Named for the lampa (light) that guided sailors safely around its perimeter, Lampedusa hovers in a sort of Mediterranean limbo south of Sicily and northeast of Africa. Here, in a desertlike landscape where agave, prickly pear, and golden-white limestone bake in the sun, you’ll find one of the most exotic places you can travel to and technically still be in the European Union. And because it’s not easy to access from mainland Italy, Lampedusa is one of the few surviving Italian islands with a real sense of local culture, undiluted by mass tourism.
Lampedusa has never been terribly fashionable, and it probably never will be. You won’t find glamorous resorts or nightlife (though the breezy luxury at Il Gattopardo di Lampedusa hotel, carved out of traditional stone structures called dammusi, will impress the style-conscious). Yet there’s something oddly appealing about this scrubby, sometimes derelict island that makes first-time visitors want to become regulars season after season. The island has no historical sights—a nice change of pace for those who feel overwhelmed by the wealth of heritage on display everywhere else in Italy. Even the buildings in town, most of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s, lack architectural character—although the main drag, Via Roma, is lined with elegant bars and bakeries that could have been plucked out of Rome or Florence. Here you can cool down with an espresso granita, sugar up with a fresh cannolo, and toast the simplicity of life on this working Italian island.
The time-honored traditions of Italian community life are alive and well on Lampedusa, and more authentic here than in other more obvious Italian seaside destinations like Capri or Portofino. In the evening, everyone comes together for a collective passeggiata (stroll). Cleaned up from a day’s work, fishermen hold their children’s hands while teenage boys on motorini show off for the opposite sex. The film Respiro, which was shot entirely on Lampedusa, perfectly captures this daily rite and the rhythms, sights, and sounds of Lampedusa in general.
For beach lovers, Lampedusa has a real treasure. On the south side of the island, about 5km (3 miles) west of town, is one of the most beautiful beaches in Italy, called Isola dei Conigli, which refers to the “Island of Rabbits” just offshore. The beach itself is on the Lampedusa side, and is a crescent of sand with waters as close to Caribbean turquoise as you’ll find in the Mediterranean. The bay is so shallow and calm that even kids can wade the 50m (164 ft.) from the mainland to Isola dei Conigli. In summer, caretta caretta sea turtles lay their eggs here, at which time naturalists close off part of the beach.