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Have you heard of all of the Italian Riviera towns? The magnificent stretch of coastline in Liguria and its gorgeous towns warrant a lifetime of exploring. It’s one of our favourite places in Italy. Famous for movie stars, super yachts and of course the magnificent Cinque Terre, the Italian Riviera has more well known hotspots than some countries.
As is often the case, exploring beyond the obvious yields wonderful finds but it is also true that the popular places have earned their stripes for a reason.
Here is a look at some of our favourite pretty towns on Italy’s magnificent Liguria riviera coast. We’ve also provided tips on getting around and the best places to stay on the Italian Riviera.
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Where is the Italian Riviera?
Strictly speaking the Italian Riviera runs from France’s Côte d’Azur to Tuscany. The city of Genoa, the capital of Italy’s Liguria region, is roughly in the middle. Liguria’s beautiful rugged coastline and azure blue seas inspired poets and literary greats Byron, Shelley and Hemingway.
In fact The Gulf of Poets is named after Byron’s swimming adventure across Portovenere Bay.Later, the small towns of the Italian Riviera were to become the playground of movie stars Orson Welles and Sophia Loren. This article focuses on the stretch of the Ligurian coastline from Genoa in the north to Portovenere and La Spezia in the south.
Map of the Italian Riviera
The Cinque Terre towns
Riomaggiore is the most southerly village and often the first stop for visitors to the Cinque Terre. Famous for its vineyards dating back to the 12th century, the medieval village is typical of the region and is incredibly picturesque. Explore the narrow cobbled streets lined with case torri (tower houses) and soak up the atmosphere.
Best for: a typical Cinque Terre experience
Don’t miss: strolling from the top of town to the seafront, clambering up rocky stairs for amazing vistas of the Ligurian coast.
Where to stay in Riomaggiore: comfortable self catering accommodation with amazing sea views at Scorci di Mare.
The second Cinque Terre village traveling north, Manarola is surrounded by vines that cling to the coastal cliffs. It is renowned for its white wine varieties. The “Via dell’ Amore” or “Path of Love” starts in Manarola. This is a two kilometer paved path that connects Manarola with Riomaggiore [update – sadly this stretch of path is closed until 2021 due to landslides]
Best for: sampling the local wines
Don’t miss: peeking inside the medieval church of San Lorenzo to see its beautiful rose window
Where to stay: Hotel Marina Piccola is just steps from Manarola’s small rocky beach. You’ll start your day ready for sightseeing or hiking with a delicious buffet breakfast
Corniglia is the smallest and oldest of the five villages and the most difficult to reach. There is no port and 370 steps from the train station to reach the town. This means it is one of the least visited spots on the coastline and perfect for those who want to escape the crowds.Best for: secluded beaches and serenityDon’t miss: your daily gelato at Alberto Gelateria [Via Fieschi, 74]Where to stay: enjoy the local hospitality at B&B da Beppe – a favorite with hikers
Often described as the jewel of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza charms visitors with its natural harbor and pretty Piazza Marconi over which the church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia presides. There are two small beaches for swimming. Afterwards relax in a cafe overlooking the sea and people watch to your heart’s content.
Best for: cobbled streets and cafes in an idyllic coastal setting
Don’t miss: walking to the castello and climbing the Doria tower for incredible views of the coast
Where to stay: right in the heart of town Albergo Barbara is a popular hotel
Monterosso al Mare
Monterosso al Mare may not be the most celebrated of the villages of the Cinque Terre but we enjoyed the relaxed beachside vibe, sandy shores and fewer crowds. Don’t forget to explore the Borgo Antico or old town with its typically narrow streets, cafes and boutiques.
Best for: relaxing on the beach after trekking along the Cinque Terre. It’s one of my favourite Italian Riviera beaches
Don’t miss: lazing on the beach looking out at the Ligurian Sea, walking along the seafront to Vernazza and trying the local specialty – anchovies
Where to stay in Monterosso al Mare: located in the old town Hotel La Colonnina has modern conveniences and a shared communal rooftop terrace with sea and town views
Beautiful Italian Riviera towns
The ultimate in luxurious getaways, Portofino is undeniably one of the prettiest places we have ever seen. Walking down the cobbled streets to its little harbour you cannot help but feel a little more glamorous than you did when you arrived. Just add a jaunty silk scarf and you will fit right in. For a small town you will notice a high density of fashion boutiques and galleries catering to the super yacht and celebrity set.
Best for: a luxe romantic getaway
Don’t miss: the walk up to Castello Brown with gorgeous views of the harbour, star spotting from the cafes and restaurants, enjoying the Museo del Parco sculpture park
Where to stay in Portofino: The Belmond Splendido Mare – luxury hotel with picturesque views of Portofino town
Santa Margherita Ligure
A flock of super yachts dock in Santa Margherita but the town is also a working fishing port. Popular with Italian visitors, Santa Margherita is a practical base for exploring the region.The town is not as glamorous as some of its neighbours but it makes up for that with its spectacular basilica and gentle rhythm of life.
We enjoyed several mornings cafe hopping and talking to the local nonnas who had lovely things to say about our children (which is always welcome!). The colourful seafront and harbour of Santa Margherita is lined with restaurants specialising in seafood and hosts a monthly antiques market.
Best for: a base for exploring the region and tempting seafood restaurants
Don’t miss: the opulent Basilica di Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, splendid grocery store Seghezzo, trying trofie (Ligurian pasta) with pesto on the seafront
Where to stay in Santa Margherita Ligure: Hotel Sant’Andrea is a charming boutique hotel in an art nouveau building close to the waterfront
Camogli is a fishing town with rustic charms. Sure it does not have the polished prettiness of Portofino but as you can see the black stony beaches provide a dramatic contrast to the colourful buildings with painted facades. Eat a focaccia on the beach, take a dip in the sea and go for a stroll along the waterfront soaking up the laid back atmosphere. There are plenty of walking trails with amazing views if you are feeling energetic.
