Italy is such a wonderful family holiday destination it is sometimes difficult to choose where to visit. The Italian Riveria near Genoa was high on my must do list but I did have concerns about the terrain and glamour factor.
It’s no holiday when your kids are running amok.. being kids… if you are surrounded by people who didn’t envisage kids in their holiday plans.
I need not have worried. It is a well worn truth that Italians love children and we had a marvellous time. With a couple of challenges thrown in for good measure.
Here are my tips on things to do and where to stay on the Italian Riviera with kids.
The Italian Riviera – a family seaside destination
Stretching from Italy’s western border with France to Genoa and beyond to the northern tip of Tuscany, the Italian Riviera is essentially the coastal region of the province of Liguria.
Beloved by poets and movie stars of the 1950s, the Italian Riviera is an area of classic glamour, medieval towns and villages and wild landscapes overlooking the sparkling Ligurian Sea.
We visited in the middle of September, avoiding the crowds of August, and enjoyed the mainly warm temperatures and sunny days after an epic storm.
Santa Margherita Ligure – the perfect base for your stay
We decided to stay a short drive down the coast from glamorous Portofino in Santa Margherita Ligure. This lovely fishing port and seaside town is just the right size for a small family with toddlers to explore during a week-long stay.
It is in a perfect position to take advantage of several day tripping options but has its own charms including a working port, some beautiful churches and gardens and many lovely gelato bars, cafes and restaurants.
When the weather is good and the seas not too wild there are several options to take ferries and boating tours along the coast to Portofino and also a far south as the villages of the Cinque Terre. The town is also well served by a train station providing access to Genoa to the north and the La Spezia to the south.
Things to do in Santa Margherita
✪ Visit the delightful church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia overlooking the town’s main piazza – kids will be in awe of the baroque interior
✪ Avoid the supermarket chains and get your supplies at Seghezzo on Via Cavour – this is a wonderful delicatessen and general food store with lots of amazing Italian produce – lots of tastings – yum!
✪ Walk along the seafront and fantasise about cruising on one of the enormous mega yachts moored in the marina
✪ Try the local delicacies. Seafood is so fresh and tasty – we loved our seafood platter from restaurant with a view above the fish market La Cambusa. Pesto originates from Liguria and the “green wiggly worms” or pesto truffi was a huge favourite with the kids
✪ Admire the beautiful Villa Durazzo built in the 17th century
✪ Visit the stunning Portofino National Park for views over the sparkling Ligurian Sea – you can walk to Portofino from Santa Margherita along the seafront and through the park
✪ Live like an Italian – we spent a lot of time doing passagiata (strolling) and hanging out at Gelateria Miki where I fed my coffee and gelato obsessions.
Portofino with kids
We drove to Portofino but you can catch the ferry or even walk along the spectacular coast road from Santa Margherita – not double pram friendly but doable with a single.
Portofino is gorgeous and glamorous. Once a small fishing village, the old fishermen’s cottages now house many of the world’s luxury brands.
This is a place of extreme beauty and extreme wealth. The mega yachts that bob in the turquoise sea are just a glimpse of a lifestyle over 99% of the world will never know.
While we were staying in the region I read this piece in the New Yorker about Dolce e Gabbana’s opulent Alta Moda show held in 2015 and my reactions ranged from awestruck to repulsed.
Portofino is a millionaire’s playground and it looks and feels that way. When we arrived the pristine cobbled streets were deserted save for a few wanderers. We stopped for a coffee and the kids toddled along the sea front chatting to strangers and pointing out things that interested them.
Suddenly a boat full of day-trippers arrived and literally swarmed the little piazza facing the tiny harbour. I understand this is the rhythm of the place – boat arrives, hundreds of people tour the main sites and then an hour or so later peace is restored temporarily as the boat departs.
Portofino seems to be a great place to just relax, soak in the atmosphere and browse the boutiques and galleries that dot the shoreline. In other words, great with a baby but not worth spending more than a few hours with a couple of toddlers!
