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The Essential Guide to Calabria

Settled by the Greeks around the 8th century BCE, Calabria contains remnants of its many other former occupiers, including the Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Aragons, and Bourbons. 

Blessed to be enveloped between the aquamarine waters of the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas, Calabria is a region that embraces nature with its seemingly endless coastline of sandy beaches, untainted landscapes, pastoral national parks and buzzy cities such as Reggio di Calabria, Catanzaro and Crotone. 

Besides the swathes of balmy spiaggi, the region has a wealth of pretty villages, majestic fortresses, ancient churches and a spice-laced cuisine. A tad rough around the edges — a combination of beauty and rawness — Calabria is one of southern Italy’s most authentic and “hotter than hot” destinations right now.

When to go

Saracen tower
Saracen tower in the Taurean Park in the territory of Palmi, Calabria / Photo: Federico Neri via Shutterstock

Weather-wise, Calabria’s climate is warm and dry most of the year. It's hard to go wrong with a visit in the spring or late fall when the mercury hovers around a pleasant 19 C (67 F). Still, many people are coming to Calabria primarily for the sun and surf, so if that applies, you probably won’t mind the sweltering “dog days” of summer (30 C/86 F). But if you want to avoid the throngs of tourists, think wintertime when temps remain relatively mild (averaging highs of 8 C/46 F), if slightly soggy from rainstorms.

How to get there

Located at the “toe” of Italy’s boot, Calabria is bordered by Basilicata to the north and the Strait of Messina to the southwest. At its narrowest point, it’s only 3.2 km (2 miles) from the shores of Sicily.

By train

Reggio Calabria is the main regional rail hub and connects Calabria to cities such as Milan, Bologna, Genova, Florence, Rome and Naples.

By car

If heading to Calabria along the Tyrrhenian coast, from Rome and south, the fastest route is to take the A2 Autostrada to the E45. 

If coming from Bari or anywhere on the Ionian side and not in any hurry, take the SS100 to SS106 at Jonica to A2, then SS280, and drive across the mountains to Catanzaro via S280-E848. Keep in mind the roads are narrow in sections, passing through isolated hinterlands, but the winding detour is well worth it. 

By air

There are three airports serving Calabria: The Lamezia Terme Sant’Eufemia” Airport (SUF) which is the principal international airport in the area, is 12 km (7.5 miles) outside the Lamezia Terme city center. The hub offers direct flights to and from long-haul destinations internationally, as well as domestically and throughout Europe. The Reggio Calabria “Tito Minniti” Airport (REG) — also known as the Airport of the Strait — is in the Ravagnese district of Reggio Calabria, receiving both national and international commercial traffic. The small Crotone “Pitagora” Airport (CRV) is found in the town of Isola Capo Rizzuto in the Crotone province. It serves a number of low-cost airlines that connect to other regional airports within Italy. 

By sea

Given Calabria’s coastline, you’ll find numerous marinas and commercial ports, both on the Ionian and Tyrrhenian sides. Board a fast-speed ferry between the port of Reggia Calabria, the Port of Messina, and the Aeolian Islands.

Getting around Calabria

Once you arrive in Calabria, either by plane, train or automobile, it is possible to use public transport to get where you’re going, but things can be a little touch and go. If you plan to venture off the beaten track, it’s highly recommended you book a rental car, car and driver, or hop on a motorbike or bicycle. Buses generally serve popular destinations and larger cities and towns, but it’s a bit more challenging getting to more remote spots.

Best things to do and see in Calabria

Aerial view of Tropea
Aerial view of a beach in Tropea / Photo: Naeblys via Shutterstock

Climb the “rock” off the coast of Tropea

The historic seaside village of Tropea is often referred to “the pearl of the Tyrrhenian Sea”. The old town hugs the edges of dizzyingly dramatic cliffs facing a huge sandstone promontory rising out from the bluer-than-blue waters. Atop the crag stands the 11th-century Sanctuary of Santa Maria dell’Isola. To reach it, climb the staircase carved into the rock up to a lush garden offering sweeping views up and down the coast. On a clear day, off on the horizon, you can often catch a glimpse of mainland Sicily, the Aeolian Islands and even Mount Etna, bubbling and burping ashy plumes.

Meet two strapping men at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Reggio Calabria

The National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Reggio Calabria) houses a jaw-dropping collection of ancient artifacts that includes the most famous archeological find of the 20th century: the Riace Bronzes. The life-size statues, thought to be portrayals of athletes or deities, were found in 1972 by a scuba diver off the Calabrian Coast. In 2022, the pair of metallic men celebrated the 50th anniversary of their dredging. It’s believed that until then they spent thousands of years lying at the bottom of the salty sea bed. The 5th century BCE statues are inauspiciously referred to simply as “A” and “B”. 

Piazza de Nava 26, Reggio Calabria

Admire the splendor of the Cathedral of Gerace

Founded by refugees from Locri Epizephiri who fled to escape a Saracen attack, Gerace is home to one of Calabria’s grandest Norman cathedrals. Built in the early 12th century and rebuilt and restored several times over — the last time was in the 18th century — the cathedral contains a series of colorful granite columns probably pillaged from the terrorized Locri people. Inside, impressive pillars adorn the basilica’s treasury and crypt, which holds antiquities and relics including a sacred wood case, gilded in silver, beads and semi-precious stone; a filigreed goblet dating back to the mid-16th century; and various vestments spun in fabrics of gold and silver.

