This Underrated Island Is A Great Spot For A Crowd-Free Italian Vacation

When visiting the Tuscany region of Italy, most people see the usual cities like Siena, Montepulciano, Florence, Perugia, and Cortona. However, these places can get very crowded, especially during the height of the tourist season. There is a wonderful alternative place to visit in the region that is a mere ferry ride away from the coastal town of Piombino. It's the island of Elba, an 86-square-mile gem in the Tyrrhenian Sea. If the name sounds familiar, it may be because Napoleon Bonaparte spent 1814 to 1815 in exile there; after that, he abdicated the French throne. 

This island has a population of around 30,000 people and has had a diverse history of rulers. It belonged to Pisa during the Middle Ages, then to Genoa, then to the dukes of Piombino, and then to Cosimo I de Medici in 1548. Later on, it was ruled by Spain, Naples, France, and the kingdom of Tuscany until it finally became a part of unified Italy in 1860.

Now, it's a lovely resort area with beaches, ancient mines that date back to the Etruscan period before the rise of Rome, hot springs, hiking and biking, and a mountain to climb. Let's take a look at the island of Elba, what to do, and see there. 

Things to see on Elba Island

There's lots to see in Elba, like Napoleon's residence, Palazzina dei Mulini, which has stunning views. Napoleon liked this location because he could see who was arriving in the bay. There are windmills at the residence, and the emperor designed the renovations himself.

You can also visit the Villa San Martino, his summer home, featuring lovely frescos and the famous sculpture "Galatea" by Antonio Canova. It is believed to be a model of his sister, Paolina Borghese Bonaparte, the only one of his family to visit him in Elba. While lovely, Napoleon didn't dwell at Villa San Martino for long. Stop by the Egyptian Room just past "Galatea" — it's full of paintings based on Napoleon's campaign in Egypt and papyrus plants. There is also the Love Knot room, with frescos honoring the love between Napoleon and Marie Louise of Austria, to whom he was married from 1810 to 1814.

Elba has been mined for its natural resources, including iron and magnetite, since the Etruscan period until its closure in 1980. You can visit the Calamita Mines, 4 miles from Capoliveri, where there are tours through the underground area. Don't miss the ancient Fortress of Volterraio, the oldest building on the island, dating back to the Etruscans. It was later used in 1281 as a defensive fort. You can also visit the Sanctuary of La Madonna Del Monte, which you can walk to on a woodland path beginning in Marciana.

What to do on Elba Island

If you love the outdoors, Elba is a great spot for a vacation. You can climb up Monte Capanne, which stands at 3,334 feet and has lovely views. It's a long hike — about 8 miles — so make sure to pack water and food. If you can't do that much, there is a ski lift that you can take partly up. Another fun thing to do is to take in the baths of San Giovanni, hot springs with high iron, sulfur, and iodine contents, reportedly good for sore muscles. 

Elba is a great place to snorkel and scuba dive at the local beaches (some of which have underwater caves), where you can swim and kayak. You can even visit the wreck of the Elviscot, which sank in 1972 near Pomonte Beach, fairly close to the shore. There are miles of biking and hiking trails as well. 

This is Italy, after all, and you cannot miss the food here. Seafood is really popular, and if you visit local restaurants in the late afternoon, you'll see fishermen bring in their fresh catch. Don't miss the Cacciucco, which is shellfish and fish stewed in wine, chili peppers, tomatoes, or the spiced stew Stoccafisso all'Elbana. Then there is Calamari Alla Griglia, which is squid with tomatoes, and Linguine allo Scoglio, which is linguine with clams. Finish the meal with schiaccia briaca, a cake made with raisins and nuts. Buon appetito!