star hotel located on the seaside cliffs an incredible spot to enjoy la dolce vita in Tropea. Check rates and availability here.
Meravigliosa Casa | For large families and groups, this house looks like an amazing option with several rooms, spacious living areas, a proper kitchen and a balcony perched above the ocean. This property is also hosted by Francesca and neighbours the apartment where we stayed during our visit. Check rates and availability here.
Our Airbnb host gave us a long list of recomended restaurants in town, whether we were in the mood for panini, pasta or seafood, somewhere low-key and cosy or something a little bit special. The challenge with visiting at Christmas time, however, meant that many of these were closed up for the holidays. Still, that didn’t stop us from trying some fantastic food.
Tucked away in a small sidestreet, Le Volpi e l’Uva became our go-to while in Tropea. With a homely and authentic Calabrian menu, reasonable prices and wonderfully friendly hosts, it made it easy to return again and again.
While in Tropea and Calabria, there are also a few specialities you should aim to try which you won’t find elsewhere in Italy. The red onions are widely available and you’ll have no problem finding it highlighted on virtually every menu in town. Nduja, a pork paste mixed with chilli and spices (trust me, it’s better than it sounds), and seafood, particularly swordfish which is sought after anywhere along the coast, are also worth trying.
Tropea’s historic centre is a zona traffico limitado or ‘ztl’ where only authorised vehicles are allowed to enter. So whether you’re staying overnight or just visiting on a day trip, you’ll need to find suitable parking elsewhere.
Many accommodations do offer parking, either on site or nearby, but whatever the arrangement is, I’d highly recommend having a plan for where to park before you arrive. In general, finding parking on the street is a challenge, but there are some paid parking areas scattered around the edge of the city where you’ll have better luck.
To help orientate yourself, Tropea is essentially divided into two levels. Via Lungomare runs along the waterfront and wraps around the base of the cliff that carries Tropea’s old town. Almost everything located inland of that lies on the upper clifftop level. There are steep stair cases on either end of the old town that connect the upper level with the waterfront.
The closest airports to Tropea are Lamezia Terme (an hour away) and Reggio Calabria (1 hour 40 minutes away) which are both served by many of Europe’s major airlines and low-cost carriers.
For those visiting Tropea as part of an extended trip through the south of Italy, Naples and Bari also have great connections and provide the opportunity to explore the stunning regions of Campania, Basilicata and Puglia as well as northern Calabria.
Catania and Palermo on Sicily are also convenient hubs with daily car ferries plying the route between Messina (Sicily) and Reggio Calabria in just 30 minutes. Search ferry times here.
As a compact tangle of a town, Tropea is easily explored on foot, but with so many pretty country roads and charming villages to explore in the surrounding region, the best way to visit is with a rental car which will afford you the freedom to travel slowly and stop as often as you please.
Thankfully, you’ll find rental car companies available at all major airports and cities in the region but rates do vary quite drastically. Search car rental options here.
For driving in Italy, most nationalities will also require an International Drivers Permit so be sure to arrange this a few weeks ahead of your visit. For Aussies, this can be done here.
If you’re keen to avoid getting behind the wheel – the roads here can be a little hectic, after all – there’s also an incredibly scenic train line which hugs the coast of the Calabrian peninsula and stops in the heart of Tropea, about 1km from the old town. Search the timetable here.