Best for: relaxing and soaking up the coastal vibes
Don’t miss: the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta perched over the rocky inlet, people watching at the Bagni di Lido and aperitivo as the sun sets
Where to stay in Camogli: enjoy the private beach and pool at Hotel Cenobio Dei Dogi
The sandy beaches were the original drawcard for me, but then we saw the Baia del Silenzio with its narrow sandy beach hugged by colourful buildings. Sestri Levante is very popular with Italian visitors and it is easy to see why. The small old town sits in between the beautiful bay and broader sandy beaches with colourful beach clubs on the other side of the peninsula. Here you can relax over a family lunch while your children play outside, as the old town is largely car free.
Best for: a lazy day at the beach and family vacations
Don’t miss: exploring the tiny inlet of Baia del Silenzio, an afternoon gelato stop in Sestri Levante’s pretty old town, and hanging out at the sandy beach clubs.
Where to stay in Sestri Levante: the junior suites at the Helvetia Hotel are perfect for soaking up stunning views across the bay
Close to La Spezia and Riomaggiore, Portovenere might just be the perfect place to base yourself if you want to access the Cinque Terre and miss the crowds. Ferry boats from La Spezia stop in Portovenere before continuing down the coast to Riomaggiore. Steep cobbled streets make their way down to Portovenere’s picturesque harbor lined with the pastel hued buildings typical of the region. From the castle you can admire views of the Bay of Poets.
Best for: smart travelers wanting to experience a hidden secret of the Cinque Terre region
Don’t miss: Visiting the nearby islands: Tino, Palmaria and Tinetto
How to explore the Italian Riviera
It is hard to resist the colorful buildings, abundant seafood and rugged coastline of the Italian Riviera. You could explore for decades and still uncover more gems.Spend a week exploring this region of Italy and you’ll want to come back again and again. We suggest picking a town along the coast as your base and doing day trip excursions depending on your mood and the weather.
Essential things to do on the Italian Riviera
- Stay in one of the central towns of the Cinque Terre – we like Vernazza
- Cinque Terre sunset cruise – so romantic! – more details
- Hike the Cinque Terre trails and ferry hop the five towns
- Take a romantic stroll along the Path of Love at sunset [note currently closed due to landslides]
- Swim in the the Gulf of Poets
- Spend an afternoon at the beach outside the monastery of San Fruttuoso
- Explore the vintage seaside town of Rapallo
- Indulge in seafood feasting and local dishes like trofie pasta with pesto
- Browse the designer boutiques in ritzy Portofino
Practical information for visiting the Ligurian coast
How to get there
Fly into Genoa to access Portofino and the northern Riviera towns. If you fly into Pisa you can approach the region from the south from there. Those traveling from Rome or Florence should take the train to Pisa and transfer onto the regional train to La Spezia. You can also do a day trip from Florence to the Cinque Terre. It’s a long 12 hour day and transfer by coach but if you have a short amount of time and desperately want to see this region it would be worth considering > click here for details
If your plans include a road trip along the Ligurian coast, and a stop in the Cinque Terre, we suggest choosing a base from which to explore from the towns above and catching the train or ferry for the day. The closest towns with easy parking near the Cinque Terre are La Spezia or Levanto. You might like to read our tips on driving in Italy.
Getting around the Italian Riviera
I think the best way to see this beautiful part of Italy is by boat. Ferries leave from many spots along the Ligurian coastline. You can do day trips to the Cinque Terre from Santa Margherita, Rapallo and Sestri Levante to the north and La Spezia to the south. To check the ferry timetables > click here.
Unfortunately when we visited the seas were rough and the boats were not running. In this case, your best option is to go by train.The train system in Liguria is efficient and runs to all the major stops on the coast including the villages of the Cinque Terre. You can check the train timetables for the Liguria region here.
As we found out, when the ferries are not running the trains become very crowded on the Cinque Terre platforms and trains, bordering on unpleasant. Just be prepared for this, wear a smile on your face and secure your belongings.Do check the weather before setting out on a day trip to the Cinque Terre and decide if you are prepared to spend a lot of time on train platforms.Visitors to this region also enjoy hiking the many trails through the hills and along the clifftops.
Make sure to check this official guide for up to date information on which trails are open. Sadly many, including the famous Via Dell’Amore are closed due to landslides.
Tip – if you plan to hike, bring appropriate footwear or risk a €2,500 fine. This measure was recently introduced to prevent emergency call outs to injured visitors wearing flip flops and high heels – more information
You can also drive between towns – although we don’t recommend this for the Cinque Terre or Portofino due to severely limited parking availability.
You find beach clubs all along the Ligurian and Italian coastline. Privately operated, you pay a set fee to use the beach and services such as change rooms, showers, deck chairs, loungers and umbrellas. Most have a bar where you can buy drinks and snacks and some even have playgrounds for children. Expect to pay €15 – €30 per chair with umbrella.
For Australians like us the concept of paying to go to a beach is about as foreign as it comes. However we are coming round to the idea after having a safe place to keep all our family things, and some shade. I loved being able to relax in comfort with a cappuccino while the kids splashed in the water and build sandcastles. You can usually find a space of spiaggia libera (free beach) but needless to say they do not occupy the best stretches of beach.
We love this stretch of coastline for its pretty towns and villages, delicious seafood and relaxed beach clubs. While the Cinque Terre is undoubtedly beautiful, exploring the region beyond the five towns is well rewarded. Do you have a favourite among the Italian Riviera towns?
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