Camogli – a relaxed fishing village
Further along the coast towards Genoa we found Camogli, a little fishing and holiday village with a wide rocky beach. Camogli is a rustic cousin to glamourpuss Portofino but it is the kind of place kids can run around freely and enjoy the beach. We loved watching the waves crash into the shore splashing anyone who had ventured out onto the craggy peninsula.
Cinque Terre.. Duo Terre!
Of course no trip to the Italian Riviera would be complete without visiting the Cinque Terre.
Take the train to the most southern village of Rio Maggiore and when the weather is fine travel the area by boat with a few quick stops before boarding the train back to Santa Margherita from Monterosso.
We managed to visit two of the five villages perched on cliffs above the Ligurian Sea before logistics got the better of us.
Rio Maggiore with kids
Rio Maggiore cascades from the cliffs above the sea to the shorefront dramatically. You take the lift to the top and of the village for spectacular views and then amble down the hill stopping for coffee and pastries before reaching the little harbour to board the ferry to the next village.
We thought we were doing magnificently and were having a lovely day. One of the twins fell asleep while we had coffee and my hubby had to carry the double pram up and down several flights of stairs while I managed the other twin.
We were still in great spirits until we realised the ferries were cancelled due to bad weather. Many more steep flights of stairs later we were forced onto the ridiculously crowded train platform along with what seemed like half the retirees of Europe.
I won’t dwell on it too much except to say that a couple of squashed children and a pickpocketing incident later I was on the verge of tears and feeling like an awful mother for putting my kids through such a hellish experience.
Luckily the day was saved by the beach club at Monterosso where you can have a lovely glass of wine, a pizza and relax under the beach umbrella between paddles and swims in the crystal blue sea.
The Cinque Terre is incredibly beautiful. I am sure once the hordes of day tripping tourists have disappeared at sundown these villages would be magical.
Unfortunately I mistakenly thought we could manage this as a day trip from Santa Margherita. I still think it is possible if the boats are running and if you are travelling without young children.
How to do the Cinque Terre with kids
Hint: Don’t do what we did!
If we were to visit again I’d spend a few days in one of the villages so we could experience the atmosphere of the area without having to rush.
Not to say that it can’t be done as a day trip with kids. But, in all honesty, being at the mercy of the rough seas, an inadequate train service (given the lack of ferries) and having to juggle a double pram meant we really struggled.
Sestri Levante – the perfect spot for beach lovers
Though we fell in love with Santa Margherita, another great favourite was the town of Sestri Levante. A short drive from our base in Santa, old Sestri Levante lies on a thin peninsula and its colourful buildings hug the sandy shoreline of the Baia del Silenzio (Bay of Silence).
The town has many restaurants and shops and is the most family oriented of all the towns we visited during our trip. Cafes spill out onto the pedestrianised streets and children eat gelato on park benches. The tourists were far fewer here and mainly Italian.
On the other side of the peninsula from the Bay of Silence there is a long sandy beach lined with palm trees and various beach clubs.
As an Australian my instinct is to find the concept of paying for a beach experience quite strange however I’ve learned to love my beachside cappuccino, proper changing facilities and a lovely wide umbrella. Most civilised.
We had a lovely afternoon pottering in the sand and splashing in the sea. I imagine it is very busy during August with local beachgoers but when we visited it was very quiet despite the sunshine.
Italian Riviera with kids – the highlights
We loved our Italian Riviera holiday. I guess that’s not surprising given the natural beauty of the region, amazing food and fabulous beaches.
But as I reflect the highlights of our trip were intensely personal. Meeting my husband’s cousin and his wife who drove from Milan to spend time with us was so special. Ciao Giorgio and Enza!
One afternoon as we listened to a band in Santa’s town square our daughter had her cheeks pinched by a local bambino called Giacomo (and then a kiss!). She was not impressed but it was quite a moment.
Mostly I loved our late afternoon walks along the seafront at Santa Margherita, stopping to look at boats and to eat gelato.
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