This Breathtaking Hill Town May Be Italy's Most Underrated, Per Rick Steves

When visiting Italy, shifting your gaze from its grand and iconic cities can be challenging. As a result, other areas with charm and unique qualities get overlooked. Rick Steves looks to defend one such place, the breathtaking hill town of Volterra, crowning it one of Italy's most underrated. And it isn't far from those popular Italian cities, either. Situated within the Tuscany region, Volterra sits in the middle of Pisa, Siena, and Florence, each about an hour and a half's drive away, making it well worth a visit.

Having some preliminary research in your back pocket is imperative to your experience when visiting such a hill town. And no, set jetting to Volterra because it was in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight book "New Moon" is not enough. The best place to start? History. Volterra's origins and inhabitants date back to the Etruscans, an eighth-century B.C. civilization that profoundly influenced the Romans that came after them. Originally, Volterra was called Velathri, and it thrived as a major city; in fact, about 1.5 miles of the Etruscan's 4-mile wall and gates can still be seen in Volterra today.

This is just the perimeter; within this unique Italian hill town are opportunities to see Italy in a different light. Whether visiting Etruscan tombs, ancient Roman ruins, sacred cathedrals, charming piazzas, or niche museums, there is much to do and even more to dwell on. Perhaps Rick Steves prefaces it best: "Slow ... down ... and savor the delights of the region — there are plenty in my favorite Tuscan hill town."

Volterra: Points of interest for your itinerary

Rick Steves recommends that visitors begin their discovery of Volterra by looking into its Etruscan past at the Etruscan Museum Guarnacci, one of the oldest in Europe. This circa-1761 museum houses countless artifacts, including 600 Etruscan funerary urns and the modernist Giacometti-looking sculpture Ombra della Sera ("Shadow of the Evening"), which shockingly dates back 2,300 years ago to Etruscan artisans. Beyond the walls of this must-visit museum, the Etruscans have also left their mark in the still-standing Porta all'Arco, a massive stone arch built in the fourth century B.C. As you pass through this ancient gate, you'll access one of Volterra's many alleys lined with jewelry, art, and handicraft stores.

Enjoy the quaint ambiance until you reach the town's main square, Piazza dei Priori. Once there, you cannot overlook the Palazzo dei Priori, Voleterra's City Hall, which dates back to 1208 — making it one of the oldest in Tuscany. While at the Piazza, Rick Steves suggests a visit to the Duomo, a 12th-century cathedral that looks quite humble on the outside but, within, hides a beautiful and expansive decorated interior. For those interested in anything Roman, Rick Steves encourages visitors to walk outside the walls of Porta Fiorentina and behold some of Italy's best-preserved ruins of a first-century B.C. Roman amphitheater. You'll find fourth-century A.D. Roman baths behind the theatre, along with a Roman forum, making a visit to this archeological site a Rome away from Rome!

Unique experiences and regional dishes

The opportunities to explore feel limitless in this 100-square-mile town (twice the size of San Francisco). According to Rick Steves, other special museums you may want to squeeze on your itinerary could be the Palazzo Viti (a decadent museum of 15th- to 20th-century art), the Pinacoteca (a historical art gallery and civic museum), or the Alabaster Museum. Don't miss the Volterra A.D. 1398 medieval festival during the month of August.

At some point, you will need to eat, and Volterra doesn't hold back when it comes to fine meals ... or redemption. The experience is known as Cene Galeotte, or jail dinners. This initiative turned the 1474 Medici Fortress, a maximum-security prison (still active today), into a gourmet restaurant to encourage societal reintegration for inmates after completing their sentence. This isn't the only unique place to eat in town — Le Cantine del Palazzo, located in an ancient cellar, is a hidden gem that serves classic Tuscan delights. Within it is a first-century B.C. Roman cistern and an Etruscan well!

You can expect plenty of traditional Volterra specialties, like zuppa volterrana (thick vegetable and bread soup), pappardelle di lepre (pasta ribbons in hare sauce), and pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale (wild boar). Do take the opportunity to try white Marzuolo truffles. Reflecting the city's Etruscan heritage and fascination with the dead, indulge in ossi di morto, or "bones of the dead" (simply almond biscuits!). Indeed, this breathtaking hill town may be Italy's most underrated.