Via Regina Margherita, Gerace

Walk in the woods in Aspromonte National Park

Part of the southern portion of the Appenines, Calabria’s Aspromonte National Park has been nominated to become one of UNESCO’s Network of Geoparks. And it’s no wonder: Aspromonte massif, densely covered in forest, is an important habitat for some 75 types of animal species. Visitors can walk on the wild side along its myriad trails and routes, taking in waterfalls to valleys to historical monuments to small villages along the way.

Via Aurora, 1, Gambarie

Peek over the ramparts of a castle in Crotone

Overlooking Crotone’s port and marina, the Castello Fortezza di Carlo V (Castle Fort of Charles V) is a marvelous example of Norman architecture. Dating back to the 1st century CE, the castle has imposing ramparts that soldiers hid behind to fend off attacks from foreign adversaries. Right next to the castle is the National Archaeological Museum, which exhibits important ancient artifacts, including a golden diadem (crown) said to be worn by the Goddess Hera and a mysterious small boat made of bronze that’s believed to be of Nuragic (Sardinian) origin. 

Piazza Castello, Crotone 

See a concert at Teatro Politeama in Catanzaro

Inaugurated in 2022, Teatro Politeama was built on the exact site of the demolished cinema-theatre of the same name. Designed with a classic horseshoe-shaped façade, the otherwise modern performing arts center is located in the historic center of Catanzaro — the second most populated in the region. 

Features of the building include stalls with a 380-seat capacity, five rows of luxury box seating up to 550 people and a 22-meter-long (72 feet) stage. Gladiator (2000) film actor, Russell Crowe, who recently performed there at the time of writing, raved about the theater on Twitter writing, “This venue…it’s amazing. An incredible feat of architecture. An absolute jewel in Calabria’s crown.” He ended his praise in broken Italian, writing, “Il Mundo dovrebbe verdere la Calabria. La Calabria e[è] bella” (The world must see Calabria. Calabria is beautiful).

Via Giovanni Jannoni, Catanzaro

A taste of Calabria

Sweet Tropea onions
Sweet Tropea onions / Photo courtesy of the Regione di Calabria

What to eat in Calabria

Sometimes referred to as the “Mexico of Italy” for its piccante (spicy) flavors, Calabria has a cuisine based mostly on local, freshly grown products often sourced less than a kilometer from Calabresi residents’ homes. 

Pipi is a traditional dish made with spicy peppers stuffed with potato and then sauteed with garlic and extra virgin olive oil.

Curujicchi is a dough made of equal parts flour and potato that’s deep-fried in olive oil. Eat it plain or dip it in honey to add a bit of sweetness to this savory treat.

Often called “Calabrian caviar,” sardella or rosemarina is an ancient fish-based spread made with ground hot chili peppers (peperoncini). Originally produced using newborn sardines or anchovies, this immature seafood was banned in 2006. Recipes now substitute ice fish.

Nduja is a fiery, spreadable sausage and the claim to fame of the small town of Spilinga. 

Crisp red cipolle di Tropea (Tropea onions) are a staple ingredient known for their sweetness.

What to drink in Calabria

Wash down local delicacies with a crisp glass of Cirò — a DOC red wine that comes out of the province of Crotone. It’s believed to predate Roman civilization.

Moscato di Saracena is a sweet dessert wine produced in Saracena in the Cosenza province.

Amaro del Capo is a bitter digestive which takes its name from a town called Capo Vaticano near Tropea. The sugary amber-colored liqueur is concocted from a variety of aromatic herbs. It’s wonderful enjoyed chilled over ice.

Events and festivals in Calabria

Calabrian chili peppers
Calabrian chili peppers are the inspiration for the Peperoncino Jazz Festival / Photo courtesy of the Regione di Calabria

Peperoncino Jazz Festival in various locations (July-September)

The traveling Peperoncino Jazz Festival celebrates the region’s spiciest ingredient, and moves coast to Calabrian coast, combining red-hot chili peppers with sultry jazz music to create an itinerant summer event that sizzles.

Feast of Our Lady of Graces (Early July)

On the first Sunday of every year in the village of Roccella Jonica, the Festa della Madonna delle Grazie takes place in the port city of Roccella Jonica. The solemn procession dedicated to the Virgin Mary begins with sailors carrying a statue of the Madonna down to the sea. The parade is followed by the blessing of boats and ends with a fireworks show and musical entertainment that goes late into the night.

Feast of the Spinati in Palmi (August)

Weird and wonderful, the Feast of the Spinati honors Saint Rocca (Roch) — the patron saint of dogs, invalids, falsely accused people and bachelors. In an unusual celebration, grown men march through the streets of the town draped with thorns on their heads and across their chests.      

Guide last updated by Toni DeBella, July 2023

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@carmine_1 asks:

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@d16s09 asks:

 I will be coming to Isca Sullo Ionio in November. My great grand father was from there. I was wondering if I could meet someone that could help with my ancestry and show us around Isca.     Thanks for any help.

@fmangione asks:

I am looking to buy  a car in Calabria and would like to know what it would cost regsister and get insurance for the car. It will be a used car and my nefew will buy for me.